As published in The Kerryman 28-09-16
Have you ever wondered about what distinguishes our species from all the other animals? The late author Terry Pratchett insisted we are not Homo sapiens (wise man) but Pan narrans (the story telling chimpanzees). We describe the world, our place in the world and what that means to us, through story. These stories range from fantastical tales of dragons and aliens, to the more prosaic language of scientists naming stuff.
Not that scientists naming everything isn’t as important as caring about who should be allowed buy a particular field. For example, did you know we’re living in the Holocene Epoch. This literally means, ‘entirely recent’. Not very imaginative I’ll grant you but accurate. It began about 9,700 BCE and encompasses the entire span of human civilisation.
Now some scientists want to see a new epoch recognised. They insist that it be dated either from the period of the Industrial Revolution or from the beginning of the Atomic age. They want this epoch to be called the Anthropocene. What story are scientists trying to tell us with this single Greek word, Anthropocene? The ‘anthropo’ parts means man and ‘cene’ means new. They want to name this epoch after us. Sounds a bit arrogant doesn’t it? Except the story is a bit scarier than that.
Our particular human species has been around about 250,000 years. We only began to get down to agriculture and urbanisation, or civilisation for short, about 10,000 years ago. That’s when we really got into telling stories. However, it wasn’t until the 1700s that we began to change the planet.
Every year since then our species has ramped up the amount of damage it’s done to this, our only home. About a dozen species are pushed into extinction every day, due to pollution, habitat destruction and poaching. It is estimated that by the middle of this century, up to a half of the species on this planet will be facing extinction. In the last twenty years alone, we’ve destroyed one tenth of the Earth’s wilderness. Just over 680 times the area of Kerry, gone.
Much of the natural world, it animals and fauna, including us, got our big break about 66 million ago when an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. This is described as the Fifth Mass Extinction Event in our planet’s history. Now there is a talk of a Sixth Mass Extinction. And it isn’t being caused by anything natural and unavoidable. It’s us and our continued destruction of the environment.
The damage is reaching a point where we might make Earth as uninhabitable for our species as we are already making it uninhabitable for a lot of other animals and plants.
Our species is not an asteroid but we are managing to do an asteroid’s work. Asteroids are unthinking destroyers of worlds. We are the storytelling chimpanzees. But all our stories up to now have taught us that we own this planet and can do with it as we please. Our stories have made us entitled and ignorant.
Will calling this the Anthropocene be enough to make us wise? Will story telling finally make us think? The dinosaurs reigned for millions of years, the only story they left behind is whatever we can decipher from their fossilised bones and what genes they left behind.
I wonder who or what will tell our story if we don’t manage to write a new ending.