The early Anthropocene paradox


In this eight-minute speech, US academic Noam Chomsky articulates one of the most remarkable paradoxes in the early Anthropocene  (28 April, Annual Pen World of Voices Festival).
“There are some that are devoting serious efforts to avert impending doom. In the lead are the most oppressed segments of the global population, those considered to be the most backward and primitive, the indigenous societies of the world. In countries with influential indigenous populations like Bolivia and Ecuador there is now legislative recognition of the rights of nature.

In sharp contrast, the race towards the cliff is led by the most advanced, educated, wealthy and privileged societies in the world, primarily in North America.”

Everything is awesome

The Lego Mo


The Lego Movie is this generation’s Animal Farm: an allegorical tale ostensibly for children but in reality a clever polemic railing against corporate greed, globalization and general maleficence, and…er…produced by a large corporation. 

The Lego Movie opens on a dark and dreary dystopian future. “Another Brick in the Wall” booms out over a concrete wasteland. The rain pelts down.

Not really. Everything is literally awesome. The film explodes to life with a thumping great bubblegum-laced-with-ecstasy pop classic that builds insanely quickly to the immortal chorus: “Everything is awesome.” Repeat to fade.

The inhabitants of Lego world are totally pumped. All the time. It’s the law. “Everything is Awesome, when you’re living our dream,” says the song.

But the veneer is gossamer thin. In this world, hero Emmet follows a manual to be “happy”, have “friends” and be part of the “team”. Conformity isn’t just expected: it’s mandatory. Lego surveillance cameras capture everything. Anything deemed “weird” is destroyed.

In a coffee chain, a barista hands Emmet his coffee. With monumental irony deficiency Emmet fires back: “Over-priced coffee. AWESOME!”

Emmet does not need more caffeine.

It becomes apparent the proles in this world are not living the dream, they are living in the United States of Unconsciousness, their minds controlled by Lord Business. Lord Business has manufactured a culture of consumption and uniformity to create a feedback loop that endlessly fills his coffers. Worse still, “Lord Business plans to end the world as we know it.” Cue megalomaniacal laughter.

The Lego Movie works as a strange hybrid between two George Orwell novels, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four. Orwell’s masterpieces focussed on the dangers of fictitious totalitarian regimes, based on the Soviet Union. The makers of this new postmodern masterpiece, however, save their vitriol for the colossal corporations bestriding Earth whose weapons of thought control range from powerful marketing and advertising techniques targeting our weaknesses, to buying the media and paying off politicians.

At its core, the film questions what it means to live in a capitalist society. It attempts to examine what we have given up to live in this world, how the public are cynically manipulated, and what Noam Chomsky describes as the manufacture of consent. What makes this all the more beguiling is that the film has been made by the world’s second largest toy manufacturer and is, essentially, a feature-length advert. Go figure.

Anyway, the kids loved it too. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Everything is indeed awesome.


Everything is Awesome lyrics

(Composers: Tegan & Sara, the Lonely Island and Mark Mothersbaugh)

Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team
Everything is awesome, when we’re living our dream

Everything is better when we stick together
Side by side, you and I gonna win forever, let’s party forever
We’re the same, I’m like you, you’re like me, we’re all working in harmony

Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team
Everything is awesome, when we’re living our dream

3, 2, 1. GO

Have you heard the news, everyone’s talking
Life is good ‘cause everything’s awesome
Lost my job, it’s a new opportunity
More free time for my awesome community

I feel more awesome than an awesome opossum
Dip my body in chocolate frostin’
Three years later, washed out the frostin’
Smellin’ like a blossom, everything is awesome
Stepped in mud, got new brown shoes
It’s awesome to win, and it’s awesome to lose (it’s awesome to lose)

Everything is better when we stick together
Side by side, you and I, gonna win forever, let’s party forever
We’re the same, I’m like you, you’re like me, we’re all working in harmony

Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team
Everything is awesome, when we’re living our dream

Blue skies, bouncy springs
We just named you awesome things
A nobel prize, a piece of string
You know what’s awesome, EVERYTHING

Dogs and fleas, allergies, a book of Greek antiquities
Brand new pants, a very old vest
Awesome items are the best

Trees, frogs, clogs
They’re awesome
Rocks, clocks, and socks
They’re awesome
Figs, and jigs, and twigs
That’s awesome
Everything you see, or think, or say
Is awesome

Everything is awesome
Everything is cool when you’re part of a team
Everything is awesome, when we’re living our dream

s Animal Farm: an allegorical tale ostensibly for children but in reality a clever polemic railing against corporate greed, globalization and general maleficence, and…er…produced by a large corporation.

Google to power Botswana

Headlines I’d love to read Image

This week Google announced it was investing $100 million in a project to install and lease solar systems to homeowners in the US.

The deal with the Sun Power Corporation, which also throws $150 million into the pot, makes it easier for people to switch to renewable energy and save money. The web blurb gushes: “Using the fund we buy the solar panel systems. Then we lease them to homeowners at a cost that’s typically lower than their normal electricity bill. So by participating in this program, you don’t just help the environment—you can also save money.”

Google is a company with a heart and an embarrassingly huge wad of cash. The internet giant has already committed over $1 billion to wind and solar projects.

As it explains on its website, this is enough to power 500,000 US homes for one year. Or, a car to travel around the world 190,000 times. Or, 70 billion episodes of your favourite TV show. Or, the Sydney Opera House for 312 years.

Yes, Google. Or Botswana.

Botswana is in dire straits. The lights are going out. The nation with more sun than you could shake a stick at imports much of its energy from South Africa. And this is dirty energy from coal-fired power stations. But South Africa’s appetite for electricity has grown and now it has little to spare.

Botswana knew this day was coming but failed to prepare adequately — its single power station is beset with technical calamities. Now, the lights in the capital Gabarone have begun to go out. Homes, businesses, government offices, universities have endured regular blackouts. The management team at the Botswana Power Corporation has been axed. Irish contractor the Electricity Supply Board International is taking over to sort out the mess.

Botswana needs to become energy self sufficient. The priority for Botswana is energy access to relieve grinding poverty and allow the country to develop.Its vast coal reserves will last decades making coal the prime solution. Climate change is a low priority. This is entirely justified given the country’s paltry emission rates compared with the US. But the strategy does not entirely make sense, not least because, while coal may not run out any time soon, the sun, like Botswana’s diamonds, is forever. Besides solar is perfectly suited to low energy usage.

Many in Botswana have no power or rely on oil generators. To deliver energy for all, Botswana not only needs a reliable power supply it needs an updated national grid network. Solar power could bypass all of this. The levels of investment Google is capable of make it a game changer. But things need to happen fast or Botswana will be locked into a coal-driven future. Luckily, Google is no slouch when it comes to delivering on grand visions.

This would also tie in with one of Google’s other plans. Botswana has limited internet access and Google wants to bring broadband to the rest of the world. If Google can deliver sustainable energy to Botswana, it can at the same time build the infrastructure for reliable internet connectivity opening up a whole new market.

Google, make the next $1 billion in Africa.

And finally, the Wall Street Journal recently published this graphic communicating the power imbalance between the US and Africa. For example, Montana with a population of one million has the same power generating capacity of Nigeria – population 174 million. 

Wall Street Journal power trip

Striking distance


Striking distance

Between 2000 and 2013, a global network of sensors recorded 26 major asteroid explosions in Earth’s atmosphere. Felix Pharand Deschenes created this useful infographic for the B612 Foundation to plot the size and location of each asteroid when it struck Earth’s atmosphere. The city of Chelyabinsk Oblast in Russia narrowly escaped disaster when the largest asteroid in this time screamed overhead on 15 February 2013 but causing some injuries.

Climate change data visualization launched

Félix Pharand-Deschênes and I have just produced a new data visualization on climate change for the UN’s climate negotiations taking place in Warsaw, Poland right now. It was commissioned by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and funded by the UN Foundation.

The visualization is a summary of the findings presented in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Working Group I, Summary for Policymakers, the Physical Science Basis).

The wonderful Gizmodo has covered it in its own inimitable style. In the article I try to explain what we were attempting to do. We wanted to find a way of communicating climate risks in a way that showed exactly what climate scientists mean when they say likely or unlikely. While the terminology used by researchers can sound a little vague, it is more precise than most people realize.

It was important for us to try to find a way of simplifying the complexity of fossil-fuel emissions, temperature rise and future carbon budgets to keep within policy targets. The ending is a little bleak: societies are running out of time, and running in the wrong direction. Sorry.

Urbanization in the Anthropocene


We live in a rapidly urbanizing world. But some of the world’s most biodiverse hotspots are adjacent to urban areas. This incredible data visualization from Felix Pharand Deschenes and the Stockholm Resilience Centre captures the scale of the problem, and how to solve it. In three minutes. (I get a credit at the end for my very minor role – I’m very proud to be associated with it.)

State of the art

A growing number of artists are turning to the Anthropocene for inspiration. Here, I’ve brought together several artists who explicitly reference the concept for the first online Anthropocene Exhibition.

All images kindly reproduced with the permission of the artists. 

Image: Radhika Gupta

Some years ago, a celebrity chef in the UK proclaimed cooking had attained the status of high art. Art critic Brian Sewell quipped that the day a Michelin-starred meal could be described as “profoundly disturbing” was the day these chefs could call themselves artists. Sewell was right to ridicule. Art has an emotional impact like no other.

Among many other things. the concept of the Anthropocene is profoundly disturbing. If the Anthropocene was simply a matter of geological classification it would remain hidden in a distant corner of dusty academia. Instead, the word captures who we are. It captures how far we have come. It separates us from all previous generations. It helps us make sense of our world and our new responsibility. The concept is beyond geological hair-splitting. Artists have struck a rich vein.

Not all the artists here would describe themselves as artists. 

Félix Pharand-Deschênes


namerica_anthroposphere_lend_blur anthroposphere_europa_lens_blur

Félix Pharand-Deschênes is an anthropologist and data visualizer living in Canada. He is founder of Globaïa. (Felix is also a close collaborator and friend of the author.)

David Thomas Smith

Anthropocene-David-Thomas-Smith-The-Copper-House-Gallery-Dublin-yatzer-11 burj dubai

Image: David Thomas Smith

Anthropocene-David-Thomas-Smith-The-Copper-House-Gallery-Dublin-yatzer-6 glass houses spain

Image: David Thomas Smith

Anthropocene-David-Thomas-Smith-The-Copper-House-Gallery-Dublin-yatzer- silicon valley

Image: David Thomas Smith

Anthropocene-David-Thomas-Smith-The-Copper-House-Gallery-Dublin-yatzer-4 three gorges

Image: David Thomas Smith

David Thomas Smith biosphere 2

Image: David Thomas Smith

Anthropocene-David-Thomas-Smith-The-Copper-House-Gallery-Dublin-yatzer-3 three mile island

Image: David Thomas Smith

David Thomas Smith is an Irish documentary photographer. More.

Stephen Walter

AnthropoceneStepher Walter-London-Subterranea-2012-courtesy-of-TAG-Fine-Arts1

Image: Stephen Walter

Abbey Mills. Credit: Stephen Walter:

Abbey Mills. Credit: Stephen Walter:


The Island. Credit: Stephen Walter.

LON SUB-Zoom3 copy

London Sub. Credit: Stephen Walter.


London Sub. Credit: Stephen Walter.

Throwaway whole. Credit: Stephen Walter.

Throwaway whole. Credit: Stephen Walter.


Whitehall. Credit: Stephen Walter.


Venice of Drains. Credit: Stephen Walter.

Stephen Walter lives and works in London. In July 2013, Walter’s solo exhibition Anthropocene opened at the Londonewcastle Project Space in London. More. 

Jason deCairesTaylor


Image: Jason deCairesTaylor


Image: Jason deCairesTaylor


Image: Jason deCairesTaylor


Image: Jason deCairesTaylor


Image: Jason deCairesTaylor


Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Jason de Caires Taylor is based in Cancun, Mexico and combines diving with sculpture. The sculptures pictured here have been designed to be assimilated into the environment and will eventually promote coral reef growth and so challenging the viewer to see the positive attributes in humanity’s creativity in the Anthropocene. More.

Radhika Gupta

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Screen Shot 2013-09-14 at 14.04.16

Screen Shot 2013-09-14 at 14.03.59

radhika gupta anthropocene

Radhika Gupta

Radhika Gupta is a recent graduate in design from the Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore, and is based in India. More.

John Stockton

Cartritus 1

Image: John Stockton

Cartritus 2

Image: John Stockton

John Stockton is an artist based in Nottingham, England. The images above come from his “Cartritus” collection. They are formed from objects found on roadside verges that have been discarded, ejected or otherwise fallen off cars and other vehicles. More.


landsat garden city Kansas landsat bolivian deforestation NASA’s LandSat Earth as Art courtesy of the US Geological Survey.

Water in the Anthropocene

Irish writer James Joyce’s gibberish masterpiece Finnegans Wake is a tale of the night. It begins with an allusion to the global water cycle.

The tale is told as a stream of consciousness that takes the reader through a restless, endlessly shifting dreamscape, drifting from one half-finished thought to the next.

The main character is an oddly-named Dublin publican Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker or HCE. Versions of this abbreviation crop up throughout, and assume different meanings. In places HCE is a reference to Here Comes Everybody: the publican stands for every man.

This gives a sense for what Joyce was aiming to create: a book that captures humanity in its full state. Finnegans Wake is about people, all people, everywhere.

The first reference to HCE appears in the incredible, dumbfounding opening sentence. Even the first word discombobulates: “riverrun”, in lowercase. The book starts midsentence with a word that doesn’t even exist.

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Howth Castle guards Dublin Bay. Eve and Adam’s is a church on the river Liffey. Joyce is describing the flow of the water cycle and using it as a metaphor for life, and in particular humanity.  The opening sentence begins as the last line of the book. The book is a cycle; it is perfectly self contained. 

Yesterday, data visualizer Felix Pharand Deschenes and I released a new short film – Water in the Anthropocene, commissioned by the Global Water Systems Project for an international conference taking place in Bonn this week. It opens with a description of the water cycle based on Finnegans Wake’s opening lines, and goes on to chart how humans are altering the global water cycle.

Water availability has largely determined where human civilisations have flourished. Indeed, civilisation emerged between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers on the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq.

But recently we have begun to change the water cycle, not just locally or regionally, but on a truly global scale. We have build 48,000 large dams in less than two centuries and another 1600 are in development. We have drained half the world’s wetlands. We use an area the size of South America to grow our crops and an area the size of Africa for our livestock.

Through climate change, we are further altering the global water cycle. Wet areas are likely to become wetter, dry areas drier. And in many areas we are using groundwater faster than it can be recharged.

We wanted to create something unique and powerful. The film takes the viewer on a journey across our planet, first in its natural state, then as humans change the water cycle. 

Felix built a perfect aural accompaniment using a mix of ambient music from Earlyguard and sound recordings by Norwegian artist Jana Winderen of cracking ice, rainfall and water flow. 

Sarah Sherborne does another fantastic job narrating the film. This became a more difficult job than the first film, Welcome to the Anthropocene, because it was particularly important for the narration to match precisely to the visuals as datasets sweep in and out.

So as it begins to appear on blogs and tweets we can only hope this is as successful as the first. It was a joy to work on this project with a truly world-class team.

UPDATE (26 May, 2013):

The film has appeared on many blogs and news sites in the last few days, but not everyone is a fan of Joyce. Tasha Eichenseher at Discover says “If you can get past the melodramatic narration, there is a pretty stellar data visualization..that illustrates how the human footprint has changed the global water cycle.” Ouch! Well, you can’t please everyone.

Rethinking sustainable development in the Anthropocene

“The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them,” Albert Einstein.

This week, a bunch of us published an article in the international journal Nature entitled Sustainable development goals for people and planet.

We argued that if nations are to set sustainable development goals they need to take a systems approach otherwise the goals will be a patchwork of good causes that ultimately fail on long-term global sustainability. We proposed six goals. But on the way we ended up questioning some of the key tenets of sustainable development.

Our article picked up a bit of media coverage.

  • Nations urged to combine environmental and development goalsThe Guardian (John Vidal)
  • Ending Poverty Requires Tougher Environmental Goals, Scientists ArgueHuffington Post (Alister Doyle)
  • Scientists Propose a New Architecture for Sustainable DevelopmentNew York Times (Andrew C. Revkin)

Skip to the sub-heading “six goals for people and planet” if you just want the interesting bit.

New “universal” goals

The idea for a set of universal sustainable development goals (SDGs) came about at last years UN Rio+20 summit. Columbia and Guatemala jointly proposed that nations adopt a set of goals to shift the world onto a more sustainable footing. This gained rapid momentum. 

In any sane world SDGs would begin in 2015 when the highly influential Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) run out. This is far from certain. Not least because in 2010 the UN created a political process called the MDG post 2015 development agenda that kind of does but kind of doesn’t link to SDGs. Are you still awake? Stay with me. I promise this gets better.   

The MDGs have had some considerable successes. Three goals were met before the deadline. The target of reducing extreme poverty by half was reached five years ahead of schedule. So too was the the target of halving the proportion of people lacking reliable access to drinking water. Conditions have improved for more than 200 million people living in slums — double the 2020 target (2012 UN report). But the goals were not universal, they applied directly to developing nations.

Given the power of the MDGs to channel money and political will, interest in SDGs is growing. Last week, the UN held a meeting in New York involving 30 nations to discuss goals. This was followed by a meeting of experts and scientists to brainstorm ideas . Four of our team joined this discussion. Lead author Dave Griggs gave the keynote talk (UN video here).

The SDGs are important because they have the potential to help reshape the global social and economic playing field to allow a population — set to stabilise at between nine and ten billion — to thrive and prosper without it costing the Earth.

Systems thinking

So, how do you devise such a set of goals that genuinely add up to global sustainability rather than just pulling together a bundle of big issues and hope for the best.

This calls for rethinking sustainable development for the Anthropocene.

First, we looked at how to formulate new goals from a complex systems perspective. We began to realise that the entire sustainable development paradigm needed re-evaluation from this viewpoint.

Bye, bye three pillars

For many years the overarching paradigm has been the three pillars of sustainable development – economy, society, environment. This has led to disconnected, fragmented political efforts often in conflict with one another. Besides, while the economy can expand and contract, we only have one planet: the environment cannot grow.  This paradigm is obsolete.

We argued that in the Anthropocene –where humanity is the prime driver of change on a global scale — it makes more sense to conceptualise sustainable development as the economy within society within Earth’s life support system — the atmosphere and ice sheets, oceans and waterways, forests, deserts and rich diversity of life that combine to provide a place for us to thrive. We have reached a point at which future development is at risk if we fail to account for our pressure on the Earth system.

So ending poverty and improving human wellbeing may remain the number one priority, but this must be achieved with awareness of our significant impact on Earth’s biological, chemical and physical processes and cycles.

In the Anthropocene, an appropriate conceptualisation for sustainable development places the economy and society within Earth’s life support system. Griggs et al 2013.

We were not the first to propose this idea, but we are arguing that now is the time to adopt it and say adios to the pillars.

A new definition

Looked through this lens, the definition of sustainable development put forward by the Brundtland commission in 1987 also needs updating. The commission defined it as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

This is good. But given very real risks to Earth-system stability, a more appropriate definition may be:

 “development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depend.”

From this foundation we identified a set of planetary “must haves” for a global population to thrive and prosper: climatic stability, biodiversity, ecosystem services, a healthy water cycle, effective use of nitrogen and phosphorus, clean air, and sustainable resource use. We called these “must haves” the global sustainability objectives.

Add to this updated and expanded MDGs based on ending poverty and hunger, better education, health, equality, and higher quality of life and you have the foundation of a set of cross-cutting targets for the SDGs.

The next challenge was identifying goals that do not end up with a false opposition between improving lives and planetary protection. Invoking the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and the Millennium Declaration, the essentials for human wellbeing can be boiled down to: thriving lives and livelihoods, access to sustainable food, water and energy and living within a thriving, healthy ecosystem. All this requires effective governance to change the playing field we are operating within.

6 goals for people and planet – the ‘wheel of fortune’

So the goals become:

Wheel of Fortune v2

The Wheel of Fortune. Six universal Sustainable Development Goals cutting across economic, social and environmental domains. Griggs et al 2013.

Within Goal 1 for example — lives and livelihoods — we include targets for ending poverty, improving the lives of those living in slums, health, equality and gainful employment, all linked to sustainable consumption and production patterns and sustainable cities.

Within goal 2, food security would also consider greenhouse gas emissions and excess fertilizer use, for example.

Basically, the trick is to create a suite of measurable targets within each goal that reach economic, social and environmental objectives. We made a provisional stab at some of these targets — mainly within the Earth-system domain. But this will require more work with a much broader group of experts. What we wanted to do was show that it was possible to take a systems approach and that the result is viable, on paper at least.

A unified framework

Taken together, we end up with a unified framework for sustainable development goals that bring together two priorities: poverty eradication and Earth-system stability.

Unified framework for SDGs

Rethinking sustainable development in the Anthropocene. Figure: Nature 495, 305–307 (21 March 2013) doi:10.1038/495305a

A further mapping of the new goals (below) against updated and expanded MDGs and our planetary “must haves” shows how this set of goals ticks all the boxes – well most of them – and helps avoid conflicts between targets.

Cube 130314-01

Six Sustainable Development Goals for integrated delivery of MDGs and Global Sustainability Objectives whilst minimising conflicts between objectives. Targets set within each SDG directly address social, economic and environmental dimensions. These goals, and the targets beneath, may be operationalized through a policy framework across levels from international to local, some of it already extant.

Goals for all

In the figure above we also show that the goals lead naturally to a policy framework. Much of our proposal is already covered by existing agreements or conventions internationally. But the key is to create something that has buy in at all levels. For SDGs to work in a globally networked society they must be adopted by international organizations, nations, states, cities and towns. More than that, businesses, schools, families and individuals must say “this is the world I want to live in”.

Ultimately, the choice of goals is a political decision. Science, though, has a role in ensuring the goals are achievable.

Counting angels on pinheads

Medieval scholars were sometimes accused of expending intellectual effort debating issues of no practical significance such as estimating the number of angels that could dance on a pinhead. I had a lengthy discussion with an editor at Nature towards the end of the process to publication of our paper. She questioned whether our work could be considered in the same way. Is it not all hot air of interest only to international policy wonks?

Whatever way you look at it the MDGs had a major impact. So much so that many nations and people like Bill Gates are reluctant to tamper too much with them. They successfully diverted a lot of financial resources and political will towards specific priority areas, often to the detriment of other worthy causes.

This is why the stakes for SDGs are so high. Like MDGs, no global legal agreement was necessary to implement them. Nations made commitments and chose themselves how to meet them. This has a much bigger chance of success in the short-run than a single binding international agreement that would take decades to negotiate.

A prerequisite for future development will be a life-support system able to sustain a global civilization. Our life-support system is changing rapidly and in an uncontrolled way. Further interference risks overturning development gains in the last two decades. Last week’s UN 2013 Human Development Report outlined environmental disaster scenarios that could lead to three billion more people living in extreme poverty by 2050.

We have some opportunities to avoid this fate. It is all in our hands. This is the new reality. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Nature 495, 305–307 (21 March 2013) doi:10.1038/495305a Policy: Sustainable development goals for people and planet. Authors: David GriggsMark Stafford-SmithOwen GaffneyJohan RockströmMarcus C. Öhman Priya ShyamsundarWill SteffenGisbert GlaserNorichika KanieIan Noble

I am a citizen of the world

In ancient Greece the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope declared, “I am a citizen of the world”. In just 20 years, revolutions in digital technology have expanded human interconnections making global citizens of one-third of humanity. Within a decade, all but the most marginalized in societies everywhere will be linked in. Soon, we may all have the right to declare ourselves citizens of the world.

Today, Aeon magazine published another remarkable article – Cosmopolitans – that explores the life of this eccentric philosopher and how his views translate to the Anthropocene. The ideas echo – though more eloquently – some of the posts here.