Into the Anthropocene
Santa Fe Institute’s panel on the new epoch
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