This excellent book sets out how human history has taken us into a new period: the Anthropocene, in which humans are a key factor shaping the planet. This is not just a new period in human history, but a new period in the Earth’s history. Our species is changing our planet in such a major way that what we are doing can be placed on the big-picture geological timescale. Much of this story will be familiar to readers of this site, but there are some features of ‘The Human Planet’ which make it stand out from the ever-growing literature on the Anthropocene and the debates it has sparked.
One is that the overall story is illustrated with many historical and ecological details which are not only interesting in their own right but also bring the story to life in a vivid way. So even if you have read about the Anthropocene before, this book will almost certainly have something new for you.
‘The Human Planet’ makes its own contribution to the arguments about when the Anthropocene began. The authors argue for 1610, on the grounds that the collision between the ‘Old’ (European) World and the ‘New’ (American) World was the same sort of meeting between continents as have in the past been brought about by the Earth’s plate tectonics. But this time, instead of the continents moving, people moved, and plants, animals, and diseases moved as a result. The world was transformed.
The choice of start-dates is significant because it links in with the political aspect of the book, which shows very clearly the close connection between capitalism and the Anthropocene. Much earlier than 1610 for the start and the Anthropocene just looks like something humans inevitably do; much later, as in the proposals for 1945 or 1950, and it deals in the superficialities of consumer society without getting at the causes in economic dynamics.
There is also some discussion in the book of the way in which the issue of the starting date has been used to obscure the real economics of how the Anthropocene has come about. One aspect of this that even these two radical authors have not dared to touch: much of the opposition to the idea that the Anthropocene is the outcome of capitalism comes from geologists, who of course are entitled to a say because ‘Anthropocene’ was initially a geological concept, before it spread to evolutionary biology and then into politics.
However it is important to bear in mind that much of geology is funded by the oil industry and many geologists have jobs in the oil industry. Amongst the leading symptoms of the Anthropocene is climate change and the burning of fossil fuels, so an emphasis on the close connection between the Anthropocene and capitalism may not be so welcome in parts of the geology community, and up to now the leaders of that community have refused to recognise the Anthropocene as part of the official geological timescale.
Despite this, the concept of the Anthropocene is a great advertisement for geology in the sense that it demonstrates to non-geologists the importance of a geological perspective on current events – even though many geologists themselves want to steer clear of its political implications.