February 21, 2017

Welcome to the Anthropocene

The humans were here. (Photo by author)

Are we actually living in a new geological era?

Last month, the Anthropocene Working Group met in Oslo, Norway and made the tentative recommendation that we are now living in the Anthropocene Era, an age where humans are the predominant drivers of change on the planet.

Researchers picked 1950 as a start date… in a sense then, a majority of humanity living was born after that date, and has always lived in the new makeshift era.

Of course, the International Commission of Stratigraphy and the International Union of Geological Sciences has yet to formally adopt this motion. The message, however, is clear: we’re running an experiment on climate on a worldwide scale, one that has a very uncertain outcome.

Of course, the argument can be made that there are still lots of natural forces at work that are much more powerful, such as earthquakes, volcanoes, etc that we simply have no control over, or at least not yet. We’ve yet to harness the capability to terraform a world on a planetary scale.

You can argue the 1950 date as well. On one hand, it roughly marks the start of nuclear testing, the dawn of the Space Age… the truth is, as children of the Atomic Age, we all carry at least a few atoms of artificially constructed elements such as plutonium in our make-up, most likely in our bones.

Perhaps we really began down the road towards mucking things up when we first started burning coal en masse back in the Industrial Age. The U.S. military, insurance companies and the consensus of scientists already know the reality of climate change, and the discussion is now moving from how to prevent a planetary catastrophe in this century, to how to best brace ourselves for the new reality.

We leave our mark everywhere, and it’s an interesting thought experiment to consider just what artifacts might endure from our civilization. Ironically, I think our garbage dumps might provoke the most interest among future archaeologists. Will ‘garbagite’ be a sought after mineral a million years hence?

We’re now nearing seven and a half billion humans on the planet, well past John Brunner’s magic Stand on Zanzibar number from 1969 envisioned for the year 2011. Every day, we add about 300,000 souls, about the size of the city of St. Paul Minnesota, and subtract 140,000 deaths, about the size of Dayton, Ohio. Will we see these two equal out in our lifetimes? Certainly, a decline in population would be a bad sign, though we already eat a lion’s share of the planet’s resources.

And don’t expect us to migrate to an ‘Earth 2.0′ anytime soon. In fact, I think the idea of promoting new exoplanet discoveries as ‘new Earth twin found!’ is dangerous, and gives the man on the street the idea that if we trash this planet, there’s simply another one waiting in the wings for us to colonize. Trust me, they’re much too far away, and the cost in terms of the energy needed to get there is still much to high. We evolved here, along with the supporting biosphere that we’re part of. Sure, we can and should colonize other planets one day, but we need to endure and make our stand in time in space here, on our homeworld.

The choice is clear, and we have the rest of our lives in this brave new era to figure it out. Do we want a shiny, white, Star Trek sort of future where we boldly explore the galaxy, or a grim dystopic Road Warriors kind of future where we fight over dwindling resources?


  1. Tony Marshallsay says:

    Are natural forces more powerful than Humanity?
    Apart from plate tectonics, natural events may be more powerful than human efforts but they are effectively instantaneous and local (although they may have global secondary consequences), rather than continuous and worldwide. It’s like comparing a chemical rocket with an ion rocket: the end result is the same.
    Although there is a good argument for the start of the coal-burning industrial era as the marker, I prefer 1950 because, apart from atomic testing, it was when death control with antibiotics and public hygiene, coupled with a lack of corresponding birth control, caused a sharp uptick in the human population and all related environmental factors, especially CO2 production. So, why should a decline in [human] population be a bad sign?
    Archaeologists revel in garbage dumps, which contain all sorts of information about the society in question, so why should future archaeologists be any different when examining ours? Of course, if we recycled everything, there wouldn’t be any, would there?
    And no, we can’t – and shouldn’t expect to be able to – all leave our mess behind and jump on a bus to the next habitable planet; but we can and should establish extraterrestrial outposts, not only exploratory but also as seeds in case of a truly global extinction event.

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