Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: Welcome to the Anthropocene

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When I was growing up, the idea that human activity could have enough of an impact on the planet to require the declaration of a new geological epoch would have seemed mad. It still seems slightly nuts; the globe and its processes remain huge and unfathomable. But some earth scientists have taken their case that we've entered a new epoch to an Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the academic body that decides such things. According to the U.K. Guardian:

There is now "compelling evidence", according to an influential group of geologists, that humans have had such an impact on the planet that we are entering a new phase of geological time: the Anthropocene.

Millions of years from now, they say, alien geologists would be able to make out a human-influenced stripe in the accumulated layers of rock, in the same way that we can see the imprint of dinosaurs in the Jurassic, or the explosion of life that marks the Cambrian. Now the scientists are pushing for the new epoch to be officially recognised.

...There have been seven epochs since the dinosaurs died out around 65m years ago. The last time we passed a geological boundary, entering the Holocene around 12,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, we were an insignificant species, just one of a couple of hominids struggling to survive in a world where so many of our cousins, like Homo erectus, had failed to make it.

Now our effect on the climate and our fellow species is having a global impact. "The fossil record will reveal a massive loss of plant and animal species, and also the scale of invasive species – how we've distributed animals and plants across the globe," [Dr. Jan] Zalasiewicz [of Leicester University] says.

... the new epoch is upon us and we should come to terms with its implications for the planet. "We broke it, we bought it, we own it," [Professor Erle] Ellis [of the University of Maryland] says. "Now we've got to take responsibility for it."

The same geologists are suggesting that we need to learn to manage the environment so as not to transgress "planetary boundaries" -- a set of conditions that existed in the Holocene that made possible the development of our ever-so-powerful, yet fragile, civilization.

The Economist describes the project these scientists have in mind succinctly:

... the Anthropocene marks the emergence of a form of intelligence that allows new ways of being to be imagined and, through co-operation and innovation, to be achieved. The lessons of science, from Copernicus to Darwin, encourage people to dismiss such special pleading. So do all manner of cultural warnings, from the hubris around which Greek tragedies are built to the lamentation of King David’s preacher: “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity…the Earth abideth for ever…and there is no new thing under the sun.”

But the lamentation of vanity can be false modesty. On a planetary scale, intelligence is something genuinely new and powerful. Through the domestication of plants and animals intelligence has remade the living environment. Through industry it has disrupted the key biogeochemical cycles. For good or ill, it will do yet more.

It may seem nonsense to think of the (probably sceptical) intelligence with which you interpret these words as something on a par with plate tectonics or photosynthesis. But dam by dam, mine by mine, farm by farm and city by city it is remaking the Earth before your eyes.

You don't have to rely on my feeble word for this insight. Here's the Executive Director of the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute, Professor Will Steffen, explaining these matters in 18 highly intelligible minutes. This one is well worth your time.


Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- reminders of that inconvenient truth.

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