When John Milton wrote (Paradise Lost 1667) “Accuse not Nature, she hath done her part; Do thou but thine”, I doubt that he quite foresaw what is increasingly being called the Anthropocene, or ‘The Age of Man’ (see http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/03/age-of-man/kolbert-text).
Nature has indeed done her part to bring the world to this point, towards an increasing consciousness and self-determination of Man. It is difficult to find any sizeable chunk of the planet that has not succumbed in some way, subtle or dramatic, to the handiwork of modern humans. In 200,000 years we have left our unmistakable imprint, and it is accelerating. The coral reefs of the open ocean are in distress from rising water temperature and acidity, caused in turn by emissions of greenhouse gases through the activities of Man. There are so many dams on the world’s waterways that natural or pristine rivers are a thing of the past. Many of the world’s deltas, the dumping ground of conveyor belts of river-borne sediment, and the home of billions of people, are sinking beneath the waves. The oceans’ fisheries are depleted, some of them to the point of exhaustion. Biodiversity is undergoing a big crunch, with unprecedented rates of extinction of species. And human population continues to go through the roof, from 3 billion to nearly 7 billion in the last half-century. So pervasive, so systemic, so global and yet so local are these impacts that many believe we should label our current time the Anthropocene. Some also believe that by labeling it so, we wake up to the reality of our responsibility for the future. For Nature has opened her eyes, and has for the first time seen herself, through us poor humans, the failed masterpiece of creation.
My walk to the conference at the Geological Society of London on the topic of the Anthropocene (11 May 2011) was not extraordinary in any kind of way. From the stucco-fronted classical squares of Kensington, with their neatly kept gardens, past the memorials to a diminutive queen, or rather to her German husband, along the margins of one of the world’s great parks, where dog walkers chat and joggers with white earphones jog, and mounted cavalry take shining horses to train in saw-dusted enclosures. There was nothing unusual about these scenes of peace and order. And there was nothing unusual about the disheveled man in the subway with a little whistle, which he played badly and intermittently, as if his musical attention span extended to a mere 4 bars. He stood beside a grimy sleeping bag that lay above flattened cardboard boxes, comprising a stratigraphy of homelessness. On the other side of the subway the world changed from green to urban-grey, save for a hotel on a corner with a veritable jungle growing up it, a Living Wall ten storeys high. The Living Wall screams at you that it is an anthropogenic biome, carefully designed and planted by Man, and watered and cared for by Man, and rather wonderful. It is a human ecology, a paradise on a street corner, not more than a quarter of a mile from the Geological Society, my destination this fresh day in early May.
Recognizing what you have done and owning up to it is a cathartic process that is necessary to go through if you want to make anything better, whether it’s spilling red wine on the new carpet or thoroughly messing up our disappearing world. But it is a good idea to separate the analysis of the impact of one’s actions from the separate question of what we should do about it, because these are two different conversations, the first being scientific, the other involving a bit of everything, preferably including wisdom. Although these two conversations are linked, the first should inform the second. There are hidden dangers. If we get the scientific analysis wrong, we do not have the correct basis for making decisions about the way we manage the world in the future and perhaps carry around a flawed philosophical position guiding our actions. But the bigger danger is that the second conversation is hijacked by those with a range of pro- or anti-environmentalist agendas that they wish to advance, whatever the results of the scientific discourse turn out to be. In short, recognizing that we have entered the Age of Man does not provide a better moral, ethical or philosophical position to make important policy decisions on over-consumption, the futility of war, population growth, poverty and infant mortality. The moral compass for these issues is to be found elsewhere.
The Anthropocene is the recognition that natural ecological systems that have developed since the melting of the last continental ice masses from the northern hemisphere, a mere ten thousand years ago, have been so changed that they function differently. And the agent of change is Man. Delegates at the conference asked, ‘When did this trend start?’, ‘What indicators do we use, what things do we measure?’, ‘What are our predictions for the future?’, ‘ How long can we continue like this?’, ‘What will species in the future find when they look back at the beginning of the Age of Man?’, ‘Should Man and Nature be restored to some former state of innocence?’
The Anthropocene will continue to be used as a powerful metaphor for the impact of Man on this small blue planet. To ground the term in a scientific appraisal will add force to its use. One hopes that the process of assessment does not take as long, and does not involve as much acrimony, as the great debates of the past over the subdivision of geological time and of the archive of rocks formed over those aeons.
By the time we emerged from dinner in a subterranean vault, darkness had fallen softly and comfortably on the city. It glowed electrically as people scurried to unknown destinations, and traffic buzzed, screeched and hooted, leaving long neon streaks in the photographic plate of my memory. My taxi sped past the great park now lost in darkness as I returned to the quiet Kensington Square. Above the chequer-board of lighted apartment windows was an aircraft descending to Heathrow, identified by a blinking red light and a low sonic rumble, suspended in space as if held by invisible wires. I had time to reflect on the day’s conference and the conversations I had had over dinner in the subterranean vault. Had it been a consecration of a Paradise Lost? The last sacraments of a disappearing world?
Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe
That all was lost.
John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667
I reflected on the closing thoughts of one of the speakers, Erle Ellis from the University of Maryland, who said “In the Anthropocene, we must embrace humans not as destroyers of nature but as creators, engineers and permanent stewards of the biosphere”. So the answer is ‘No, it had not been a mournful consecration’, because when Paradise is truly lost, it will not be the ‘Age of Man’, but the ‘End of Man’. The blame game will then seem particularly futile.
 As foreseen by Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945), author of The Biosphere (1926), who introduced the idea of the noosphere representing the emergence of human cognition.
 The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time? Conference at the Geological Society of London, Burlington House, 11 May 2011, convened by Michael Ellis, Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams and Alan Haywood, sponsored by the British Geological Survey. The plenary lecture was given by Nobel laureate Professor Paul Crutzen, discoverer of the ‘ozone hole’.