Editor's Note: Welcome to the Anthropocene
This isn’t going to be an easy ride. But it promises to be a fascinating one. When you name a magazine not only after a new word, but also after a whole new concept, it necessitates starting at the very beginning. The word itself is a mouthful. It combines the root “anthropo-,” meaning “human,” with “-cene,” the standard suffix for “epoch” in geologic time. This is a magazine about the Human Age.
But don’t get too comfortable. Pronunciation is just the tip of the iceberg. As Robert Macfarlane wrote in the Guardian, “The Anthropocene asks hard questions of us.” It asks us to contemplate our species as a pulse in a vast geologic time scale—an exercise that requires a difficult balance between power and humility. It asks us to renegotiate our relationship with nature. The once clear boundaries between wilderness and humanity are blurring. If wilderness is no longer a thing to be beaten back or pristinely preserved, what exactly is it? And it asks us to become more aware of the outsized impact of our species on this planet, from driving our fellow earthlings to extinction to altering the climate.
That self-awareness is the jumping-off point for the magazine. Because awareness brings with it responsibility. That’s one of the key points that veteran New York Times journalist Andrew Revkin makes in “An Anthropocene Journey” on page 62. If there is one story that anchors this inaugural issue as well as our larger editorial mission, it is Revkin’s piece. In telling the backstory of the anthropocene concept, Revkin reminds us that humans aren’t the only species that has made a profound mark on Earth. When microscopic cyanobacteria started photosynthesizing 2.3 billion years ago, they spewed oxygen into the atmosphere and set in motion a mass extinction. Geologists have dubbed it “The Great Oxygen Catastrophe.” Those bacteria forever altered the planet, but as far as we know they were unaware of their potency, says Revkin. Humans in the Anthropocene, on the other hand, are at least beginning to grasp their power—and, haltingly, perhaps their responsibility.
In the spirit of grappling with such a weighty responsibility, Anthropocene magazine will gather some of the most creative scientists, entrepreneurs, designers, writers, and thinkers to explore how we might forge a more sustainable future. Throughout you’ll find a broad range of ideas and voices. For example, Frances Cairncross, former editor at the Economist, considers on page 84 the optimal rollout of carbon taxes and research subsidies to speed up the transition to a low-carbon economy. Further on, eminent Indian science fiction writer Vandana Singh thinks about how a literary genre might constructively contribute to this newly coined human age (page 94). And Bloomberg columnist Adam Minter, based in Kuala Lumpur, offers a provocative piece on how stemming the global tide of electronic waste should start with nurturing a lucrative repair economy rather than simply recycling (page 30).
Our plan is to take these and many other stories from the page to the stage in a live performance series called “The Anthropocene Dialogues.” We’ll also offer daily coverage of compelling new sustainability research along with a steady diet of interactive stories on our website.
There’s been an ongoing debate in environmental circles about whether the Anthropocene is good or bad. Our take on the question is that it is inherently neither. It simply is: it is the rather extraordinary time in history in which we find ourselves. And for good or ill, we are now in the driver’s seat. So let’s start talking about where we want to go.