On The Term Anthropocene 

In the following the concept of the anthropocene will be discussed on the one hand from its genesis and on the other hand from its normative claim to validity. Three questions are dealt with together; Will Covid-19 change our nature? Or will our machines take us to another world? Finally, what should we do?

Genesis

With the Neolithic revolution, in which agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as sedentary life, entered the history of mankind, a process of growth in the production of goods and their consumption was initiated, which runs like a thread through the history of mankind; first of all, man inhabits and cultivates the earth by turning the earth into fields, the animals into tools, and in many cases into useful tools for his fellow men. Then he also transforms the natural resources into tools; he produces iron, makes weapons out of it, thus controlling animals and fellow men more efficiently. This development, revolutionary from the point of view of man, takes place in different variations and in different spaces and social times. The second important revolution in production takes place with industrialization, in which, in addition to coal, oil and later also natural gas is used. This process spreads to other areas. Thus, in agriculture, thanks to the machines that were operated by these technologies, fertilizers were now used for production, changing the world and nature, man’s ability to act once again.

On the other hand, today’s technologies have qualitative differences in terms of speed, density and extent. While new technologies such as writing, letterpress printing, telegraph networks, electric current etc. are gradually becoming established in previous societies, today’s innovations are establishing themselves at a rapid pace. These technological innovations are being driven forward in a way that has never before been registered in such breadth, depth and speed. The time gap between an innovation idea, its realization and its visible consequences in the lifeworld is getting shorter and shorter. Although the Internet is only about 20 years old, it seems to have had a much greater impact on the lives of individuals than all the achievements to date combined.

Concept Anthropocene

In this context, the term „anthropocene“ has been proposed to describe this development. The term is a combination of anthropos, the Greek word for „man“, and „-cene“, the suffix used in names of geological eras. It was introduced with this clarity by Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen.[1]  According to Crutzen, today we are entering a completely new phase in the history of the earth. Until now, the life of the people on earth has been determined by their own laws. Now we are entering a new history in which man has become the driving force. Not the great natural catastrophe, such as an asteroid impact, but man-made disasters, such as nuclear war, will remain the force that will have a decisive influence on geological events for millennia to come.

The thesis says that the more we develop in our own evolution to what we are today, the more we intervene in the laws of nature. In the course of this evolution, a number of animals have either been domesticated or in some cases completely exterminated. Forests were turned into fields, houses, villages, cities. Plants, animals and landscapes that were useful to man were cultivated, while those that were useless, considered to be too much, foreign and unknown were destroyed.[2] Man’s ability to act increased at the expense of diversity. A number of consequences, such as global warming, the consumption of fossil fuels, the increase in CO2, the hole in the ocean, population growth, urbanization, etc. remind us of this intervention.

„Considering these and many other major and still growing impacts of human activities on earth and atmosphere, and at all, including global, scales, it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term ‘anthropocene’ for the current geological epoch.[3]

The next generation will find the world in a state which, as a result of human intervention, is so far removed from its origin that a return is either not desired or no longer possible. According to this, the evolution of the earth and humanity is at a critical turning point.

Growth or destruction

There is a positive correlation between population growth and exploitation and destruction of the earth’s natural resources. Around 1850, there was less than one billion people living in the world, and today there are around ten billion. If the birth rate remains stable at its current level, the world population is estimated to increase to about 11 billion by 2050. If we were to continue with today’s way of life, it would amount to a time bomb, which not only many demographers but also environmental activists are trying to prevent with all their might. Some argue, that the world could not tolerate so many people who destroy so many things in the world. In the words of former Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore:

„The cumulative amount of man-made global pollution that’s in the atmosphere now traps as much extra heat energy every day as would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs exploding every day. It’s a big planet, but that’s an awful lot of energy.[4]

In fact, for the first time in human history, we have a nuclear and biological arsenal that could wipe out the world’s population in multiple times and ways. Faced with these total risks of extermination, the distinction between nature and artefact becomes obsolete. Their meaning also changes, especially since the logic of cause-and-effect no longer runs in familiar paths. For example, during the Ebola crisis in March 2014 it quickly became clear that the natural carriers of this epidemic are fruit-eating bats. Humans become infected through contact with bats, their faeces and through contact with infected humans and animals, as well as by eating infected fruit. The reason for the outbreak of this epidemic in this specific case is attributed to the fact that the fruit-eating bats had to leave their habitat solely because of the climatic changes caused by humans. The infection of the disease thus goes back to the forced contact of these mice with humans. A similar constellation applies to Covid-19, which has a wide variety of consequences not only for the environment but also for us as humans.  On the one hand, thanks to this Ebola epidemic, humans have found a means, a vaccination, of perfecting their immune system even in this changed environment.[5] Although a vaccination is not yet in prospect in the case of Covid-19, mankind has hope for perfection also in this case. We will see.

Double perfection

A good example of perfection was provided by a private US company called eGenesis.  Using genetic engineering methods, it has succeeded in producing pigs that are free from so-called active porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs). This has now made it possible to carry out the long-awaited xenotransplantation, the transfer of animal organs to humans.[6] Up to now, the transmission of a pig heart and kidneys carried the risk that PERVs integrated in the genetic material of pigs could cause cancer. Now, for the first time in human history, both artificial hearts and the transfer of animal organs to humans is possible. This example shows the adaptation and perfection of the human body to the changed environmental conditions brought about by man, also by developing technologies at the expense of diversity.

The perfection of the human body goes hand in hand with the perfection of its machines in other areas as well. As is well known, humans cannot compete with supercomputers in terms of general education. In 1997, the „Deep Blue“ machine beat the world’s best chess player at the time, Garry Kasparov. IBM’s Watson is better than man in terms of general knowledge. Computers are able to generate puns and tell ironic jokes. Computers translate, drive cars, fly planes, bomb „enemies“ and can lead us beyond the moon. Deep Blue, Alexa and other supercomputers know neither fatigue nor principles that they could not have used to their own advantage.[7]

Responsibility and Anthropocene

The question is, what does that mean for us? What should we do now? For that, we have to look at normative side of the term anthropocene. From that normative point of view, it means that the drive to perfect our own nature as human beings is purchased not only at the expense of common institutions such as the economy, society, democracy and the rule of law, but also at the expense of the diversity of living beings and ways of life on earth. In this version, the term anthropocene is used to emphasise the fact that the way of life of modern man is at odds with what we find.

„Changing the climate for millennia to come is just one aspect. By cutting down rainforests, moving mountains to access coal deposits and acidifying coral reefs, we fundamentally change the biology and the geology of the planet. While driving uncountable numbers of species to extinction, we create new life forms through gene technology, and, soon, through synthetic biology.[8]

This definition is accompanied by the demand that we should no longer explain the changes with nature, no longer with cultural evolution, migrations, technical innovations, domestication of animals and cultivation of plants to meet our own needs, but that we should recognize that we ourselves have become a force of nature. If it is true that we are dealing with eras of fusion of the history of the earth with the history of mankind, then this recognition is also accompanied by the responsibility that in this age, instead of new distribution struggles, wars and environmental disasters, the task is a joint project for sustainable development.

„Without major catastrophes like an enormous volcanic eruption, an unexpected epidemic, a large-scale nuclear war, an asteroid impact, a new ice age, or continued plundering of Earth’s resources by partially still primitive technology (the last four dangers can, however, be prevented in a real functioning noösphere) mankind will remain a major geological force for many millennia, maybe millions of years, to come. To develop a world-wide accepted strategy leading to sustainability of ecosystems against human induced stresses will be one of the great future tasks of mankind, requiring intensive research efforts and wise application of the knowledge thus acquired in the noösphere, better known as knowledge or information society. An exciting, but also difficult and daunting task lies ahead of the global research and engineering community to guide mankind towards global, sustainable, environmental management.[9]


[1] Paul J. Crutzen, URL: https://www.mpic.de/3864489/paul-crutzen [Mai 2020].

[2] Harari, Yuval Noah (2016): Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow. S. 83-116. London: Harvill Secker.

[3] Crutzen, Paul J. and Eugene F. Stoermer. (2000): „The ‚Anthropocene’.” In: IGBP Newsletter, Vol. 41, 17-18. URL: http://www.igbp.net/download/18.316f18321323470177580001401/1376383088452/NL41.pdf [Mai 2020].

[4] Business Insider. URL: http://uk.businessinsider.com/al-gore-inconvenient-sequel-interview-2017-7?IR=T [Mai 2020].

[5] Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED): (2016): „2015 disasters in numbers.“ Online im Internet: URL: http://www.unisdr.org/files/47804_2015disastertrendsinfographic.pdf [Mai 2020]. Für andere Publikationen von CRED siehe URL: http://www.cred.be/publications [Mai 2020].

[6] Dong, Niu/ Wie, Hong-Jiang/ Lin, Lin/ George, Haydy/ Wang, Tao/  Lee, I-Hsiu, Zhao, Hong-Ye/ Wang, Yong/ Kann, Yinan/ Shrock, Ellen/ Lesha, Emal/ Wang, Gang/ Luo, Yonglun/ Qing, Yubo/ Jiao, Deling/ Zhao, Heng/ Zhou, Xiaoyang/ Wang, Shouqi/ Wie, Hong/ Güell, Marc/ Church, George M. and Yang, Luhan (2017): „Inactivation of porcine endogenous retrovirus in pigs using CRISPR-Cas9.“ In: Science, Vol. (357)6357:1303-1307. URL: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/357/6357/1303 [Mai 2020].

[7] Matt Ridley, URL: http://www.rationaloptimist.com/blog/ [Mai 2020].

[8] Paul J. Crutzen and Christian Schwägerl (2011): „Living in the Anthropocene: Toward a New Global Ethos.” YaleEnvireenment360. UR: https://e360.yale.edu/features/living_in_the_anthropocene_toward_a_new_global_ethos [Mai 2020].

[9] Crutzen, Paul J. and Eugene F. Stoermer. (2000): „The ‚Anthropocene’.” In: IGBP Newsletter, Vol. 41, 17-18. URL: http://www.igbp.net/download/18.316f18321323470177580001401/1376383088452/NL41.pdf [Mai 2020].

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