Not any more. Anyhow, just yesterday, scientists meeting at the International Geological Conference in Cape Town officially agreed: the Anthropocene is not just a clever name invented in 2002 by Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen (here's a great National Geographic piece that gives all the back history -- including that someone had thought up a human-centric geological epoch as early as the late 1800s). Here's a simple explanation of what the scientists decided: that we have clearly entered a new epoch, in which future geologists will be able to identify human influence. They're still discussing what will be the defining characteristics: radioactive elements flung throughout the atmosphere by nuclear bomb tests? The tiny pieces of plastic that have become utterly unavoidable from the top of Everest to the depths of the Mariana Trench? Chicken bones? (Seriously: domesticated chickens are as Anthropocene as tossed-and-forgotten plastic grocery store bags.)
So anyhow, this is big news. Once virtually the entire scientific community has agreed that a thing is happening (the vote on the new epoch was 30-3, with two abstentions), even those ignoring our never-ending streak of hottest months ever -- even knuckleheads like the execrable James Inhofe, who believes he can drown out objective reality by throwing snowballs in the Senate -- will totally have to accept it: the world has changed now.
Ha ha, I am totally joking you: people more committed to their political crazy or their comforting make-believe have a terrible record of accepting scientific reality. So the scientists making a cool and sensible distinction that throws into relief the enormous changes our world is undergoing will have very little effect on the people who most need it. Sorry.
But I still think it's beautiful. I mean terrifying, of course, but still beautiful. I took a historical geology class in college and loved learning about and memorizing the geological eras. On a little fossil dig we went on, in a road cut near St. Louis, we were looking at mostly Silurian fossils, but the professor said we might be lucky enough to find a trilobite or so hanging around from the Ordovician. Which I did, and I include a picture at right. The trilobite was one of the first big success stories of the Cambrian explosion of life, and I love that little fossil hanging around my treasure box. Now we'll have to start
But it's always worth reminding ourselves how very much like Lawson's time is our own. As I've said before, Lawson was one of the few European adventurers who recognized that he wasn't helping explore and seize an empty continent, and he wasn't dispossessing some subhuman species. He loved the Indians he met and he understood they had been ravaged by disease and alcohol introduced by people like him. "The Small-Pox and Rum have made such a Destruction amongst them," he says, " that, on good grounds, I do believe, there is not the sixth Savage living within two hundred Miles of all our Settlements, as there were fifty Years ago. These poor Creatures have so many Enemies to destroy them, that it's a wonder one of them is lest alive near us. "
When I spent my months walking the suburban and exurban roadsides, I was delighted -- and then informed -- by that roadside ecoclutter. As I looked into it I learned amazing things. Those dandelions, clovers, and buttercups, for example -- the first plants most alert children learn to identify -- are all invasive. They all came from Europe. And I thought of Lawson noticing the empty villages and abandoned homes he encountered. He understood: the culture he traveled through was in its death throes. What would he have made of ours? That I could walk for hours a day on roads and see almost no people -- only cars, only houses? What would he think had happened to us?
He would not have known. Nor do we. But now we can slap a name on our time, and those of us still alert to reality can work to solve the problems we find. The rest can throw snowballs.