Friday, September 29, 2017

Maybe Not As Dark As You Think

Although the Anthropocene has yet to be recognised formally as a unit in the Geological Time Scale, in August this year the working group that's been debating it for some years at last voted to agree that we have transitioned from the Holocene to a new epoch in which human activity is transforming geological processes on a global scale. Many geologists believe that the Anthropocene began around 1950, when nuclear tests spread of carbon isotopes around the world and plastic waste began to become ubiquitous. If that's accepted, then many of us have been living in the Anthropocene all our lives. We've also been driving a multitude of species to extinction, and are responsible for planetary-scale climate change, primarily due to the rapid increase in levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere caused by burning fossil fuels. We have changed the weather so much we need new words for weather. In short, we're all part of a force that's reshaping the planet towards an unknown end point.

All of this and more has long been part of the background hum of most near-future science fiction, and is foregrounded in an increasing number of science fiction and mainstream novels (although, as Amitav Ghosh has pointed out, few mainstream novels set in the present acknowledge the changes in the happening world). Most of these, especially in YA fiction, are explicitly dystopic, set after apocalyptic transitions to full-scale dark Anthropocenes that make the burning oil-fields in the Second Gulf War look like cosy camp fires. Drowned cities, wild weather, pervasive pollution and a global greenhouse, depletion of resources, the end of nature and annihilation of species from whales to bees by the Sixth Extinction, so on, so on. Collapsed civilisations. Authoritarian polders isolated in howling wildernesses, or worlds depopulated by disaster and plague where young heroes can assert their agency.

But is it possible to have a good Anthropocene? I don't mean a blind or passive optimism, or a denial of what's actually happening right now, and will continue to happen at accelerating speed if nothing is done. And I don't mean to underestimate or erase from history the inevitable damage and costs, human and otherwise, of the disasters that are happening now, and will continue to happen, faster and harder, if we don't do anything about it (and maybe, even if we do). But perhaps we can embrace change and to try to work with it, try to ameliorate the worst by deployment of technology and adopting new ways of living, and adapt to those changes that can't be avoided. Perhaps we can accept our place in nature and the responsibilities that come with it, and act accordingly.

A few anthropocene novels have explored how we might find the best ways of living with the global changes of the new epoch. Ursula K. Le Guin's Always Coming Home, back in 1985. More recently, Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140, and James Bradley's Clade. And it's partly what Austral is about. The idea that melting of polar ice by the great warming could reveal new lands and new opportunities - regreening the Antarctic Peninsula; creating new biomes that act as refugia for existing species and for those brought back from extinction. Exploring how people could live there, and whether they could avoid or escape the mistakes of their forebears, the people who lived at the beginning of the Anthropocene, and so were best placed to prevent the worst of it. Ourselves.
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