Êíèãà: The Human Age
CONCLUSION: WILD HEART, ANTHROPOCENE MIND (Revisited)
Meet My Maker, the Mad Molecule
WILD HEART, ANTHROPOCENE MIND
NASA’s “Blue Marble” photograph of Earth from space gave us an eye-opening image of the whole planet for the first time. Forty years later, “Black Marble” was equally mind-altering, but in a different way: it introduced us to ourselves. Forging a new geological era, we are an altogether different kind of animal from any the planet has ever known, one able to reinvent itself and its world, and manage to survive, despite more twists and turns in daily life than any creature has ever had to juggle. We inhabit a denser mental whorl than any of our stout-hearted ancestors. We’re in the midst of a majestic Information Age, but also an ingenious sustainability revolution, a deluxe 3D revolution in manufacturing, a spine-tingling revolution in thinking about the body, a scary mass extinction of animals, alarming signs of climate change, an uncanny nanotechnology revolution, industrial-strength add-ons to our senses, a biomimicry revolution—among so many other “new normals” that we sling the phrase daily.
We understand ourselves on many more spine-tingling levels: how we’re changing the planet, other creatures, and each other. This is not just the Human Age. It’s also the age when we began to see, for the first time, the planet’s interlaced, jitterbugging ecosystems—on the land, in the air, in the oceans, in society—and unmasked our own ecosystems. We’ve met many of our makers, the mad molecules.
Thanks to revelations in neuroscience, genetics, and biology we’re bringing the life and times of Homo sapiens sapiens into a much clearer focus. As the “Me” generation gives way to the “We” generation, we’re growing more aware of the ties that bind us—even if we’re less relaxed in face-to-face encounters.
We humans have so much in common that we can’t seem to speak of comfortably: a genetic code, a niche on a small planet in a vast galaxy in an infinite universe; the underrated luxury of being at the top of our food chain; a familiar range of passions and fears; a mysterious, ill-defined evolution from creatures whose thoughts were like a vapor, and before that bits of chemical and chance so small they pass right through the mind’s sieve without its being able to fully grasp them. We have in common, despite our extraordinary powers of invention, subtlety, and know-how, an ability to bore ourselves that is so horrifying we devote much of our short lives to activities designed mainly to make us seem more interesting to ourselves. We have in common a world our senses know voluptuously, from one splayed moment to the next, the wind touching one’s chapped lips, a just-forgotten chore, the small unremarkable acts of mercy and heroism parents and lovers perform each day, the collective sort of creatures we are, whose qualities embarrass us when we stumble upon them in ourselves, but which we’re glad to epitomize in movie stars, sports figures, and politicians—people like Neil Armstrong stepping onto the moon, or Thomas Edison spending the last of his days in Florida trying to make rubber from goldenrod. We have in common a fidgeting, blooming, ever-startling universe, whose complex laws we all obey, whether we’re born in Tierra del Fuego or Svalbard.
We’re each a sac of chemicals, forged in the sun, that can somehow contemplate itself, even if we don’t always know where our pancreas is, and are troubled most days by mundaner matters. When we meet, at parties or on the street, we nonetheless feel like strangers. When we find ourselves alone together in an elevator, it is as if we have been caught at some naughty act; we can’t even bring ourselves to meet each other’s eyes.
It’s time we acknowledged our personality—not just as individuals, but as a species. I once knew a woman who checked into a hotel and, upon entering her room, decided she didn’t like the design of the small ornamental finials topping the lamps. She phoned the desk and insisted that they be changed. That may seem like radical pickiness, but our personality as a species includes wide streaks of tinkering and meddling. It’s an important part of our character; we’re unable to leave anything alone. Let’s fess up to being the interfering creatures we are, indefatigably restless, easily bored, and fond of turning everything into amusement, fashion, or toys. We Anthrops can be lumbering, clumsy, and immature. We’re also easily distracted, sloppy as a hound dog’s kiss, and we hate picking up after ourselves. Without really meaning to, we have nearly emptied the world’s pantry, left all the taps running, torn the furniture, strewn our old toys where they’re becoming a menace, polluted and spilled and generally messed up our planetary home.
I doubt any one fix will do. We need systemic policy changes that begin at the government level, renewable energy replacing fossil fuels, widespread green building practices, grassroots community and nationwide projects, and individuals doing whatever they can, from composting and recycling to walking to work instead of driving.
In the Industrial Age we found it thrilling to try to master nature everywhere and in every way we could think of. In the Anthropocene, we’re engineering ways to help the most vulnerable people adapt, and designing long-term solutions to blunt global warming. Humans are relentless problem-solvers who relish big adventures, and climate change is attracting a wealth of clever minds and unorthodox ideas, as we’re revisiting the art of adapting to the environment—a skill that served our ancestors well for millennia, while they fanned out to populate the Earth from equator to ice.
We can survive our rude infancy and grow into responsible, caring adults—without losing our innocence, playfulness, or sense of wonder. But first we need to see ourselves from different angles, in many mirrors, as a very young species, both blessed and cursed by our prowess. Instead of ignoring or plundering nature, we need to refine our natural place in it.
NATURE IS STILL our mother, but she’s grown older and less independent. We’ve grown more self-reliant, and as a result we’re beginning to redefine our relationship to her. We still need and cling to her, still find refuge in her flowing skirts, and food at her table. We may not worship Mother Nature, but we love and respect her, are fascinated by her secrets, worry about alienating her, fear her harshest moods, cannot survive without her. As we’re becoming acutely aware of just how vulnerable she truly is, we’re beginning to see her limits as well as her bounty, and we’re trying to grow into the role of loving caregivers.
I’m all for renaming our era the Anthropocene—a legitimate golden spike based on the fossil record—because it highlights the enormity of our impact on the world. We are dreamsmiths and wonder-workers. What a marvel we’ve become, a species with planetwide powers and breathtaking gifts. That’s a feat to recognize and celebrate. It should fill us with pride and astonishment. The name also tells us we are acting on a long, long geological scale. I hope that awareness prompts us to think carefully about our history, our future, the fleeting time we spend on Earth, what we may leave in trust to our children (a full pantry, fresh drinking water, clean air), and how we wish to be remembered. Perhaps we also need to think about the beings we wish to become. What sort of world do we wish to live in, and how do we design that human-made sphere?
Our portrait as individuals will exist, for a while, in books, photographs online, and videos, to be sure. But to know us as a species, far-future humans will need to look to the fossil record of the planet itself. That will tell a tale frozen in ribbons of time. What will it say about us?
We’re at a great turning, our own momentous fork in the road, behind us eons of geological history, ahead a mist-laden future, and all around us the wonders and uncertainties of the Human Age.
These days, startling though the thought is, we control our own legacy. We’re not passive, we’re not helpless. We’re earth-movers. We can become Earth-restorers and Earth-guardians. We still have time and talent, and we have a great many choices. As I said at the beginning of this mental caravan, our mistakes are legion, but our imagination is immeasurable.
Archaic: In previous eras, when humans harbored an us-against-them mentality, nature meant the enemy, and the kingdom of animals didn’t include humans (who attributed to other animals all the things about themselves they couldn’t stand).
Anthropocene: Nature surrounds, permeates, effervesces in, and includes us. At the end of our days it deranges and disassembles us like old toys banished to the basement. There, once living beings, we return to our nonliving elements, but we still and forever remain a part of nature.
Meet My Maker, the Mad Molecule