Power without control is nothing

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Anthropocene and Capitalocene: between these two neologisms lies one of the most relevant debates of the 21st century. For what it simply means to assume that this, and no other, is the debate. And of course, for whatever the final choice may be.

But before going deeper, a bit of history: Anthropocene is a term coined in 2000 by the Dutch chemist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen, with which he intended to mark the passage to the geological epoch in which the conscious and unconscious forces of humanity had managed to overcome the power of the forces of nature.

The crucial debate then began to take place: Is it true that we have already developed our power enough to control natural processes? Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that we have developed the power, but as that advertising campaign so aptly put it, "power without control is useless".

Right now there is hardly any debate, we have developed the power to change the climate, to leave our indelible mark on the biology, geology and ecology of the Earth. However, we have done so for the worse. The rate of species extinction is more than 1,000 times higher than what would be natural. Equal to that of the five previous mass extinction events, and this acceleration bears our signature. Today, more than 9 out of 10 of the world's large animals are either humans or domesticated animals. 10,000 years ago, the self-styled Homo sapiens represented less than 1% of the total weight of mammals on the planet.

Moreover, in geology - which is where the epochal change debate mainly takes place - there are different ways of measuring our impact:

-Theplastiglomerate: On a Hawaiian beach, a group of geologists discovered a type of rock that has hybridized with a type of molten plastic that acts as cement, conjugating volcanic material, beach sand, mollusk shells or coral fragments. Those responsible for the discovery argue that it is an abundant type of mineral - there will be other consistencies and shapes - and that it can be used in the distant future to mark the geological period in which the human species lived on Earth.

-Radiation: the other marker that is often argued to date the beginning of the Anthropocene is perhaps the definitive sign of this new time: radioactive isotopes from nuclear bomb tests, whose trace will last about 4.5 billion years, as many as the Earth has. The Anthropocene would therefore have begun on July 16, 1945, when the United States exploded the first bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico.

And we come to ecology, to climate. Here lies perhaps the most important part of the epochal change. We should be approaching an ice age, which is what would correspond to us if we were to follow the patterns of orbital variations - Milankovitch cycles - that determine the transition between glacial and interglacial periods, but what we have done with our greenhouse gas emissions is to skip that period and head dangerously towards what experts call Runaway Climate Change, which would end up leaving us in an irreversible state on a human scale, the dreaded Hothouse Earth.

A little extra CO2 could have done us a lot of good, to stabilize us at all in a climatic epoch that otherwise would have been tending towards cooling. Unfortunately, we have overdone it, and by a lot. Again, potential without control is useless.

Currently, we already have in the atmosphere an amount of CO2 that at least 2 million years ago was not reached, although there are studies that put it much further back, up to 23 million years ago. The Holocene, that period of stable and friendly climate that has allowed our civilization to prosper, began just 11,700 years ago, after the last glaciation. No human or anything like it has lived with an atmosphere similar to the one you are breathing right now.

Therefore, the Anthropocene could be defined as "the unit of geological time under which human beings would be modifying with our actions the natural patterns or rhythms of change of the Earth, thereby removing the planet from its natural variability".

Not only is there a Working Group on the Anthropocene, which is tasked with determining if and when change has occurred and when to date it. The culture is filling up with references to the Anthropocene, as if assuming that this is the correct term. Notable are the fantastic Canadian documentary Anthropocene (2018), the work of Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky. Roy Scranton's book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, or the album Miss Anthropocene, by the singer -and also Canadian- Grimes.

And then came Jason W. Moore. This professor of World History at Binghamton University and coordinator of the World-Ecology Research Network proposed a few years ago that calling the new epoch the Anthropocene was a bit unfair, that not all "anthropos" are equally responsible, and that the real culprit is the socio-economic system.

The answer to the question posed by this debate perhaps lies somewhere in between: while the impact of capitalism is undeniable, there have certainly been serious problems - and even collapses - in civilizations that predated capitalism. Perhaps, quite simply, our nonsensical socio-economic system has accelerated a natural tendency for life to overflow in its unconscious state. Therefore, if there is a solution to this mess, it is to acquire species consciousness, to try to organize ourselves collectively so as not to overstep the planetary boundaries. Not so much from reason alone, but from empathy.

Because there is another meaning for the term Anthropocene, the one that pretends to "sell" that it is the epoch of triumph, of the domination of the human race over the forces of nature. Woe to those who think that, because the fall will be even greater. We hardly have time to realize that the Earth is not ours, but that we are of the Earth.

About the Author

Juan Bordera

Journalist and content creator.

May 06, 2022 — Juan Bordera

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