Friday, November 6, 2015

Ages Matter: The New Anthropocene

What Ages do we live in?

It seems like a silly question, but think of it this way:  How many people can you name who lived between 500 AD and 1000 AD?  Yes, Charlemagne; everybody gets Charlemagne. 

Joan of Arc?  Sorry; off by 400 years. 

Venerable Bede?  Well yes, but now you’re Googling.

There were maybe 200 million human beings alive in 500 AD and 300 million alive in 1000 AD.  If we figure on a good 30-year life span, that means several billion were born and died across those 500 years. 

This period is traditionally called the Dark Ages.  It’s a half-a-millennium stretch in which most of us can remember the name of exactly two people who lived--and on one we had to cheat.  This was not mankind's happiest era.

Ages matter.

In recent times, we’ve fully embraced the concept of Ages.  Consider an American living in 1895.  Thanks to Mark Twain’s Age of Excess, we have both that description and "the Gilded Age” (1860-1896), both of which captured the rise of ostentatious wealth and shoddy ethics.  Edith Wharton’s (1862-1937) novel about the Eastern upper class was titled The Age of Innocence.  Some referred to the closing decade of the 19th century as the “Gay Nineties," a time of pre-income tax decadence.  And, beginning in that same period, historians saw the flowering of the “Progressive Era” (1890-1920), a time of social activism and political reform.  Of course, 1895 was smack dab in the midst of the Industrial Revolution.

So, my great-grandparents were living in the Age of Excess, the Gilded Age, the Age of Innocence, the Gay Nineties, the Progressive Era and the Industrial Revolution.  You don’t know their names, but now you at least know something about them.

Ages matter. 

Which prompts the initial question: What Ages are we living in?

It’s hard to know where to start in a world run amuck with pundits and patterns, so let’s go small and recent.  Yes, of course: TechCrunch says we're in the Age of Facebook.  And not to be outdone, we're also in the Age of Google.  Let's just get that bit of presentism out of our system so we can focus.

The Age of Nationalism began in the 1850s and may still be with us, or may have ended with 9/11 or the rise of ISIS.  (The problem with Ages is that you don’t know when they end until well after they’ve ended.)  

The Age of Celebrity began, I suppose, in the 1920s when mass media arose; the idea that people can be famous simply for being famous is a weird but identifiable period in which we all clearly live.  The Space Age began in 1957 and continues on, though often sputtering.  The Age of Urbanization picked up steam in the last half of the 20th century; globally speaking, we are now 54% urban and expect to be 70% by 2050. 

This is all closely tied to the Age of Globalization, which we started talking about in the 1970s.  It’s enhanced and driven by the Information Age, or the Computer Age, or the New Media Age, or the Digital Age.  Some folks believe we’re already out of the Information Age and into something called the Hybrid Age, or the Age of the Smart Machine, or the Age of Artificial Intelligence.

And for the biggest stuff, and maybe the most important: We are currently living in something called the Quaternary Period, and have been for the last 2.6 million years.  It’s a geologic time span that has throughout featured at least one permanent ice sheet--today’s Antarctica.  Things began to change about 11,700 years ago when the last Ice Age came to an end.  Human beings alive since then have been part of the Holocene Epoch.   Despite some moderate shifts in climate, the Holocene has been a warm, generally friendly period of life between ice ages.

So, we’re alive in another important age—the Holocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period.

But now, the International Commission on Stratigraphy—the ruling body that sets geologic ages—has set up a working group to study the case for making official a brand new age.  It’s called the Anthropocene Age, and it’s a tribute to man’s ability to generate greenhouse gases and fill the ocean and atmosphere with our own special chemical signatures.  

Since our species now exerts the greatest single impact on the Earth, we get our own age.  Some think it began with intensive farming, and some with the Industrial Revolution.  But official or not, it’s hard not to believe we are in the midst of something new and important.

Here’s an optimistic point of view: While we’re cooking the Earth and killing one another at a pretty good clip, there are smart people and unbelievable technologies and still lots of human beings of goodwill who can get us through this.  We fix the carbon problem, artificial intelligence and genetic splicing make us all good looking and able to do the New York Times crossword—and the human race goes on to prosper.  

That means--and this is really ironic--that we may well be living in what will one day be known as the Second Dark Ages.  Charlemagne didn’t know he was in a bleak era, 600 years from the Italian Renaissance; why would we know any better?

There is another possibility, however, and one that captures how I feel in my more pessimistic moments.  There's a second name for the Anthropocene Age:  It’s call the Age of Stupid.  Some people believe we have been living there for a while.  (See the video here.)  The Age of Stupid is the entire shootin' match;if we can't graduate from it, there's nothing left.

So, which Ages are we living in?  It seems we are in the truly odd position of wishing and hoping that we're actually living in the Second Dark Ages.  Cause that at least means things will get better.