Jacques Grinevald Seasons' Greetings

31 janvier 2022
Par ses voeux, Jacques Grinevald nous souhaite une belle année 2022, que celle-ci soit meilleure, joyeuse et porteuse de bonne santé. Ses voeux ne sont pas simplement en phase avec la tradition, c'est aussi, et plus sincèrement, une bonne opportunité en ces temps difficiles et dangereux, de pandémie et de nombreux autres désastres, de penser, ou repenser, aux "défis existientiels de l'Anthropocène" (Thomas, Williams, Zalasiewicz, 2020, chap. 8). Jacques Grinevald aimerait profiter de ce repos hivernal (dans l'hémisphère nord) pour exprimer sa profonde gratitude en direction de ses collègues et bons amis, en particulier ceux de l'Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), qui nous permettent de continuer à apprendre beaucoup ainsi que de poser des questions essentielles et difficiles.

It is true that each social, cultural, religious and political situations are locally diverse and peculiar, but I am old enough to recall some early warnings about the unanticipated global aspects of Man’s impact on Earth, or the Earth System (I prefer to say The Biosphere, after Vernadsky and G. E. Hutchinson’s biogeochemical studies and in the ecosystemic perspective adopted by global ecology). I note here, once again, that we are using fuzzy concepts and terminologies that are far from being stabilised and semantically precise enough. But this is always the case in hazy periods of controversial scientific and philosophical change (named revolution or otherwise).

For my modest part, I feel partly guilty, because in the influential 2011 conceptual and historical article by Steffen, Grinevald, Crutzen and McNeill, I think we (and first Crutzen himself) have not been careful enough with the changing aspects of historical semantics, genetic epistemology and methodological framework, and have unwrittingly opened the door to a backward quest (a kind of romantic hunt for fossils?) for presumed “precursors”, including the overestimation of the invisible precedent – discovered afterwards – of Eugene Stoermer. One often reads that the term/concept of the Anthropocene was coined by the late lake scientist E. Stoermer (a diatom paleolimnologist) in the 1980s (as he wrote to me in 2007, see this quotation in the 2011 article) and (simply) popularised by Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen in the early 2000s!

This kind of origin story is simply not true, like many others in popular science history; it is a misleading legend that does not take into account the real epistemic context in which emerged the conceptual novelty that Paul Crutzen (Bert Bolin’s pupil and a legendary modest pioneer in atmospheric biogeochemistry and Earth System approach) has called “the Anthropocene”. The late Paul Crutzen (1933-2021), the “prophet” of Nuclear Winter in 1982 (‘Scientist of the Year’, Discover, January 1985), was one of the best respected veterans of the “transdisciplinary and holistic” research programme called International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme: A Study of Global Change (IGBP or Global Change for short) since the beginning in 1983 (the IGBP was officially launched by the ICSU’s 21th General Assembly in Bern, Switzerland, in September 1986. I was an enthusiastic eyewitness)!

My recent survey of the veterans (including Will Steffen, Berrien Moore III, Michel Meybeck, Rodolfo Dirzo, Guy Brasseur, Eric Lambin, Pamela Matson, Pep Canadell, and others) of the decisive (but a bit mysterious) IGBP’s Scientific Committee meeting (the 15th session) in Mexico, February 22-25, 2000, held at the beautiful tropical Hotel Maximiliano y Carlota (now Mision Grand Cuernavaca) in the famous “ciudad de la eterna primavera” (as the old city of Cuernavaca was called by Alexander von Humboldt who was there in 1803), is still unpublished, because some personal health problems, the long disruption of the covid pandemic, and also the fact that a science historian should not rush to publish, unlike many young scientists under the pressure of “publish or perish”. The “Great Acceleration” concerns the present international scientific community, too! Hopefully, we will soon be able to read the forthcoming book by the young science historian Eugenio Luciano, after his in-deph doctoral thesis The Anthropocene Hypothesis: Birth and Epistemology (München, 2021).

I remember the Intergovernmental Conference of Experts on the Scientific Basis for Rational Use of the Biosphere (sic), the forgotten “Biosphere Conference”, held in September 1968 at the Palais de l’Unesco in Paris, and the subsequent Resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations (December 3, 1968), which called for a world conference on “the human environment” – the first one of a long series of mega-conferences on the global environment and later climate change and biological diversity.

Before the 1968 Biosphere Conference, US Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson declared on July 9, 1965, during the 39th session of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, held in Geneva:

“We travel together passengers on a little spaceship, dependent on its valuable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and I will say the love we give our fragile craft.”

It was a memorable statement and a spiritual testament, because Adlai E. Stevenson collapsed and suddenly died in London street on July 14, at 65.

Between 1968 (including the NASA’s Apollo missions) and the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, and before and after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, there have been many meetings, many international scientific and political discussions… all with global emergency warnings about the growing human impact on Earth, our exceptional home planet, our only currently habitable Biosphere in the immense Solar system.

Remember also the “Menton message” (online: Menton Message.pdf at which is still worth reading. Just some words of its conclusion:

‘Earth, which has seemed so large, must now be seen in its smallness. We live in a closed system, absolutely dependent on Earth and on each other for our lives and those of succeeding generations. The many things that divide us are therefore of infinitely less important than the interdependence and danger that unite us. We believe that it is literally true that only by transcending our divisions will men be able to keep Earth as their home.’

This “Menton Message”, written during a 1970 Dai Dong Conference held in Menton, Southern France, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, was circulated among biologists, naturalists, and environmental scientists around the world, and signed by over 2,200 leading scholars. Entitled “A Message to our 3.5 billion neighbours on Planet Earth”, it was presented to UN Secretary-General U Than in New York on May 11, 1971, and published in the UNESCO Courier in July 1971, in several languages. I have kept this planetary “ecological message” in the French version, “2200 savants s’adressent aux 3 milliards et demi de terriens”, in my personal archives.

Now the socio-technosphere of the Anthropocene is fast approaching people (with billions of machines and an enormous exosomatic industrial metabolism), and business as usual continues…

“Unless there is a global catastrophe – a meteorite impact, a world war or a pandemic” (Crutzen 2002).

With my kind thoughts and best wishes

Jacques Grinevald