On July 16, 1945, some thirty-five miles southeast of Soccoro, New Mexico, something went: “boom”!

A little plutonium, a smattering of scientists, some military guys, a detonator and – just like that – the Anthropocene. OK, so much for tongue in cheek; the Trinity nuclear test was mankind’s first foray into the nuclear age: at least that’s how most historians teach it. The Trinity blast (name equates to an irony of ironies) was the capstone of the Manhattan Project, and a within days would become a weapon of war unleashed upon the nation of Japan … twice.

Trinity_Test_Fireball_16ms

The Trinity Blast 16-milliseconds after detonation and already 700 feet tall.

But, according to paleontologist Anthony Barnosky at Cal Berkeley, the Trinity blast also signalled the death of the Holocene and the birth of a new geologic epoch – the Anthropocene.[1]

He wrote back in 2014 that “humans are a geological force every bit as powerful as the ‘natural’ ones,” and the Trinity blast succinctly provides the evidence of mankind’s ability to alter the planet.

I’m not buying it.

I’ll admit; a lit fuse in the deserts of New Mexico sure is a convenient story unto which to hang a new epoch upon. But maybe the Cal professor Barnosky should have crossed-campus to consult the history department first?!?! Mankind has been remaking the image of the earth well-before mankind learned how to write how he accomplished such feats. Think Clovis man in North America driving mastodon into extinction.[2] Think Romans salting the earth of Carthage so nothing would grow. Think China building a fantastically long wall (over 5,000 miles!).[3] Think the Suez Canal of 1869, or the Panama Canal of 1914. Think, as Elizabeth Kolbert does, of mankind’s ability toward “habitat destruction and the introduction of invasive species,” or our causation toward “widespread extinctions; ocean acidification, which is changing the chemical makeup of the seas; and urbanization, which is vastly increasing rates of sedimentation and erosion.”[4] Arguably, all of these listed events occurred before turning the sands of the Jornada del Muerto desert into trinitite aka “Alamogordo Glass.”

While the Trinity blast may be a convenient spot to hang an epoch upon, I’m not quite comfortable with the overt simplicity it represents.

So here is the question: should historians teach the Anthropocene?  

Some already are. Check out Dr. Jason M. Kelly, a Purdue University professor, and a specialist in British History (that’s how I came to know him). Professor Kelly has fully embraced the ideas and concepts an existing Anthropocene. Here, he provides “The Anthropocene: A Reading List” from his blog, and it’s a terrific list! There is breadth of subjects and opinions from leading scholars from numerous disciplines represented within Kelly’s forty-seven pieces of reading. But is this the realm of the historian?

I would like to point out that historians are remarkably busy people – our work is time consuming. The historical inquiry process demands that we read both in breadth and in depth. Scanning Dr. Kelly’s list gave even me, an interested historian, a reflexive “I-think-I’ll-rethink-this” gulp.

But our ultimate aim – at least they keep telling me – is to get our students to think, move them toward active citizenship. In that frame of mind, the question ought to be: how can I not teach the Anthropocene? And for that matter, why not introduce it, as Professor Anthony Barnosky has introduced it – replete with a specific event? (Boom“! Remember?)

Our students today face a moral, economic, social and political dilemma: the ability of man to remake the “natural” earth into a “man-made” planet. World War II, in addition to “the bomb,” gave us Bretton Woods, an economic regime consisting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and organizations that quickly developed into the World Bank, the General Aggreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), and the World Trade Organization (WTO). Pour this alphabet soup across the table and it spells “Capitalism on steroids” or “the ultimate free trade dream come true.” Today, because of Bretton Woods, we tear the tops off of mountains to get to what’s inside, remove the top layers of the flowing plains in Alberta to get to some sticky, tar-riddled oil, fish the seas into oblivion, burn our oxygen source – the forests of Brazil, warming our atmosphere, where farms morph into factories, life (or seeds) patented, water wars have started, and urban skyscrapers have become the norm.

This is indeed the era of Mankind. The human species can not only leave the planet ala Buck Rogers-like, but now we can remake it – like Robinson Crusoe did to his Caribbean island (Defoe wrote this in 1719). But should we? How will our students answer that question without a little introduction, a little “Student, meet Anthropocene,” guidance? I for one will raise the issue in my American and World History courses … when World War Two comes around.

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[1] The Holocene is the name given to the epoch which signifies the end of the last ice-age.

[2] Paul S. Martin, Twilight of the Mammoths: Ice Age Extinctions and the Rewilding of America (Cal University Press, 2005), Chapter 6.

[3] “Great Wall of China ‘Even Longer’” BBC News (20 April 2009), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8008108.stm

[4] Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Anthropcene Debate: Marking Humanity’s Impact,” Yale Environment 360 (17 May 2010), http://e360.yale.edu/feature/the_anthropocene_debate__marking_humanitys_impact/2274/

 

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