Ecocentricity Blog: So What Epoch Is It Again?

Jan 16, 2018 9:30 AM ET
Campaign: Ecocentricity Blog

Ecocentricity Blog: So What Epoch Is It Again?

Back in middle school and high school, my favorite author was the late Colleen McCullough. My mother introduced me to her “Masters of Rome” book series, which consisted of seven chronological historical fiction novels set in the late Roman Republic of the first century B.C. Those novels sparked my fascination with Roman history, and they are probably responsible for my decision to study Latin in high school and history in college.

I recently reflected on a legend from Roman history that I’m guessing few of you know. It is the story of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the man for whom Cincinnati, Ohio is named.

According to legend, Cincinnatus was a Roman patrician (basically an aristocrat) in the middle of the fifth century B.C. After retiring from politics, Cincinnatus withdrew from Roman society to be a humble farmer on his family’s land. The Roman Republic was going through a rather tumultuous time, however, so Cincinnatus’s retirement did not last.

On two separate occasions, Cincinnatus is said to have been elected “dictator” by the Roman Senate, wherein he was bestowed full governing powers in order to address a crisis. Both times, this humble farmer not only resolved the crisis, but then immediately surrendered his authority back to the Senate and returned to his farm. His story is therefore one of civic virtue, celebrating the moral principles of humility and the appropriate use of power.

In reflecting on this story, I was struck by how different Cincinnatus’s two worlds must have seemed to him. In politics, he would have been dealing with purely human constructs. The crises he resolved, which centered on Roman law, social conflicts, and power struggles within the Republic, were all very much man-made. If the root of the problem was that which people had created, then certainly the problem could be solved by further human action.

In returning to his farm, Cincinnatus must have felt like he was returning to a world outside of human control and influence. Sure, timely plowing and harvesting would have been key to productive yields. That said, he would have simply been working with the conditions that Mother Nature would give him: rainfall, sunshine, cold snaps and warm fronts. On the farm, people aren’t really in control.

How about today? Is it still true that the natural world exists independently from human influence? Or, on the other hand, maybe human constructs have become so pervasive that our impacts are seen in every corner of the globe.

There’s an epochal term for this idea, and it’s called the “Anthropocene.” Some geologists are arguing that human impacts since 1950 have so changed the planet that they have ended the Holocene and ushered in this new epoch. By their arguments (and I agree with them), nearly every system on planet Earth now bears the mark of human influence.Whether or not the legend of Cincinnatus is true, I am confident in saying that the world he knew is vastly different from ours today. Next week, I will do a deeper dive into just how different it really is.