Nearly 12,000 years ago, a few things started to happen that were very important for humans. The glaciers retreated and the Earth began to shake off its frosty coat. It was the beginning of the geological period we’ve enjoyed for quite some time now, which scientists named the Holocene. David Attenborough, however, says we’re officially in a new age. “The Holocene has ended,” he said in a moving speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “The Garden of Eden is no more. We have changed the world so much that scientists say we are now in a new geological age—The Anthropocene—The Age of Humans.”
Humans have done a lot in the Holocene. In fact, pretty much everything leading to our modern way of living happened in it. It includes all of our written history, an explosion in population, and the development of entire civilizations. It seems, however, that we may be driving ourselves quickly off a cliff. Recently, The Global Risks Report 2019 declared that humanity was “sleepwalking its way to catastrophe.”
“I am quite literally from another age,” Attenborough said during an interview with Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge in Davos. “I was born during the Holocene – the name given to the 12,000-year period of climatic stability that allowed humans to settle, farm, and create civilizations. Now, in the space of one human lifetime – indeed in the space of my lifetime, all that has changed.”
See, the Holocene came after the last ice age. It’s been 12,000 years of a relatively stable climate—stable enough, anyway, for us to rely on the weather to do similar things in a similar manner at similar times during the year. Sure, there were a few ups and downs, like a warmer-than-average period that lasted about 400 years in the tenth century and then a little ice age (it’s actually called the Little Ice Age, for real) for a few hundred years afterwards, but the climate was generally stable enough that storms weren’t so giant that they demolished vast swaths of land on a regular basis. Stable enough for us to wear jackets in the winter and not freeze to death, and stable enough to wear shorts and t-shirts in the summer and not burn up. It was pretty nice, the Holocene.
According to Attenborough, we’ve fallen so far out of touch with the planet we live on that things are fundamentally changing. “We are now so numerous,” he explained, “so powerful, so all-pervasive, the mechanisms that we have for destruction are so wholesale and so frightening that we can exterminate whole ecosystems without even noticing it.”
Which, as you probably are aware, is something that we’re currently doing. It’s not just a few species here and there that our lust for space and cheeseburgers is killing, either. It’s just that the larger ones generally take up the most room in the headlines. Take Sudan’s last white rhino, for example. Oh, how the world mourned when he was put down! But then there are the smaller things that quietly vanish from the planet every day, like the Derwent river sea star, the Hawaiian crow, the Caribbean monk seal, or the Pinta tortoise, all of which have gone extinct in the wild in the last decade or so with little or no fanfare. Bees are also on their way out, and we don’t have a firm idea why. Plants and insects all over the globe are dropping like flies. Oh, and speaking of flies, the Emperoptera fly, which was native to the Hawaiian Islands, went extinct sometime between 1907 and the early 1980s for unknown reasons.
And I hear you. “Extinction is normal!” you say. “The climate has always been changing!” You are right. Those are both true statements. What’s also true, however, is that both of those things are happening at rates that far exceed any other time in recorded history, and (if you believe in facts, at least), we’re to blame.
Sir David Attenborough has long been the voice of the earth. Despite the fact that he’s spent the last six decades documenting the destruction of our home for the masses, he’s not as pessimistic as one might expect. “It is tempting and understandable to ignore the evidence and carry on as usual or to be filled with doom and gloom,” he said, “but there is also a vast potential for what we might do. We have the power, we have the knowledge to live in harmony with nature. We have to take the option of protecting the natural world. And we are discovering more ways in which we can do so.”