More than Warming: Writing the Anthropocene


This past year I’ve been writing and revising stories about the human impacts of our ongoing ecological crisis: a petroleum geologist coming to grips with his culpability for climate change and man-made earthquakes, an environmental lawyer searching for the source of an invasive plant species, a beekeeper facing colony collapse. I like to think I’m writing in a genre that Ashley Shelby, author of South Pole Station, calls “first impact fiction.”

First Impact Fiction

First impact fiction,” she explains, “is the term I’ve been using in my fiction to describe our shared world as the impacts of runaway climate change begin to make themselves known.” First impact fiction doesn’t project the ecological consequences of human activity into a science fiction future (“cli-fi”); it describes, instead, the kinds of phenomena that are already occurring, mapping a “middle ground” that shows “what the transitional existence might look like once climate impacts that are immanent hit us. It won’t be catastrophic, except by degrees. It won’t be dystopic, except in pockets.”

The Anthropocene: Beyond Climate Change

nude woman, prone, burdened by a sphere of garbage
Mary Mattingly, House and Universe (2013)

I love Shelby’s description, but I’d like to offer an amendment. Why limit first impact fiction to the effects of climate alone? One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is how much of our impact on the planet is actually omitted or obscured by terms like “climate change” and “global warming.” Don’t get me wrong, the warming of the earth is without a doubt the most prominent and immediate way in which human societies are transforming the Earth. But it’s not the whole story. There is, however, a better conceptual framework, one that I believe also provides richer imaginative possibilities for writers of first impact fiction: The Anthropocene.

During our brief tenancy on this planet, human beings have wrought environmental transformations at a scale that rivals the primordial forces of plate tectonics, glacial movement, volcanic eruptions, and massive meteor impacts. This has led scientists and other observers to suggest that we no longer live in the Holocene—an epoch of relative environmental stability encompassing all of recorded human history—that we have, in fact, entered into an entirely new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

As Jeremy Davies, author of The Birth of the Anthropocene, explains, “The Anthropocene gets its name from humans, the anthropos, because its distinguishing characteristic (for now) is the dramatic influence that human societies are having on the physical world.” More than just a synonym for “climate change” or “global warming,” the Anthropocene lays claim to a broader range of events and processes, from erosion and ocean acidification to the extinction (or near-extinction) of plant and animal species. In addition to this shift in scope, the Anthropocene also indicates a change in the extent of time at stake, pointing to impacts well beyond the present and the immediate future of homo sapiens—“the effect of these events are superhistorical, affecting the Earth on a geological timescale.”

People disagree about when the Anthropocene actually began. There are a variety of candidates for the so-called “golden spike,” the marker in the geological record that would identify when the Anthropocene originated. These range from the mass extinctions of large animals at the hands of our hunter ancestors to the introduction into the geological record of radioactive isotopes such as plutonium that, hundreds of thousands of years from today, will continue to bear witness to a decade of open-air nuclear tests.

For most of us, however, establishing the origin story for the Anthropocene is of less concern than conceptualizing and responding to the ecological catastrophe it represents. As geologist Marcia Bjornerud observes in her book Timefullness, the global-scale perturbations in geophysical processes brought about by human societies are not limited to the injection of hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Human activity has accelerated a number of processes, including:

Erosion and sedimentation, in which humans outpace all the world’s rivers by an order of magnitude (a factor of 10); sea level rise, which had been close to nil for the past 7,000 years but is now about 0.3m (1 ft) per century and expected to be twice that by 2100; ocean chemistry, also stable for many millennia but now 0.1 pH unit more acidic than a century ago; extinction rates, now a factor of 1,000 to 10,000 above background rates; and of course atmospheric carbon dioxide, which at more than 400 ppm is higher than at any time in the last 4 million years (before the Ice Age), while emissions by human activities surpass all those of the world’s volcanoes by a factor of 100.

In what amounts to a fingersnap in the life of the planet, human beings have transformed our environment in ways that “are equivalent to those in the great mass extinctions that define other boundaries in geologic time.”

Our impact on the planet and its species may prove to be no less calamitous than the Chicxulub asteroid that struck the Yucatan Peninsula sixty-six million years ago, radically changing the Earth’s climate and snuffing out seventy-five percent of life on the planet (including all non-avian dinosaurs). We have, no doubt, yet to experience the full impact of human interventions in our planet’s many interrelated systems. Thus, the Anthropocene is not only concerned with the present or the “deep time” of the geologic past, but with the the future.

The Sixth Extinction

The scale and celerity of these changes have strained—perhaps to the breaking point—not only the ingenuity of human beings, but also the capacity of evolutionary processes to provide species with adaptations that will allow them to survive in altered environments. In her book The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert documents the devastating impact of human societies on biodiversity. As oceans absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, their waters become more acidic, threatening all but the most tolerant organisms with extinction. Calcifiers, organisms that rely on chemical reactions to build shells or other structures, are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of ocean acidification. Starfish, clams and oysters, brachiopods, some varieties of seaweed—a veritable catalog of marine biodiversity is slated to perish in chemically-altered oceans.

On land, a warming planet will result in the loss of habitat for a wide range of plant species; perhaps as much as a half or a quarter of these plants lack the mobility to migrate to climate zones still suited to their needs. These species, unable to withstand higher temperatures, will wither and die. As human societies continue to fuel their hunger for farmland and timber, many jungles and forests face a more immediate threat: the torch and the axe. Scientists estimate that since the emergence of complex societies around ten thousand years ago, the global number of trees has fallen by almost half.

Terrestrial animals are also under threat. Scientists use the term defaunation “to denote the loss of both species and populations of wildlife, as well as local declines in abundance of individuals.” In an article for the journal Science, Stanford biologist Rodolfo Dirzo and his colleagues summarize the impact that the last five hundred years of human activity has had on other animal species:

Humans have triggered a wave of extinction, threat, and local population declines that may be comparable in both rate and magnitude with the five previous mass extinctions in Earth’s history…Of a conservatively estimated 5 million to 9 million animal species on the planet, we are likely losing ~11,000 to 58,000 species annually…Across vertebrates, 16 to 33% of all species are estimated to be globally threatened or endangered, and at least 322 vertebrate species have become extinct since 1500.

As sobering as these statistics may be on their own, Dirzo emphasizes that extinction isn’t the only (or necessarily even the best) measure for the loss of biodiversity. He notes that “whereas the extinction of a species often proceeds slowly,” a decline in species population to “functionally extinct levels can occur rapidly.” Many of the planet’s extant vertebrates are, if not on the verge of extinction, still under threat; Dirzo reports that there has been “a mean decline of 28% in number of individuals across species in the past four decades, with populations of many iconic species such as elephant rapidly declining towards extinction.”

Giving Global Warming Its Due

Most of us are already familiar with the threat global warming poses to humans and their societies, but let’s hit the highlights. Conservative estimates of the increase in the temperature of the planet by the end of the century range from two to three degrees Celsius. The best outcome—two degrees of warming—will kick off the collapse of the ice sheets, subject 400 million more people to conditions of water scarcity, and exile human beings from hellishly hot equatorial zones. In his book The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells sets out the consequences of a (completely plausible) rise of not just two, but three or four degrees of warming:

At three degrees, southern Europe would be in a permanent drought, and the average drought in Central America would last nineteen months longer and in the Caribbean twenty-one months longer. In northern Africa, the figure is sixty months longer—five years. The areas burned each year by wildfires would double in the Mediterranean and sextuple, or more, in the United States. At four degrees, there would be eight million more cases of dengue fever each year in Latin America alone and close to annual global food crises. There could be 9 percent more heat-related deaths. Damages from river flooding would grow thirtyfold in Bangladesh, twentyfold in India, and as much as sixtyfold in the United Kingdom. In certain places, six climate-driven natural disasters could strike simultaneously and, globally, damages could pass $600 trillion—more than twice the wealth as exists in the world today. Conflict and warfare would be double.

Wallace-Wells paints a particularly bleak picture, emphasizing that no nation or individual, regardless of wealth, will be wholly sheltered from the consequences of global warming. The culpability for warming, however, is not distributed equally; wealthy Western nations (together with the economic and political elites of poorer countries) bear a disproportionate responsibility for global warming. The damage it causes will also be doled out in unequal shares.

Anthropocene Fictions

All this talk of carbon emissions and sea level rise, deforestation and animal extinction—what does it have to do with literary fiction? Adam Trexler takes up just this question in his study Anthropocene Fictions: The Novel in a Time of Climate Change. He suggests that writing the Anthropocene poses significant challenges to generic conventions. The bildungsroman, for instance, is meant to chart the journey from tutelage and dependence to self-determination. Trexler argues, however, that the conditions of the Anthropocene trouble the telling of such a story: “Coming-of-age stories break down when the actions of prior generations trigger insolvable weather disasters and collapse economic opportunities for young people struggling toward independent adulthood.” Writing the Anthropocene also has the potential to muddle the boundaries between genres: “literary novels bleed into science fiction; suspense novels have surprising elements of realism; realist depictions of everyday life involuntarily become satire.”

And everywhere, even in those works with the most fidelity to the actualities of the world, there is a sense of the uncanny, the familiar become strange. The spawning of hybrid genres in themselves needn’t trouble the writer of fiction. Just as the generic misfit “weird literature” has proven fertile ground for writers such as Kelly Link, Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, and others, so to the genre-bending forces of the Anthropocene may unleash new imaginative energies.

A shift from “climate change fiction” to “Anthropocene fiction” embraces not only novels like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, but also narratives of radiological disasters such as those depicted in Jim Shepard’s “Zero Meter Diving Team” (about Chernobyl), and Benjamin Percy’s “Meltdown,” which imagines the consequences of an irradiated Oregon. A shift in perspective to the Anthropocene also encourages us to take up the challenge of incorporating non-human temporalities into our work. Rachel B. Glaser’s story “Pee on Water,” for example, traverses the whole of human evolution in eight pages; Shepard’s stories “In Cretaceous Seas” and “Proto-Scorpions of the Silurian” both place domestic conflicts in proximity to the evolutionary oddities of past ages.

First impact fiction, understood within the context of the Anthropocene, offers a conceptual terrain capacious enough to encompass the full extent of our present catastrophe. It also suggests a path other than satire or dystopia, forms which, respectively, tend to encourage a stance of ironic disengagement, or project the consequences of human action into an imagined future too easily dismissed as fantasy.

I’m beginning to think that the best way to write about our present disaster, in the unblinking light of this bad star, is to describe our impact on the planet as it is (or could be) lived today. This will involve some genre-bending, pushing up against, for example, the modern novel’s resistance to the improbable, and its discomfort with collective and non-human agencies (see Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable). To bring the Anthropocene into focus for our readers, we’re going to have to produce generic abominations: monstrous, uncanny narratives, stories bristling with ancient brachiopods and butterflies driven off course by climate change, beached whales with stomachs filled with plastic bags. But not only this, also stories of characters who seriously contemplate or perhaps even band together to resist the forces of imperialism and capitalism that have brought us to this crisis, threatening to inflict the greatest harm on the most vulnerable.

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