The Atlantic

What Made Me Reconsider the Anthropocene

Whether our civilization is transient or not, its effects on the living world will last forever.
Source: Joe & Clair Carnegie / Libyan Soup / Getty

Looming over the new food court of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is one of those creatures so massive and menacing that its mere existence in Earth’s ancient past counsels against time-travel research. It is an accurate, if unbelievable, model of the Megalodon shark—52 feet long, dagger-studded maw agape. These things ate baleen whales and, hovering here above tourists munching on artisanal grain bowls, mindlessly swiping on their phones, Megalodon accuses our modern world of decadence.

“It could have been right here, too,” the NMNH curator and paleontologist Scott Wing told me as we stood at the business end of the shark, peering into the digestive abyss.

“What do you mean?” I said.

“Well, I don’t know what the water depth would have been here, but—”

“Ah,” I understood. He meant that 16 million years ago, when the sea level of planet Earth floated tens of meters higher than today and “Washington, D.C.” was sunk beneath the waves, a Megalodon might have literally occupied the exact same physical space above us. Rumors of this ancient ocean weave under Cleveland Park, in the city’s northwest quadrant, and poke out in unstudied and unloved patches of dirt—thin ribbons of seafloor sediment that themselves sit atop volcanic rocks almost a half-billion years older, with no record of anything that ever happened here in-between.

Wing had reached out to me a few weeks after I wrote that channeled the many conversations I’d had with grumpy geologists and paleontologists in recent years. In it, I was

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