The Anthropocene Comes to an End: Humans and Nature 

 Zhenhao Yu

The Anthropocene is the period of time when humans influence their natural environment in many ways, such as prehistoric agriculture, the Columbian Exchange, the Industrial Revolution, and nuclear power. Although many scholars are debating which historical event marks the beginning of the Anthropocene, I argue that the term Anthropocene itself is problematic in understanding global history, and essentially, the relationship between humans and their natural environment. What is the relationship between humans and nature? Is it a monologue about anthropogenic influences? Could it be a dialogue, since humans and nature influence each other so much? 

Before analyzing the term, it is first necessary to trace the origin of the Anthropocene. Prehistoric agriculture might be the origin of the Anthropocene because people on each continent developed their own farming techniques. In the millennia after prehistoric agriculture, the Columbian Exchange permanently altered the landscapes of Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas as humans migrated, new crops were introduced, and infectious diseases spread. Following the Industrial Revolution, European colonists exported new inventions including steam engines, hydraulic power, and electric power to the rest of the world in exchange for raw materials. Over the next two centuries, humans fought endless wars with each other. As a result of WWII, weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear weapons, were developed. In summary, prehistoric agriculture, the Columbian Exchange, the Industrial Revolution, and nuclear power have all been proposed as the start of the Anthropocene, but which one is the most appropriate? 

Based on a review of scientific data, geologist Mark Maslin concludes that the Columbian Exchange is the best starting point for the Anthropocene. Specifically, Maslin excludes prehistoric agriculture from the four options because farming techniques developed at different times in different agricultural societies, contradicting the idea that the Anthropocene should encompass all humans at one point in time. The same issue occurs if one chooses the industrial revolution as the origin of the Anthropocene, according to Maslin: “Like {prehistoric agriculture}, changes associated with the Industrial Revolution and captured in geological deposits are diachronous over two centuries.” (309) The Industrial Revolution did not originate from the Anthropocene since it affected multiple industrial sites at very different times, such as England and Bengal. Similar to the time difference in the Industrial Revolution, chemists disagree as to which radioactive element could be indicative of the nuclear age. Because of this, it is difficult to pinpoint the start of the nuclear age, let alone the Anthropocene. For Maslin, the Anthropocene does not originate from prehistoric agriculture, the industrial revolution, and nuclear reactions. The only option left seems to be the Columbian Exchange. 

In contrast to prehistoric agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, and nuclear power, the Columbian Exchange affected the globe almost simultaneously. To test this statement, Maslin presents specimens from terrestrial and marine deposits located in both hemispheres, including the poles. As his specimens show, the amount of carbon dioxide decreased roughly between the years 1500 and 1600, which corresponds to the time of the Columbian Exchange. Based on this evidence, Maslin concludes that the Columbian Exchange is the start of the Anthropocene. In a larger sense, the Columbian Exchange had a significant impact on the world within a relatively short period of time nonetheless, it exposed a serious problem. 

Arguing against the Columbian Exchange as the origin of the Anthropocene, historian Lorenzo Kamel claims that the Anthropocene is subject to the Western worldview. Since Westerners live in a society that is very different from the society, say, of the Tahitians, Westerners and Tahitians perceive the world differently. In his essay, Kamel elaborates on this issue: “Humans as a species are not changing the environment; rather a select few of their members are.” (309) Kamel specifically urges westerners to stop representing all humans, since people from the Global South do not participate as much in the Columbian Exchange as people from the Global North do.

A post-World War II specialist, David Kuchenbuch, also questions the scholarly attention to the Anthropocene: “the Anthropocene…stem from scientific disciplines geared towards gaining political ground in the context of the Cold War” (746) According to Kuchenbuch. to increase their authority during the Cold War, scientists stressed the impact of nuclear power, as it would surely lead to the apocalypse of the Anthropocene. In addition, Kuchenbuch invited his readers to think beyond contemporary historiographies, including the shadow of nuclear power that has shaped their worldviews since the year 1945. 

The Post-WWII historiographies stir apprehension about nuclear power, but even nuclear power does not signal the end of the Anthropocene. Despite the destruction to human beings, are nuclear weapons equally destructive to nature? A case study of the nuclear explosion at Hiroshima may provide an answer. The atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, Japan, displaced one-third of its urban population and scorched large areas of the city. 

However, just two years after the explosion, animals returned to their former habitats and plants flourished in the debris. According to historian William Tsutsui, “by June of 1946, twenty-five species of weeds grew thickly at the very site of the detonation in Hiroshima, and scientists reported luxuriant growth of plants that previously had been rare in the area.” (297) Tsutsui shows that the atomic bomb was more lethal to human beings than to other species in the natural environment. It is therefore more appropriate to use the term Anthropocene to describe a period of increased internecine among humans rather than as an age of human influence on nature.

Nuclear power has been increasingly dangerous to both humans and nature since WWII, but worrying about nuclear explosions is not an excuse for ignoring alternative ways to rethink human-nature relationships. Instead, the Global South should be given more attention for its solutions to the Anthropocene’s problems. In the case of the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository, indigenous worldviews provide a unique perspective on the Anthropocene. When ethnographers visited the site and asked the Paiute leaders for permission to relocate some plants, the leaders insisted that all plants are equally important to them, which is why no plant should be removed to accommodate the nuclear waste repository. In this regard, many Native Americans view all life, whether it is humans, plants, or animals, as one in the same, and each of them is essential to the existence of nature. This concern about environmental equality sheds new light on alternative ways to reframe the dialogue between humans and nature, rather than the monologue of the Anthropocene.

The term Anthropocene fails to accurately describe global history because it is based on human influence on nature. On the one hand, many in the Global North, particularly in the wake of the Columbian Exchange and nuclear power, emphasize human dominance of nature. Many others, in the Global South and elsewhere, do not see nature as a victim or a resource. Instead, they view humans and other species as essential parts of nature. In this sense, the Anthropocene is a dialogue between humans and nature. If nature no longer listens, whom should humans speak to?

Image: “Fortoken.” Detail. Ikeda Manabu. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery, 2008

Zhenhao (Oscar) Yu is a first-year master’s student in the Global, International, and Comparative History Program at Georgetown University. Oscar studies the history of science, focusing on the tradition of bencao (the study of nature) in pre-modern East Asia.

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