By David Salt
Forget the Anthropocene – Australia’s ‘bold plan’ for net zero by 2050 marks the beginning of an amazing new geological epoch: The Absurdicene, the age where the ridiculous and the self-serving trumps evidence and science. As our children are discovering, it’s not a great time for hope.
The much-discussed Anthropocene was one of the shortest geological epochs of the modern era. It began on the 16 July 1945 and ended on the 26 October 2021.
Why these dates?
Well, the 16 July 1945 was the day of the first atomic bomb test, a few weeks before Hiroshima was obliterated by the world’s first atomic attack. That first test left trace (but measurable) fission products in soil strata around the world. 1945 marked the end of World War Two and the beginning of the Great Acceleration, a time of unparalleled economic growth that has continued to this day.
From that time, humans have literally transformed the Earth System: slaughtering our biodiversity, modifying our climate, and polluting our land, sea and air. Earth systems scientists believe humans have become the dominant force on our planet, and that this warrants labelling this time as a new geological epoch – the age of humans or the Anthropocene.
Some Anthropocene scholars have nominated the beginning of the Industrial Revolution as the true beginning of this epoch (18th Century); others have nominated the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution (some 10,000 years ago). The Earth System scientists I follow, however, reckon the Great Acceleration is a better starting point as it’s really when human activity began distorting the Earth System and we can exactly measure the transition with that first atomic test.
Nominating an end date is even more contentious, and doubling down with the declaration of a new geological epoch called the Absurdicene requires a degree of hubris rarely seen in the academic literature (and yet quite characteristic of many of my columns).
The 26 October 2021 was the ‘proud’ day the Australian Government launched a plan to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. So ridiculous, hollow and surreal was the plan – so full of assumptions, half-truths and outright lies – that academics would look back on the launch of this plan as the day humanity lost its marbles and officially entered the geological period known as the Absurdicene. (I’m using Australia as a case study reflecting the absurdity of the wider world.)
Frankly, given the parlous and deteriorating state of the Australian environment (bleaching coral reefs and burning forest biomes being two of the most recent and horrific examples), and the impact this is causing to the Australian society, I feel it is simply inadequate to label the Government’s efforts to address this situation as even remotely acceptable or reasonable.
Indeed, not only does the Government fail to take effective action, it is, as I write this, undermining international efforts to address climate change at the COP26 in Glasgow. It is a part of a cabal of nations trying to change a crucial scientific report on how to tackle climate change. A leak has revealed that Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia are among countries asking the UN to play down the need to move rapidly away from fossil fuels.
At the same time, Australia is considering more than 100 fossil fuel projects that could produce 5% of global industrial emissions.
And while this is happening, our Government tells us they have a plan for net zero emissions by 2050 that is based on taking no proactive action now and leaving the heavy lifting to future generations using yet to be developed technology.
This is more than just ‘inadequate’, it is so perverse that it no longer makes sense; it’s surreal, it is positively absurd.
Acknowledging the absurd
Which leads me to conclude that human interference with the Earth system has now gone beyond disturbing our biophysical systems to polluting our very social systems. Calling it the Anthropocene is simply inadequate because the human response to the global change that humans have caused is no longer rational.
The best science tells us our species is not sustainable. The evidence of this truth is mounting, and the impacts are being felt but our government’s response is one of denial and obfuscation while actually claiming they follow the science.
I regard the Anthropocene as a term that suggests that humans are acknowledging what we are doing to the Earth system and attempting to minimise the adverse impacts we are seeing around us. The Anthropocene is an age of human potency and amazing scientific insight. We have seen further, risen faster and influenced the very nature of things in ways that inspire awe, generate wealth and have transformed the very functioning of our planet.
The wealthiest have grown super wealthy, most of humanity have improved their quality of life, and everyone has unparalleled access to information (and the thoughts of everyone else).
But all these advances have come at the cost of declining natural capital, rising seas and a warming climate.
In the Anthropocene, we studied these changes, modelled their trajectories and discussed in meaningful ways what we needed to do to sustain humanity. We acted rationally, we believed in our leaders (many of them, anyway, and a few of them made a difference).
But, as the failure of COP26 (and the farce of Australia’s plan) is showing, this is no longer happening.
The world’s wealthiest 1% of people produce double the combined carbon emissions of the poorest 50% but these elite refuse to take responsibility for it. Evidence is disputed and denied; the super-rich refuse to sacrifice a scintilla of their privilege (though there are some notable exceptions); and governments appear to be working against the best interests of their own people.
Lies, misinformation and prejudice clog our social media; paranoia, fundamentalism and vested interest drive our politics; and fear and disillusionment overshadow the hopes of our younger generations.
So, if you accept that humanity is now acting in an absurd way (ie, you accept the premise of the Absurdicene) then maybe we need to be honest about the prospects of a rational process towards sustainability. Maybe we need to focus on why this absurdity prevails, and what we need to do to short circuit it.
Maybe the answer is not more or a better set of scientific evidence. What more evidence do we require?
Rather, we need a greater priority placed on those things that prevent absurdity from dominating, namely: greater integrity of our institutions, more robust accountability, transparency and a reason to trust our leaders – morality anyone?