The Anthropocene

Welcome to the dawn of Earth’s new geological age, this one shaped by humans

David Roberts is a staff writer for

One of the primary psychic barriers to accepting the fact that there is such a thing as climate change is the accompanying notion that human beings can reshape something as large and complex as the Earth itself. On an intuitive level, it seems incredible. Presumptuous, even.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) put it this way: “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate is to me outrageous.”

It hardly needs pointing out that “He,” in this instance, is God. And it’s not unusual to see this sentiment expressed in religious terms. After all, if human beings are reshaping the basic biophysical systems of the planet, they are like unto gods. What terrifies people about that idea is not so much the power itself, but the responsibility that comes with it. If the state of the entire biosphere is the product of our decisions and actions, then we hold the fate of the only known life-bearing planet, and all the life on it, in our hands.

That is an almost unthinkably heavy burden to bear. Nonetheless, there it is. We have entered what a growing number of earth scientists are calling the Anthropocene, a geological era characterized by the influence of a single species.

There’s a new video—from an educational project developed by the Planet Under Pressure conference—that does a great job of introducing the idea (see column note).

The most mind-bending aspect of all this is that 1950, the point when truly massive changes began to occur at hyper speeds, wasn’t that long ago. People born after 1950 grew up alongside changes of a scope and scale that defy anything they were prepared for in their education or personal experience. Their cultural identities have been shaped under circumstances that no longer exist and assumptions that no longer apply.

The Anthropocene represents a shift in perspective that goes beyond the political or economic. It is ethical, ontological, even existential. The full implications won’t be clear for many years. We are still denying it or negotiating with it or trying to squeeze it into conventional categories. It will be for our children to fully come to terms with it—and, unfortunately, to suffer for our failure of imagination.