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Chronic Illness and the Anthropocene

Updated: Jul 7, 2021

February 29th, 2020

Anthropocene and Chronic Illness? What does a potential geological epoch and a chronic disease have to do with one another? Even the question sounds like a set-up for a bad joke. But bear with me!

I first started reading about the concept of the Anthropocene while studying Ecocriticism and Environmental Theory as part of my graduate studies. The Anthropocene is a (potential) new geological epoch marked by the effects of humans on our Earth system.

As hard as it may be to comprehend the human species as “a geological force comparable with the great forces of nature,” humans are not the only species to affect geological time in such a way. Cyanobacteria were responsible for “The Great Oxidation,” and “powerfully disrupted life on Earth,” Andrew Revkin says. “But they didn’t know it. We’re the first species that’s become a planet-scale influence and is aware of that reality. That’s what distinguishes us.”

Thinking of chronic disease in terms of the Anthropocene may seem even more absurd when you consider the Anthropocene epoch is marked by humans as geological agents and positions the human species in the scope of deep time. A chronic disease experienced in a single human lifetime is not even a blip in the scope of time, but neither is a single human life. Yet, that’s all any one of us has. So why not make the comparisons to that which we know? To make the unimaginable imaginable? Isn’t that the ultimate use of metaphor anyway?

Ankylosing Spondylitis is a systemic disease, meaning it has the potential to affect all of the major organs of my body.

Robert MacFarlane, in The Guardian, explores our capacity to imagine the Anthropocene, asking “how might a novel or a poem possibly account for our authorship of global-scale environmental change across millennia – let alone shape the nature of that change? The indifferent scale of the Anthropocene can induce a crushing sense of the cultural sphere’s impotence.” But this is not the first time an entire generation of human’s view of the world was completely altered, nor the first time people were faced with this impossible re-imagining.

John Donne's The Good-Morrow

I think about the time during and after the first several European landings in the Western Hemisphere and how the imagining of another half of a planet might have felt. Yet John Donne turned that revelation into one of the most astounding love poems of that age, comparing the joining of two people in love to a new European understanding of a complete globe with two hemispheres: “Where can we find two better hemispheres/ Without sharp north, without declining west?”

Donne also subtly addresses the expanse of the world and that of our own perspective, in particular our perspective in love, writing “For love, all love of other sights control/ And makes one little room an everywhere.” My little room is my body. I am part of the human species, but not such a part to believe that my individual actions alone will make any impact on geologic time.

Even so the human species, with its plastics, its nuclear bombs, its carbon dioxide and methane emissions, is impacting the trajectory of our earth system. Perhaps, if you grant me a suspension of your disbelief, there’s a similarity in the way that a chronic illness impacts the system that is a person’s body: something within the system is affecting change to that system and the way it operates.

Ankylosing Spondylitis is a systemic disease, meaning it has the potential to affect all of the major organs of my body. Something within my body causes hyperinflammatory responses, and that something is immune-mediated.

Something within the Earth system is causing a sixth extinction, rising global temperatures, ocean warming, glacial melting, among many other things. The human species “has impacted everything from the makeup of ecosystems to the geochemistry of Earth, from the atmosphere to the ocean.”

Woman with Ankylosing Spondylitis with dog looking out over a flat landscape

Maybe the most important comparison is how the declaration of a new epoch is much like a diagnosis. It’s a naming, a confrontation even. With a chronic illness diagnosis comes a period of coping, a period of realization, then the formulation of a plan that, in my case, included making changes to my life and the way I operate for my overall well being. Much like a diagnosis, in “defining a new geological epoch, we are declaring that the impact of our activities is global and irreversible.”

So why make this comparison anyway? Maybe we can learn something by comparing two things that seem so dissimilar in scope and time. Maybe we need more creative ways to think about the Anthropocene to help us cope and plan for the future. Maybe we could use more creative ways to think about chronic illnesses so that we might learn better ways to understand, to relate, to empathize, or even to search for cures.

Our planet will most likely outlive the impacts of the Anthropocene, though what remains may be completely unrecognizable to us. It’s unlikely my body will live beyond the disease course of Ankylosing Spondylitis, unless there’s a cure forthcoming. But if we focus our collective energy on acting on climate change, we can affect geologic time. What we’re doing now is simply a byproduct of different efforts--but what if climate change was our main priority?



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