The Hotspur memorandum and humanity’s time

Part 1 of 3

It’s not impossible to imagine that one day, far in the future, our species will cease to exist. That “time must have a stop,” as Harry Percy, nicknamed Hotspur, says in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1,” as he lies dying.

Time as defined by humans hasn’t stopped yet, of course, but it appears that we are slipping from one geological era to another: from the Holocene, embracing the 12,000 years since the end of the last ice age, to the Anthropocene, a term that reflects the fact that anthropus, or mankind, has become the determining force in reshaping the world  — its landscape, soil, rivers, oceans and atmosphere. The term, which the International Union of Geological Sciences has yet to formally adopt, was first proposed in 2000, by Paul Crutzen, a Dutch Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric scientist.

In 2007, AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, a peer-reviewed journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, published an article written by Crutzen in collaboration with chemist Will Steffen and environmental historian John R. McNeill, which bore the title “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” The authors posited three stages in the development of the Anthropocene. The first was The Industrial Era (ca. 1800-1945), marked by the “enormous expansion in the use of fossil fuels, first coal and then oil and gas as well.” The second stage, The Great Acceleration (1945-ca. 2015), saw the world’s population double to more than 6 billion, while the number of motor vehicles soared from about 40 million to nearly 700 million by 1996. As might be expected, these increases were accompanied by a rise in the level of human-created carbon dioxide, associated with the burning of fossil fuels, in the atmosphere. Before the Industrial Era, atmospheric carbon dioxide had hovered around 275 ppm., or parts per million. By 1950, the number had risen to 310, climbing steadily over the next fifty years to 380 ppm. 

Stage three is framed as a question — Stewards of the Earth System? — and here the authors explain why a business-as-usual approach to environmental issues is bound to fail. “The long-term momentum built into the Earth System,” they write, “means that by the time humans realize that a business-as-usual approach may not work, the world will be committed to further decades or even centuries of environmental change….Collapse of modern globalized society under uncontrollable change is one possible outcome.”

As a case in point, the authors note that when, in the 1980s, temperature measurements showed that global warming was reality, the finding “encountered political opposition because of its implications, but within twenty years was no longer in serious doubt.” That claim, of course, had a very brief shelf life. 


Jon Swan is a poet, journalist and former senior editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. Several years ago, after living in the Berkshires for 40 years, he and his wife moved to Yarmouth, Maine. His poems and several articles may be found at www.jonswanpoems.com.