The Dawn of the Anthropocene: what should it mean for us?

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The Anthropocene as a concept has been around for a relatively long time, and has been hotly debated by scientists, environmentalists and philosophers. The concept is this – the Earth being in a phase of history which humans have a great influence over, on a geological level. Last week, however, experts from Leicester University at the International Geological Congress recommended humanity declares itself to have passed into this new epoch.

Heating Up

Overall, it does seem like fairly bad news. The Holocene – the geological epoch that has just passed – was one of unique environmental and ecological stability. It started from the end of the last Ice Age 12,000 years ago after which human civilization began to develop. Over this time, very little in the Earth’s environment changed. However, as the graph below shows, global temperatures have risen dramatically in recent years and have been predicted to rise even further. This is unanimously agreed by scientists to be a direct consequence of human activity – most notably, the burning of fossil fuels and resultant CO2 emissions.

Fig. 1 – This shows how global temperatures have changed over the past 20,000 years. Although not constant, temperatures throughout this period have changed relatively slowly, until that is the sharp line at the end which marks the start of the Industrial revolution. The orange line projecting outwards from it represents a ‘middle-of-the-road’ scenario for future temperature rises: an average of various computer simulations.

Why does this matter? The climactic change that results could have devastating effects in the near future, and these effects could be beginning now. Rising global temperatures seem to be causing an increase in extreme weather incidents, as well as drought and poor crop yields in some areas. In-fact, the drought in Syria may have stoked the fire of its civil war.

Leaving Our Mark

Whilst global warming is what tends to hit the headlines, temperatures are of course just one piece of evidence that support us being in the Anthropocene. Previous epochs have been defined by fossils, minerals and other things left in layers of ground or ‘strata’ that build up over time. The group have argued that, since the 1950s we have been leaving enough evidence physically in the ground for a new epoch. If some Aliens who were keen on geology decided to study the layers of rock from our time, below shows afew things they might notice:

 

Chicken fossils. The chicken that went into your post-Jesters kebabs might one day be fossilised. The Anthropocene is partly defined by traces of agriculture including domesticated animals like chickens. Since the mid-20th century, they have become the world’s most common bird and a staple food around the globe. Image source: CBS News
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Plastic. Another mark we are leaving is plastic pollution. Most plastics do not readily biodegrade, and are accumulating in natural ecosystems. Plastic bags could stay in-tact for 1,000 years. Image source: The Ocean Cleaner
Nitrates and Phosphates. This is a bag of Nitrogenous fertiliser pellets, the kind commonly dissolved and sprayed onto crops to help them grow. These are disrupting nature’s natural mineral cycles, which could have disastrous consequences for life. The increase Nitrate content in soils is more evidence that we were here. Image Source: Climate Change Wiki
Radioactive elements. An atomic bomb explosion at a test site in Nevada, 1951. All of the tests that took place during the ’50s caused a dramatic spike in the concentration of radioactive elements in the ground. Image Source: Wikimedia

 

So, like our ancestors who left their handprints in caves to mark their presence, our civilisation is leaving lasting traces on the whole planet.

Perhaps one of the most worrying features of the Anthropocene is the effect that all this has on the ecosystem. Because of the inter-related factors of agriculture, deforestation and climate change, the Earth is experiencing a mass extinction of species around the world. It is formally in its sixth ever mass extinction event, in which we are destroying species quicker than we are discovering them. While there is an ethical case for doing all we can to prevent this, there is also a selfish one as it will eventually come back round to bite us. For example, coral reefs are currently under threat because of us – they are being slowly eroded by CO2 dissolved in the oceans. One million marine species depend directly on corals, and in turn around a seventh of the World’s population depends on seafood to live, as do many of its major economies.

Room for optimism?

So far, this article has been fairly depressing. Is there anything good about this new age? From an environmental point of view, not really. However, from a philosophical point of view, perhaps there could be. Technological and industrial progress have seen an improvement in people’s quality of life throughout history, but only now are we realising that this progress can’t continue indefinitely in the same way without environmental consequences. If the Anthropocene is formally adopted, it would mean that we are now in an age where the outcome of the Earth is controlled directly by us – for better or worse. Its formal recognition is likely to be met with some conservative cynicism at first, but ultimately it will mean that we are seen as having much more responsibility towards the environment. There have been a few recent success stories about this kind of positive change – the Giant Panda is no longer endangered thanks to charitable conservation, microbeads are now banned in the UK thanks to public pressure and Norway now plans to become entirely Carbon neutral by 2030.

Really, what defines this new age is that stuff has been happening so quickly. Martin Rees – the president of the Royal Society – is feeling a little more positive about the news. He wrote in the Guardian last week, “For us, technological change is so fast that scenarios quickly enter the realm of wild speculation and science fiction”. We must ask ourself what kind of fiction the future will hold. Will it be like The Day After Tomorrow, or could it be sustainable, happy and prosperous?

Resources

Fig. 1 – Taken from https://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/the-two-epochs-of-marcott/ – Accessed 05/09/2016

 

 

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