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HUMANITIES SCIENCE POLITICS
Science, People & Politics ISSN 1751-598x, 25th November, 2016. 18.00 GMT
ANTHROPOCENE FEATURE | 17
Cases can be made for choosing other moments. My own pick would be
the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process a century ago. By fixing
nitrogen from the atmosphere, and allowing us to turn that nitrogen
into chemical fertilizer, the discovery transformed at a stroke the ability
of the world's soils to feed a growing population. There are estimates
asserting half the 7 billion-plus people now living on the planet simply
would not be here without that piece of chemical wizardry.
Others have proposed 16th July, 1945, at Alamogordo in the desert of
New Mexico as when an Anthropocene began. That is when the first
atomic bomb was exploded. For the next 40 years atomic and
hydrogen bomb tests took place on an average of once every ten days,
and caused fallout that has left a stratigraphic fingerprint on the planet
in the form of released isotopes.
In fact I think the real case for choosing this date is different. It is not
so much stratigraphic as social. Those first atomic bomb tests were the
moment when we humans first understood our Faustian pact with tech-
nology. When nuclear scientists - and then the rest of us - first real-
ised that we had the power to destroy our world. It was when we
understood that that destruction would be irrevocable. As Bertrand
Russell said of the atomic scientists: "The harm they have done cannot
Ultimately the idea of the anthropocene is a very human construct. It
is about our perception of our place on this planet.
The anthropocene requires us to change how we think about every-
thing. We no longer have the luxury of setting nature apart as some-
thing different. Traditional ideas about nature conservation, especially
about preserving the pristine, make less sense. Nothing is pristine,
everything is altered, if not directly by our hand then, certainly by the
forces of anthropogenic climate change. As Peter Kareiva, till recently
the chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, the US's richest conser-
vation group, put it: "Conservation's continuing focus upon preserving
islands of [old] ecosystems in the age of the anthropocene is both
anachronistic and counterproductive."
Continued on page 18...
Issue 4 (October - December), 2016. Volume VII. Science, People & Politics ISSN 1751-598x.
Published Friday 25th November, 2016
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