Friday, January 21, 2011

The Anthropocene: a new geological era

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

The known classical crises, such as that of 1929, profoundly affected all societies. The current crisis is more radical, as it is attacking our modus essendi: the bases of life and our civilization. That the Earth was there, intact and with inexhaustible resources, was previously taken for granted. Now we can not rely on a healthy Earth, abundant in resources. That has ended; degraded and feverish, it no longer supports an infinite project of progress.

The present crisis lays bare the misleading dominant understanding of history, nature and the Earth, which places the human being outside and above nature with a unique mission, that of dominating it. We have lost the concept of all the original peoples that we belong to nature. Today, we would say that we are part of the solar system and our galaxy, which in turn is part of the universe. We all emerged over a vast evolutionary process. Everything is powered by the background energy and the four interactions that always operate together: the force of gravity, the electromagnetic one, and the weak and strong nuclear ones. Life and consciousness emerged from this process. We humans represent the conscious and intelligent part of the Milky Way and the Earth itself, with the mission not to dominate but to care for it, to maintain the ecological conditions that allow us to pursue our life and civilization.

However, these conditions are being undermined by the current productivist and consumerist process. It is no longer about saving our well-being, but saving human life and civilization. If we do not moderate our greed and do not enter into synergy with nature, we will have difficulty getting out of the current situation. Either we substitute better premises for these wrong ones or we risk self-destruction. Awareness of the danger is not yet collective.

It is important to recognize a fact of the evolutionary process that disturbs us: along with great harmony, extreme violence also coexists. The earth itself in its 4.5 billion years of existence has gone through several devastations. In some of them, it lost nearly 90% of its biotic capital, but life always maintained itself and rebuilt with renewed vigor.

The last major devastation, a true environmental Armageddon, occurred 67 million years ago when, in the Caribbean near the Yucatan in Mexico, a meteor fell, almost 10 km long. It produced a tsunami with waves the size of tall buildings and a tremor that affected the entire planet, activating most of the volcanoes. A huge cloud of dust and gasses was released into the sky, changing the Earth's climate for dozens of years. The dinosaurs, which had reigned sovereign on Earth for over a hundred million years, disappeared completely. The Mesozoic era of the reptiles came to an end, and the Cenozoic Era, that of the mammals, began. As if in revenge, the Earth produced a flowering of life like never before. Our primate ancestors emerged at this time. We are of the mammalian genus.

But here in the last three hundred years, homo sapiens/demens is carrying out a powerful attack on all the ecosystem communities of the planet, exploiting and channeling much of the earth's gross product towards human systems of consumption. The result is equivalent to a devastation like those of yesteryear. The biologist E. Wilson says that humanity is the first species in the history of life on Earth that has become a geophysical destructive force. The rate of species extinction caused by human activity is fifty times greater than that which existed before human intervention. With the current acceleration, continued Wilson, soon we could reach the figure of up to ten thousand times more species exterminated by voracious consumerism. The current climate chaos is one of its effects.
The 1995 Dutch Nobel Chemistry Prize winner, Paul J. Crutzen, terrified by the magnitude of the current ecocide, said that we have opened a new geological era: the Anthropocene one. It is the age of great decimations perpetrated by the irrationality of the human being (anthropos in Greek). So the adventure of 66 million years of history of the Cenozoic Era sadly ends. The time of darkness begins.

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