Life in the Anthropocene

HON 398 – Dr. Stephen Wagener

Modes of Inquiry: Textual Analysis, Scientific and Mathematical Analysis, Historical, Social and Cultural Analysis

Course Description:

Humans as a group have always feared the future. People who have endured natural disasters and wars are naturally apprehensive about this Great Unknown. We are good at reckoning the dangers right before us. No doubt that comes from the savannah of our early experiences. We see and understand how to avoid the dangers of the mundane world, the cobra in the grass, the leopard in the tree, the wildfire in the distance. Even the forces of nature, the hot sun, lightning, and strong winds we learn to live with and understand by personifying them and turning them into stories. These stories guide our behavior and to some degree protect us. The future, by contrast, is an undiscovered land. We have no frame of reference for the future, other than the past, and can’t always remember that. Perhaps this is why so many human cultures see time as a wheel. We fear the future because we expect the next war to be a repeat of the last war, but it never is. We tell stories about the future and we get that wrong, too. We even try to shape the future, by shear force and violence rebuilding society based on principles we believe to be rational and scientific. In the end, civilizations are made of people and people are not always rational. Having seen far too much of it, modern culture assumes the worst of human nature. When we tell stories about the future they are more likely to be dystopias than utopias. And lets face it, dystopias in literature and popular culture can be very interesting and utopias tiresome. Today we are faced with a very real potential for dystopia, the existential threat of climate change. Human civilization has no choice but to adapt to meet it. Climate change is everything change. This century and the millennia to come will be profoundly different than anything we have known. But climate change offers not only a great challenge, but also a great opportunity to create a better world. (Can we do that without force and violence?) Some have proposed that the effects of humanity on Earth’s geology and its ecosystems are so profound that we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene (Age of Humanity). Although the International Commission on Stratigraphy has not yet adopted this name, it has been used informally for several years.