We used to think that human civilisation was progressive. The men and women of the Enlightenment believed that ingenuity and good sense could solve most problems and make the world a better place.
The Agricultural Revolution would produce more food and eradicate hunger. The Industrial Revolution would produce an abundance of goods and end poverty. Medical science and modern sewers would make cities clean and healthy. Everyone would live longer and better.
This was a very powerful idea. It got going as early as the Renaissance. Medieval people had a rather gloomy outlook: life was hard, the main thing was to avoid disaster, the future would probably be worse than the past. The Renaissance mindset was more optimistic, and this became a buzzing positivity by the 18th century, encapsulated in the epithet ‘Age of Reason’.
This rising confidence was confirmed by the Industrial Revolution’s productive power and the French Revolution’s progressive idealism. The mid-19th century then became the heyday of a new, modern, world-transforming bourgeois civilisation powered by steam and steel.
Imperialism, dictatorship, and world war dented the optimism in the early 20th century, but it surged again in the post-war period, when the ‘consumer society’ induced a British Tory Prime Minister to proclaim the British had ‘never had it so good’, and a Labour successor to talk of ‘the white heat of the technological revolution’.
Nature was something to be ‘harnessed’ or ‘conquered’. Natural resources were to be ‘exploited’ in the interests of humanity. Raw materials from nature were ‘factors of production’, like capital and labour.
Not anymore. If ‘modernity’ can be traced from the 15th to the 20th centuries – the epoch of the bourgeois revolutions, which began with the Renaissance and Reformation, and concluded with the wave of national liberation struggles in what used to be called ‘the Third World’ between the 1920s and 1970s – we have surely now entered a new epoch, a ‘postmodern’ world dominated by a ‘metabolic rupture’ between Anthropos and Gaia.
Anthropos is Greek for human. Gaia is the primeval Greek goddess Earth. Scientists have been talking for a good while now about the end of the Holocene and the advent of a new geological epoch dubbed ‘Anthropocene’. The Holocene began around 11,700 BP, at the end of the last Ice Age, and, so the argument goes, ended in 1950 – when human activity began to alter the Earth’s ecosystems in fundamental ways.
Anthropos is doing two things: destroying existing ecosystems and creating new ecosystems that are often destructive and highly damaging to natural balance and human wellbeing.
Archaeologists, alongside geologists, climate scientists, palaeontologists, and others concerned with ‘deep time’, are well placed to offer academic leadership in the context of the escalating environmental issues.
Most of us work on pre-industrial cultures based on some form of peasant agriculture. Many of us become aware of past ‘metabolic ruptures’ – where, for example, the fertility of the land was destroyed by soil exhaustion or desiccation. But we are also aware that these were the exceptions.
Prehistoric, ancient, and medieval farmers kept the land ‘in good heart’. The medieval English village was no idyll, but there was usually a sensible balance maintained between arable, pasture, woodland, and wetland, with most production geared to local consumption. Anthropos and Gaia rubbed along together.
The destruction of the traditional peasantry – a process that began with the 16th-century enclosures and is now reaching completion on a global scale – is at the centre of an ecological crisis that, if we do not act, threatens cataclysm. Returning the land to the people – a global restoration of ‘the commons’ – seems to have become an existential imperative.