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  • Writer's pictureMichael Sales

Who Is An Anthropocean?

We Anthropoceans are pilgrims setting out on a non-linear, Escheresque highway.

Anthropocene is the term used to describe the Age of Humanity, i.e., an era in which our species began to determine the future evolution of life on Earth. The Anthropocene’s start date hasn’t been fully determined. Some argue that the emission of CO2 into the atmosphere at the start of the Industrial age in 1750 ushered in the Anthropocene. More recently, geologists have asserted that the Age began in 1950, after which humanity’s overwhelming of the Earth’s systems to adapt to our behavior has become undeniably apparent. These effects “include everything from nuclear fallout to species-threatening pollution to steadily rising temperatures.”

Every person presently alive or to be born in the future is or will be an Anthropocean. However, not everyone is a card-carrying member of the new era. The vast majority of people haven’t even heard of the term let alone used it in everyday practice. (The Barbie to Anthropocene search ratio on Google is probably 10,000:1, for example.)

So, what are the characteristics of an Anthropocean, someone who knows that he/she/they are in a new dramatically new geological era?

I don’t assert that my reflections here are based on any rigorous research. I’m using my own adventure in the Anthropocene as a case study; so, my findings are speculative, non-generalizable, a work in progress and will miss the mark entirely for some students of the age.

With those limitations in mind, here are some observations:

Anthropoceans know that they are living in a chaotic era.

We have no expectation of a return to normalcy. We anticipate many if not everything to get increasingly weirder, but not necessarily worse. Anthropoceans tend to have an acute awareness of the fact that reality is a social construction.Δ Many/most non-Anthropoceans view reality as a stable state, something that is “a given” and that change to its fixed nature is frequently viewed with suspicion and concern. Anthropoceans know that the road ahead is likely to be very difficult, that massive change will occur and that such change might make them feel better or worse. Just as nature has demonstrated that it is ever more complex and amazing than we humans have imagined, so are the possibilities contained in alternative futures.

Climate Change is top of mind with virtually all Anthropoceans.

The Choice is Humanity's

I disagree with Elon Musk on many/most matters, but there is no doubt that he is an Anthropocean, and we are both very concerned about climate change. Humanity is frying our Earth to a crisp. On the other hand, the desperately-needed transition to a green economy and society offers an inestimable opportunity for economic and psychological well-being. Anthropoceans know that the choice is humanity’s to make. We’re just disappointed that progress toward a more sustainable future continues to be very slow. Anthropoceans feel a sadness about its fragile state in the face of humanity’s ignorance and/or indifference to the Earth systems upon which it depends.

An avid interest in technology, especially technology that might mitigate the impact of environmental degradation via climate change and pollution. The Singularity, a term used to characterize the emergence the moment in time when the computational power of technology will equal or exceed that of the human brain, is of particular interest to Anthropoceans. Whether the Singularity will generate an era of self-correcting superintelligence in which each individual or group might be able to create his/her/their preferred reality or one in which the technology our species has invented will bring about our extinction is a subject of great debate.

Which Way?

An awareness of and fascination with both inner and outer cosmic consciousness.

This needs to be unpacked a bit.

Physical cosmic consciousness entails an awareness of and an excitement about the extension of human insight into the universal and the subatomic context within which we exist and have our physical being.

What the Heck is Going On?!

Science is eager to put a period on this question mark in the universe by assuring us in the Western world that there is a perfectly logical explanation for this metaphoric image. Maybe it’s nothing more than two merging galaxies. I’m sure that this happens every day in someone’s version of normal, but I have a hunch that the Universe’s question mark is going to be around for a long time as far as humanity is concerned, and, at the rate our species isn’t paying attention to its ever-more present requiem scenario, this question mark could be around for all the time that we have left.

The image below reminds us that, when it comes to widespread chaos combined with definable patterns of behavior, the subatomic level is about as messy as the overall universe. The track of subatomic particles cannot be predicted with precision; they can only be anticipated by the probabilities that are assigned to them.

Subatomic Particles Generated by Ionic Collision

Bottom line, I think it’s safe to say that the sum of what we don’t know is much greater than what we do know. Although we know a lot, we’re likely to keep discovering that we don’t know all that much, and I anticipate that this may always be the case.

And that’s where the inner nature of cosmic consciousness comes into play for some Anthropoceans. We are more likely to be convinced that there is something beyond the realm of rational consciousness and to spend a great deal of energy searching for it, as represented in the Medieval illustration on the cover of an edition of J.M. Bucke’s Cosmic Consciousness. The physical sciences have expanded our consciousness to a virtually infinite degree, but this enlargement of understanding may also point to the existence of a metaphysical realm that the thinking mind itself can never fully penetrate nor comprehend.

A Pilgrim's Progress

Bucke's interest in cosmic consciousness was influenced by his own personal experiences. He described having a profound mystical experience in 1872 while walking the streets of London, Ontario. During this experience, he felt a sudden and intense sense of unity and interconnectedness with the entire universe. He felt a heightened awareness and a deep understanding of the oneness of all things. This experience had a profound impact on him and set him on a lifelong journey to understand and explain this state of consciousness.

-- From Chat GPT

Along with many others from time immemorial, I experienced a moment of unity that permanently change my point of view. Given the chaotic nature of the Anthropocene and the desire for a sense of safety and centeredness in the face of such dramatic change, it is not surprising that many Anthropoceans ingest psychotropics of various sorts to get above the pulsations of the moment in an effort to comprehend a larger context of which they might be a part, a domain that yields security and permanence in the presence of cyclonic change.

As with the Question Mark galaxies (or whatever they may be), mainstream science wants to provide “a perfectly reasonable explanation” to experiences like Bucke's by referring to the "God spot"#, or describing it as a case of temporal lobe epilepsy.

Given that many Anthropoceans may be more devoted to empiricism than they are to poetry, my certitude regarding the prospect of entering cosmic consciousness may be why I don’t get more invitations to highbrow cocktail parties.

An awareness and acceptance of the fluidity of gender

Alfred Kinsey

Probably beginning with Alfred Kinsey’s sexuality research in the late 40s, it’s been apparent that sex, like almost everything else, is not binary. The Anthropocene is blurry and so it is with an individual’s sexuality. Many folks, including Anthropoceans like Musk are still locked into the myth of binarianism, but anyone who listens to his/her/their own mind or keeps track of their dreams knows that there’s always a little bit of fuzz in desire and libido. It may not make one LGBTQ+, but it’ll sure give you a more tolerant attitude toward your local Drag Queen Story Hour.

When I see a crowd of guys riding Harley-Davidsons with their women in the back rack, I see men in a life-style making a statement about what their freedom-loving life style looks like, a statement that is full of symbols full of sexual and social significance.

A Semiotic* Treasure Trove

Increasingly, Anthropoceans see sexuality through rainbow lenses. Considering what our species and our planet is up against in 2023, this sort of “Whatever.” attitude makes a lot of sense.

As the deeply conservative Barry Goldwater once said of gays in the military:

Anthropoceans Focus on the World System

In spite of the fact that nationalism seems to be very much in the news, Anthropoceans hold a globalist perspective. Many of them travel extensively and find other cultures attractive and instructive. It’s not popular with the various chest-pounders from differing national and ethnic tribes, but it’s accurate to acknowledge that a planetary reality is a lot more than a platitude:

We are all in this together, and it’s increasingly clear that (a) ours is a very small place in a very large cosmos and (b) we may not be as alone as we thought.

The interconnectedness of the global system is an astonishing complexity to contemplate. Any element of it has been the topic of some thesis paper somewhere and many of these insights are now available for analysis via GPT Chat.

Personally, I am strongly wedded to democracy as a better system for being in the Anthropocene. Although there is much to criticize in all democracies, it’s a frame of reference that is designed to be a learning system. Organizational Science has developed many proofs of the enhancement of decision-making that comes through a respect for democratic processes.

Don Schön

Chris Argyris

For example, Chris Argyris and Don Schön’s theory of action perspective is one of many examples from the organizational behavior field that lays out of a methodology for increasing the functionality of democratic decision-making in organizations.

So, perhaps like most people, I interact with the world system with a set of biases influenced by the time, place, and dynamics of the life I was born into. Furthermore, the structure of one’s primary (and, in my case, only) language constrains and directs my ability to think and express myself in many unconscious fashions. The US planted an American flag on the Moon, and it’s probably planted one in my psyche as well. I do see the “everything-is-everything” nature of the world system through glasses that have a red, white and blue tinge.

Acknowledging the limitations of exploring the interconnectedness of the world system affected by the biases one brings to observation does not diminish the fact that the effects of weak signals from anywhere in the system may get magnified quickly into far-flung and widespread consequences. Whether Covid-19 started in a lab or at an outdoor market is irrelevant to the fact that the virus has officially killed about 7,000,000 people worldwide since being discovered in January 2020, and the actual number of fatalities is probably much higher.

Covid will not only not be the last pandemic, but the next one is likely to come much sooner than we would want or than we are prepared for

This attentiveness to the gyrations of the world system lead Anthropoceans to be avid consumers of information. The spectrum of sources drawn upon can vary from Anthropocean to Anthropocean, with some using old standbys like The New York Times, The Economist, The Scientific American, The Chinese Science Bulletin, etc. while others dive deep into X and the astonishing proliferation of on-line blogs and social media as their primary info resources.

As the image above illustrates, keeping up with the Jones on the info front is a mighty challenging gig for any Anthropocean. GPTChat believes that “around 2.5 quintillion bytes (2.5 exabytes) of data were created every day in 2020.” That’s the equivalent of 5.25 million 400-page books being produced daily three years ago! The info glut hasn’t slowed up since then.

The Security and Sustainability Guide is an example of an efforts to help people focusing on specific aspects of the glut to access the information of the greatest relevance to their own interests and objectives. The Guide’s operating principle is that there can be no security without sustainability and no sustainability without security. The Guide has identified thousands of organizations living in some way at the intersection of this axiom. Like a detailed tour book to any complicated destination, the Guide is an essential component of anyone adventuring into the Anthropocene. It helps Anthropoceans navigate their way through the complex maze of holistically thinking and acting organizations to discover and consider working with the specific ones that meet and address their own aspirations and concerns.

A Fascination with the Arts, Music and Literature

Anthropoceans don’t spend all their time with their heads in non-fiction books and the science and technology sections of periodicals and blogs. Many of us are avid consumers of artistic artifacts from every conceivable direction.

We are as at home at the Uffizi

As we are at the MOMA

As we are listening to Pharoah Sanders

To Bach

You get the picture.

The Anthropocean sphere of interest is kaleidoscopic

The more you bring a child’s sense of wonder and curiosity to the Anthropocene, the more fun you’re going to have in it.

The Wheel Is Very Much Still in Spin

A young friend of mine recently said, “I get it that you’re wrapped up in this Anthropocene deal, although I can’t really pronounce it. Why? What’s it all about?”

I responded:

“The Anthropocene started somewhere between 200 to 70 years ago when humanity’s release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere began to alter our atmosphere and our climate. Earth entered a new geological era as its fate has become significantly more determined by the values and behavior of our species than by the variations and the stability of our biosphere’s natural systems. The impact of human pollution has accelerated greatly since 1950. The reliance on fossil fuels since that time coincided with a prolonged period of relative peace and economic growth largely under the rubric of American consumer capitalism. Humanity’s acquisitive consciousness is nothing new and has resulted in quite a few disastrous overshoots in the course of recorded history. However, since the end of the Second World War, our species short term thinking and impulsive behavior has been powered by a fuel that is no longer viable as a source of energy.

“Anthropoceans know our present pathway is unsustainable and that there are feasible and available pathways out of this crisis. Anthropoceans want humanity and life on Earth to survive. They realize that it is incumbent on them to do something about the situation they understand at the personal, social, organizational, and political levels of their live.

“Not to do so puts them in the position of armchair philosophers who await the arrival of the barbarians.”


Δ For a full discussion of this topic see Peter Bergman and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Anchor Books, 1966. (Read it soon! If the book banners ever study it, they’ll want to burn it.)

The Chinese version of the question mark:

# “Scientists have speculated that the human brain features a "God spot," one distinct area of the brain responsible for spirituality. Now, researchers have completed research that indicates spirituality is a complex phenomenon, and multiple areas of the brain are responsible for the many aspects of spiritual experiences.” Science Daily, 4/19/12.

*Semiotics is the study of signs, symbols and signification systems. When people say, “You’re your brand!,” they are using semiotics. Every time you have a reaction to something you see and connect to whatever “connotative” meaning a sign has for your, you’re engaging in semiotic analysis. Do you agree that this picture, for example, presents a great deal of majoritarian ideas about masculinity combined with a somewhat genderbending guy whose hair is intended to have wide appeal?

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Sep 13, 2023

Just in case this hasn't come across your desk. It's an interesting read. And if you take a close look at those graphs, the exponential growth (ecological transformations) noted as starting around the 1950's don't suggest to me a beginning point for the Anthropocene but rather a late and perhaps final stage to the epoch. So, interesting question then is, when did it really start? Of all the acknowledged turning points present in human history, the one which generates all of them is the point at which humanity developed the ability to form language, and that occurred around 50,000 BCE m/l. Of all the things we've done as a species that was the one thing that elevated us from…

Michael Sales
Michael Sales
Sep 23, 2023
Replying to

Thanks for your note Ken. I'm glad that the piece held your interest.

There is a lot of debate about when the Anthropocene began and if it began, as discussed in this piece from The Times: No question that the acquisiton of language constituted a critical inflection point in human history, but not necessarily in planetary history. On the other hand, humanity dominating the condition of the atmosphere began to occur with the onset of the Industrial Age and has become an out of control freight train for the planet beginning in the 1950s. Thus, a new planetary era is underway. Its consequences are unfortunate at present, and I sure hope they get better.

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