Monday, February 28, 2011

Neologism Watch: 'Anthropocene'

Anybody who witnessed the strange furor over Pluto's demotion from official planet to dwarf planet knows that scientific categories matter. More than factual data, categories shape our perception and influence our values. That's why the recent push to establish a new geologic epoch defined by human impact, called the 'Anthropocene,' is cause for celebration and support.

To be sure, geologic categories should be determined by geologists through rigorous inquiry and public reasoning. Yet the fact that human-driven processes are leaving permanent imprints on the Earth with magnitudes equivalent to other past epoch-defining events should make it a one-sided debate.

An official Anthropocene category could generate a fantastic branding campaign to combat the corrosive belief in a static, historically-fixed Earth. Many environmentalists, by focusing solely on avoiding future environmental damage, neglect a powerful message concerning the changes already wrought by human technology. Bill McKibben's Eaarth is perhaps the best manifesto of this sort, methodically listing current environmental changes caused by global heating and ecological destruction. Fostering environmentalist preferences among a global population still reeling from economic catastrophe has been difficult, not least due to the supposedly vague, far-off nature of environmental costs. But the fact is humanity has made the world its own, whether we like it or not. It's time we formalized this harsh reality.

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