It was the century when Earth’s systems got a complete makeover. And the planet got an expiration date.
It is a word that is still not recognised by the spelling thesaurus. Yet we have been living in the Anthropocene for many decades now: the geologic time period, according to the textbooks, when the planet is not governed by physics anymore, broadly speaking. It is not governed by the delicate goldilocks balance between water, vapour and ice, which used to only slightly fluctuate every few thousand years. Our atmosphere is not controlled anymore by the most accurate carbon credits accounting system that ever existed, and which used to balance millions of tonnes of CO2 emitted from volcanos and other natural sources on one hand, with plant and animal CO2 absorption on the other. The pattern of our weather, the highs and lows of temperature, precipitation, drought, do not have an upper or lower limit anymore. The lows can go lower, and the highs can go higher. Records are being broken everywhere. The Machine is fucked.
The Anthropocene is a Big Lie
Anthropocene in Greek roughly means “the geologic time characterised by human influence”. Which is a lie, because influence would imply something deliberate, controlled and directional. It is too kind towards humanity. The fact of the matter is that humans are not “influencing” or controlling anything. They simply broke the controls. They are the nagging child in the back seat of the car who kept saying “are we there yet? Can we stop for ice cream? Can I pee here?” Except that the driver has long ago been driven mad by the incessant nagging to the point that they have turned suicidal and jumped off the window. There is no steering wheel or driver anymore. Just a clueless backseat driver.
The term Anthropocene is the exact equivalent to what some economists and financiers call “negative growth” when they want to refer to an economic recession. The Anthropocene is one of the most glaring examples of human-centric, biased, inappropriate, dogmatic and misleading terminology specifically invented by cowardly scientists to remove judgement and emotion from a process that is essentially a human-made Apocalypse. I guess Apocalypse is not a very scientific word. It won’t get you published in a peer-reviewed journal. But the fact of the matter is that nothing good has emerged from our influence on the planet that would warrant even remotely the use of such a stupid word as Anthropocene. For the purposes of staying relevant though, I’ll continue using it for today. But for reference, the title of this article really is not Tales of the Anthropocene, but Tales of the Apocalypse. It just has a very different ring to it, doesn’t it?
It still spins
Yes, it still does a few things, this clunky old thing we call Earth. We still have day and night, a tilted axis, a magnetic field. There are still ocean currents and jet streams that move vapour and heat across the globe, even though they are currently being re-routed (please pardon our appearance while we make some “essential maintenance” work on the system). The seasons come and go at approximately the same times as before, even though India cannot rely on monsoon rains anymore and parts of Guatemala are becoming unfarmable and uninhabitable. There are still lots of plants and animals, even though they are being destroyed at a rate hundreds of times faster than at any point in history.
There are lots of things which give the impression that the “machine” isn’t broken. But is it actually alive anymore? Does it know what its doing? Is the patient watching TV in their hospital bed giving the appearance that they are actually improving, having the occasional laugh, or are they just a few hours away from death?
Straightening the Circle
The shift that humans have brought about on this planet was a trully momentous one if you analyse it scientifically. Humans changed how the whole Machine works, turning it from a self-sufficient, self-perpetuating one, to one that gets closer to death with each breath, each spin around its axis. A self-sufficient machine can live forever. A dysfunctioning one gets rustier and rustier with every spin.
Like with smartphones, computers and other devices that are purposely made to breakdown after a few years or months, we condemned Earth to obsolescence.
To relate this back to physics and chemistry, what has happened was the conversion of Earth’s systems from a series of cyclical processes to that of linear ones. Cyclical processes can run forever, into infinity, like a battery that becomes empty and then recharges. Being a chemist, I am aware of how rare, how special cyclical processes are. While linear chemical reactions can take place in a split second, cyclical processes are the definition of immortality and regeneration. Earth was the perfect immortal battery, where with each cycle the entire system was returned to its original state: the seasons, the fruit on the trees, the fish in the ocean. It all returned. Every. Single. Year.
Turning a cyclical process into a linear one is much easier than you think, even if you are talking about a whole planet system. The key is to linearise just one of the key processes, in this case CO2 levels. Because everything in a cyclical closed system is interconnected, pretty soon everything is being affected. What is more, everything becomes converted into a linear process: all ice eventually turns into water. Biomass keeps decreasing as rainforest regions, coral reefs and animals dieback permanently due to global warming. Feedback loops, like methane, which in a healthy system are normally safety switches that maintain the cyclicality, now become prime enemies. They kick in and accelerate the linear process. All linear processes end once they run out of input, much like a chemical reaction that runs out of substrates.
The circle turns into a spiral, which is nothing else but a circle on its way to becoming a line.
So many new shapes. Too many to handle.
From the original perfect circle of the Earth’s immortal natural systems, we have evolved into fake circles: they are loops, spirals, gyres, permanent traps and cesspools. They all “leak”, unlike the perfect circle. They leak into each other. But most of all, they leak CO2. Some of them try to imitate the circle, but end up overdoing it, amplifying the process with each round instead of simply regenerating it. These are the notorious Feedback Loops. Others are static deposits, circling in one place, like Black Holes, accumulating material such as plastic or radioactivity that will never be destroyed and will just continue to pile up.
From Physics to Metaphysics to Mental Physics
But the most important change that has occured is that we have moved from biophysical cycles moving heat, water and other physical and energy resources around the planet, to new non-physical processes, which are now taking over the planet and are completely incompatible with the Machine. They move information, misinformation, hate, and digital money. These processes take place not in oceans or the atmosphere, but in our society. In our heads. Online. In the stock markets. On Twitter. It is these processes, many of which are feedback loops (see image), which have integrated themselves into the Earth’s natural cycles like parasites, and are bringing down the whole aparatus. They are: The Profit Loop. The Hate Cycle. The Fake News Cesspool. The Mind Prison. The Sleep Chamber. The Mental Health Cycle. The Global Trade Loop. The IPCC Bullshit Echo Chamber, the Green New Deal Merry Go Roundand many more that feed directly into the Earth’s ancient cycles, biomes and weather systems, parasitising them.
The simplistic, and incomplete, diagram above is enough to illustrate how such seemingly intangible things as inequality, racism, fake news and mental health actually link directly to CO2 emissions, through the interconnectedness of the Anthropocene System. They are all connected to the Profit Cycle, the central piece in the system and the one which makes almost all the other pieces move, and accelerate. Think of all of these loops as gears in a Swiss watch: they all propel each other. Now think of what happens as the inputs into the system become stronger: more humans, more consumption, therefore more resource exploitation, which means more natural destruction and human exploitation, more inequality and racism that are needed to sustain capitalism, more mental health issues, more trauma, more consumption in order to cope.
There is a new Machine in town, and this one is determined to commit suicide. Once it runs out of substrate and stuff to burn.
(from the book Disposable Earth)