Thanks to the growing human domination of natural systems on Earth, people say 
we are entering an Anthropocene Epoch, Grinspoon began, but what if the term 
“epoch” understates the consequence of what is going on?  (The Holocene Epoch 
is only 11,700 years old.)  Astrobiologists recently learned that planet 
formation is the norm in the universe, and now they’re trying to find out if 
life formation is also the norm.  They won’t look for signs of mere geological 
epochs on other planets; they’re looking for eon-scale transitions like the 
three that Earth has gone through in its 4.8 billion years — all caused by life.

It has been 4 billion years since the Archean Eon began with the origin of 
simple life.  Then 2.5 billions years ago the Proterozoic Eon unleashed “the 
Great Oxygenation Event” caused by cyanobacteria adopting solar energy 
(photosynthesis).  “That’s when life took over the planet,” said Grinspoon.  
Everything accelerated further 542 million years ago with the Cambrian 
Explosion of complex life of plants and animals — the Phanerozoic Eon.  Which 
we are still in.  Or are we?

Alien astrobiologists could have noticed the Proterozoic Eon transition by 
detecting the dramatic destabilization of Earth’s atmosphere by the 
cyanobacteria.  The Phanerozoic Eon transition would have been apparent from 
forest fires glowing on Earth’s night side, indicating combustible plant 
material.  What would outside observers make of our current night side, blazing 
with dazzling cities?  What would they conclude from bits of Earth firing off 
purposefully to orbit other planets and moons in the Solar System?

“Potentially,” Grinspoon suggested, “we’re at another eon boundary now, with an 
equally profound transition in the relationship between life and the planet, 
when cognitive processes become planetary processes.  Is intelligence a 
planetary property, like life?  Can it become a self-sustaining property, like 
life?  Is civilization as adaptive as life is, or will it be a dead end?”

We can ask, what do humans have that similarly cataclysmic cyanobacteria did 
not have?  We have awareness, intention, collaboration, and maybe a sense of 
responsibility.  “The Anthropocene dilemma,” Grinspoon said, “is that we have 
global influence without global control.  So far we’re acting like adolescent 
planet vandals.”

He concluded, “In order to choose a constructive role rather than a destructive 
role, we have to see ourselves in the very long time scale.  If we can develop 
a mature, long-term, healthy relationship with world-changing technology, and 
if we proceed with a careful combination of restraint as well as innovation, 
our planet could become Terra Sapiens — Wise Earth.”

(Bonus point: When asked why people seem to be more worried about engineers 
hacking genetic code than hacking digital code, Grinspoon said, “Maybe it’s 
because the monsters we can imagine are scarier than the monsters we can’t 
imagine.”  He added, “We tend to learn things through exploration, not through 

                                                                —Stewart Brand <>

[A linkable, illustrated version of this summary is on Medium 
<>.  Video and 
iPod versions of the talk itself are on the Long Now Seminar page 

SALT mailing list
unsubscribe / change email:

Reply via email to