There’s a popular analogy that if the entire development of our planet were represented by just one day, modern man would appear only as the clock strikes midnight. Despite this tiny fragment, such has been the ascent of man that argument is now under way to decide whether this flash of twin progress and destruction should be afforded its own epochal name: the Anthropocene.
Appropriately for a subject like geology that moves at glacial speed at best, the motley collection of ecologists and climate scientists gathered in Berlin to decide on the issue are permitting themselves a couple of years before they present their recommendations at the International Geological Conference. Even then there’s still the International Commission on Stratigraphy (no, me neither) to make the final ruling on whether we are definitively in the age of man.
Aside from pointing out that the ICS sounds as if it belongs in 1984 with its power to decide - apparently literally - what time it is, there’s an interesting question here about the effect humans have had on our habitat. Does the impact of our societies, industry, trade, our tendency to congregate first in towns, then cities, now megacities mean that we affect change on our environment equivalent to that wrought by natural processes?
And are these trends – ever-increasing urbanisation for example - necessarily negative? I believe that’s a dangerous way of looking at things.
There is an event here in London this week – CityAge – which explores the amazing promise of urban areas, gathering multi-disciplinary leaders from around the world who have the smarts to shape global metropolises without putting finance or business ahead of the environment or ecology of a place. It may take eye-opening gatherings like CityAge, or Monocle’s own show about cities, The Urbanist, to galvanise people, but there is really no limit to the innovations that the best city designers, thinkers, architects and public officials are capable of. Maybe a true “city age”, informed by all these concerns and positively reacting to them, is where humankind should actually be heading next.
Many doom-mongers cite the terrifying impact of industrialisation on the wild world, and the global abuse of scarce natural bounty like minerals or the oceans, as reasons why we are all "running out of time". With that analogical clock striking midnight we’re gripped by a sort of fairy-tale panic that Earth is going to turn back into a pumpkin; or at least a primordial wasteland, devoid of life: the true legacy of the Anthropocene. And yet we’ve probably got one, whole, long millisecond of the Earth day left to turn things around. And I rather fancy that if we look to the innovators in our greatest cities, we might have just the people to pull off the trick.
Tom Edwards is Monocle’s executive producer – radio.