A new and disturbing era in human history


A growing number of scientists, environmentalists and other experts have come to the conclusion that the human race has had such a deep and fundamental impact on the planet that we have effectively entered into a new geological age in the history of the Earth. They argue that the changes that have been brought about by human activity over the past 200 years, but more specifically since the end of the Second World War, has had a permanent effect on our ecology. We have, they say, moved from the Holocene to the Anthropocene epoch, one which future scientists will be able to pinpoint just by studying these effects on our environment.

Ian Angus, well-known local writer and speaker on environmental and socio-political topics, the editor of “Climate and Capitalism” and “The Global Fight for Climate Justice”, has been on a worldwide book tour promoting his latest publication, “Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System”. His book has received a very positive reception around the world, and identifies certain markers by which future investigators will be able to track the changes which mark this new era.

For example, Ian points to the period between the end of World War II and the ending of atmospheric nuclear testing in the 1960’s, when atomic and hydrogen bombs left a layer of radioactivity permanently all over the Earth. That is one of the markers that have been left for future generations to examine. Another obvious sign has resulted from the burning of fossil fuels, coal in particular, which produces a particular kind of ash which is a permanent inheritance usually blamed for the phenomenon of global warming.

Perhaps the strangest of these markers is the presence of fossil chickens. Ian points out in his book that the chicken, as it was bred in the 20th century, is a unique bird. It did not exist in any previous period and because of the huge numbers of chickens raised and eaten in our society, there is an equally large numbers of chicken bones which could conceivably survive as fossils.

The change in technology that took place during the Twentieth century has left an indelible mark on the planet. Whereas before the widespread use of electricity and fossil fuels as sources of energy, people used water, wind and human labour to power machines, in farming, or in cottage industries. But the surge in the use of fossil fuels in the past two centuries has led to an increase in carbon released into the atmosphere. This, says Ian, has, on the one hand, led to an increase in the quality of life enjoyed by many, though not all, in today’s world. But, on the other hand, it had perpetuated a socio-economic system that, if not radically altered, will inevitable lead to disaster.

“We have released so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that it is vastly greater than it was at any time during the Ice Ages or during the rest of the Holocene. And that is something that will not change. The effects of that will last for thousands of years. And the result is going to be a much warmer and much more unstable climate than the world has had for a very long time.”

Ian believes that the solution to the problems we face lies in radically reducing our use of carbon dioxide-producing fuels. That means coal, oil, gas need to be phased out as rapidly as possible. “And our economy then, in order to achieve that, needs to be reorganized so that it can survive without a constant demand for growth. So long as we continue to burn fossil fuels this destruction of now called the Earth system will continue.”

But it goes further than that. Our basic economic structures need to be changed too, if we are to alter the future destiny of the human race. But, as Ian says: “Somebody once said we live in a time when it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. We are so convinced that this system is eternal that it’s hard to see any alternatives to it.”

It will require many different interests coming to recognise that they have interests in common. Indigenous peoples, political parties, environmental groups, as well as those from all levels of society, need to work together to achieve progress in reorganising society. The profit motive is an incredibly strong determining factor in how we organise society and its structures, and that is a factor which may well prove to be impossible to change. In any event, change will not come quickly or easily. But what is urgently needed, and which cannot be long delayed, is a serious conversation about the issues involved. Informed decisions can only be taken by those who are fully informed. Whatever angle you may approach the problem from, Ian’s book is a contribution to the discussion.

Ian will be holding a book launch for “Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System” at Octopus Books, 251 Bank Street, 2nd floor, Ottawa, on September 27 at 7 pm.


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