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.
1. Idea Watch
3D Printed Bricks
could be the building blocks of modern, sustainable architecture
What’s the Fastest Way to an Energy Miracle?
First amp up R&D then fade in a carbon tax
The Strange Case of the Puerto Rican Frog
offers a glimpse into the new wild
Science Fiction in the Anthropocene
The ultimate literature of the imagination calls upon us to do more than merely invent or imitate the apocalypse
Ecology for Insiders
The indoor biome covers as much as six percent of the world’s landmass—and we know almost nothing about it.
Tiny houses and great cathedrals, carbon-neutral skyscrapers and Airstream trailers: architecture is among the greatest of human crafts. Just imagine if the same ingenuity and vision were devoted to building homes for animals.
And other things made from greenhouse gases
We should be measuring the footprint of supply chains
Attributing water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions to countries rather than industrial sectors is a leading example of how the supply chain world warps geography.
2. Deep Dives
An Anthropocene Journey
The word “anthropocene” has become the closest thing there is to common shorthand for this turbulent, momentous, unpredictable, hopeless, hopeful time—duration and scope still unknown
How We Think about E-Waste Is in Need of Repair
China and Ghana are looking less and less like electronic wastebaskets and more and more like leaders in a powerful, informal green economy
Art That Delivers Clean Water & Power
An international competition challenges designers to show that clean energy production and dazzling public art can be one and the same
Imagine There’s No Drivers
And no traffic lights. And no parking lots. It isn’t hard to do.
Habitat with Humanity
Making creative accommodations for the urban wild
3. Science Shorts
Butter Is Toast
Margarine has a significantly lower environmental impact than butter in four important areas: global warming potential (i.e., carbon footprint), eutrophication potential, acidification potential, and land impact
Are fish harvest estimates even close to being accurate? Maybe not.
Researchers have calculated by just how much official statistics underestimate the global harvest—and it isn’t pretty
The best places to pick up ocean plastic aren’t the big garbage patches
The best places to put plastic collectors are areas where the most plastic is moving through, not the places where the most plastic ends up.
This is how much an urban forest is worth
Trees within the city limits of Austin, Texas contribute nearly $34 million in ecosystem services to the community annually, according to a new report by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS).
What if the whole world went vegan?
If every person on Earth adopted a vegan diet – without milk, meat, honey, or any other animal-sourced foods – the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the food system in 2050 would fall by more than half compared to 2005/2007 levels.
The first hints of the Anthropocene appeared far earlier than you think
A massive cross-disciplinary analysis suggests that altering the planet is something very close to fundamental to the human condition.
Can local food feed an urban world?
Researchers dig into the efficacy of urban agriculture
Who’s Winning the Clean-tech Race?
You could be forgiven if you thought the European Union—historically a leader on low-carbon finance and policy efforts—would have a competitive edge in clean energy markets. But you would need to think again.