From nuclear waste to huge numbers of jellyfish … what signs will future generations find of today’s ecological crisis?
David Farrier’s idea in this book is to try and imagine our present moment of climate and ecological crisis from a far-distant future. What fossil traces will post-industrial human civilisation leave behind for the future to find? Roads and vast cities, long abandoned and forgotten, will show up as layers in the geological strata; our buried radioactive waste will still be deadly; our throwaway plastic will persist until eventually “over the coming millennia, hydrocarbons leach from the fossil plastic, accumulating in small deposits and setting in motion a slow chemical return” to its origins as oil. Future archaeologists may comment on the dreary sameness of our collective biomass: almost all of it Homo sapiens, along with the few species we like to eat. Which future archaeologists would those be, by the way? Sometimes Farrier is addressing human generations to come; at other times he’s thinking on timescales longer than any species is likely to last, let alone ours with its over-sophistication and bad habits. One microbiologist fantasises that some day a “commune of evolved bees” will encourage bee-scientists to study the Anthropocene as “a warning for all hive-kind”.
The transience of what appears indestructible has been a rich theme in poetry and story. The mists shift on a bleak hillside in Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, where bloody Cobweb Castle is visible, now vanished and forgotten; Saxons write poems about stumbling on the ruins of Roman Aquae Sulis; Batman chases villains round the fallen grandeur of Gotham City. Farrier’s argument is nuanced slightly differently, channelling our contemporary angst. It’s not only that our way of life is transient. Our heedless interventions in the life of the planet – herding, ploughing, planting, building, mining, smelting, processing, communicating – have degraded its complexity and beauty in ways that will long outlast us, leaving their ineradicable taint. “We live in the shadow of an eclipse that will endure perhaps as many as ten million years before sound, shape and colour return in full to the land and the oceans.”
An uninitiated eye can only glide over Farrier’s summaries, adding them on to the mounting heap of glum