The Human Planet How We Created the Anthropocene

This is in many ways an excellent book, packed with information and ideas. Its central focus is to describe the Anthropocene, but the book, in working towards a definition of the period, both in terms of the criteria that justify it as a bonafide geological epoch and thus its timescale, touches on many interesting areas of the history of the Earth and the development of humankind as well as the formalities of geology and geological periods. There are some very clear diagrams which would serve as good points of reference, valid beyond the specific narrative of the book. 

The book is a collaboration between two earth system scientists and probably partly because of the disciplines of collaboration, adopts a ‘scientific’ standpoint in all its assertions, where others might have adopted a political, compassionate or economic point of view. This stance has clear advantages in terms of objectivity and apparent non alignment with political or eco-activist motives and beliefs. The conclusions drawn, therefore, are presented in the disinterested (view from the outside) manner of the scientist, but in the end this still leads to an acknowledgement of the potential dangers (climate change and biodiversity loss) of ‘business as usual’, while postulating the possibility of the crisis leading alternatively to ‘a new way of life’. 

The authors postulate some interesting ideas about the development of humankind and our impacts on animal and plant life through the centuries as well as on Earth systems. Through this analysis they arrive at five ‘modes of living’ throughout human history and pre-history: hunter-gathering; agricultural; mercantile capitalism; industrial capitalism; consumer capitalism and a conjectural post capitalism mode that may be emerging now or might arrive in the future. These are useful concepts.

The book concludes with a modest but telling look into the future and offers two propositions that might help bring on ‘a new way of life’. These are ‘Universal Basic Income’ and ‘Half Earth’. The first postulates that everyone, irrespective of their skills or capacities or even willingness to work, should receive a sufficient income to subsist. A fundamental value of this would be that people don’t have to work for organisations they don’t agree with just to put food on the table. The second postulates returning half of the landmass to unfettered nature. The point is made that this would not be just the current ‘unproductive’ areas, but would require re-wilding of all types of topographical and biological systems, including many with defined economic value. Both of these actions have wide ramifications with regard to human and planetary health. They are promoted by the authors while acknowledging the extreme difficulties of implementation due to the inertia within our current culture and economy and the certain hostility from vested interests. 

All of this makes for a good, though not necessarily easy, read. The declared purpose of the book is to explain the emergence of the Anthropocene and how it might be scientifically tied down as a geological era and this purpose is well served. It explores possibilities for the start of the Anthropocene: the large mammal extinctions caused by early hunter-gatherer man; the build up of civilisation based on farming; the plunder of the Americas in the sixteenth century; the start of the industrial revolution and others, turning over and examining these impactful developments as the potential generator of a valid geological era. This is all carefully investigated and persuasive conclusions drawn. But, important though the validation of an appropriate period for the Anthropocene might be (and it certainly is to the authors), the value of the book to the more general reader goes way beyond this in its analysis of our origins, life and times in the context of a long-term perspective.

Lewis, Simon L and Maslin Mark A, The Human Planet, How we Created the Anthropocene, Pelican Books, 2018.

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