Mind moves matter.
— Virgil’s Aeneid
Everyone seems to know the story about how one family prepared the Christmas ham every year: Suzy, while cooking for her husband and children, always cut the ends off the ham before she put it in the pan. One day her daughter asked, “Mom, why do you cut the ends off the ham?” Suzy replied that she did it that way because that’s how her mother had taught her, and she’d always cooked the best hams. The next time Suzy and her daughter were over at Suzy’s mother’s house, the daughter asked her grandmother why they cut the ends off the ham to cook it. Grandma answered that she does it that way because her mother had always done it that way. A little while later, Suzy and her daughter go to Florida to visit Suzy’s grandmother, and her daughter asks the matriarch the same question. Great-grandma laughs. “I always cut the ends off the ham because our roasting pan was too small to fit a whole ham!”
It’s a silly joke, but it illustrates something fundamental to the human character: We are creatures of habit, and habit has served us very well for most of our history.
Up until 500 years ago, humanity had affected the biosphere of this planet very lightly. With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we began to have much more of an impact. Today we stand upon the Earth in the midst of a terrifying blizzard of input, paralyzed by our own power.
I lived in Henry County, Georgia, for a summer back in the early ’90’s, when commercial development was first really taking off in that area, and it took fewer than three weeks for an acre of land to go from pine forest to big-box store. If I didn’t drive on a daily basis, I’d start to lose my way when I did venture out because all the familiar landmarks were being taken away at such an alarming pace. Rapid change is disorienting and uncomfortable. If we recognize ourselves in the Christmas ham joke and laugh at it, we also have to look at the more serious implications of it.
And what implications! Collectively, we are changing our environment far too fast for our individual comfort. Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen coined a word for this new age of human dominance over planet Earth: the Anthropocene (an-thro-po-seen) epoch: the Era of Humans. It may become an official part of the geologic time scale at next year’s International Union of Geological Sciences gathering in Australia. The International Stratigraphy Commission has been considering formalizing “the Anthropocene” as the new name for our current geological epoch, as descriptive of our current global environment as the Jurassic era is descriptive of the world as the dinosaurs experienced it.
The term goes well beyond climate change. A short video by Félix Pharand subtracts the planet itself from the visualization of our impact upon it, leaving a fractal web of built-up areas, city lights, roads, pipelines and transmission lines floating in space like a bioluminescent soap-bubble. It’s quite a beautiful little film, and a profound one. For myself, at least, I found it hard to reject our influence upon the planet as entirely malign. The glowing patterns that radiate from large cities like Chicago or Moscow are just as beautiful as the veins of a leaf or the silk lines of a spiderweb. We are having as great an effect on the Earth as “natural” engines of climate change such as supervolcanic eruptions, continental drift, meteorite bombardment, changes in solar output, changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun, and the development and decay of various biological and geological carbon dioxide sinks —but if you look at the etchings we’ve left on the planet’s surface from a distance, there is nothing that appears “unnatural.”
The Earth made us. We are still part of the pattern. But just because this is true doesn’t mean we are destined to survive. The dinosaurs were creatures of habit, just like us—and when catastrophe overtook them, most of them were not nimble enough to evolve around the bottleneck. You can argue that the dinosaurs didn’t have coal-burning power plants and so absolve them of fault, but it doesn’t change the fact that apart from the ones who evolved into birds, they’re dead. We, on the other hand, are actually pretty nimble. If how we’ve changed our environment and ourselves in the past 50 years isn’t nimble, I don’t know what is! My cause for optimism is the same as the cause of our current distress: We’re a bunch of cheeky, over-intelligent monkeys, driven by curiosity and an obsession to find out how stuff works.
Part of our problem may have been that at a historical pace of change, 80 years (give or take) has not been enough of a window to give us a real perspective on our impact on the Earth. Happily, the pace of development has now cured us of that problem. The climate-change denialists are quickly becoming discredited. We still want to cut the ends off our ham before we cook it, but every time we go into the kitchen we find a different roasting pan. Sometimes we can’t even find the kitchen any more!
This is why I like the idea of formalizing the Anthropocene. It puts the cause of all of this uproar, humans, front and center. We’re just figuring out that the foot on the accelerator pedal is ours, and we might even have gained just enough self-awareness to let off the gas sometime soon for our own good. Words have power, and language and metaphor strongly affect the way we think about things. If we can own up to how much power we really possess, we might be able to start wielding it with a little wisdom! Stay nimble, fellow monkeys.u
Alice Bain is a Salt Lake-based artist. Look for her blog updates, appearing several times a week, at www.catalystmagazine.net.
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