The Anthropocene, Prof Cox, and more

The idea of the Anthropocene has been gaining traction, not least in a spate of books (as exemplified in an FT books review roundup, “Masters of the Earth”, 13/14 December 2014). Unfortunately, most takes on the Anthropocene seem misanthropic. Luckily, Professor Brian Cox makes a sort-of exception.  We are alone, and it is exciting.

It is moot whether man’s effect on the planet deserves its own geological era, to match those by which we have charted the birth of life, or the extinction of dinosaurs, and so on. Let’s suppose it does. The unique feature of the Anthropocence is that it is clever, and possibly too-clever-by-half.

Whatever the Anthropocene turns out to be, it won’t be the first time that a life-form has been revealed to have had a big effect on its environment. Maybe it’ll be our fossils or our aretfacts which leave the vestigal markers by which we are noted. But it is by our brain waves that we should be known. Our thoughts are what matter.

Our human uniqueness is surely that any effect we have will prove to be the first time that intelligence has gone geological. It may be proved to have had a large effect, and quite possibly a hugely bad one. Indeed, the gloomiest – the commonest – take on the Athropocene is that it will mark a period when a species tuned out to have made disastrous decisions.

To what extent any human decisions can be thought of as unitary is very moot. I mean: suppose an elite, in cleverness or stupidity, niceness or nastiness, ignorance or knowledge, made the dominant decision, for good or ill? Suppose the mass (perhaps thoughtlessly, perhaps with some access to wisdom denied the thoughtful) made a slew of decisions which added up to disaster (perhaps in the face of elite dissent)? And so on. Do we, in short, believe in crowd wisdom? Or crowd folly? Or indeed, crowd-power? Or crowd-impotence? There is a lovely issue to be had here. Is consciousness itself a whole, or holisitic, or singular thing?

When one or a million or every human being is extinquished, and the internet is unplugged, does thought die?  (Suppose the Encyclopaedia Britannica lay entombed somewhere?) Elsewhere, you can find me going on about Teilhard de Chardin’s Noosphere. There is a decent discussion to be had about the life  of a thought. Can one such “go viral”? Can it, like a gene, get transmitted in the Darwinian way supposed by Richard Dawkins in his idea of the meme? All that is very interesting, but I want to get at the idea that the Anthropocene as the first geological period in which consciousness is the salient feature that we want to label, and which we imagine future generations may also consider worth marking.

If humans create a geologically significant disaster, it will have been the era in which brain got good, but maybe not quite good enough, and it back-fired, and the noise of the retort (the impact of the explosion) demonstrates the extent of its power.

For millenia, Nature happened to species. That’s to say: even if the species affected its enviornment, that was not in any useful sense an effect consciously desired, nor even conceived of, by the species as it went about its creative or fatal business. The Anthropocene marks the period in which a species happened to Nature, as an effect of its consciousness. Of course, one can argue that since man is a product of Nature, even his works are natural. Consciousness is often, and I think rightly, presumed to be a natural phenomenon, and may well have happened in accordance with determinist thinking on causes and so on. And yet, and here’s what I most want to say, one important effect of thinking about the Anthropocene may be to properly ram home to humans the importance of our species.

For years, a green tendency has sought to remind man that he is an animal amongst animals and had better learn how to fit in. This view has much to recommend it, but it importantly underrates the significance of the human. Religion, and especially Christianity and Judaism, let alone every major intellectual movement known to man until green thought came along, have done a better job of putting man at the peak of earth-bound creation. (That is part of the reason why I resist Richard Dawkins’ anti-religious crusade: whilst I share his belief that we are alone, and his admiration for the wonders of the created world, I recoil from his seeming dislike of the contribution of religion in our intellectual development.)

There is much argument to be had hereabouts, and it revolves around the dangers and merits of understating or overstating man’s powers, responsibilities, guilt, obligations and so on. Leaving that aside for a moment, you will see why I very much like a remark or two I heard from Brian Cox, I think on TV, and certainly in the past month. He said something to the effect that his own world-view, which is (I think) not religious, reminded him (and prompted him to remind us) that mankind is now for all working purposes alone. I agree. (And so, I think, does E O Wilson, in his new book.) We cannot reasonably hope that there is some Other (some supernatural, animal, Druidic, “natural”, transcendental, spiritual Being or being) we can defer to, or rely on, or need to fear. I think Professor Cox then went on to say that the biggest risk  (and he may have added, to the planet or this species) is some silly mistake by humans. So, on this reading, Prof Cox may be in the gloomy school of Doomsters, or merely asserting the potential for good or ill of mankind’s planetary power, which is – importantly – a matter of decision-making. (What else is a mistake but a bad choice?) In any of those positions, Brian Cox may be mistaken as to the power humans have, or misguided in assessing the odds of that power being trumped or pre-empted by natural forces. Since I think he mentioned meteors or asteroids as quite chancy things, he clearly doesn’t dismiss the idea out of hand that whatever mankind’s successes or failures, they may not add up to a hill of beans.

My point is that, whatever else, the Anthropocene is worth discussing for its refreshing possibilities as well as its dispiriting ones. I don’t mean that contemplating our power may make us use it more responsibly, though I don’t discount that. I mean, rather, that we ought at least, as humans, properly to assert, respect, enjoy, celebrate, and consider what a wonderful thing has happened. In man, there has arisen a creature which has been crafted out of star-dust and in which has been created a consciousness of a wholly new order, not least in its power. All sorts of people for all sorts of reasons want to drag us back down amongst the apes.  But just as apes are free of guilt, so they are free of opportunities. It may well be wise to think of humans as animals, and no better than animals, and so on. But it is also a terribly limiting conception. I don’t mean to suggest that we should big ourselves up, slap ourselves on the back, or generally raise our self-esteem. But we should celebrate the wonder, and yes the luxury, of our condition. Indeed, I am inclined to think that even if humans prove a disaster, we will have been a far greater triumph. We may destroy ourselves and much else because of our appetites and also our dreams. But to have understood the idea of risk, even as we mis-read some important ones; to have wanted to change things, even if that produced fascists as well as saints; and to have spawned a Shakespeare…. you know how these riffs go… well, any of that was a great party, even if there were certainly horrible rows and there may yet be a global hangover.

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Publication date

19 December 2014


Mind & body