The Wordsmith

Anthropocene, Anthropause, and Pyrocene

Thanks to the series of lockdowns, nature enjoyed a little respite during the Covid-19 pandemic – until humanity resumed its destructive activities with renewed vigor.
© Sylvie Serprix

“Every cloud has a silver lining.” This proverb springs to mind when discovering the fortuitous consequences – yes, there were a few! – of the Covid-19 pandemic. Due to the various lockdowns, nature was able to enjoy unexpected respite thanks to hampered human activity. As a result, the drop in road traffic led to an increase in air quality, and even noise pollution was reduced.

Scientists have suggested the word “anthropause” to describe this phenomenon. Combining the prefix “anthropo-” from the Greek anthropos, “human,” and the word “pause” used in both English and French, this neologism therefore means a “human pause.” It is similar to the term “andropause,” which refers to a drop in testosterone in men caused by aging – the male equivalent of the menopause, the end of the ovarian cycle in women.

Nature was sometimes able to take back control during this anthropause, particularly in urban environments. Certain wild animal species such as ducks, foxes, and boars were spotted wandering around French cities. Others, however, such as rats and gulls, are so dependent on food thrown out or provided by humans, that they suffered throughout this unprecedented situation.

However we look at it, humans control everything and have had the last word since the start of the Anthropocene, the “era of humans.” This is the word used to describe the geological epoch that began when human influence on ecosystems became a decisive force within the scope of Earth’s history. First put forward in 1922 by Russian geologist Alexei Petrovich Pavlov, before being popularized by Dutch chemist and 1995 Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen, this concept has since been adopted by large swaths of the scientific community.

That being said, there are still several questions that need answering. For example, when exactly did this era begin? Many believe that the starting point is the invention of agriculture, some 8,000 years ago. According to American paleoclimatologist William F. Ruddiman, the Anthropocene dates back to around the year 5,000 B.C., precisely when methane levels began to rise after we started growing rice, domesticating animals, and clearing forests.

Some claim that this era began with the “discovery” of America in 1492, while others point to the industrial revolution in the 18th century. While we are on the subject of geology, the creation of a new interval on the scale of geological ages must correspond to a major event that leaves a trace within sediments. This is the case of ash – the residue of fossil fuel combustion trapped in layers of ice – which offers clues as to the effects of industrialization in Europe in the late 18th century.

Instead of Anthropocene, some left-wing historians have suggested the term Capitalocene, to highlight that capitalism alone is responsible for these ecological changes.

Meanwhile, the andropause caused by Covid-19 was short-lived. With society returning to normal combined with the rebooting of economic growth, humanity’s destructive frenzy restarted with even greater intensity. Now, more than ever, industrial agriculture, fishing in the oceans, and the exploitation of forests are nothing short of large-scale pillaging. What’s more, we have not seen any significant drop in the use of fossil fuels, as if the fight against climate change was no longer a priority – despite the fact that the summer of 2022 was defined by unprecedented heatwaves and devastating wildfires in both France and the United States.

According to Stephen J. Pyne, professor emeritus at Arizona State University, global warming has seen us enter the Pyrocene, or the age of fire, an era in which wildfires will remodel the planet just as ice did tens of millions of years ago at the end of the Pleistocene. Will we be able to rise to such an enormous challenge? We would do well to think back to the prophetic words of former French president Jacques Chirac at the fourth Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002: “Our house is burning down, and we’re blind to it.”

Article published in the October 2022 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.