Anthropocene Debates: Talks of the Apocalypse and a Way Forward

“The power that humans wield is unlike any other force of nature.” – Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin

According to many scientists and scholars, human activity (i.e. fossil fuel consumption, landscape development, resource extraction) has been so inordinate that it has altered the environment on a global scale. Debates about defining a new epoch continue as scientists discuss the idea that the Earth has entered a new geologic time period. Welcome to the Anthropocene, the proposed geological epoch defined by anthropogenic activities.

With the ever-increasing amount of anthropogenic industrial activities around the world, the Earth has been irrevocably changed to the extent that scientists have proposed a new geological time period: the Anthropocene. (Photo credit: Pixabay, no copyright)

 

Adopting the Anthropocene as a new epoch would officially state that humans aren’t just “passive observers” existing on the Earth and are as capable of dramatically impacting their environments as past global disturbances. So why hasn’t this new epoch been formally established if it already has a significant scientific backing? One major decision lies in the way: defining at what point in time to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene. According to Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin, geological time periods are defined by their lower boundary or starting point. This single point in time is called a Global Boundary Stratosphere Section and Point (GSSP), commonly referred to as a “golden spike.”

When is the Golden Spike?

While Lewis and Maslin outline around nine proposed golden spikes, three stand out as the most likely to be chosen as the start of the Anthropocene: the Orbis spike, the Industrial Revolution spike, and the bomb spike. The Orbis spike, which gets its name from the Latin word for “world,” centers around colonialism, global trade, and coal, representing the meeting of the “Old” World and the “New” World, a dichotomy that reinforces a settler-colonial concept. As colonizers conquered and traded with the Indigenous peoples of the New World, they brought with them diseases from the Old World. The introduction of diseases to a previously unexposed population led to a large decrease in the human population and a subsequent drop in carbon dioxide in 1610; this is the point at which the Orbis spike is said to begin.

The second proposed golden spike is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which falls somewhere between 1760 and 1880. While a single start year is difficult to define, the potential date is the eighteenth century, marked by coal burning from increased fossil fuel use and a fundamental change in human society. This marker, though a persuasive theory, does not quite fit the definition of a “spike,” which is usually a single point in time rather than a gradual change in conditions.

The third golden spike—the bomb spike—proposes a different starting date: 1964. In 1945, the United States detonated the first nuclear weapon, leading to a rapid increase in nuclear testing between the late 1950s and the early 1960s. Direct air measurements in 1964 show a peak in carbon-14, a nuclear signature that is also visible in ice cores and tree rings. The bomb spike references the dawn of the nuclear age, in which the detonation of nuclear weapons had a significant geological footprint on the Earth. However, although atomic explosions have the capacity to impact the world on a global scale, they have not quite transformed the Earth in as many, all-encompassing ways as other events.

One of the main issues with defining the Anthropocene using these different golden spike proposals is their common focus on the Western world. Certain regions of the globe, in particular the Pacific Islands and Asia, are largely left out of the Anthropocene narrative, and Indigenous perspectives are also left out of the conversation. The U.S. and Europe tend to remain at the heart of the proposed golden spikes. The bomb spike is U.S.-centric, as the nuclear age began in the United States during World War II. The Industrial Revolution spike is Eurocentric since the Industrial Revolution began in Europe, although this local impact later became global as the use of coal spread outwards from Great Britain. Out of the three main golden spikes, the Orbis spike is the most globally-focused, as it centers around the Americas and global trade; this makes it the most globally relevant golden spike to be chosen as the start of the Anthropocene.

How Do Golden Spikes Relate to the Apocalypse?

Whichever spike is chosen, it is clear that the combination of anthropogenic emissions and pollutants, habitat destruction, resource extraction, and overconsumption in recent centuries has altered the state of the Earth and led to detrimental effects on numerous species. One study warns we may be approaching a sixth mass extinction due to anthropogenic activity, further demonstrating the extent to which humans have altered the world.

Talks of the Anthropocene and a sixth mass extinction have increased discourse around the “potentially apocalyptic future lurking on the horizon,” and connections are being made between the golden spikes and popularized apocalypse theories. The population bomb theory—a predicted period of explosive growth expected to lead to overpopulation, famine, and societal upheaval—was proposed during the 1960s and 1970s, just after the baby boomer generation was born. Wealthy, Western nations inaccurately viewed overpopulation as a larger problem in other countries, and horrific sterilization policies influenced by this ideology took root around the world.

This poster is reminiscent of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb, a popular book published in 1968 that warned of worldwide famine as a result of overpopulation. This book advanced the idea of a so-called population bomb as the instigator of the apocalypse. (Photo credit: Library of Congress)

 

A current manifestation of this overpopulation apocalypse theory is rooted in the 1610 Orbis spike which could be interpreted to suggest that overpopulation is the main cause of global warming. Unfortunately, because it pushes more impactful causes like fossil fuel consumption and deforestation to the side, the conversation about overpopulation threatens the narrative of climate justice and distracts from root causes. Today, the so-called population bomb is even less of a legitimate concern, as economies shift from rural to urban, fertility rates drop in less developed countries, and women gain more decision-making power.

Another apocalypse theory—the great deluge—connects to the long-term effects of the eighteenth-century Industrial Revolution spike. This theory can be related to the great flood myth, both secular and non-secular, that supports the idea that the world could end as a result of a great flood. The great deluge theory gained attention after Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, leading scientists to approach this theory from a wider lens to interpret the great deluge as a consequence of climate change and global warming. Another theory focuses on nuclear annihilation as the apocalypse, which could be connected to the 1964 bomb spike that focuses on the rise of nuclear weapons post-World War II.

Portrayal of the Apocalypse in Science Fiction

Science-fiction films have a great impact on how the world views the apocalypse. Apocalyptic films are becoming more popular, multiplying over the past few decades. These movies tend to glorify the apocalypse and depict the post-apocalyptic world as a collapse of society or as a means to revolutionize society by reforming societal ills. According to Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster,” these films reflect worldwide anxieties at the time of their creation and also serve to alleviate those concerns. Seeing these anxieties played out on-screen as science fiction allows people to cope, as they see their own apocalyptic fears portrayed as a fiction or fantasy.

We see the same apocalyptic theories and themes emerge here as with the golden spikes. The Day After Tomorrow was released in 2004 and is seen as a pioneer of the climate fiction, or cli-fi, drama genre because it depicts the apocalypse as the end of the world as a result of climate change superstorms. Another popular film, 2014’s Godzilla, approaches the apocalypse from a nuclear annihilation standpoint, reflecting fears of the atomic bomb. Soylent Green reflects concerns about the so-called population bomb that were present at the time of its release in 1973. Because population issues were often framed as a problem in less wealthy countries, Soylent Green’s portrayal of New York City visually alludes to Delhi, India.

“It is in the imagery of destruction that the core of a good science fiction film lies.” – Susan Sontag (1965). This painting depicts a Godzilla in a post-apocalyptic world. (Photo credit: Noger Chen, shared under a Creative Commons license)

 

Whose Stories Are Heard in the Anthropocene?

When we talk about the end of the world, whose world is it? In science fiction, it is often the white man that prevails, solves the problem, and saves the day. In the apocalypse, the voices of women and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are usually forgotten or overshadowed. White, Western cultures tend to see the future as predetermined, subscribing to the idea of fatalism, or the belief that the end is inevitable.

Yet Indigenous peoples often do not see the apocalypse and the climate crisis as “impending doom.” According to Kyle Whyte’s article on Indigenous perspectives on the Anthropocene, many Indigenous groups see the Anthropocene and the apocalypse as “the arrival of the reverberations of [a] seismic shockwave into the nations who introduced colonial, capitalist processes” throughout the world. Indigenous peoples believe themselves to be already living in a post-apocalyptic world, as they have dealt with climate change and other devastating impacts of colonization for decades.

Many Indigenous peoples continue to be put at risk due to historical displacement and colonialism. Climate change and ecosystem degradation are impacting Indigenous peoples and other frontline communities, usually communities of color, at a faster rate than more privileged, white communities. At the same time, Indigenous communities present different ways of addressing the changing climate through the use of Indigenous knowledge and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). In order to learn how to adapt to and mitigate climate change, it is important to acknowledge that traditional ways of knowing are essential for understanding ecosystems and can be looked at for insight into these issues of apocalyptic proportions.

Indigenous futuristic narratives and films allow Indigenous peoples to tell their stories in a way that isn’t burdened by legacies of colonialism, imperialism, genocide, and exploitation. It isn’t really about providing more Indigenous perspectives within a colonial society; for Indigenous peoples, it’s about fighting cultural erasure and overcoming a history of misrepresentation. Indigenous futurism in the Anthropocene and in apocalyptic science fiction emphasizes Indigenous cultures, practices, and languages and the continuing resilience of Indiegenous peoples into the post-apocalyptic future.

What remains for the future of the Anthropocene and apocalyptic science fiction alike is the need for decolonizing narratives. When constructing these narratives, it is essential to raise the voices of Indigenous peoples and frontline communities who continue to face everyday challenges associated with environmental variability and human-caused climate change. Western science and culture should recognize that Indigenous peoples and frontline communities have the demonstrated capacity, strength, and resilience to persevere and innovate as the world faces the Anthropocene.