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Antropocen. En essä om människans tidsålder Sverker Sörlin, Antropocen. En essä om människans tidsålder (Anthropocene: An Essay Concerning the Human Epoch)

Weyler förlag,  2017.

Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2018:1

Review Section: Non-fiction

Sverker Sörlin’s ‘essay’ on the Anthropocene epoch – more precisely, his masterful survey of complex documentation from a wide range of academic disciplines – entered the publication process a little too late for the book to include the official recognition of a man-made change in geological time. On 29 August 2016, an expert working group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy announced to an international congress: ‘Humanity’s impact on the Earth is now so profound that a new geological epoch (…) needs to be declared.’ Arguably, that epoch began when, around the middle of the 20th century, records showed ‘striking acceleration (…) of carbon dioxide emissions and sea level rise, the global mass extinction of species, and the transformation of land by deforestation and development.’ The decision triggered an outburst of scientific activity to determine the critical marker of the epoch. Would it be radionuclides, released by nuclear testing and captured everywhere? Or the worldwide presence of a chicken bone stratum made up of the fossilised, distinctively large skeletons of the century’s most common bird? There were many other options, most of them ominous.

Sörlin is an environmental historian with a formidable grasp of how the earth and life sciences contribute to our understanding of what such changes might mean. He also knows that we depend on the new facts – new weather patterns, say, or reductions in overall numbers of living species – fitting into a  plausible narrative. The idea of ‘Spaceship Earth’ is an early example: the small green and blue world floating in the darkness of space made us feel affectionate towards our planet, but also made it seem small and vulnerable.  Sörlin reminds us of a few other stories: ‘the Earth system’ or ‘Gaia’,based on the idea of global, interlocking and partly self-regulatory ecosystems,and ‘The Great Acceleration’ that took place around the 1950s when several gradual shifts in ecosystems speeded up in parallel.

The ‘Anthropocene narrative’ is growing in importance as yet another global framework or ‘script’ or theoretical as well as practical speculation. Sörlin, a confident historian of ideas, traces the work of prominent thinkers on the role of mankind, including the Enlightenment polymath Georges de Buffon, the super-scientist Alexander von Humboldt and a roll-call of social philosophers and economists, from Karl Marx to Naomi Klein.

One deep-rooted perception views the mass of human beings as‘an untameable beast that devours the world’. The notion that humanity is in a state of self-induced crisis carries political as well as empirical messages; Sörlin discusses the political actions and inactions that have contributed to this, and stresses that the drivers are not only short-sighted planning, greed and hunger for power, but also a will to fairness and equal distribution of assets.At this point, the reader is close to despair (so whatever we do and think,things will go horribly wrong?) But we are pulled back from the brink: what ifthe notion of humanity being in charge is, after all, an enabling, hopeful story to tell ourselves?

It is an unexpectedly encouraging end to this eloquent summary of how bad things might become, soon. Instead,a positive payback could be due to us, the inventive Anthropos, if only we act in time. 

Other reviews by Anna Paterson

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