Into the Anthropocene

Adapted PREFACE FROM MY BOOK “The Anthropocene”, Synergetic Press, 2014

A world shaped by human action — view of East London. Photo: C.S.

I came across the word Anthropocene a few times without it making an impression. Then, one day, it really struck me. I was at a lunch with a friend, in 2008, and he told me that this subject was something I should investigate. I agreed to do so. When I got back to my desk, my twenty-five years of reporting on environmental and science issues and forty years of love for everything natural suddenly appeared in a new light, as if I had been touched by a magician’s wand.

One man, Paul J. Crutzen, had defined the relationship between humans and planet Earth, in such a powerful way, that it was hugely inspiring. Crutzen had melded humans and nature (two entities our culture thinks of as separate, opposing forces), into a whole new science-driven idea. It described a connection that reaches back into the past and far into the future. After seeing, at first hand rainforests burning, land made toxic from mining, and species on the brink of extinction, this idea gave me hope that our ever evolving human consciousness might be about to enter a new phase.

So, this is how I came to write Menschenzeit (The Age of Humans), the German language precursor of the 2014 English edition. Menschenzeit was launched at the Berlin Museum for Natural History, in September 2010. Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, came to Berlin for the occasion and gave a wonderful speech about freedom and responsibility. The book launch also resulted in the beginning of a productive friendship with Reinhold Leinfelder, then director general of the Berlin Natural History Museum. Together, we approached the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, (House of World Cultures, abbreviated as HKW), a state-funded institution situated right next to the Federal Chancellery, and the Deutsches Museum in Munich, one of the world’s leading technology museums, and proposed the idea of Anthropocene. We suggested this was a subject both institutions might want to pursue. What followed then was three years of productive collaboration and inspirational events at the HKW. “The Anthropocene Project” was funded directly by the German parliament with 3.3 million Euros. Another result of my book was the first large-scale special exhibition worldwide dedicated to this new geological epoch: “Welcome to the Anthropocene — The Earth in our Hands”, held at the German Technology Museum (Deutsches Museum), has attracted 200,000 visitors between December 2014 and September 2016, including German and Asian political leaders and many prominent scientists.

I was able to convince Paul Crutzen to serve as an honorary patron of both projects and I’m very grateful that I have been able to discuss the Anthropocene idea with him so often in recent years.

Paul J. Crutzen in 2010 at the Frankfurt Book Fair, my book “Menschenzeit” (The Anthropocene”) in the background

When I was researching and writing the German edition of this book, the idea of the Anthropocene idea was rarely mentioned in the media. It might well have become an intellectual cul-de-sac. But, because of its inspirational quality and the efforts of many luminaries, including Jan Zalasiewicz, Reinhold Leinfelder, Andrew Revkin, Will Steffen, Libby Robins, Jürgen Renn, Klaus Töpfer, Bernd Scherer and Helmuth Trischler, the idea has now gained traction. It is now being discussed around the world as a new perspective on how humans and animals, plants and stones, the oceans and all other components of the earth interact. As an author, it is a gratifying experience to see that Menschenzeit really did focus attention on the Anthropocene idea.

My work on “The Anthropocene Project” and being a curator for the “Welcome to the Anthropocene” exhibition have allowed me to keep thinking about the idea of a man-made geological epoch and to join in many debates, see artists working with the idea, and to meet very interesting people. This has helped me to further refine my personal perspectives on the many questions stimulated by the Anthropocene idea.

There are three changes in my own perspective that have occurred since the German edition was published that I would like to highlight.

Initially, I considered it strange that the Anthropocene idea was associated with geology as opposed to biology. I thought that in order for it to be meaningful, it had to have a connection with the living world. What I have come to understand is that geology offers that connection, on a grander scale. By being geological, the Anthropocene opens a doorway between supposedly dead matter and living matter. It tells us that humanity and the technosphere it has produced are now participating in the largest and most long-term of planetary cycles, with conscious thought thrown in! In the words of political scientist Jane Bennett: “If matter itself is lively, then not only is the difference between subjects and objects minimized, but the status of the shared materiality of all things is elevated.” After so many decades of a consumerist materialism that “treats the planet like a zombie” (Giulio Tononi), we now have a chance to develop a “vital materialism“ that honors life in all its forms, including those made of stone. Thus, the Anthropocene idea becomes the opposite of anthropocentrism. You will find far more references to this impression of the Anthropocene in the current edition than there were in the original German language one.

I also once thought that a flaw in the Anthropocene idea was that it did not immediately state what was good or what was bad. Stripped bare, it’s a scientific hypothesis about the geophysical state of the planet and does not take into account ethical or moral or spiritual values nor discuss the suffering of humans or other species. Since then, I have experienced personally how contemplation of the Anthropocene idea triggers strong, ethics-driven reactions and a strong impulse of caring. Sustainability ideas come prepackaged with a set of imperatives. The Anthropocene idea works differently, but in a complementary way. It exposes us all and asks for responsibility. It invites commitment and responsible behavior instead of demanding it. There is a possibility that this idea might be abused in order to advocate human entitlement and insist upon simple techno-fixes. However, I’m confident that this line of thinking will not prevail.

Despite the many crises in our world I am against misanthropy and “doomsday-ism.” I disagree with those who say the words “good” and “Anthropocene” should not be used in the same sentence. Why not? Are our children and their descendants already doomed to live through millennia of ecological hardship? Even worse, are humans the problem and should they therefore vanish from the planet? No! I am the last person to downplay the severe problems created by our civilization, many of which you will read about in this book. But despising the human species and waiting for the end of the world, as we know it, is not the answer.

The Anthropocene is more than the sum of the parts of environmental havoc. It can be the arena in which humanity decides to wisely integrate into the planet’s workings, enriching itself by its actions as a result. Smart cities, cultivated life-forms and landscapes with a human-induced biodiversity, are examples of how we can create a positive geological record. Human creativity, community spirit and conscious thought can lead to changes that might make our species look back at current behavior as sheer ecological barbarism. This is the journey I invite you to take with me in this book: going from today’s crises to an enlightened planet with beautiful human imprints…

The geology of mankind — a daily activity not only for workers who pave streets but for everybody. Photo: CS