When will the climate era end?
We try to make sense of who we are by dividing our lives into chapters. But chapters have ends - so when does this one conclude?
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I map my journey through life with a few key signposts. There are moments in the course of my life - some obvious, some very personal - that have come to define the end of one era and the beginning of another.
My first visit to the Philippines in 2006, marking the end of my early creative career in Canberra and the beginning of my widening horizons. The 2013 You Are Here Festival, which signalled the end of my life as a festival director and arts producer. The Australian bushfires of summer 2019-20 that abruptly concluded the freewheeling 2010s and welcomed the chaotic 2020s. The end of a relationship, the conclusion of a long-term project, the death of a friend. These dividing lines we draw in our own histories to make sense of our lives.
Over the course of my life, I've seen the conversation around climate and global change transform. When I was growing up, climate change was conceived of as a scientific issue, a matter for researchers and governments. But over the last two decades, we've seen a growing awareness that climate change is not a scientific issue - it's the backdrop against which all other issues take place. Climate has ceased to be a niche field, and extended to touch every aspect of society and how we live.
Despite the regular warnings from climate scientists since my childhood, I still find it disorienting to live in the midst of escalating climate impacts. I grew up in the late twentieth century, in an era of US dominance and the 'end of history'. The main issues in the world seemed to be debates around social inequity and the fear of terrorism. None of that prepared me for an adulthood in a world where history is being driven by a rapidly destabilising biosphere, and humanity's reactions in response.
In the last few years, I’ve come to think of climate as an era, not an issue. It's a historical period, not an event with a before and after. For our generation - and for many generations to come - it's the backdrop of our entire lives.
Seen in this light, we can understand climate change not as a crisis in itself, but as the background to all the other crises we face. As Zoe Svendsen says, it's the context, not the problem.
Already, we are finding our ability to deal with crises such as Covid impacted by global warming. In January 2022, Covid testing sites in Sydney were shut down due to extreme heat. Typhoons in the Philippines and hurricanes in the United States have forced people into evacuation shelters where social distancing is impossible. Supply chain issues have been exacerbated by unseasonable storms and flooding. The 'threat multiplier' that climate scientists warned of back in the 2000s has arrived. In the climate era, there's no such thing as a simple disaster.
Thinking about climate and global change as an era is not new. In the year 2000, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen argued that human influence on the planet is now so significant that we have entered a new geological epoch. The transformations we have wrought on the Earth's atmosphere, ecosystems and oceans will be visible in the geological record for the rest of the planet's lifespan. The term Crutzen proposed for this epoch is now familiar: the Anthropocene.
I have no issues with the Anthropocene as a word or a concept, but I don't often use it personally. Partly it's simply a matter of scale - geological epochs can last for millions of years, and I just don't think on those timeframes. But also 'Anthropocene' just feels too technical for everyday use. It's a precise term with a specific meaning, whose exact definition is currently being negotiated by an official working group of geologists.
For myself, I prefer something vaguer but simpler. Whereas the Anthropocene is a unit of geological time (alongside the Pleistocene and the Holocene), to me the term 'climate era' feels more like a historical period - a cousin of the Bronze Age or the Medieval Era. The Anthropocene speaks of human impact on the fossil record, while the climate era gestures more to the impact of climate change on social and political systems - the empires that will rise or fall, the lives that humans will lead, in this moment in history.
As soon as we start talking about climate change as a historical era, two questions arise: When did it begin? And when will it end?
The starting date is a subject of rich debate. Scientists have spent decades looking for the so-called 'golden spike' - the first definite signal of human activity in the geological record. Some point to changes in land-use around 8,000 years ago, when ancient farmers began clearing forests to grow crops. Others date it to around 1500 AD, with the arrival of European colonists in the Americas and the subsequent population crash of Indigenous peoples. Still others place it just after World War II, when radioactive isotopes from nuclear tests appear in the geological record for the first time.
Other starting dates don't correlate to geological markers but to social phenomena. We could imagine the climate era beginning in the 1970s, when scientists began debating the significance of rapidly rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Or in 1988, when James Hansen testified to the United States Congress that 'global warming is happening now'. Or even to the emergence of the pandemic in 2019, the arrival of the first major global crisis caused by human impact on the biosphere.
We discuss and argue over the starting point for this era constantly - because at some level, we understand that where we choose to date it from determines what kind of story we're telling. Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis note:
'If the [start date] is pinned to the Columbian Exchange (around 1500 AD), the deaths of 50 million people, and the beginnings of the modern world, then it is a deeply uncomfortable story of colonialism, slavery and the birth of a profit-driven capitalist mode of living being intrinsically linked to long-term planetary environmental change. Alternatively, pinning the [start date] to nuclear weapons testing as the key marker tells a story of an elite-driven technology that threatens planet-wide destruction.'
Our origin myths tell us who we think we are, and who we want to become - of course we wrestle with them constantly. But rarely do we ask about the end of an era before it's upon us.
So when will the climate era end?
The Bronze Age ended in 1776 BC with the collapse of the Mycenaean, Hittite and Egyptian empires. The Medieval Era is said to have concluded with the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453 AD. All historical periods come to a close - ours will too.
At one extreme, we could say that the climate era ends when the excess greenhouse gases we've released make their way back to the earth's crust. This takes place through a process called silicate rock weathering, and short of some gnarly human intervention, it will take around 100,000 years.
At the other extreme, we could say that the climate era lasts seven generations, or roughly 200 years. This is a somewhat arbitrary duration that emerges regularly in the environmental and sustainability community. Drawn from the Iroquois tradition of 'seventh-generation thinking', it's a way of thinking about our actions in a deeper timeframe.
Is the Climate Era seven generations long? If the era began in the late 20th century, the seven generations idea suggests it will end sometime in the late 22nd. While that's a possibility, we'll still be in the middle of some massive transformations in the year 2200 AD. In particular, the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets will still be melting, oceans will still be rising, so humanity may still be negotiating a staged retreat from the coastline.
Perhaps sea level rise is a good indicator. At some point in the next 200 - 600 years, the seas will stop rising. When the world’s oceans have stabilised at their new level, humans will see the contours of their new world. That feels like a moment of conclusion, and the beginning of a new phase in human history.
But of course, the political aftershocks of the redrawing of the world's map will be colossal. It will surely take many decades for humanity to regain its equilibrium once the tide finally stops rising.
So perhaps the climate era ends roughly 800 years after the seas have settled, when the currents have washed up enough sand on the new shorelines to create sandy beaches. When there are once again humans lying on towels in the sand and making sandcastle, maybe then we can say the Climate Era is over.
Or maybe the conclusion is less tangible than that. Maybe the end of the Climate Era is not something with a physical imprint, but something we feel.
All of us alive today were born in an era where the planetary system is destabilising. We live in a world that grows more unstable and chaotic the older we get. The same will be true for the generation born after ours. When we look into our future, we see frightening storms blotting out the horizon.
But there will be a generation - our grandchildren, or our grandchildren’s grandchildren - for whom the world will grow more stable rather than less. They will be born in the heart of the storm, but in a world where humanity has passed through the crux. They'll live in an age of high greenhouse gas concentration, but they'll see CO2 in the atmosphere start to tick down rather than up. They'll experience the whiplash of extreme weather, but the worst of the shocks will be lessening rather than growing.
For that generation, record breaking temperatures will once again be news-worthy rather than constant. The word 'unprecedented' won't be worn out from overuse. And most of all, they'll grow up knowing that the world of their old age will be calmer than the world of their youth.
Of course, speculating about an end date to climate change is an arbitrary exercise. Anticipating how future historians will describe our era is pure storytelling. But stories are how we make sense of our world, how we make sense of ourselves.
One reason we draw these dividing lines in our personal histories is to create space for us to grow. We mark the end of an era in our lives and we give ourselves permission to become someone new. We farewell an old job, an old partner, an old home, and we change. We can change!
One day, maybe centuries from now, humanity will decide that we've moved on from the climate era. Historians will draw a line in the sand and declare that we've passed into a new age.
In this new era, people will look back at their ancestors in the early 21st century - with sympathy and contempt - and they'll look forward to the future, and they'll be ready to change.
And what kind of creature will humans become, when we allow ourselves to become something new?
NEWS AND PROJECTS
So incredibly, after more than a year of cancellations and chaos, Club House's Sydney production of 44 Sex Acts In One Week finally went ahead this week. A theatre show, in a theatre! It was a kind of miracle, and I'm so grateful for it. Here's a review:
A show like this one is also a vital proof of concept. The best theatre you’ll see isn’t necessarily forged on the biggest stages, nor does a show need a big budget to be bombastic or to have terribly earnest storylines and deeply nuanced characters in order to be powerful. 44 Sex Acts in One Week is a testament to all of the above, and also proof that nobody even needs to get naked to put on a titilating show that’s all about doing the deed – you just need a bulk order of fresh fruit, and some resourceful sound effects.
Love to Bec Massey, Sheridan Harbridge everyone involved in the production, and all the human beings who came along to see
My brother Tom Finnigan directed and edited this eerie short film over December, using some of my words (and music by our other brother Chris):
Rising Oceans is a visual essay looking at the loss of the world’s beaches through sea level rise over the next hundred years. What do we do when we lose those sandy stretches where we play and surf and sunbathe?
Tom is a stunning film-maker and photographer, and his footage of the NSW South Coast here is utterly lush. Go sink into it.
In December, I got to present some scenes at Sydney Theatre Company for a work-in-progress comedy revue. The Australian Offence Force was assembled and directed by Polly Rowe and Jess Arthur, and I got to participate alongside Jordan Raskopolous, Megan Wilding and Jules Orcullo - a huge privilege.
One of my previous newsletters has been republished on the Artists and Climate Change blog - a great resource of reflections about culture and ecology.
In terms of recommendations - over the new year, I read and loved Xiaowei Wang's Blockchain Chicken Farm, a meditation on tech in rural China. And I've been immersing myself in this 4-part recording of Objekt's recent 9-hour DJ set at Nowadays NYC - a beautiful audio journey.
As ever, you can get more background on my practice in my New Rules for Modelling series, or you can check out my website. And if you have any questions or offers that might make my life more interesting, feel free to get in touch.