For better or worse, this is the age of the human, with the choices that we make affecting the Earth on a geological scale.
Such is the premise of The Anthropocene, written by Christian Schwagerl and given to me by a publicist who found my sweet spot for Doomsday literature. “Anthropocene” means “the epoch of humans,” and although the term isn’t correct (the correct name for the epoch in which we’re currently living is the Holocene), it certainly is accurate, isn’t it? Schwagerl argues that our human population growth, our space needs (for living and building and destroying), and our energy consumption are enough to signal an entire change of epochs, leading to this Anthropocene.
Schwagerl claims that humans have so altered our condition socially, economically, and technologically that we are now unable to live without these structures. In just one small example, my younger daughter required a three-week stay in the NICU and approximately $250,000 worth of medical support (we saved the hospital bills for her baby book) to finally get her into my arms after she was born. In a larger example, how long do you think New York City could remain populated without water and sewer systems? Transportation to bring in food farmed elsewhere? Electricity in winter? In the Anthropocene epoch, Schwagerl theorizes that we’ll have to rely on our man-made management of our environment entirely; there will be no more “wild,” and no more natural resources to exploit.
However, this idea is different from a purely Doomsday outlook. We can plan our future with this in mind, and not fall prey to “Doomsday thinking” as an escape valve. Zombie-riddled fiction and pandemic-focused movies may mask themselves as horror, but inside that, isn’t there a fragment of wishful thinking? Once we’ve fought off all the zombies and/or survived the pandemic, we could rebuild, scavenging both the wild and the now copious man-made resources of our world. The REAL world, Schwagerl implies, will ask us to explore problem-solving that doesn’t rely on collecting and consuming non-renewable resources of any kind.
If you’re noticing that this hasn’t happened yet, then you’re not wrong. Schwagerl writes that “our dominance over the Earth has developed more quickly than our ability to reason and be responsible.” If we’re going to make it through the Anthropocene without having to enact our Zombie Escape Plans or Pandemic Survival Plans, however, we are going to need to jump-start those reasoning skills and that sense of responsibility, and we are going to need to do it yesterday.
Disclaimer: The Anthropocene was given to me for free, the better to inform my Hunger Games fanfiction.