Allen S. Maller

The Genesis of the Anthropocene Era of Human dominance

The word, “Anthropocene” was first used in its current sense in the 1980s to describe the concept of a new geological epoch in which human beings have become the primary influencing factor. The Anthropocene is usually considered as an epoch that directly follows the Holocene. Some scientists place the start of the Anthropocene in the mid-20th century. Others argue for the industrial revolution around the late 18th century.

Melinda Zeder, curator of old world archaeology at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, has a whole other way of looking at it. “I think that the Anthropocene and the Holocene are synonymous,” says Zeder.

Most scientists would agree that the Holocene started roughly 11,700 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene. Many species of megafauna, including mammoths, mastodons and saber-toothed cats became extinct at around that time. Humans were spreading all over the Earth, having already penetrated the Americas, Australia and many islands. Soil biology was changing. Agriculture was emerging in the Fertile Crescent. The glaciers had been in retreat for a few thousand years and a warming trend was under way.

If Zeder and her colleagues are correct in their view that humans were the primary engineers of change on Earth since the late Pleistocene, then maybe there really never was a Holocene. It was the Anthropocene Era all along; and if we take the Jewish calendar year 5,777 and add the six ‘days’ of creation (each day equals 1,000 years according to Psalms 90:4) we get 11,777 years ago as the start of the Anthropocene Era.

For over 11,000 years, humans have been altering landscapes not only through farming, and domesticating animals, but also through the movement of invasive species. Some were accidental hitchhikers and others were deliberately moved around to provide food and other resources for humans.

“In [the islands of] Southeast Asia, humans transported a range of domesticates, as well as various species of deer, primate, civet, cuscus, wallaby, bird, shrew, rat and lizard to generate habitats more favorable to human sustenance.” In other words, even before the invention of the wheel, humans were already having an impact on global climate change.

One example offered by the paper is the transformation of land into pastures, beginning 7-8 thousand years ago in central and northern Eurasia. Forests and tall grasslands were burned. Introduced species, including the ancestors of modern cattle, thrived on the new growth. The amount of light and heat reflected back towards the sky changed with the switch from forest to pasture, which seems to have impacted the monsoon system.

There have been four major periods of habitat transformations by humans that are emblematic. They include the Late Pleistocene dispersal of humans nearly everywhere around the globe; the spread of agriculture beginning in the Early Holocene; the expansion of urbanization and trade beginning in the Bronze Age; and the formation of new minerals as a result of human activities like making bricks.

Scientists say there are more unique minerals on our planet than ever before in its 4.5-billion-year history, and it’s thanks in part to us humans. A paper published in American Mineralogist (March 2017), reveals that human activities have helped create a distinct geological era called the Anthropocene Epoch.

“If you came back to Earth 100 million years from now, you would find a distinctive marking layer of brick and concrete alloys, batteries and myriad crystalline forms that characterize our age and show it is different from anything that has come before,” said Robert Hazen, a senior staff scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Science.

The official definition of a mineral is a naturally occurring crystal with a unique chemical composition and well-defined structure. So far, mineralogists have discovered about 5,200 distinct and officially recognized mineral species here on Earth. Now the researchers have cataloged 208 mineral and mineral-like compounds that they say occur primarily because of human activity on the planet.

New minerals have been found as by products of sacrificial burning sites, and on ancient works of art. And some of these new crystal structures have been synthesized deliberately — for example in industrial processes like those used to make porcelain, reinforced concrete and bricks.

Bricks are the oldest mass produced industrialized products. The reason the city of Babylonia and its Tower were problematical was that they were made of bricks.

When the post flood humans said “to one another; come let us make bricks and burn them throughly.” (11:3) they were doing much more than discussing building methods. Bricks are one of the first building materials created by human beings. (Sun dried bricks made of mud and straw, are called adobe’. They were used in the famous ziggurat temples of Mesopotamia.

But over time rain and flood water dissolve sun dried mud and straw bricks, and cause them to crumble and break apart. Ancient brick makers learned to “burn” bricks by baking them in a very hot oven called a kiln. Then the bricks became very hard and durable. Manufacturing hundreds of thousands of bricks for very large building projects produced the first mass production factories.)

When the post flood humans said “to one another; come let us make bricks and burn them throughly.” (11:3) they wanted to build their city with uniform manufactured bricks, instead of natural unhewn stones. They did not want each stone to be a different shape and color from all the other stones because they wanted to unify themselves by highly organized, conformist, teamwork, factory behavior, as well as an all encompassing common purpose.

Also. the use of uniform bricks made it easier to build giant building projects with much higher buildings, even a skyscraper temple tower; for they thought that if another flood occurred, perhaps they could survive on the roofs of their tall buildings, or on top of their temple tower.

The Biblical opposition to the use of baked bricks in a ritual/spiritual context may also be connected with our interpretation of the sin of the city builders. Immediately after the giving of the ten commandments the Torah says, “An alter of earth you shall make for me…(Exodus 20:21) and “If you make me an alter of stone, do not build it of hewn stone, for if you use a tool on it, you pollute it. (20:25). Thus, an alter of natural unshaped building materials are preferred by the Torah to manufactured materials.

The fear of dispersal and the need to make a name for themselves shows that the generations following the flood lacked both a self-confident individual identity and an established positive group identity. Their polytheistic account of the flood, found in the ancient Epic of Gilgamesh, relates that the gods decided to destroy humanity because humans made to much noise, and kept the gods from sleeping.

These early humans believed that violence was natural, normal and thus inevitable. Wide spread human and animal violence would not be punished by the gods because, in polytheistic myths, the gods themselves spend a lot of time fighting and killing each other.

Finally, humans were proud that every single human being spoke the same language, and that their one language had only “a few words” (11:1 literal translation from Hebrew). They believed that one language would guarantee co-operation, so they would not have to learn to respect social or personal differences because there would be no differences between individuals or groups of people. This seemed to them to be an ideal way for humans to create harmony; and avoid strife and violence.

Their plan for the city might have been modeled on bee hives or termite mounds: lots of close contact, with a high degree of conformity and common purpose. When God sees what they are scheming to do, and what effects that master plan will have on the future of humanity; God confounds their language, and disperses them all over the surface of the earth. This geographical expansion will promote linguistic, cultural and religious diversity which in turn will greatly enrich humanity’s cultural, artistic and spiritual productivity.

Indeed, there are 6,909 known spoken languages today, although about half will very likely no longer be spoken in another two to four generations. Although globalization will lead to the disappearance of many languages and cultures; new religions seem to still be growing rapidly. How long they will last is not yet known, but it is hard to argue that we should or will ever go back to the days when humanity had only “one language with a few words.”

About the Author
Rabbi Allen S. Maller has published over 850 articles on Jewish values in over a dozen Christian, Jewish, and Muslim magazines and web sites. Rabbi Maller is the author of "Tikunay Nefashot," a spiritually meaningful High Holy Day Machzor, two books of children's short stories, and a popular account of Jewish Mysticism entitled, "God, Sex and Kabbalah." His most recent books are "Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms' and "Which Religion Is Right For You?: A 21st Century Kuzari" both available on Amazon.
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