My mother was born in the Holocene Epoch. When she was a girl, mastodons and saber-tooth cats were no longer dying out – they had already become extinct at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, popularly referred to as the Ice Age. Nevertheless, the world was very different then.
The Holocene was a lengthy period, full of developments: the invention of writing, the Napoleonic conquests, the emergence of Buddhism, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the building of the Great Pyramid of Giza, and the movie “Bambi” – to name a few. In fact, most of recorded human history occurred during the Holocene. For untold generations, humanity lived without thinking that the cycles of nature were going to change. They were implacable: the alternating seasons, the coastlines, the migration of birds, the buzzing of bees. Nature was considered a fixed datum, integral to the human experience, and something that would remain constant in the generations ahead.
But no. Unlike my mother, I was born into a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – which began on the morning of July 16, 1945. Most geological epochs don’t begin on a particular day, as they stretch across millions of years. But the Anthropocene, as it was defined a few years ago by an international group of scientists, has a specific starting point: the carrying of the first nuclear test by the United States in the New Mexico desert. Others date it from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, in the late 18th century. More significant than the precise date, however, is the understanding that we are living in a new age in the history of planet Earth, an age that’s substantially different from most of previous human and biological history. The definitive feature of this epoch is that humanity’s influence has become a central force of nature, no less than volcanic activity, tectonic shifts or solar cycles – the forces that hitherto determined Earth’s history.
Today we find ourselves in a situation in which an experiment is being performed on all the planet’s inhabitants. Human beings have never before lived in a world where the ocean is acidic and the air is saturated with carbon dioxide. The planet is currently behaving in a way that is unparalleled in known human history: that is, the cycles of nature have ceased to occur in the way we’re familiar with from history. Even if we switch to a totally balanced ecological existence (which is not about to happen), the deterioration will slow down somewhat, but it will take hundreds and perhaps thousands of years before the conditions of the Holocene are restored.
These processes are unfolding rapidly, but nevertheless slowly enough for most of us to lose interest in them. The situation has been compared to an express train hurtling across a rural landscape: Even though there’s movement in the landscape, to the passengers on the train the scene looks static. That’s what makes it difficult for many people to identify global warming. Among them is the president of the United States. Like multitudes of others, Donald Trump has grown weary of the slow tracking of signs of climate change. Trump decided to open the gates of hell. Without saying so explicitly, he’s saying: Come here, catastrophe, let’s fight it out. That’s the import of his decision to withdraw from the climate agreements.
But let’s bear in mind that even if the Paris Agreement to scale back climate change is implemented, at best it offers a chance of postponing that change. The atmosphere is already laden with 750 billion tons of carbon. So there’s something pathetic about French President Emmanuel Macron’s call to Trump to “Make our planet great again.”
In the generations ahead, our planet will not return to its situation as it was during the Holocene. The coral reefs that perished are beyond salvation, as are the rain forests that have been covered with fields of agricultural crops. Macron was born in the Anthropocene, but like most of us, he suffers from “Holocene thinking.” Coined by the Australian intellectual Clive Hamilton, that term refers to the notion that nature remains a system separate from humankind. But "the natural" is no longer with us. It’s dead and cannot be resurrected.
Trump, though, is adopting a different approach. Perhaps he doesn’t believe in climate change, or maybe he just doesn’t care about it. He’s not a Romantic. As far as he’s concerned, the cycles of nature that we are familiar with can go to hell. He supports geoengineering, the artificial engineering of the atmosphere and the climate in order to adjust them to the needs of people, or at least to the needs of the American people.
About three months ago, it was reported that senior officials in the Trump administration advocate climate manipulation, including spraying the atmosphere with sulfate particles that are supposed to reflect solar radiation. Trump is upping the ante. We’ve been running wild? Let’s run a little wilder, and see if that helps. As a good capitalist, he also knows that every crisis is an investment opportunity.
A/C and climate change
The world is getting worn down, like a body that’s been exposed to excessive radiation or harmful substances. And, as with aging, not only is improvement impossible, agreement to maintain the status quo is also impossible. The deterioration will continue. One can limit the deterioration or have plastic surgery. Trump isn’t afraid of sunless tanning or hair preservation drugs. But, as everyone knows, such measures do not really restore us to youth; they are excessive, artificial interventions that stamp the body irreversibly.
In practice, Trump is responding to climate change the same way as many others in the Western world. For most of us, the solution to an overly hot summer is to turn up the air conditioning. No matter that actually air conditioners themselves accelerate global warming overall for everyone on the planet. If it gets even hotter, we’ll just build a more powerful air conditioner. Let the world burn – we’ll find a technological solution that won’t spoil those nice weekends in Florida.
Perhaps, as climate journalist Graham Readfearn argues, we are already in a new epoch: the Trumpocene. This is a period characterized by the world’s destruction on the part of human beings who won’t even admit that there’s a problem. It turns out that we’re experiencing a double crisis: an environmental crisis compounded by a crisis in political consciousness that doesn’t allow us to cope with the consequences of our activity as adults living in the contemporary era. We are like someone with a lung disease who suddenly decides to start smoking again.
The Trumpocene Epoch might end within a few years. But as with unsuccessful plastic surgery, we will feel the consequences for tens of thousands of years to come.
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