Welcome to the Otharktocene [Ōth-ARKT-ō-cene]
David R. Weiss – August 24, 2021
Most of us didn’t even notice the “Now Leaving the Holocene” sign as we flew past it, but earth scientists generally agree that we did, in fact, exit that epoch around 1950 or so. It’s understandable we missed it; after all, we weren’t looking for an exit lane. For some 11,700 years (more or less) we cruised along in a geologic period where the various bio-chemical-physical forces the give Earth its “personality” provided a remarkably stable planetary system—in our case a planetary demeanor conducive to the birth of human civilization.
Indeed, Earth system scientists first noticed our departure—belatedly, with the Holocene already 50 years in the rearview mirror. These scientists use systems theory as a framework to understand how all the various features of our planet fit together—and function. In short, systems theory asserts (or observes) that everything is dynamically connected to everything else and, therefore, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The whole, in fact, emerges as the parts interact. (The Buddhist notion of “interbeing” and the African concept of ubuntu make similar assertions about human beings, suggesting that each one of us exists—emerges—at the nexus of a host of relationships.)
For Earth system scientists, the life-giving and civilization-supporting conditions of the Holocene Epoch are the emergent whole shaped by elemental planetary processes that act in concert—a “living system,” as it were—to establish the playing field for life on this small blue planet. Dynamic, interactive, and largely self-regulating, for the last twelve millennia these processes have maintained a planet worth calling home: Earth.
While homo sapiens first appeared some 200,000 years ago, it was only during the Holocene epoch, beginning around 10,000 BCE, that humanity began to flourish. Seasons stabilized, and across those seasons—for nearly 12,000 years—average global surface temperatures never varied, plus or minus, by more than a single degree Celsius. The Holocene provided a climate for agriculture to emerge … followed by cities and civilization.
We owe our life as we know it to the Holocene. Thus, Earth system scientists have been eager to fathom the forces and processes within the Earth system that allowed the Holocene to happen and, perhaps more importantly, that have allowed it to persist. We know of no other planetary condition under which human life can thrive as it has during the Holocene. None. It was, therefore, a moment of exasperated and unsettling insight when, during a February 2000 meeting of international scientists to discuss the overall “health” of the Earth System, one of them exclaimed, “We are no longer in the Holocene; we are in the … Anthropocene.”
That word—Anthropocene (literally the “new” epoch “of the human/anthropos”)—was coined in the heat of the moment (pun intended), to denote that the Earth System was being impacted by a new planetary force: human activity. The name is both entirely accurate and woefully misleading.
It’s accurate that at some point in our relatively recent past (often dated paradoxically from either the dropping of the atomic bomb or the post-war industrial boom—in either case, around 1950), human activity reached a new pitch and a new zenith, often labeled the Great Acceleration. We became a planetary force in its own right. (BIG CLARIFICATION: that “we” is collective human activity definitively shaped and driven by a mostly white, Western, male-centric world. That’s hardly a nod to ingenuity; more likely evidence of guilt for ecocide.) The tumblers had been lining up slowly over millennia, aided by patriarchy, religion, and science. Finally, with the age of empire/exploitation followed by industrial capitalism, consumer capitalism, nuclear militarism, and economic globalization, we humans “earned” a seat at a prized table.
Think of it. If the very bounds of the Holocene were marked out by the interaction of climate, the ozone layer, the genetic richness of the biosphere, the great biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen and phosphorous, the freshwater cycle, the ocean system, and shifting patterns of land use—suddenly we had a spot at THAT table. If you ever wondered what it would be like to “play god,” I suppose becoming a planetary force is one way.
But there are other much older and much more powerful gods at this table. And, honestly, it’s as though we’ve taken our seat like a loud drunk, kicking the table, throwing our elbows wide, and spilling everyone else’s beverages into their laps. They’re not happy, these other gods. As planetary forces they are older—much older—than us, and each one on its own is much powerful than we are; taken together, we barely count. Except that we poke them. Relentlessly.
Anthropocene? I’d say we’ve entered the Otharktocene, a word of my own making, that might be roughly translated “cene: the new [epoch in which we] ōthō: poke [the] arktos: bear.” Because that’s about all we’re really doing right now. Anthropocene suggests we “wield” the force of our impact by some measure of design. No, we’re “wielding” nothing so much as belligerent arrogance absent any wisdom.
Even more misleadingly, Anthropocene suggests that, having become the decisive player in the Earth System of late, if we rethink our ambitions we can, of course, smooth everything out. We’re in the driver’s seat, aren’t we? Hell no! These ancient planetary processes are forces that channel an inertia beyond our grasp. Ubuntu: this new epoch, like the Holocene, exists at the nexus of a host of relationships. And all those ancient forces are talking to one another. Grumbling in discontent. Screaming in anguish. Writhing in torment. Rising in anger.
Sure, we are the defining force of this new epoch, but we are defining it merely by poking the bear. Again and again and again.
Systems seek equilibrium. And these other older forces having been playing the long game for eons. They will eventually settle into a new rhythm. But whether within that new rhythm human activity persists on a scale sufficient to retain our seat at the table remains to be seen. Odds are good that, at best, we’ll have a much-chastened role.
At worst, we might find ourselves hurtling toward a Hothouse Earth scenario, with global surface temperatures up by 4-5 degrees Celsius, with ripples and echoes across every planetary process. In that case, the Anthropocene would likely end up naming the trigger point on the way to an epoch so vastly different than the Holocene, so … inhospitable to humanity, that we—anthropos—might find that we have no place at all in it to call home. Oops. That would be awkward.
Welcome to the Otharktocene.
And, if you missed the memo, it’s time to stop poking the bear.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.