The Human Epoch – The Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is a term given by geologists to help describe the epoch we are currently in, an era not only ruled by, but shaped by human influence. You might be asking, “What happened to the Holocene?”, it’s still around, and by all technical means is still the geological epoch we are in, however recently Scientists around the globe have been using the term Anthropocene informally to describe our changing world. In fact, in 2008 the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London was given a proposal on whether or not they should publicly announce that a new Geological epoch be announced. It was determined by the society that the proposal be taken seriously, and since independent scientists around the world have been working on showing why we should accept the Anthropocene into the Geological Time Scale. The date they choose to start this time period; 200 years ago at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

So what kind of evidence exists to defend a new Geological epoch, especially one that has been influenced primarily by human hands?  The first thing that’s important to understand is the epoch that we are officially in; the Holocene. The Holocene has been around for around 11,000 years marking the current interglacial period after the receding of the Wisconsin glaciation. It was during this period of time when the climate began to become warmer, although still retaining a rather steady temperature overall. There is a clear mark indicated in the geological stratigraphical record for the start of the Holocene 11,000 years ago, possibly caused by receding glaciation

One of the big questions that arises when you start talking about the concept of the Anthropocene is what exactly defines a new epoch? As far as what Webster’s has to say about the definition, it’s simply “…an event or a time marked by an event that begins a new period or development… a memorable event or date.” Geologists themselves have no clear indication behind the term epoch, and it is used almost in tandem with the definition I just gave (except maybe limiting it to geological processes.)

Most of the defenders of the Anthropocene are in favor of it because they believe humankind have completely warped the geology of the world, but that might not be the only thing we’ve warped on the planet. It’s common nowadays to hear the politics of globalization and the consequences of such; global warming, climate change, worldwide starvation, poverty, resource limits, etc. but rare to hear someone actually place all the blame on humankind. It seems that that is exactly what the Anthropocene is suggesting, that all our problems today are a result of our own aspirations.

For about the last 8-9,000 years we humans have been clearing the land to make room for agriculture. We have stripped land of forests, directed channels to irrigate farmland, ordered certain plants to grow in areas we deemed through monocropping, used much of that land for animal husbandry (which we then used to help tend farmland.), as well as much more. Add to that advances in the Middle Ages and the Modern age and you have a recipe for mass changing of the land as a whole (and we haven’t even gotten to the really interesting parts). Any flight over Europe can show you how much we’ve warped the land.

View of Switzerland from airplane clearly showing patches of deforestation for farmland.

However, the argument for the Anthropocene mostly concerns the last 150-200 years, doesn’t it? Let’s go back to the definition of an epoch, “…an event or a time that begins a new period or development…”. It seems that while humans have been modifying the landscape for thousands of years, only the last 200 or so have truly been significant, and all the data shows it. Since the Industrial Revolution CO2 levels have risen so high that it trumps anything measured in the measured history of the planet. Of all the ice cores measured by scientists CO2 levels have never been higher than 300ppm. We stand at a rising level of around 387.2ppm – taken from 2008.

What exactly changed in the Industrial Revolution? For most of the last 11,000 years we’ve depended on our own energy, or the energy provided by animals, sun, plants, or water. Around the 1800’s, the James Watt’s Steam Engine was created and fossil fuels became the new gold. We no longer got our energy from renewable resources, but from long dead plants and animals, a resource with limits and environmental consequences. Of course, back then, there wasn’t any data about how fossil fuels might ruin the planet at large so we kept using and using, oblivious to the issues it has wrought. The power of fossil fuels to make life easier and more comfortable have since made poverty something less than it formerly was. It seems since the 1800’s, our standard of what it means to live in poverty has been raised. Poverty today is a hell of a lot better than poverty before 1800.

Will Steffan at TED in Canberra, Australia(link) discussed this in depth, but further discussed what might be called the Great Acceleration beginning in the 1950’s. This was a period following WWII where there was a “… breakdown of old institutions… old ways of thinking…” which eventually led to a greater rise in connectivity throughout the world. Since 1950 aspects of human enterprise has been growing exponentially. Our machines now require more energy per year than we do, and humanity has now reshaped 75% of the ice free land on the planet by agriculture, digging and drilling, canal shaping, and other methods. Land that can be called remote, meaning it would take 48 hours to travel there from a large city, only accounts for about 10% today. 45,000 dams worldwide hold back 15% of annual river runoff. Biodiversity is taking a huge hit with a new species going extinct every 20 minutes and if this continues by 2030 1/5 of all the species on the planet will be extinct.

As if the above paragraph wasn’t eye popping enough, population is expected to rise to about 9 billion before 2030 which means far more economic hardships, environmental problems, world starvation and dehydration; virtually an increase in any problem we’re already faced with. Humankind is completely warping the planet, and we have quite a lot of challenges before us. As fossil fuels begin to run out, how will we deal with it? The United States is already involved heavily in the Middle East, and while we’d all like it to be “in the name of Freedom” most people know it’s for that black gold.

It’s clear though, that with species extinction, biodiversity change, geological processes being disrupted, atmospheric changes, and populations defying the gravity of a flowchart that the Anthropocene is here. One of the biggest causes of this is population overriding the planet’s resources. We need to be  policies enacted that help curve the population to something more sustainable, such as abortion and child limitation laws, or at the least benefits for families with only one child. Ethics is going to play a key role in the future, let’s hope we can make up our minds on what is truly ethical for a species.

It’s clear though, that humans are no longer passengers on spaceship earth but have stepped into the pilot’s seat. We need to know how to direct ourselves in the future, what choices will effect us for the better, and how we can curtail another mass extinction of biodiversity from occurring on the planet. The challenges are difficult but not impossible. To quote Jon Stewart at his recent Rally to Restore Sanity, “…but these are hard times, not end times.”

To end, a clip from How the Earth Made Us from the BBC with Professor Iain Stewart.

We Are Star Stuff

As a celebratory “I just moved my blog to a better format base than” post, I’m bring with it a double whammy of awesome in the Scientific Field…

It was 76 years ago today that the late Carl Sagan was born. For those that don’t know who Carl Sagan is, it might be better for you to do the following:

  1. Get a large rectangular piece of paper.
  2. Fold said paper into a conic shape.
  3. Place conic shaped paper upon head.
  4. Sit in corner and ignore the rest of the educated world.

Anyway, Carl Sagan is one of the most influential astronomers, astrophysicists, authors, and cosmologists in the last century. He has written numerous books, hosted a well-earning and popular science program called Cosmos, and was one of the key figures in the creation of SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrail Intelligence). The list of greats he was involved in doesn’t stop there of course. He was THE pioneer of exobiology (also called astrobiology), advocate of skeptical inquiry and the scientific method, and his 1985 book Contact was later adapted on film.

Carl Sagan was a wonderful figure of his time. He successfully captured audiences and renewed faith in science to the general public. His voice was captivating and inspiring, as the following video shows.

He not only showed us the frailty of human life, but the minuteness of it. He showed us that everything we have accomplished is still so tiny in the vast expanse of time and space. He brought our attention to the world of nuclear war, and our possible extinction by it, and inspired us to find ways in which we might realize that this is our only planet, our only home, and to destroy it through nuclear arms would be the single greatest tragedy of our time. His words on nuclear arms still today rings a bell, though the threat may have lessened, it is echoed in nation’s vying for nuclear arms, and through environmental changes through human action. The following, is his words on Nuclear War.

Carl Sagan unfortunately died too soon for our time at the age of 62 on December 20, 1996 after a long fight with myelodysplasia, though the cause of death was actually due to pneumonia. His legacy still lives on in several ways. Symphony of Science, by John Boswell, a musical production featuring scientists auto-tuned to amazing songs, includes Sagan as the only scientist in everyone of the videos. There are at least three awards dedicated to his honor, including the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science.  More recently, in 2009, the first annual Carl Sagan Day was made in his honor; it will most likely be a yearly endeavor as they again held it in 2010.

So, Sagan, I wish you a happy birthday, and many more, perhaps billions and billions.

In a slightly related event and part two of the Double Whammy happening today (related in the idea that it has to do with the Cosmos), scientists at CERN, the organization responsible for the Large Hadron Collider, have successfully created a miniature big bang.

That’s right. Scientists at CERN have actually managed to reproduce the very thing that they believe started our own universe. This raises certain eyebrows from me; Did they in the process create a universe as well that was so tiny and minute that it popped into and out of existence too quickly to notice?

Probably not, but it does seem that whatever their findings are as of this moment they’re being very hush hush about it. All they’re willing to say is that they created the same starting conditions as our own universe at 0.00000000001 seconds after the Big Bang, an interval when “protons and neutrons can’t even stay whole.”

An anti-LHC organization called the Heavy Ion Alert also protested the experiment, stating it would cause a chain reaction that would destroy the planet. They were discounted, and as always nothing happen.

I’ll leave you with Symphony of Science – We Are All Connected.

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