Last week scientists declared that we are living in a new geological era – the Anthropocene. In fact anyone born after 1950 has always lived in it. This era is characterised by the changes on the planet wrought by one species – us.
In geological terms sixty years is tiny, so it is far too early to tell exactly how this era will go, but the early signs are not good. Climate change is already resulting in polar ice melting and rising sea levels, although not everyone agrees. There are those who deny climate change, but perhaps once dinosaurs denied the existence of asteroids. The 1950 start date of the Anthropocene was chosen to coincide with the start of nuclear tests and we still have no idea of what that could mean for our age, but it could be disaster. It is also too early to say how we architects of the Anthropocene will cope with the environmental catastrophes that may well characterise this era.
‘The Girl from Brittia’ is mostly set during the great environmental disaster of 535-6, which I described in In search of The Waste Land and in this story we see how the different characters and peoples respond to this disaster. These can be summed up in the following ways:-
- Good management. Careful rationing of food allows everyone to eat.
- Greed. Wealth decides who lives and who dies.
- Self-sacrifice. Rations are given up to those who need them most.
- Theft. Desperate people attack their more fortunate neighbours.
- Blame. A superstitious people decide on a scapegoat.
Human nature has not changed much since the Dark Ages and we are undoubtedly capable of all these reactions to the environmental disasters we cause. But we still have an option that was not open to the Angles, Varni and the other people of the sixth century. There was nothing they could do about a super-volcano. We are more fortunate. We still have this option.
- Prevention. The people of the 21st century recognise the potential disaster that looms. They switch to clean energy, they redistribute wealth to create a more equal society and broker peace deals to usher in a new era of co-operation.
I truly hope the historical novelists of a thousand years from now can tell that story. If not we risk the Anthropocene turning into an age even more brutal than the Dark Ages. Our species and many others are depending on us to make the right decision.