Illustration by Matthew Forsythe

The Omnicene

We'd do well to remember that this human era isn't just one thing: it's many.

Back in 1991, I pitched a different name for this time on Earth. That was the year before the Earth Summit in Rio produced the first climate treaty. I’d been reporting on human-driven climate change since 1988 and was writing my first book on the issue. In chapter 2, I was laying out the planet’s long prehuman history of cold and hot climate fluctuations and explaining how those ups and downs interlaced with the history of life. I zoomed forward through the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, the 2.6 million years in which a series of ice ages and warm intervals created the landscapes and ecosystems shaping our species.

I was typing free and easy at this point—one of those fun bursts of words writers get to indulge in once in a while, moving from explanation to interpretation. “The explosive expansion of human populations and industry is flooding the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases,” I typed. “Perhaps earth scientists of the future will name this new post-Holocene era for its causative element—for us. We are entering an age that might someday be referred to as, say, the Anthrocene. After all, it is a geological age of our own making.” (I’m a journalist, not steeped in etymology, so I missed the po.)

Despite the funkiness of my neologism, in 2010 I ended up being invited to join the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), the body formally tasked by the world’s main geological society with assessing evidence that a new layer was needed in the geologic time scale—the timeline on those colorful charts hanging in countless science classrooms.

I have to say I had a sense of pride in having helped shape this concept. But even as our deliberations played out, I was growing less focused on technical debates over the stratigraphic evidence of a new epoch and more on the varied interpretations and realities of this moment on Earth. The most important questions aren’t about the geophysical climate; they’re about the social climate. The more I dug in, the more variegated things became. The issue transitioned from a singular geological question to a prismatic human one. An Omnicene.

The most important questions aren’t about the geophysical climate; they’re about the social climate.

Although there is plenty of evidence that the human jolt to the atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere will leave a discernible signature in sediments and ecosystems for millennia, even millions of years to come, there is also plenty of evidence that only a small portion of humanity has propelled most of these changes so far. That reality reinforces arguments that we’re in something closer to a Capitalocene. But there’s also merit to Manthropocene, a name offered by Kate Raworth after I blogged about the deep gender imbalance in the AWG in 2014. And there’s even evidence to support simply calling this the Obscene, as my friend the naturalist and author Carl Safina mused when I asked his opinion. The debate over responsibility continues to play out, including in these pages. Depending on your personality and position, every interpretation is out there to embrace or reject. Further complicating things, there’s no common experience of what’s unfolding, whomever you blame it on.

In 2016, I spent time eighty miles from the equator in two starkly different places: Mathare, an informal Nairobi settlement with half a million poor residents, barely any electricity, and no sewage treatment, and Singapore’s billion-dollar Gardens by the Bay glass-enclosed botanical garden, with its olive trees and manicured rosemary hedges growing in an air-conditioned Mediterranean climate.

Before leaving for their hotels, if they chose, the tourists in the climate-controlled Singapore attraction could watch a video presentation ticking off degrees of global warming through the century superimposed with a flickering sequence of images of ecological and societal disasters. The video then reversed to the beginning as the British narrator, his tone turning from grim to hopeful, offered this parting vision: “Yet this is only one possible future. If we act quickly we can adapt our behavior and prevent all this from happening.”

That troubling future wasn’t just possible. It already existed half a world away, in Mathare and elsewhere. Any successful navigation of this century and beyond requires stepping back from one’s own latitude and viewing the Omnicene for what it is—a prism of unique angles, experiences, crises, and opportunities.

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

Andrew Revkin is the author of several books about the climate crisis, including Weather: An Illustrated History. He is the founding director of the Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Climate School.