Into the An­thro­pocene

Santa Fe In­sti­tute’s panel on the new epoch

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hough sci­en­tists agree that the planet has en­tered a new ge­o­log­i­cal epoch called the An­thro­pocene, there is hot de­bate about when ex­actly that hap­pened and what it means. Ac­cord­ing to the­o­ret­i­cal bi­ol­o­gist and sci­ence hisMan­fred to­rian Laubich­ler, an ex­ter­nal pro­fes­sor at the Santa Fe In­sti­tute, our hu­man dom­i­na­tion could po­ten­tially cause a new mass ex­tinc­tion that would wipe out ev­ery or­gan­ism on earth. Some well-known writ­ers — like 2015 Pulitzer Prize win­ner El­iz­a­beth Kol­bert and 2015 Amer­i­can Book Award re­cip­i­ent Naomi Klein, au­thors of The Sixth Ex­tinc­tion: An Un­nat­u­ral His­tory (Henry Holt and Co., 2014) and This Changes Ev­ery­thing: Cap­i­tal­ism vs. the Cli­mate (Si­mon & Schus­ter, 2014), re­spec­tively, main­tain that we are al­ready in the midst of such an ex­tinc­tion — while oth­ers, in­clud­ing Laubich­ler, see dan­ger signs but do not yet be­lieve the sit­u­a­tion is quite so dire.

Laubich­ler is from Aus­tria and holds grad­u­ate de­grees from Yale and Prince­ton. He is Pres­i­dent’s Pro­fes­sor at the School of Life Sci­ences at Ari­zona State Univer­sity, vis­it­ing scholar at the Max Planck In­sti­tute for the His­tory of Sci­ence in Ber­lin, and an ex­ter­nal fac­ulty mem­ber at the Kon­rad Lorenz In­sti­tute for Evo­lu­tion and Cog­ni­tion Re­search in Al­tenberg, Aus­tria. He mod­er­ates a panel of his­to­ri­ans, bi­ol­o­gists, earth sci­en­tists, and artists in a highly the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sion of “The Past, Present, and Fu­ture of the An­thro­pocene,” a com­mu­nity event that is part of the Santa Fe In­sti­tute’s In­terPlan­e­tary Project, on Tues­day, Oct. 17. Laubich­ler pro­vided

with some an­swers to ba­sic ques­tions about the mul­ti­fac­eted topic.

What is the An­thro­pocene and what are some of its pos­si­ble start­ing dates?

The An­thro­pocene is a new era where one species dom­i­nates the pro­cesses of the planet, caus­ing po­ten­tially an­other mass ex­tinc­tion, mo­nop­o­liz­ing most of the en­ergy and ma­te­rial flows in the planet, hav­ing changed all the nat­u­ral cy­cles and dy­nam­ics through our in­ter­ven­tions in those bio­geo­chem­i­cal cy­cles. Some say it started in Au­gust 1945, be­cause that’s when you can mea­sure, around the globe, the fall­out from the first atomic bombs. Oth­ers say you have to go back to the “Great Ac­cel­er­a­tion” that started with the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion in the 19th cen­tury. You could go back to the for­ma­tion of the planet in the first place, but that’s sort of point­less. What is your work around this topic? My work at Ari­zona State Univer­sity and the Santa Fe In­sti­tute is on large-scale evo­lu­tion­ary pro­cesses, in par­tic­u­lar what I call the evo­lu­tion of knowl­edge. One fea­ture of evolv­ing com­plex sys­tems is that they ac­quire, store, and trans­mit knowl­edge about their world. The genome does that, be­cause any or­gan­ism from bac­te­ria on­ward knows a cer­tain amount about its en­vi­ron­ment, and it’s stored in­side of the genome. If you then jump way ahead to us, we of course have our bi­o­log­i­cal ge­nomic knowl­edge, and then we have sev­eral lay­ers of so­cial and cul­tural knowl­edge sys­dy­nam­ics tems. The of those knowl­edge sys­tems are what in­ter­est me. What kind of per­spec­tives are in­cluded on the SFI panel? We start with the present and [de­fine] the An­thro­pocene, dis­cuss some of its fea­tures, and have ev­ery­body re­al­ize that we are liv­ing in new sys­tems dy­nam­ics. Then we ask how we got here and how far we have to go back, and then, based on what we know, we spec­u­late in in­ter­est­ing ways where we might go. The An­thro­pocene is con­nected to a whole se­ries of events with SFI’s In­terPlan­e­tary Project, which takes fu­ture pos­si­bil­i­ties as its start­ing point. The An­thro­pocene is of­ten ref­er­enced in the same breath as the sixth mass ex­tinc­tion. How are th­ese ideas re­lated to or dis­tinct from each other? Un­de­ni­ably ex­tinc­tion is go­ing on and it’s in­creas­ing, but whether that right now amounts to a mass ex­tinc­tion, as we have de­fined it based on the

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