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Making the Most of the Anthropocene: Facing the Future

Mark Denny (2017), Making the Most of the Anthropocene: Facing the Future, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,
224pp, ISBN 978-1-421-42300-5 (hardcover)

David Mond, Mathematics Institute, University of Warwick

Geologists divide the history of the earth into epochs. The dinosaurs died out at the end of the Cretaceous, which was followed by the Eocene. The Holocene, which began 11,500 years ago, saw the development of human civilisation. Now, according to the Nobel-prizewinning chemist Paul Crutzen, we are entering the Anthropocene, an epoch in which the dominant forces affecting the environment are human. In the Anthropocene, we are no longer at the mercy of natural forces, but instead are threatened by the secondary effects of our own successes: overpopulation, climate change and pollution.

Mark Denny's book on the Anthropocene has 42 short chapters, many with punning titles, though some, like 'Collective Stupidity', cut straight to the chase. They jump around a wide range of subjects – religion vs science, industrial revolutions, extinctions, globalisation, economics (we don't understand it), population growth, power generation and distribution, agriculture and food production, obesity – but converge on what is arguably the greatest challenge facing humanity (and all the other species), climate change. Of the book's 42 chapters, 17 are devoted to this, or 19 if you count 'Extinctions' and 'Collective Stupidity'.

Denny is pessimistic, not because the problem of climate change is intrinsically insuperable, but because he believes that our social and political systems are not up to dealing with it. He argues strongly in favour of nuclear power, which, even without further technological advances, would be a safe and reliable source of electricity for the foreseeable future. In France, which generates three quarters of its electricity from nuclear power, more people die from drinking wine than in nuclear accidents or from radioactive releases. Our fear of the unknown leads most of the world to prefer coal, which releases more radioactivity into the atmosphere per kWh than nuclear power, in addition to shortening the lives of millions of people through the atmospheric pollution it causes. This irrational preference for the dangers we know over the ones with which we are less familiar is an example of the collective stupidity that Denny thinks will doom us to devastating climate change. Besides collective stupidity, we are hamstrung by uncertainty, which gives politicians wriggle-room to avoid the short-term costs that would improve our long-term chances, and by the inability of separate individuals and groups to collaborate for the common good.

There are many briefly footnoted references, with details listed over 15 pages at the end of the book. Most are to newspaper and magazine articles available online, so they are immediately accessible, and often useful. Though, by the same token, being short and popular, they are not in general a way in to serious study. Following up some of Denny's references, I found myself looking in some very strange places – for example, War on the Rocks, 'a platform for analysis, commentary, debate and multimedia content on foreign policy and national security issues through a realist lens'. His reference to '“Global warming the greatest scam in human history”, claims founder of the Weather Channel', Daily Express, 9 June 2015 (available on the Daily Express online archive) gives you a taste of some of the idiocy that seems to have infected Republicans in the USA.

Did I like it? Not very much, though I agree with Denny's analysis and his conclusions, and admire the breadth of his knowledge. Somehow the jokes are not quite funny, and the style is often bland and clichéd. Why should this matter? This is a serious subject, and literary preferences shouldn't come into it. That's true, and in many respects this is a very good introduction. But somehow, given the depth of the issues, one wants to come away with a feeling of … a sorrow shared, or a deeper strength to face up to the gathering clouds … and I just didn't get that. What would I want from a book on climate change? I'd like it to inform me of the basic science; this book does that. I'd like to understand the possible approaches to solving the problem; Denny gives a good account, with enough numbers to appreciate the costs and commitments involved. I'd like it to focus on where the real difficulties lie, in particular in getting and keeping to an agreement on emissions reductions, and Denny gives a good account of Game Theory memes like the Prisoners' Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons, which help to understand why we have so startlingly failed to act to avert the coming disaster. So in terms of the information given, there's little to complain about.

Denny's ventures into future scenarios (such as Professor Albedo's Climatology 101, from 2060) seem slightly hackneyed, and I take the opportunity of this review to mention another (short) essay in futurology: 'The Collapse of Western Civilisation, a View from the Future', by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway (89 pages, published in 2014 by Columbia University Press), which I found more thought-provoking, and strongly recommend.

But, one should not let the best be the enemy of the good. This book does a competent job of sketching the challenges that face us, and the likely direction of our progress into the Anthropocene. I do not know a better book covering this range of topics both briefly and understandably.

Postscript: In February 2003, the impending threat of an unjust war against Iraq brought a million people out onto the streets of London. In Rome, there were 3 million! The largest demonstration calling for action against climate change was the People's Climate March, which took place in September 2014 in New York City. It had 311,000 participants. The lives of our children and grandchildren are at stake, and the survival of the kind of human society we feel proud to live in – and yet we are less exercised about it than about an impending war which, though clearly unjust, did not threaten us in any real way. What is it that makes the difference? It is that we could feel angry and righteous about Iraq.

Welcome to the Anthropocene! Who is the enemy? The enemy is us! And because the enemy is us, and we don't know how to fight ourselves, we are in danger of losing the war.

Loren Pugh, Department of Physics, Monash University

Mark Denny (a theoretical physicist and the author of numerous books), provides a comprehensive overview of how he sees the current state of humanity, from a mostly scientific perspective. He begins with a thorough explanation of what an Anthropocene era would look like regarding deep time, and how it compares to other eras; starting with the conclusion that the actions of humanity have had an impact on the earth as profound as an ice age, he examines – with the aid of extensive research and thorough consideration – how this came to be and what it means for our future. Despite the potentially heavy topic, Making the Most of the Anthropocene is engaging from the start, using a light-hearted tone and science fiction references to educate the reader while entertaining them. Denny's skilful writing and his roots in the scientific process combine to produce a book that, although not perfect, is perfectly intentioned for its target audience.

Denny grapples with understanding the snapshot which is our present day by looking back on history and scientific progress; he then projects forward possible futures including analysis of multiple contributing factors. The style varies: a beginning filled with puns and fun references gives the impression that this book will be an easy read, and for the most part that is true, but at times this tone is lost – either intentionally or not – and when statistics are incorporated they are often simply a page of continuous numbers. Not only is this somewhat overwhelming, but the importance of the statistics isn't easily apparent when these data-heavy pages become decontextualised. While every standalone chapter is well-intentioned and is designed to set the scene, in the middle of the book the reasons for including some of them become vague, and these tangents interrupt the flow of Denny's overarching message.

Although façades of objectiveness are sprinkled throughout, it is no secret that this book was written with a purpose. Many of these technical sections appear to interrupt the contention as much as support it, leading to chapters which are both less entertaining for readers and jarring in terms of an umbrella understanding. Overall, this would be a hard read for anyone who does not fit Denny's criteria of 'intelligent nonspecialists interested in environmental matters'. Despite these complex subsets, the book aims to simplify science, and for the most part Denny has done an excellent job at doing just that.

Throughout the text, Denny's expertise as a scientist is on display again and again. His understanding of the scientific method and heavy use of credible references gives the impression of a reliable source of information to influence the reader in agreeing with his point of view. Also interesting is his approach to objectivity. There is a clear contrast between sections which are presented as an observation and analysis package, and those which are clearly one-sided and signposted as being a personal opinion. Despite Denny's best efforts to remain objective in parts, the undertones of bias are pervasive and assist his agenda. For example, a chapter about nuclear power called 'The Ugly' acknowledges society's negative perception of nuclear power but doesn't fully address why it exists, instead favouring a stance which talks about the benefits and its necessity as a future energy source. Denny provides insight into the most talked-about options for energy provision, and a comparison of their strengths, weaknesses and practicality from a human perspective. This acknowledges not only the technological implications, but also the social implications and current views for what will power humanity's future. The science sections maintained their entertainment values with effective adoption of a lecturer persona, complete with an irritating cough, to make climatology a more palatable subject. Denny's communication of the science was well rounded, detailed and informative.

One key factor for a book about the human age is that history has a very important role to play. Although all chapters are well researched, it is clear that this book is written by someone with a scientific background as it is that subject matter which dominates. Denny's craftsmanship comes to the fore in some of the science-heavy sections such as a complex and well-illustrated analogy between climate change and drunks with bricks. This juxtaposes harshly with the history sections, which, in general, give the impression that there is less familiarity with and enthusiasm towards the topic. This leads to them becoming quite information-heavy, with the industrial revolution section in particular being very dry in comparison to the light-hearted tone the reader was set up to expect.

Although accessible to all, this scientific text has a political backbone – especially when it comes to topics such as climate change which are still contested in the non-scientific political arena – and those who already share a familiarity with some of the issues that are addressed, and share a similar opinion, are likely to find the politics more palatable. There is every opportunity for some readers to feel estranged from the content as assumptions are made that the readership shares a similar ideology to the author. Although this may largely be true, the few readers who pick up this text without strong scientific or liberal views may feel conflicted about their beliefs in some areas, leading to them being unable to engage with Denny's line of reasoning and ultimately his conclusions. This poses the question of what is the purpose of such a text, which merely confirms the views of its audience?

The end of the text goes one step further than establishing a factually supported vision of reality as we know it, and looks at options for moving forward. Denny explains and compares four different ways that we could approach the future: 'Business As Usual', which is an alternative to saying 'do nothing'; 'Love, Peace and Granola', for those with a more optimistic view than the author; 'Technofix', the strong preference regarding practicality; and finally, 'We're Doomed', a scenario which could be avoided if society manages a timely transition to the Technofix mindset. The text is designed to take the reader on a journey, one where the author's opinion is well established, thoroughly researched and logically explained at every turning point. Thus, the reader is positioned to easily agree with Denny's diplomatically phrased conclusions about the likelihood of a lifestyle which is only mildly less industrial than that currently experienced in many Westernised countries. It is unlikely that an audience with strongly held beliefs – either pessimistic or optimistic – would be radically swayed; however, Denny's craftsmanship and rational line of reasoning is likely to sway the ambivalent, or intelligent and politically interested, general public.

Making the Most of the Anthropocene skilfully covers topics from mutually assured destruction to the stupidity of collective humanity in a light-hearted manner, which somehow still ends up leaving the reader feeling optimistic about the future. With a broad brushstroke, a slew of statistical analysis and plenty of puns, Mark Denny gives an insight into how the current state of the world will influence what the future may look like, for a readership likely to have some answers already.


 

To cite either of these reviews please use the following details: Mond, D OR Pugh, L. (2018), Denny, Mark (2017), 'Making the Most of the Anthropocene: Facing the Future', Reinvention: an International Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 11, Issue 2, http://www.warwick.ac.uk/reinventionjournal/archive/volume11issue2/mond-and-pugh Date accessed [insert date]. If you cite these reviews or use them in any teaching or other related activities please let us know by e-mailing us at Reinventionjournal at warwick dot ac dot uk.