Jeffrey Sach’s recent Reith Lectures series kicked off with a timely reference to the concept of the Anthropocene as created by Paul Crutzen. The concept is pretty simple if sobering - that we are now in a period of Earth’s history where humankind’s activities are having a permanent and marked impact on the biosphere.
Sach’s second lecture, Survival in the Anthropocene, is totally worth a listen.
The Crutzen reference got me thinking about the phrase that Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita as they tested the first atomic weapon at Los Alamos in the States. “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” he pondered as the mushroom cloud ascended.
The Oppenheimer moment triggered off a further thought.
As a generation x-er I grew up with a mortal fear of Oppenheimer’s creation and considered Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) to be a world-crushing threat that hung over us each and every day. A couple of decades on and the CND badge (perhaps sadly) is no longer on my lapel but I work now on behavioural change campaigns to help save our small blue planet, developing strategies for jamming the moments of dissonance where we commit those small, incremental acts of ecocide, such as leaving the lights on or trashing the paper rather than recycling it.
And it got me to a final conclusion that one of the great tragedies about the Anthropocene and our unsustainable slide towards environmental collapse is how banal our planetary destruction is. There is none of the bleak and chilling heroism of an actor-president and a vodka soaked comrade with their fingers poised over nuclear arsenals that have the megaton-power to pulverise the planet thirteen times over. A big bang, and no tomorrow.
Instead our collapse could be a traced along a trail of SUV brochures and disposable nappies and pissed-up cheap flights to Marbella; of new TVs and second cars and lazy school runs; of badly designed plywood palaces and of pointless trolley-dashes around out-of-town mega-malls just to fill the aching chasm within.
What a way to go out. At least nuclear oblivion had a certain level of grim panache, whereas environmental collapse, when you think about it, is just embarrassing and sloppy.
So here’s our new reason to save the planet: humankind deserves a much better epitaph.