Enter Anthropocene, c. 1610

ECOCRITICISM NOW: The essays, reviews, and poetry collected in this thread trace responses to the interlinked terms nature, ecology, and ecocriticism, all of which have come to occupy increasingly important roles in a number of everyday and academic discourses over the last few decades. The “now” of its title is therefore not only a mark of the interest of certain contributions in the development of ecocritical theory (ecocriticism at this moment in time), but also an injunction, a call for more. This thread is co-edited by Tom White.


by Steve Mentz

Old Man Anthropos has a new date.

The Age of Man, or Anthropocene, has become the word of the day. Making a bid to replace the Holocene, or Age of the Present, as the scientific term for the geological era in which we live, the Anthropocene has caught the attention of scientists, scholars, artists, poets, theorists, and the general public. As humanist and post-humanist critics debate the era’s implications, scientific debate continues about its precise nature. The key question of origins remains vexed: when did the Age of Man start? The most recent candidate for the Golden Spike, or GSSP (Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point), which marks the start of the Anthropocene is 1610. Geologists Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin argue in the journal Nature that the clearest geological markers of human influence on the global climate appear in 1964 and 1610. The late twentieth-century date reflects the peak of radioactive particles in the atmosphere, which subsequently declined after the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. But the earlier date catches this Shakespeare professor’s eye: 1610 is three years after the founding of the Jamestown colony and one year before the first staging of The Tempest. Amid the glories of the English Renaissance sits an ecological spike. When Sir Walter Raleigh graced Queen Elizabeth’s court and Shakespeare’s dramas were first played, our Anthropocene nightmare began.

Lewis and Maslin state that 1610 marks “an unambiguously permanent change to the Earth system” that records the ecological mixing of the Americas with Africa and Eurasia. The starkest consequence of this mixing from a human perspective was death on an unprecedented scale, primarily among Native Americans. Estimates vary, but the New World may have experienced the loss of nearly 50 million souls, out of an estimated pre-Contact population of roughly 60-65 million, during the period of first contact. No period in recorded history matches this death toll on so vast a scale. The massive die-off of the human population and subsequent “cessation of farming and reduction in fire use” led to the “regeneration of over 50 million hectares of forest, woody savanna and grassland” (Lewis and Maslin). The open vistas of the New World were not destiny’s gift to European settlers. These empty landscapes were visible evidence of the Anthropocene. The Age of Man is an Age of Death.

Lewis and Maslin name the 1610 date the “Orbis” spike, from the Latin for “world,” because its drivers are global: the worldwide movements of human and nonhuman populations, as well as other factors including “colonialism [and] global trade.” As Dana Luciano noted in Avidly this past spring, this spike describes an Anthropocene that emerges not from industrial expansion but through such phenomena as the “concurrent history of the Atlantic slave trade.” The 1610 Anthropocene represents the early stages of what we now call “globalization.” What might a global Anthropocene that shares its era with Shakespeare and Pocahantas mean?

It takes some imagination to conceive the 1610 Anthropocene, but now that we know the date we also know the words. On the upper stage stands Prospero enrobed, singing out magnificent poetry in the voice of Gandalf and Magneto:Folger 027017

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back…

If we have ears to hear, we realize Shakespeare’s wizard is talking about destruction and the depopulation of the world. He creates and revels in ecological disorder:

               I have bedimmed
The noontide sun, called forth the mutinous winds,
And twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war…
               [G]raves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, ope’d and let ‘em forth
By my so potent art.

Whether in Milan or the magic island, Duke Anthropocene presides: enchanting, indulging, releasing, destroying.

A Renaissance Anthropocene that speaks in blank verse suggests some unexpected things about this increasingly popular term.

The 1610 Anthropocene means death, not heat, is humanity’s primary historical driver. We’re not just making the world warmer but making it deadlier. I think Thomas Pynchon nailed this one back in 1973, writing from his beach pad in southern Cal: “So we, the crippled keepers, were sent out to multiply, to have dominion. God’s spoilers. Us. Counter-revolutionaries. It is our mission to promote death” (Gravity’s Rainbow).

The 1610 Anthropocene means that the most consequential historical and ecological forces in the Age of Man have been inhuman viruses, not mortal industry. Smallpox and influenza cleared the New World for colonization; malaria made its tropical regions ripe for transatlantic slavery.

The 1610 Anthropocene means that the key motivation of our species was a desire for global connection, not simply our ability to produce things or grow our population. Columbus sailed for China. His successors midwifed global ecological catastrophe.

The 1610 Anthropocene used to be called the “Columbian Exchange,” but that term is too reminiscent of “great man” theories of history. Old Man Anthropos may have started it, but He’s never been in control. The better phrase, “ecological globalization,” takes the soup out of human hands. That’s where it should be. We’re in it, not cooking it.

The 1610 Anthropocene reminds us that the core story, which really precedes the past half-millennium, has been the production of hybrids through the collision of Old and New Worlds. Bruno Latour has given us a robust language for hybridity, but our best guide here may be Caribbean poet and theorist Éduoard Glissant, whose idea of Relation promises “a new and original dimension allowing each person to be there and elsewhere, rooted and open, lost in the mountains and free beneath the sea, in harmony and in errantry”. That’s the way to navigate Anthropocene storms.

The 1610 Anthropocene takes the latest claim for the radical newness of today and submerges it back into History. A four-hundred-year-old Anthropocene promises an unstable future, and one in which it’ll be worth recalling our past. It turns out that this latest thing is also an old thing.

To recast an old phrase that has new resonance in an age of rising global temperatures: the past isn’t dead. It’s just getting warmed up.


Note: Image courtesy of the Folger Shakespeare Library under Creative Commons License CC BY-SA4.0


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