Gwynne Dyer: Welcome to the Anthropocene epoch

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There is no doubt that human beings are the dominant species on Earth.

The seven billion of us account for about one-third of the total body mass of large animals on the planet, with our domestic animals accounting for most of the rest. (Wild animals only amount to three to five percent.)

But are we really central to the scheme of things? That is a different question.

Almost all the scientific discoveries of the past few centuries have moved human beings away from the centre of things towards the periphery.

In the 16th century we learned that Earth went around the Sun, not the other way round.

Then we realized that the Sun was just one more yellow star among a hundred billion others “far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy,” as Douglas Adams put it.

And this is just one galaxy among hundreds of billions.

Then the geologists learned that our planet is four and a half billion years old, whereas we primates have only been around for the past seven million years, and modern human being for a mere 100,000 years. And so on and so forth, until we felt very small and insignificant.

But now the story is heading back in the other direction; they’re going to name an entire geological epoch after us. The Anthropocene.

Don’t get too excited: an epoch is not that big a deal in geology. Just as there is an ascending hierarchy of days, weeks, months, and years in present time, there is a hierarchy of epochs, periods, eras, and eons in geological time.

Until recently, everybody agreed that we live in the Holocene epoch of the Quaternary period, which in turn is part of the 65-million-year old Cenozoic era, the most recent phase of the 540-million-year Phanerozoic eon.

Holocene means “entirely recent”, and is reckoned to have begun at the end of the last major glaciation less than 12,000 years ago. That’s not a very long time even for a mere epoch—but geologists are now considering the possibility that we have already entered a different epoch, the Anthropocene (from the Greek roots for man and recent). That is, an epoch defined by the impact of human beings on the entire planetary environment.

Geologists want to see evidence in the rocks before they define an epoch, and it’s early days for that yet, but it’s clear that the fossil records for the present time will show a massive loss of forests, a very high rate of extinctions, and a preponderance of fossils of only a few species: us and our domesticated animals.

The acidification of the oceans is destroying the coral reefs, which will produce a “reef gap” similar to the ones that marked the five great extinctions of the past.

The changes in the atmosphere caused by the burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels—coal, oil, and gas—will show up in the form of rising sea levels due to warming, and in the decline of carbonate rocks like limestone and chalk in the deep-ocean sediments.

If this is really a new epoch, then geologists (human or otherwise) millions of years from now should be able to work out what happened just from the rocks, without any direct knowledge of the past. However, if the current global civilization collapses as a result of these changes, they will have only a very thin band of rock to work with.

The idea of declaring the Anthropocene as a new epoch is being taken seriously by geologists: the International Union of Geological Sciences has set up a working group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy to report by 2016 on whether the Holocene must give way to the Anthropocene.

They will also have to decide when the Anthropocene began. In 1950, at the start of the “Great Acceleration” that saw the human population and its greenhouse gas emissions both triple in only six decades? At the start of the Industrial Revolution two-and-a-half centuries ago? Or eight thousand years ago, when the first farmers began to clear forests and emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases?

Take your pick, because it doesn’t matter.

The real purpose of declaring the Anthropocene period is to focus human attention on the scale of our impacts on the planetary environment. As biologist E.O. Wilson wrote: “The pattern of human population growth in the twentieth century was more bacterial than primate.”

He calculated that human biomass is already a hundred times larger than that of any other large animal species present or past except for our own domesticated animals.

That phase of runaway population growth is over now, but the global rise in living standards is having further environmental impacts of the same order. Climate change is the headline threat, but the loss of biodiversity, ozone depletion, ocean acidification, and half a dozen other negative trends are also driven by our numbers and our lifestyle.

Being responsible for keeping so many interlocking systems within their permissible limits may be more than our civilization can manage, but it’s already too late to reject that job. All we can do now is try to stay within the planetary boundaries (which in some cases requires discovering exactly where they are), and restore as many natural systems as we can.

The odds are not in our favour.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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May 12, 2014 at 4:46pm

The phrase "geologic period" refers to rock.

This could imply flaking stones for tools, shearing away mountains for coal mining, going to war to protect the monetized exhaustion of petroleum, or interplanetary travel to the fourth rock from the sun because the rock we're currently living on is nearly destroyed.

You're right, that didn't take as long as an epoch.

And do scientists consider the very real possibility that the Anthropocene may be closer to it's end than its beginning (human extinction)?

It took 150 years to F! ourselves. This needs attention!

I Chandler

May 12, 2014 at 6:55pm

"In the 16th century we learned that Earth went around the Sun, not the other way round.."

Not everyone learned that - see One in four Americans unaware that Earth circles Sun:
"Just 74 percent of respondents knew that the Earth revolved around the Sun, according to the results released at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Chicago."

"Then we learned that we primates have only been around for the past seven million years, and modern human being for a mere 100,000 years. "

Not everyone - "Fewer than half (48 percent) knew that human beings evolved from earlier species of animals."

This high school teacher thinks we all need to learn a little physics:

"The odds are not in our favour."

The SpaceX founder says he'd like to die on Mars before it's too late:
Q:Why are you so keen to get humans to Mars?
Elon Musk:"Because this is the first time in 4 billion years of Earth's history that it has been possible. That window may be open for a long time - but we should take advantage just in case something bad happens. It wouldn't necessarily be that humanity gets eliminated; it could just be a drop in technology."


May 12, 2014 at 8:11pm

"However, if the current global civilization collapses as a result of these changes... "

It's not "if", it's "when". Our industrial civilization is entirely dependant on oil for day-to-day functioning, and since we've now used half of the world's supply of oil, we're facing the end of growth and the beginning of contraction.

Humanity had a chance during the 1970s to manage a controlled contraction but we blew it. Instead of using our remaining oil sparingly in ways that might have allowed a smooth transition to a lower-energy society, we gorged on it in an orgy of greed and excessive consumerism. And now it's too late to control our descent.

"All we can do now is try to stay within the planetary boundaries..."

We've already overshot sustainable planetary boundaries to such an extreme degree, it would take 3-4 Earths to maintain our current level of energy consumption. Since there's only 1 Earth, a crash is inevitable.

Civilizations have crashed many times in human history, usually followed by "dark ages" lasting at least a century, and then a slow recovery lasting centuries more.

Humanity has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to learn from the past and take action to avoid future collapse of civilizations. We like to deny it but history confirms it: We really are that stupid.

I Chandler

May 12, 2014 at 9:38pm

"the global rise in living standards is having further environmental impacts "

And they'll all want food, lots of it:
And they'll all want stuff, lots of it:
That wouldn't be a problem, if everything wasn't designed for the dump:

"E.O. Wilson wrote: The pattern of human population growth in the twentieth century was more bacterial than primate.”

The pathogenic bacteria will never allow natural systems to be restored.


May 14, 2014 at 12:47pm

The one serious way to get the ball toward our own survival started is to megaproject Hydrogen from electrolysis via any means of electricity anyone can think of. It would be global, completely replace fossil fuels and produce zero emissions. It would eliminate the need for firewood in the third world - leading cause of deforestation, as well as natural gas - fracking - oil and coal. Then plant a lot of trees and switch to hemp for paper and wood products. Yes, global, and I don't hold out great hope of it ever happening, but if we had some serious political players this is a megaproject that would pay wonderful dividends today as well the future generations, supposing you think there should be some, even if they haven't done anything for us.


May 15, 2014 at 2:31pm

I agree one hundred percent with Mosby. I have repeatedly referred in other comments here to Jeffrey Brown's "Export Land Model", and encourage other readers to look into it: short of a truly massive catastrophe (a nuclear war, for instance) the world is headed for a complete collapse of the global oil supply. It is really that simple.

The good news is that because oil (and then natural gas and coal) extraction is becoming less profitable and ultimately will turn into a non-profitable venture, a huge amount of fossil fuels will stay underground. Meaning that the more alarmist global warming scenarios, which assume that all of it will be burned in the twenty-first century, won't become a reality. When you look at what the collapse of global industrial civilization entails, this is not much of a consolation, but I'll take what I can.

Scissorpaws: I'm afraid your megaproject is an impossibility. Only a fraction of the planet's electricity is non-fossil fuel-produced, and the laws of pysics alone dictate that there. is. no. way. we could generate enough extra electricity to produce anything like the amounts of hydrogen needed to keep present-day industrial civilization going.

Such a project MIGHT work on a small scale in those parts of the world which have (or could potentially have) a non-fossil fuel-generated electricity surplus. This surplus must be present even in the absence of fossil fuels, NOTA BENE! How many such places are there? Québec, Iceland, a Swiss Canton or two, and perhaps Norway, are the only places I can think of. Doubtless there are a few others, but the point is that all of them combined would only add up to a tiny fraction of the world's population.

Mark you, the problem with a "hydrogen economy", even a purely local one, is that using electricity to make hydrogen which is then used as a fuel is far less energy-efficient than using the electricity directly. This I suspect explains why Québec (for instance) is putting more money into electric cars and the like than into the hydrogen economy.

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