blue illustration of ants in a library
Illustration by Peter Kuper

The Age of Acceleration

Humans have long shaped the state of the planet. The question is: are we hurtling toward an ecological future that's completely new?

Wherever you train your attention for long enough, boundaries dissolve. And yet, if we define, as Earth systems scientists do, geological eras as stretches of time whose material markers trace through lake sediment and rock, then perhaps we can use these boundaries to help us make meaning of the mess we’re in.

Stratigraphic signs point to a recent shift from a relatively stable planetary state (the Holocene) to one marked by increasing and accelerating instability (the Anthropocene), starting around 1950. Around this hinge point, there was a surge in both human and Earth systems indicators, from human population and financialization to levels of greenhouse gases and radionuclides. As Will Steffen and others have shown, toward the end of the century these indicators sharply accelerate: Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane. Real GDP, urban population, foreign direct investment, water use, energy use, telecommunications, and international tourism. Surface temperature, ocean acidification, marine fish capture, shrimp aquaculture, terrestrial biosphere degradation, tropical forest loss. To peruse the catalog of graphs spiking skyward is sobering. Because it’s not just how much, but how fast. Known as the Great Acceleration, the staggering rates of change are almost unprecedented.

A key question of the Anthropocene is one of degree versus kind. Are humans doing as we have always done—changing and being changed by our environment(s)—or is this terrifying acceleration something new? Humans and our systems have always shaped and been shaped by the environment, and large-scale impacts of human activities began earlier than many people might suspect. Long before fossil fuel capitalism, the seafaring Polynesians who settled New Zealand brought with them agricultural land-burning practices that led to deforestation and created soot that spread widely across the Southern Hemisphere, altering the atmosphere and perhaps fertilizing the nutrientlimited Southern Ocean. Three centuries later, during the colonization of the Americas in the 1500s and 1600s, the mass murder of Indigenous people allowed fast-growing trees and vegetation to reclaim Native agricultural land, pulling so much carbon from the atmosphere that it may have cooled the planet and helped intensify the Little Ice Age. It’s now highly doubtful that there exists any human metabolic relationship with/in nature that would not engineer planetary processes. These may be beneficial to life or devastating, or both. On the whole, our relationship thus far has been overwhelmingly reckless and brutal.

And yet, the markers of the Great Acceleration suggest something new in humanity’s history is at hand. We are witness to a sudden derailing, a spiraling, a breakdown. The Anthropocene is, among other things, a geological era defined by the material markers of colonialism, empire building, and petromodernity. And although unintended, the catastrophic ecological effects of the activities spearheaded by a relatively small slice of humanity and that now define this historical moment are not a bug, but a feature.

“It would be glorious,” writes Julia Adeney Thomas, “if our numbers and desires could grow forever, if all people on Earth now and in the future could live lives of increasing, heedless bounty, equitably shared. Many modern histories and theories of human society promised as much, but the discovery of the Anthropocene has ruptured that hopeful human trajectory. Now, realistically, the sky is our limit: the thinning stratosphere, biosphere, pedosphere and much else contain human possibilities.” And yet, despite accumulating evidence, there are those on both the right and left of the political spectrum, from ecomodernist Musk-ovites to Marxist cornucopians, who seem eager to eschew all boundaries. The sky, they insist, is not the limit! We can keep going! In their enthusiasm to create a world according to their own particular utopian visions, they fail to recognize the world as it is. They hope that by doing more of the same, but differently, we will arrive at a yearned-for future in which human society is decoupled from the natural world. More growth, more energy use, more rockets in outer space will save us (or some of us).

But the great challenge of our time is to recognize that, for too many of us, the limits have already arrived; to not push forward in the hopes that technical innovation will someday dissolve all boundaries for good, but to imagine new systems and new possibilities for human flourishing in an already unrecognizable and increasingly unstable world.

Orion‘s Summer 2022 issue is generously sponsored by NRDC.

Meehan Crist is writer in residence in biological sciences at Columbia University. Her nonfiction book about the climate crisis, ‘Is It OK to Have a Child?’, is forthcoming from Random House.