Published online by Cambridge University Press: 27 May 2021
Martin Harrison (1949–2014), poet and critic
GLEICH UND GLEICH LIKE AND LIKE
Ein Blumenglöckchen A little bellflower
Vom Boden hervor Forth from the ground
War früh gesprosset Had sprung up early
In lieblichem Flor; In charming full bloom;
Da kam ein Bienchen There came a little bee
Und naschte fein:— And finely nibbled:—
Die müssen wohl beide They must both surely
Für einander sein. (Goethe, MA 9:105) Be made for one another.
Goethe and the Onset of the Anthropocene
OVER A DECADE AGO, the scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer applied the term “Anthropocene” to describe the current geological era, which they regard as the first era in which large-scale transformations of the earth are driven by human impacts. As Steffen et al. put it in a more recent article, human influence “has become so large and active that it now rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system.” In addition to influencing the carbon cycle, they explain, “humans are (i) significantly altering several other biogeochemical, or element cycles …; (ii) strongly modifying the terrestrial water cycle …, altering the water vapour flow from the land to the atmosphere; and (iii) likely driving the sixth major extinction event in Earth history.” The great task of the future, they agree, will have to involve major changes in the way we think about and behave toward the natural world; it will require us to develop new strategies for sustainability that involve intensive research, and, as Crutzen and Stoermer put it, “wise application” of this research (18).
Crutzen and Stoermer as well as Steffen et al. date the beginning of the Anthropocene to 1800, coinciding with the rise of industry and hence of energy-dependent processes, which significantly increased the human imprint on the environment. Whereas in 1750 the Industrial Revolution had barely begun, by 1850 England and much of Western Europe had been completely transformed. The year 1800 thus marks an important turning point and a fundamental reorientation in the history of the earth and humanity. As Steffen et al. write, the beginning of the Anthropocene is “one of the great transitions … in the development of the human enterprise” (847).