…to capture the imagination and frame the world in a word that would create urgency around the issue of climate change and other slow-building dangers accruing to the earth. But the risk was always that the word would capture the imagination all too well and become more like a summons to further heroic exertions to remake the world in our own image.
In Diane Ackerman’s 2014 book, “The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us,” the author declares herself “enormously hopeful” at the start of the Anthropocene. She goes on to chronicle, in a mood of excited ambivalence, the good and the bad: “a scary mass extinction of animals” and “alarming signs of climate change” but also a number of promising “revolutions” in sustainability, manufacturing, biomimicry and nanotechnology. The novelist Roy Scranton, in his short 2015 polemic, “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene,” calls on us to abandon false hope in the “toxic, cannibalistic and self-destructive” system of carbon-based capitalism and to “learn to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.” And Jedediah Purdy, author of the 2015 tract “After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene,” contrives to see opportunity in the crisis.
The Israeli writer and historian Yuval Harari’s book “Homo Deus,” published this month in the United States, makes the case that the 21st century will see an effort “to upgrade humans into Gods” who will take over biological evolution, replacing chance with intelligent design oriented around our desires. By merging with our technologies, humans could be released from the biases that plague our cognition, free to exercise the meticulous planning and invention required to save the planet from ourselves.
The book’s ruthless appropriation of the Anthropocene will almost certainly be regarded as an obscenity by those who first rallied around it, a celebration of the very hubris that brought us to the brink of destruction in the first place. Unwinding the damage we’ve done to the earth now represents a challenge so enormous that it forces us to dream about fantastical powers, to set about creating them and in the process either find our salvation or hasten our demise.