Category Archives: Anthropocene

Opinions about the Anthropocene geological era

Species that love us

 

Professor Pearson said that although humans have caused incredible damage on wild life, not all species are in decline. Why is that? Dr. Pearson finds this important. So do I. The fact is that  some species have adapted to life on a planet dominated by one species, Homo sapiens. They seem to like us! Can we learn something from the adaptable species?

Pearson said that scientists have learned that some species in urban environments have experienced accelerated evolution. For example, cockroaches and pigeons have changed their behaviors to live and even thrive in urban environments. How did that happen?

Scientists have been studying a species I am very familiar with. It is called Crepis setosa, or Hawksbeard. It was originally brought over to North America by Europeans and now is common all over North America including Manitoba. Scientists have learned a very surprising thing about this common plant, namely, that it has evolved its method of propagating seeds. Instead of sending them in the wind it is now tending to drop the seeds to the ground instead. What is remarkable about this evolution is that it has happened in 15 years! That is an astonishing rate of evolution.

Coyotes in cities have also been evolving to live alongside humans. As a result coyotes have learned to hunt deer in packs, they are less shy, larger, have different teeth, and have larger territories than they did a short time ago. Again they adapted and then evolved in very short periods of time. That is why coyotes can now be found in nearly every major city of North America. I have seen them in Vancouver.

European Blackbirds have first adapted and then evolved to sing louder songs. They have done that of course to compete with noises humans have brought to cities.

 

30 years ago Anna’s Hummingbirds did not fly to Arizona. At least they were very rare. Now they are common. At this time of year where we live they are the most common hummingbirds. Why is that? Do they love the feeders that humans put out all over? Has the climate changed enough to attract them? Now these hummingbirds have found that they likelife in the city. People plant flowers all over the place just for them. So it must seem. The heat island effect of cities is also likely attractive to Hummingbirds. They seem to like cities, and who can blame them? Maybe they even like us!

Neo-tropic cormorants are not common to the Phoenix area, but there were virtually none here 15 years ago. Things have changed enough that these birds have learned to adapt to the city, even though they must share it with about 5 million other people. Now these cormorants are common.

These are examples of species that are managing to adapt to live and even thrive with humans. Can more species do this? Are there things humans can do to make adaptations by other species easier? These are all questions that Professor Pearson raised.

The problems of species decline are massive. We will need more knowledge. Knowledge is more important than money. Though it costs money too. We will have to work together, collaborate, to get more knowledge. All of that knowledge, experience, and wisdom will have to be shared so that we can attack the problems ahead.

Further changes in the urban ecosystem can be expected. Change is the only constant. Social, economic, and cultural changes are all important. Their impacts will be important. The continuing rise of the numbers in the middle class will have a major impact on the world. As the numbers of the middle class rise, their impact on the environment will grow exponentially. There will be greater consumption, more cars, greater waste, increased pollution, expanding extraction of resources, and always, more degradation of the environment as a consequence. This is what we can look forward to if we’re lucky!

Yet again there will be positives too. It won’t be all bad. We can expect people to have fewer children and that will mitigate environmental impacts. Education will improve and that will improve the lives of millions. People will have more free time. People will have more hobbies. All of this will bring about more citizen science. It is a sad fact that there is not enough money, even in the richest country in the world, to fund all the research that is needed. Pearson believes, citizen science will help reduce the harmful effects of this omission.

Of course people must learn to do more than play with their phones, iPads or watch their various monitors. People will have to learn to enjoy learning. Private citizens who become bird watchers are good examples of the new citizens that will be needed. Scientists will use these people to help them do science. The professional amateur will be a boon to society. More and more researchers will look to them for help in many disciplines.

Scientists will have to learn to collaborate more, use social interaction to a greater extent. A good example is how Scientists will learn to use crowd sourcing to a greater extent. Many use it already. If a scientist puts a question ‘out there,’ it is amazing how many responses the scientist will get and how many creative solutions or proposals. Businesses will learn to do this too. A business has a problem, it asks the world to comment, suggest, and help. This will become much more common. Perhaps the best solutions will be rewarded.

All of this can help to create a new ecology, including urban ecology. That does not mean the Grand Canyon won’t be important any more. It does mean we won’t be able to rely solely on such iconic places. The urban landscape might become more important than the Grand Canyon from a conservation perspective.

The key question will be: how do we work with nature manage and control the new world that is rapidly approaching? It will be vitally important for us to learn to adapt. Species will be lost. What can we do to minimize the losses while fostering the gains?          What will be the future of biodiversity in the cities in 2090? Will we recognize them? We will need big parks in the city. Parks like Central Park in New York City, or Hyde Park in London, or Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg. Politicians a century ago had foresight. Those parks were very expensive but those leaders found the will and the money to do such great projects. We will need such forward thinking from our current crop of political leaders.

Things won’t be easy, but we have a chance. We must take that chance with eyes and minds both wide open.

Birds and Anthropocene: Not all Doom and gloom

 

Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus)

We drove to Gilbert to participate in the monthly meeting of the Desert Rivers Audubon Society. We went last year to one of their meetings and really enjoyed it. Tonight they had a talk by Arizona State University Professor Dr. David Pearson. His topic was “Birds and the Anthropocene: The Future of Biodiversity”. It was fascinating. Dr. Pearson looked at the issue from a new perspective. In other words, he wanted to beyond the doom and gloom of species loss. It is easy to go down that path. I know, I do it all the time.

The notion of the anthropocene is designed to capture the fact that the era of human impacts is upon us and we as a species have had such a profound impact on the planet that our impact is comparable to the global geological forces of the past. I recently blogged about the precipitous decline in animals (not just birds)  The numbers are stupefying. The big question though is what can we do about it?

Dr. Pearson began with a startling proposition: “Don’t dwell on the past if you want to conserve the future.” That is not intuitively true. After all should we not learn from the mistakes of the past? Of course we should, but that does not mean we have to be stuck in the past. We need a new approach. The problem that we have to take into consideration is that so much has changed that we must learn to adapt.

Pearson suggested we consider conservation and ecology but with a new focus. We have to change our focus. The most important first step is to realize that we must give up our search for the pristine. The pristine no longer exists, and it ain’t coming back any time soon.  That is why we have to forget about the past. It will only serve to depress. There is no pristine left anywhere on the planet. Human impacts can be seen on every continent. Even in Antarctica the human effects are obvious and easily discernable.

What worked 50 years ago won’t necessarily work today. Too much has changed. So we have to change too. So we have to forget about the pristine and forget about achieving it. Think outside that box. We need a new ecology. We cannot fix the past. We need knowledge. We have to be smart. Yes we have to avoid the mistakes of the past, but we also need to learn new ways of doing ecology. We have to realize that we can’t save everything. We need triage. Really that means we must prioritize what needs to be done and what can be done. We must also understand that money is always a factor. It is never unlimited. Even in the United States, the richest country in the world, we have to practice smart ecology. We have to practice ecology that knows its limits too.

We have to work with the state of nature that we have, even though it is far from the pristine nature we would like to have. We can’t undo the past so what do we do?

Around the globe the number of species that have been lost for good and the habitat that has been lost for good are staggering. But concentrating on this doom and gloom won’t be help. It might even make things worse, because if things are hopeless people tend to give up.

Even in Kruger National Park, one of the finest national parks in the world, they have had to adapt. As a result much of it is now fenced! I remember when I was there, only a few years ago, they were just talking about fencing it. The notion seems abhorrent, but they had to adapt. We will have to adapt too and accept some things we don’t want to accept.

We have to reconsider what is natural. The natural is what is caused by nature, not by humans. But humans affect everything. Humans everywhere affect everything.

One of the things Pearson emphasized is that we can’t just concentrate on National Parks. We have to do conservation work elsewhere as well. We have to look at secondary habitats. In some of these places we can actually make a difference, and sometimes at a surprisingly small cost.

Since no habitat is able to escape human influence we have to be willing to go where humans have already had an effect. For example, we must look at urban ecology. This may sound counterintuitive, but we have to be willing to work in areas where humans have already had a profound impact. We have to practice ecology in our cities.

A single generation from today, by 2030, the population of the world’s cities will likely grow by 2 billion more people. That will be nearly 10 billion people. At present, about half of the humans on earth live in urban areas.

In short, the entire planet is becoming more urbanized, a phenomenon which is already having a profound effect on the natural systems that maintain breathable air, drinkable water, and fertile soil for agriculture.

But large areas of green spaces exist within cities. Lawns, parks, golf courses, and nature preserves created decades ago and now surrounded by development help filter pollution in air and water, produce oxygen, mitigate heat absorption by asphalt and concrete, and provide habitat for songbirds and other wildlife.

In the past quarter century, scientists have recognized that understanding the interactions of the living and nonliving components of these urban ecosystems is vital to the future of all life on earth, including ourselves.

Dr. Pearson said one day he took his students at Arizona State University on a walk through their campus. They were amazed by the wildlife they found right there. He said before they were done 50 other students joined his class, intrigued by what they were looking at. We all have to take a fresh look at the environment. Even the environments in our cities.

We have to look at the costs and benefits of urbanization. There are a lot of hidden costs. They are only hidden though until we look. The costs of urbanization include the following: pollution has increased, more floods have been created, water has been affected, air quality has been affected and that has affected people living in cities, people’s stress has been increased, people have become alienated from nature, and garbage has accumulated. The list could go on and on.

Of course there are benefits to living in cities too. Otherwise so many people would not live there. Many people think the costs are worth the price. In fact since more and more people live in cities that must mean that more and more people think it is worth living in cities, notwithstanding the enormous costs. The benefits include better access to education, jobs, entertainment, culture, sociability, and efficiency of services, to name again just a few. Often life is just plain more comfortable and for many more enjoyable than outside the cities. Apparently the benefits outweigh the costs. At least to many people. That’s why so many choose to live there. We have to work with that.

One of the facts about living in a city is the presence of heat islands. It is hotter in the city than outside the city. People must learn that green islands in the city are not a luxury. They help modify the ill effects of city living.

Humans in cities have to do things to improve city life. Cats are a good example. Every year in the United States domestic cats kill 2 billion birds. This is contributing to the serious decline of bird populations. Humans should keep their cats inside or tied up. Cats can learn to accept that. Cat owners must be responsible. I admit to some guilt here. I used to have cat pets and always let them roam around the neighbourhood and I knew that my cats killed birds. I did not like it, but I let them out. If someone complained I promised to speak to the cats. Attitudes like mine have to change.

Riparian areas are marvellous adaptations inside cities. There are 2 astounding examples very close by–the Riparian Reserve at Water Ranch (where I took the photograph of the owl., though it is captive) and the Veterans Oasis Park. Both are wonderful green areas inside the city. And both help recycle water in a region that badly needs clean water! This is win/win at its finest. Dr. Pearson said he proudly shows pictures of these 2 places around the world when he gives presentations at conferences. I have been there many times and am always amazed at the wildlife inside a major city.

As Dr. Pearson repeated over and over, he did not want to concentrate on the gloom. He wanted to concentrate on how we should adapt to these horrid facts. If we can’t adapt we will suffer the same consequences as other species that fail to adapt when challenged. We will disappear–forever.

The entire story is not grim. For example, in the past hundred years in Arizona perhaps only 1 or 2 plant species have gone extinct as far as we know. Even though many exotics have been introduced they have not muscled out the locals. Plants have been able to survive.

Next I will blog about species that are not declining. How is that possible?

Astonishing Species Decline

 

Chris and I went to hear a Professor from Arizona State University talk about the amazing decline of birds and what we can do about it. Before I bog on what he said, I wanted to give some information, about the general problem of species decline. It is not a pretty story but the Professor did not concentrate on doom and gloom. He actually had some suggestions.

We all know birds (and other animals) have been seriously impacted by human activities inside and outside cities. The Living Planet Report of the World Wildlife Fund of 2018 delivered shocking news. It reported “On average, we’ve seen an astonishing 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians in just over 40 years.” You have to be careful in interpreting such figures. They are more complicated than at first they appear. But it is not difficult to understand we are losing a lot of wildlife. In addition the report said, “The top threats to species identified in the report link directly to human activities, including habitat loss and degradation and the excessive human use of wildlife such as overfishing and overhunting.”

As Damian Carrington reported in the Guardian, “Between 1970 and 2014, the latest data available, populations fell by an average of 60%. Four years ago, the decline was 52%. The “shocking truth”, …, is that the wildlife crash is continuing unabated.”

This is an incredible report and not many people are talking about it. They are talking about Trump and the Mueller report, but that is not nearly as important as this. As Carrington said,

 

Humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970, leading the world’s foremost experts to warn that the annihilation of wildlife is now an emergency that threatens civilisation.

The new estimate of the massacre of wildlife is made in a major report produced by the WWF and involving 59 scientists from across the globe. It finds that the vast and growing consumption of food and resources by the global population is destroying the web of life, billions of years in the making, upon which human society ultimately depends for clean air, water and everything else.

We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff” said Mike Barrett, executive director of science and conservation at WWF. “If there was a 60% decline in the human population, that would be equivalent to emptying North America, South America, Africa, Europe, China and Oceania. That is the scale of what we have done.”

This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” he said. “This is actually now jeopardising the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ – it is our life-support system.”

According to Prof Johan Rockström, a global sustainability expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, “We are rapidly running out of time.…The Living Planet Index has been criticised as being too broad a measure of wildlife losses and smoothing over crucial details. But all indicators, from extinction rates to intactness of ecosystems, show colossal losses. “They all tell you the same story,” said Barrett….”

Tanya Steele, chief executive at WWF, said: “We are the first generation to know we are destroying our planet and the last one that can do anything about it.'”

However, as Professor Pearson repeated over and over, he did not want to concentrate on the gloom. He wanted to concentrate on how we should adapt to these horrid facts. If we can’t adapt we will suffer the same consequences as other species that fail to adapt when challenged. We will disappear–forever.

Next I will blog about how we should react to this decline. Besides crying that is.

Gimme Some Truth; Beyond Climate

I attended the showing of a new film on climate change at the University of Winnipeg in November  2018 as part of the Cinematheque Gimme Some Truth documentary film festival. The film was called Beyond Climate Change and was directed by Ian Mauro of the University of Winnipeg and narrated by David Suzuki. Cinematography was by Len Peterson. The showing was followed by a discussion between Mauro and Suzuki during which  Suzuki delivered a stirring address that all the ingredients of a lively religious Revival. I called it a secular revival.

The film was preceded by an important message by First Nation elder Dave Courchene of Manitoba. He emphasized some important matters. I will paraphrase his remarks since it was impossible to make an accurate word-for-word transcription. He said that climate change was a direct consequence of our moral failure to follow our moral obligation to moderate our consumption and protect the earth. Our consumptive society, he said, is based on fear, greed, anxiety, stress, discontent, and ultimately genocide. Those were unsettling words. He said, “We are a species out of control.”  This attitude comes from looking at the earth as a non-living entity.  “We need a change of heart to survive as a species,” he quietly but powerful said. We must remember, as aboriginals have always preached, “What we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.” This of course follows from the fundamental premise of many indigenous people that we are fundamentally connected to the earth; we are not separate and apart from it. We have to renew the spirit—i.e. we need to awaken our deep feeling of kinship and affinity with each other and the earth itself. I have already blogged about how this is in my opinion a deeply religions notion.

Courchene added, “We need to disengage with a life that is not in alignment with the earth and aboriginals have an important role to play in this process. They can help the rest of us do this.”

Early in the film Suzuki quoted from American poet and environmentalist Gary Snyder. He was the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Petr Kopecký called him “the Poet laureate of Deep Ecology”. Snyder, according to Suzuki said that the two most important words were “Stay Put.” I think he meant that we should resist being removed from the place we call home. We should stay connected to it. That is our base for all we do. We should not sell that home to anyone for money. That is what the first nations of British Columbia are doing when they refuse to sell rights to oil and gas companies to build a pipeline over their land to the Pacific Ocean.

Suzuki pointed out that “climate change is the critical—the existential issue of our times. The science has been in for 30 years. We know that the problems our children and grand children face will be immense.”

If you think this is alarmist or bat shit crazy here is what the World Health Organization had to say. Climate change is “the greatest threat to global health in the 21stcentury.” “Climate change is a global emergency.” But it is not all bad news.  The policies that we must adopt have demonstrable health benefits beside the climate benefits! However our Canadian government that held such promise when the newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canada was committed to the Paris agreement on climate change, has been disappointing. Committing billions to supporting the purchase of a pipeline for bitumen without adequately assessing its effects on health or the environment is a big step in the wrong direction. As Tim K. Takaro and Jennifer Miller said, “Our government must invest in solutions to, not the causes of, climate change.”

The film emphasized what we already know, particularly after this horrific year that brought us record wild fires, spectacular storms, and brutal heat waves, and that is that extreme weather events will relentlessly plague us and we had better get ready for that. This is not how things are supposed to be, but this how they are. As Suzuki said, “the entire planet is at risk because humans have become so powerful that we are actually impacting the water, the air, the soil in a way that no other species has ever done.”

Albertans are very upset that BC and some indigenous nations are objecting to their project to bring liquefied natural gas and oil to the Pacific coast through the province of British Columbia and over indigenous land. But what do they think gives them the absolute right to bring a project to the land of others without their consent? Just because such projects produce a lot of money? As one indigenous leader said in the film, “Fundamentally there are just some projects that Canadians, and indigenous peoples, and British Columbians have the right to say no to.” As another leader said, “It is not just about corporate quarterly profits.” Another indigenous leader said, “I don’t feel comfortable pushing this off to my children.” These leaders summed up the issue precisely. Albertans by and large don’t understand this. Each of us has to take responsibility for this issue. We all have to do our part.

I liked many things about the film. For example, I liked the sign held high by one of the protesters: All you need is less. That is what we always forget and this is the problem. We always want more. I loved another sign, “Live gently upon the earth.”

I liked the scene in the film where a young aboriginal boy made a sensational jump when he drove his bike into the wall of a sandbox filled with a big mattress. The photographer caught him in midflight as he lifted off after hitting the board “flying” through the air completely horizontal, with a massive grin on his face and a bright gleam in his eye. The boy was obviously confident that he would hit the mattress. He knew he was resilient. He had hope.

I loved the comments about British Columbia and Vancouver in the film designed to explain to us why many of them  opposed pipelines into their bay up the coast. I did not know it, but Vancouver is the major city with the lowest per capita greenhouse gas emission in North America. This has been achieved at the same time that Vancouver has undergone significant growth: 27 per cent increase in population and 18 per cent increase in jobs. They are justifiably proud of that.  Why would they want to lose that? I wonder how much of this achievement is the consequence of their carbon tax?

Suzuki was interviewed for his views a number of times in the film. He was clearly sad that although fishing had always been a very important part of his life from the time he was 4 years old, he could not fish in the streams outside of Vancouver anymore. He could not bring his grand children to those streams. That is a pity. Not only that, it is important. It is not all about money. As one indigenous leader said, “you can’t eat money.”

I won’t say that I learned a lot new from the film, but it did inspire. The talk that followed did more than that. Suzuki in particular was in fine form. His speech was powerful. It was a secular revival. My kind of revival.

Anthropocene

 

 

Dandora landfill in Nairobi

We visited a second exhibit at the National Gallery in Ottawa. This was very different from the first one that displayed works by the Group of Seven and their contemporaries. This one did not have beautiful art. Or rather it did, but in a weird way.

The exhibit featured amazing works of photography by Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier using a variety of techniques and technologies. Their works are stunning, but  deeply disturbing, and that is what good art should do. It should disturb us. These 3 artists ask us to consider the environmental and ethical issues involving the exploitation of Earth’s resources by one species—Homo sapiens.

The exhibit included about 30 new enormous photographic prints and high definition murals as well as film installations. The title of the exhibit is Anthropocenea concept I have been interested in for a number of years. The concept arises from an important but little understood fact: Human beings now affect the Earth and its processes more than all other natural forces combined.

This word has recently been invented. I wish it had not occurred to anyone that this word was needed. The word is anthropocene.  It refers to the fact that humans have had such a profound influence on the planet that the era we are now in needs a name to reflect that.  That word is anthropocene.

The word is closely associated to another word—anthropogenic.  This word also refers to profound planetary forces that have a human origin.  We created these forces.  And many of these forces are not benign.  Far from benign in fact.  Malignant would be much closer to the truth in many cases.

In the spring of 2013 Christiane and I visited Africa. It was a marvelous experience. Never have we seen wild life that. We were astounded when we safaried into our first African ‘Game’ Park. That was Chobe National Park in Botswana. It is not the park with the most wildlife in Africa. That privilege probably belongs to the Serengeti.  Yet we were completely stunned by the amount of wild life we saw that day.  We saw large numbers of elephants, giraffes, gazelles, impalas, hippopotami, crocodile and water buffalo as well as small numbers of many other animals.  Of course we saw many species of birds as well.  It was one of the most exciting days of my life.  We had never seen anything like it in North America.

Yet North America used to be like that. It is hard for us to believe.  200 to 300 years ago the Great Plains of North America resembled the plains of the Serengeti.  It has been estimated that some 30 million to 60 million animals were found on the Great Plains of North America.  These included the American bison and pronghorn antelope in the millions. They roamed freely across about 500,000 sq. mi. of land between the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi. That is difficult for us now to comprehend. It is difficult because most of those animals were slaughtered—deliberately slaughtered. Now it seems incomprehensible that we could do that. But we did. Our species did that. This destruction was anthropogenic. We were the cause. Destruction on such a vast scale beggars our imagination.

The epoch we are currently living is called the Holocene epoch.  It started 11,700 years ago. In geological terms that means this current epoch has barely begun. Yet already, some scientists are saying we need to declare that the Holocene epoch is over and  a new one has begun–the Anthropocene.

Epochs are marked by momentous events–like Ice Ages. Usually they have lasted millions of years. For example the epoch that preceded the one we are now in, The Pliocene or Pleiocene  Epoch is the epoch in the geologic timescale that extended from about 5.333 million to 2.58 million years before present. It lasted about 2.8 million years and was by no means the longest.

Originally it was thought that the Holocene epoch would begin during the last Ice Age and then end when a new Ice Age started.  That would make the Holocene an interglacial period between an experiencedice age and an anticipatedice age. During this period the climate has been relatively stable and this has allowed Homo sapiens to dominate the earth.  Yet recently many scientists have become convinced that this traditional analysis is no longer accurate.  They believe that over the last 200 years, or since the time of the Industrial Revolution, the impact of this one species has been so great that an entirely new geological age has been ushered in—the Anthropocene, or Age of Man.

According to British geologist Jan Zalasiewicz there is now a widespread belief among Earth and environmental scientists that changes created by human activities are now so great that they rival some of the great forces of nature that have in the past so altered the planet that at least 5 mass extinctions of species have occurred since the planet was created 4.56 billion years ago.

Think about this concept for a minute. This means that the consequence of activities of our species, are so enormous that we compare to the effects caused by an asteroid smashing into the planet about 65 million years ago that killed more than half of the species on the planet. According to this view our actions are so profound that the stability of the Holocene epoch has been disturbed to such an extent that the very life support systems that have nurtured and favored our species. How is that possible?

Scientists believe that so far there have been 5 major extinctions. the most  massive extinction was the Permian Extinction that occurred about 600 million years ago and  changed the nature of the planet forever.  It was probably the most extensive extinction ever.  It led to the extinction of 95% of life on our planet!

This extinction ended that Permian world. The cause of this extinction is not universally agreed upon. Some have suggested that massive volcanic forces inside the earth led to massive eruptions that poisoned the atmosphere and oceans so much that 95% of all species died. Other causes have been suggested but all of them are on the order of magnitude of what we call forces of nature. No pipsqueak can change the world’s climate.

To think that our actions are being compared to these massive destructive natural forces is stupefying. Yet that is exactly what some scientists are now doing. This is a disconcerting thought, but on this basis, our species isthe greatest serial killer of other species that the earth has ever seen.

Andrew Miall, a professor at the University of Toronto described this well,

Deforestation, agriculture, increase in erosion, the pumping of all kinds of artificial things into the hydrosphere; all these phosphates and nitrates going into the river systems (so that) we now have this huge dead zone in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico because of all the agricultural chemicals that have gone down there. These are all undeniable effects.  There is no point in trying to evade it. To call this now the Anthropocene epoch would certainly crystallize that concept. It does seem that a number of scientists have started to use the term

How have we—one species—been able to have such a profound effect on the planet? According to William Marsden,

Scientists say the principal agents of this change are the machinery of the industrial age and its chemical toxins. Modern mining, urbanization, forestry, agriculture and fishing practices have refashioned both the terrestrial landscape and continental shelves. Toxic pollutants are changing weather patterns, warming oceans, increasing their acidity and raising sea levels.

Scientists say that there are already clear and distinct geological markers of this human impact that are clearly visible in the atmosphere and sedimentary rock as well as discerned changes to our weather patterns.

This impact has been felt in not just species extinctions, but species invasions.   According to Jan Zalasiewicz, “the CO2increase associated with global warming and ocean acidification—this is large in scale and probably unprecedented in its speed.”

The idea that we have created our very own geological age has been around for decades, but the effort to formalize this notion began with a scientific paper by Paul Crutzen in 2002. He is the scientist who received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1995 for his work on the effects of ozone in the atmosphere. He is a respected  scientist.

Scientists like Crutzen treat our actions as equivalent to a geological phenomenon that caused some of the greatest events in the Earth’s deep past.  They also make it clear that the driving force for the global changes we are undergoing is human behavior, particularly in the social, political and economic sectors.

There is not yet general agreement about when the Anthropocene began. Some say it started with the start of the Industrial Revolution that began in about 1800.  At that time in England a rapid transformation of English society from a predominantly rural agricultural one to an urban society began. This spread throughout Europe and from there to North America.

It was during this time that the concentration of carbon dioxide started to rise above the 278 parts per million (‘ppm’) that had helped to stabilize the planet so favorably throughout the Holocene. By 1900 the levels of CO2in the atmosphere had reached 300 ppm.  We have now gone above 400 ppm, even though scientists warned a few years ago that it would be “dangerous “for us to allow it to go over 350 ppm. We are now well beyond that. We are in the danger zone.

Other scientists believe that the Anthropocene started later at about the end of the Second World War.  Some have called this the period of great Acceleration. During this time the human population doubled to more than 6 billion people.  During this time the number of automobiles grew to 700 million from 40 million, people began to abandon agriculture as a way of life, the use of fertilizers rose to 300 million tonnes a year from about 50 million tonnes while CO2expanded to 390 ppm from 311 ppm.

Most of the Grand Acceleration was powered by Western countries, but new emerging economies like China, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa all had an important impact too. Greenhouse gas emissions have exploded exponentially.  Coal use rose sharply, but 90% of the recent increase in the use of coal—a primary cause of increased greenhouse gas emissions—can be attributed to India and China alone.

What does all this mean?  According to William Marsden,

Some scientists believe a formal recognition that mankind is now the most powerful force of nature on the planet will help draw the world’s attention to the damage mankind is causing to the Earth’s life support systems.

A paper of the Royal Society published in 2011 says, “The ultimate drivers of the Anthropocene, on the other hand, if they continue unabated through this century may well threaten the  viability of contemporary civilization and perhaps even the future existence of Homo sapiens.” This is the consequence of modern industry, mining, urbanization, forestry, agriculture, and fishing activities. Pollutants are filling the air and water and soil with toxins. All of these human activities are refashioning the earth. They are changing the game. We have a lot that we are responsible for.

The photographic display we saw explored the effects of human activity on the planet in artworks that are amazing, horrible, and in some weird way beautiful. Bringing us images of places such as the enormous Dandora landfill in Nairobi, massive log booms on Vancouver Island, and the Gotthard Base railway tunnel in the Swiss Alps, among many others. Collectively these works show us the pervasive and complex repercussions of our modern way of life. It is disturbing to look at. It should be disturbing. What are we doing?