First Words

Perhaps you’ve noticed, amid the hot invective and dry mockery of daily events in your social-media feeds, reports of the glaciers melting at each pole. Arctic ice cover reached record lows this summer and fall, while in Antarctica, we saw the continuing enlargement of an already massive crack in the region’s fourth-largest ice sheet, threatening its continued stability. The year 2016 was the hottest ever recorded, surpassing the previous record in 2015, which had in turn exceeded that of the previous hottest year ever recorded, 2014. Just as the world seemed poised to embark on a collective effort to wean itself off dependency on fossil fuels, its leading power elected as president a man who has claimed that global warming is a conspiracy invented by the Chinese and who went on to select as his secretary of state the chairman of Exxon Mobil. The choices they make will shape the future of all planetary life.

Our inability to connect the day’s ephemera with the geological time scale has summoned a striking neologism: the Anthropocene — the “Age of Man.” Its meteoric rise is a case study in the stubbornness of the problem that the word was designed to master. Coined by the atmospheric scientist Paul Crutzen around the year 2000, the word expressed his intuition that humanity had become tantamount to the great forces of nature and that our activities now shaped the state of the systems that regulate the conditions of life. Human-induced impact on the world had become so great, he believed, that we had pushed the planet into a whole new stage of the geological time scale, leaving behind the Holocene epoch, which began 10,000 to 12,000 years ago.

Crutzen and a group of like-minded scientists set about grounding his improvised conceit with empirical findings drawn from various earth sciences: We have dammed half of the world’s large rivers, subdued nearly 40 percent of the world’s landmass for agricultural use, invented plastics, smelted metals and spread other novel particles of our own devising throughout the world; according to some estimates, 95 percent of the vertebrate biomass on land consists of ourselves, our pets and livestock bred to our specifications and raised mostly in enormous industrialized monocultures. The concept of the Anthropocene is that, in the distant future, these changes will be legible in the record preserved in the earth: in ice cores, in sediment, in fossils, everywhere.

Last August, a working group within the International Commission on Stratigraphy issued a recommendation that the wider body formally designate the end of the Holocene epoch and declare the Anthropocene a reality. The question arose of whether these scientists were doing science at all or making a political statement. (After all, geological epochs are generally named millions of years after they end.) This leaves the effort to fix the meaning of the Anthropocene in stratigraphical terms still inconclusive.

It also leaves it feeling rather irrelevant. For in the meantime, the word has slipped free of its original intentions, diffusing rapidly throughout academia and slowly trickling into the consciousness of the mainstream press. Part of the Anthropocene’s appeal was the sound of the word itself: portentous, stately, vaguely Latinate, imbued with a dark majesty. Another part of its appeal was its capaciousness — large enough to swallow the whole planet and everything that lives on it. Crutzen wished 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. Though he acknowledges that humanity presently lacks the political institutions to act collectively on a global scale, he allows himself the hope that a new politics will arise that will be “democratic in the double sense of thoroughly politicizing nature’s future and recognizing the imperative of political equality among the people who will together create that future.” Whatever else our posterity may come to lack, it will not suffer from a dearth of grand invective or sonorous incantation.

While humanists have bent the Anthropocene to serve their own purposes, technologists have turned what began as a call for radical austerity into a renewed push for significant technological advances. 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.

Harari’s book is the closest thing we have to a single-volume account of the techno-futurist vision favored by our Silicon Valley elites — his work has been cited by Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg — and it is as uneasily poised at the conjuncture of standard history and science fiction, of sober analysis and mad prophecy, of nightmare and utopia, as we ourselves have come to be. 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.

Right around the time that we confirmed that the sixth great extinction had already begun, scientists discovered Crispr, which is bacterial DNA that can be manipulated to edit genes and perhaps to bring back extinct species or to invent new forms of biological life. The Harvard biologist George Church is leading an attempt to transform an elephant’s genome into that of a woolly mammoth, one of many such “de-extinction” projects. One purpose is to show that such feats are possible, to demonstrate that humanity can reverse a sentence as final as extinction. But the ultimate goal, Church has said, is to release the beasts into the permafrost, which they can save by trampling the shrubbery that would otherwise break it up in a warming climate — helping to preserve, at least for a while, the conditions that gave rise to humanity in the first place.