Book Review: The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How It Shapes Our Planet

Anthropocene coverIn this book, author Christian Schwägerl claims that humans are irreversibly changing Earth’s biological, chemical, and geologic processes in a way that may threaten our existence. He is, however, hopeful that human intelligence and technology will forestall an apocalypse.

The term “Anthropocene” was proposed as a new geologic epoch by atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen in 2000. The idea has been much debated. This book attempts to justify Crutzen’s declaration.

Schwägerl cites the following reasons in justification: Population growth, increased human living space requirements, energy consumption and its consequences on climate, and, he contends, we are changing the future course of evolution, i.e. we are running populations of many plant and animal species down to the point of extinction.” (Didn’t a few ice ages and comets do that?) He also worries that “humans are beginning to create new life-forms through interbreeding, gene technology and more recently, biotechnical design.”

While some or all of the above may be true, these reasons do not fit the geologic definition of a new time division. Geologic time divisions require some global stratigraphic evidence in rock strata that can be preserved for millions of years. As Doug L. Hoffman explains:

“Named stratigraphic or geological time periods are identified by changes in the rock record. Within the rock of Earth’s crust is recorded the comings and goings of all the life forms to inhabit this planet. Major changes in climate, often associated with mass extinction events, can also be captured by Earth’s strata. Even events of cosmic origin, such as major asteroid impacts, can create a marker in stone.”

By that definition, designation of the “Anthropocene” as a new time division is premature at best.

Parts of Schwägerl’s book are very interesting, other parts are tedious.

In chapter 1, Schwägerl provides an excellent recount of the history of life on Earth with some scientific and political history and many anecdotes (including AZ biospherians) thrown in. His point: Each problem with living in an artificial ecosystem symbolizes the present situation of humanity. In the “Anthropocene,” the earth itself becomes one giant biospheric experiment, but without any emergency exits or windows to let in additional air.

In chapter 5, titled “Apocalypse No” Schwägerl scolds environmentalists about their Man versus environment stance:

“But the Apocalypse gurus seeking attention and making money by frightening people are mistaken. In all probability, the earth will not be destroyed in the foreseeable geological future, at least not in an apocalyptic sense. This means that we humans of today and our descendants will have to live with the long-term consequences of our present actions, good and bad. Even if climate change turns out to be worse than scientists at the IPCC fear, it will not lead to the end of the world or the collapse of civilization.”

Indeed, the Earth is resilient and will survive humans. Some speculation on this matter was presented in a very interesting book: “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman which shows how, if humans suddenly disappeared, Earth would reclaim the environment.

Overall, the book seems to be a mixture of geological history, environmental documentation, and neo-malthusian alarmism. The later chapters include the tired message that humans must reduce their use of fossil fuels and generally their footprint on the planet, all of which makes for some tedious reading.

As for the main contention that humans have become a geologic force, I refer to Will Durant who wrote: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”

In the end, I do not recommend this rather expensive book published by Synergetic Press. But if you want to read it, it is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Related review:

On Gaia, A Critical Investigation of the Relationship between Life and Earth by Toby Tyrrell