The Anthropocene

One advantage of being in a university community is that I have easy access to public lectures, which occasionally open up a whole new way of looking at creation. This was my experience recently. I heard a talk by Clive Hamilton exploring the suggestion that humans now have enough of an impact on the world that we are entering a new geological era that could be called the Anthropocene.

In Genesis 1:28 humans are given the task of filling the earth and subduing it. Certainly, if we look at population growth, we can say that the filling of the earth is almost complete. Many scientists are asserting that humans are now having an effect on the way the planet works; that is, we are succeeding (maybe badly because of the Fall) in subduing the earth.

Geological time is divided into a series of refined units based on changes evident in rock sediment or glacial ice. Until recently, we have lived in the Holocene Epoch (Greek for “entirely recent”) starting about 11,650 years ago. Hamilton pointed out in his talk that this period is characterised by a remarkably stable climate. Before this era, we experienced repeated (over long periods) climate fluctuations, often due to the wobble of the Earth on its rotational axis. Other markers of geological epochs are events like the K-T extinction caused by an asteroid impact, which resulted in the death of the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. Earth scientists are now discussing whether human activity has reached a scale and a degree of impact sufficient to define a new geological era, the Anthropocene (from human + new).

This new epoch is said to have started at one of two time points, either 1600 or sometime around 1950. On a geological calendar, these two dates are very close together, so maybe for us the actual start date is less important than the suggestion that humans as a species are now in a new relationship with the planet on which they reside.

Human impact
The most well-known marker to distinguish the change in era is the change in CO2 levels and other atmospheric changes affecting climate. Multiple other markers exist. The amount of plastic found floating in the oceans is a growing concern related to the use of industrial chemicals. The nuclear testing underway since WWII has put a marker in rocks on the whole earth. The changing land use currently typified by the destruction of the rain forest is simply the culmination of an increase in farming and its increase in nitrogen use. The decrease in the polar ice cap may be another marker.

What Hamilton suggested in his lecture was the impact of humans on our planet might not be a simple one directional impact but rather might result in a more unstable earth environment. The fluctuations in weather severity and temperature might become more extreme. This change may be seen in the storms, flooding, fires and other disasters of the last decade. Thus, it is not just the human induced change that is important but also, more significantly, the change in the strength of the planetary systems like ocean currents and weather we activate. The earth has been “awakened” by our behaviour.

While this “subduing” behaviour could be seen as a fulfilment of the mandate God gave us in the beginning, it has been perverted from what was originally intended, such that now it has many consequences that are harmful rather than those that bless and enrich creation. For this we need to offer our prayer seeking forgiveness, and do what we can to be proper creation stewards. 

Author

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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