Peter Brannen has an interesting piece in the Atlantic, pointing out that the Anthropocene is more of a geological event rather than an epoch, at least so far.
Humans are now living in a new geological epoch of our own making: the Anthropocene. Or so we’re told. Whereas some epochs in Earth history stretch more than 40 million years, this new chapter started maybe 400 years ago, when carbon dioxide dipped by a few parts per million in the atmosphere. Or perhaps, as a panel of scientists voted earlier this year, the epoch started as recently as 75 years ago, when atomic weapons began to dust the planet with an evanescence of strange radioisotopes.
Brannen’s point is that human civilization so far is a speck in the geological record, 10,000 years (in the most generous definition of “civilization”) compared to 500 millions years of complex life, or about 0.002% of that history, or 0.0002% of Earth’s overall history.
Along those lines, he makes this point.
If, in the final 7,000 years of their reign, dinosaurs became hyperintelligent, built a civilization, started asteroid mining, and did so for centuries before forgetting to carry the one on an orbital calculation, thereby sending that famous valedictory six-mile space rock hurtling senselessly toward the Earth themselves—it would be virtually impossible to tell. All we do know is that an asteroid did hit, and that the fossils in the millions of years afterward look very different than in the millions of years prior.
Similarly, if we manage to wipe ourselves out in the next century or so (by climate destruction, nuclear war, or some other means), or even in the next few millenia, virtually all evidence of human civilization would be gone in a few tens of millions of years due to the earth’s constant geological erosion, tectonic upheaval, and overall churn. A geologist one hundred million years from now might be hard pressed to identify that any civilization in our time had actually existed.
(The situation might be a little more hopeful if our future scientists manage to make it to the moon, Mars, or other locations where perhaps some of our artifacts might still be around, although so far those artifacts are very limited in number.)
(It’s also worth noting that the asteroid strike causing the dinosaur extinction is more controversial than it used to be, although it doesn’t change Brannen’s point.)
Brannen finishes with this:
The idea of the Anthropocene inflates our own importance by promising eternal geological life to our creations. It is of a thread with our species’ peculiar, self-styled exceptionalism—from the animal kingdom, from nature, from the systems that govern it, and from time itself. This illusion may, in the long run, get us all killed. We haven’t earned an Anthropocene epoch yet. If someday in the distant future we have, it will be an astounding testament to a species that, after a colicky, globe-threatening infancy, learned that it was not separate from Earth history, but a contiguous part of the systems that have kept this miraculous marble world habitable for billions of years.
It does seem like human exceptionalism causes a lot intellectual hangups. Contrary to a lot of misanthropic sentiment, I personally don’t see humanity as depraved in some manner, at least not in any way that other species aren’t. We have those hangups for evolutionary reasons. But we do have them. And our long term survival, existing long enough to be something other than a blip in the geological record, may depend on us finding ways to overcome them.