The Pandoracene

Things are going to slide, slide in all directions —Leonard Cohen

Preamble The term Anthropocene (anthropos = man) gestures to the primary causal agent of ongoing biospheric perturbation, namely us. Here I suggest that the interests of those who come after are better served by emphasizing instead the consequences of that disruption, hence the Pandoracene – a reference to Pandora’s box, and the evils its inadvertent opening released into the world

First Approximation


ere’s progress for you. In 1952, the year I was born, the Earth’s atmosphere held 312 ppm greenhouse gases. Today, only seven decades later, it holds 422 ppm greenhouse gases – an increase of 35% thus far across a single life time. Nor are there any signs of that trend reversing any time soon, at least according to the CEO of Saudi Aramco.

And there’s more. Fully half of all greenhouse gases humankind has injected into the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (in 1751) got there in the thirty year period after climate change came to public awareness in about 1990.

Pandora Opens the Box

What They’re Saying

Now surely there can be few people these days – climate deniers excepted – who remain unmoved by the implications of so much greenhouse gas injected into the atmosphere in so short an interval. Across the span of my own meagre lifetime, the world’s atmosphere has become 35% more like the duvet that keeps me warm at night.

We live in changing times, in some ways the most existentially “interesting” times in the recent history of life on Earth. To confirm this I need only point, again, to my own lifetime, which has spanned the boundary between two geological epochs as different as apples and door hinges.

In my first half-century, until about 2000, I was privileged to bask in the Holocene, a preternaturally stable geological epoch running twelve thousand years into the past – a time when some scientists – get this – still fretted about the onset of the next Ice Age. Since then, rising temperatures have put to rest any such concerns and, indeed, have phase-shifted us into a whole new age of the world, the so-called Anthropocene, a time when change itself is the status quo.

Coined in the early 1970s and popularized in about 2000, the term Anthropocene is meant to denote the “age of man”. That’s the first thing to know about it. The second thing to know is that the name Anthropocene fronted a proposal, in 2016, to call an end to the Holocene and recognize a whole new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. The third thing to know is that this proposal was recently voted down, so that the Anthropocene, technically speaking, is now no more. And finally, the fourth thing to know is that Anthropocene in any case, would have been a terrible name to saddle future human generations with.

I’m not the only one who feels this way. For while there seems to be broad consensus that a new era in the unfolding of human destiny is now upon us, yet few scholars in the social sciences seem inclined to call it the Anthropocene – as witness the current roster of about 80 proposed alternatives. Nor do any of these alternative names seem to me a great improvement over Anthropocene (see below), though a few of them warrant special notice: the Chthulucene for literary opacity, the Plasticene for punniness, and the Good Anthropocene for naivete.

The problem with the alternative names, or most of them, is that they too, in common with Anthropocene, give pride of place to the cause of climate change, which is us, rather than to its potentially existential consequences for organized human society. This simply won’t do. For any moniker that calls attention, directly or indirectly, to the part played by humankind in bringing about this new era encourages the wishful thinker to wear it like a badge of honour – the Good Anthropocene, say – as though our side had somehow won the war.

And yet nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, the war now being mounted by the Living World has hardly begun. And for another, there’s simply nothing about the Climate Crisis that was intended, by anyone. Better to think of ourselves in the same vein as the Sorcerer’s apprentice who, having enchanted a broom to fetch in buckets of water, is helpless to make it stop. In a word, hapless.

Surely it would be wiser, would it not, to settle on a replacement term that gives pride of place to the consequences of climate change – existential chaos, for one – rather than to its cause. So how about Pandoracene – a name that harkens to the timeless story of Pandora, the same Pandora who’s box, when unadvisedly pried open, released into the world all manner of evils: disease, vice, greed, violence, old age and death. Granted that the evils released into the world by climate change – biblical floods, millennial droughts, disease, famine, fear, war and so on – are of a different order; but there’s progress for you, as I say.

So let it be Pandoracene then, at least for the purposes of this website.

Pandoracene: n. pan-DOOR-a-seen: beginning in the early 2000s, a period of indefinite duration in which human-induced environmental instability and change become the global status quo; a fearsome time, with obvious dire implications for the long-term geopolitical order of the world.

And let the term Pandoracene refer, not to a geological epoch*, but rather to a time of consequences, a time when the Living World exacts its due for outsized anthropogenic carbon emissions gone on too long, when yesterday is no longer continuous with tomorrow, when the old certainties no longer hold, when trouble begins to bunch up, when the future no longer beckons and fear becomes a pervasive byword.

*The –cene in Pandoracene is distantly cognate with Greek kainos, meaning recent. Hence the term Pandoracene need not refer to a geological epoch, but can by extension mean, as it does here, the recent opening of Pandora’s box.

And what of the time before the Pandoracene, the time of relative climate stability stretching back twelve thousand years, the period when humankind (not coincidentally) got its civilizational act together? What of that time, what shall it be called?

Let it simply be called the Time Before, and move on.

Next up: Meaning of Climate Change