This is a photograph of one of Manitoba’s lovely little orchids that are blooming right now. I am a wild flower guy. I hate what is happening to flowering plants, and other plants, around the world!
Some people don’t–no make that most people–don’t think we need a new attitude to nature. They are content with the current attitude to nature that is deeply embedded in western thought. Fundamentally, this is the attitude that we humans are not part of nature. According to the conventional wisdom, we are separate from nature and in fact superior to it, so that we can do with nature as we please. Nature is just a resource. When Europeans arrived in New World, as they called, even though there was nothing new about, they brought this attitude with. That is a pity because the indigenous people had an entirely different attitude which I will comment on soon.
This is the western attitude to nature in a nutshell which has been with us for millennia and is supported by Christian scripture, though fortunately, some modern Christians are trying with heroic efforts to turn that ship around. I wish them luck.
There is some very recent history to support my contention that current attitudes have got us in big trouble. Recent studies have shown that pollution caused by humans is killing 9 million people a year around the world.
The recent study is based on data from the Global Burden of Disease Project. That study found that air pollution caused 75% of those deaths. That means that air pollution is responsible for 1 in 6 deaths around the world!
The study was published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health and it said that toxic air and contaminated water and soil “is an existential threat to human health and planetary health.” According to the Guardian Weekly review of that research, “The death total dwarfs that from road traffic deaths, HIV/Aids, malaria, and TB combined!”
Of course, pollution is produced by humans the greatest serial killer on the planet. Humans produce it because they don’t care about nature.
Another recent study has shown that 80,000 plant species world-wide are currently categorized as “heading for extinction because people do not need them!” Many of these are flowers which as a flower child I lament of course, with special feeling.
And for those who don’t care about wild flowers or even nature, but care about money, and that includes a lot of people, here are the economics: “The researchers calculated the economic impact of pollution deaths at $4.7 tn., about $9m a minute.”
That should get their attention.
And in a nutshell, that is one reason why we need a new attitude to nature. But there are many.
As I mentioned earlier, in the past couple of years of the pandemic, air pollution has killed a lot more people than Covid-19. Yet one is treated like an emergency while the other is more or less ignored. I think that is a big mistake.
Air pollution no doubt contributed to the effects of Covid-19. How could it not? Covid-19 usually effects the respiratory system. So does air pollution. As Beth Gardner reported in the National Geographic,
“When Covid-19 began tearing around the globe, Francesca Dominici suspected air pollution was increasing the death toll. It was the logical conclusion of everything scientists knew about dirty air and everything they were learning about the novel coronavirus. People in polluted places are more likely to have chronic illnesses, and such patients are the most vulnerable to COVID-19. What’s more, air pollution can weaken the immune system and inflame the airways, leaving the body less able to fight off a respiratory virus.”
Dominici is a professor of biostatistics at Harvard and she has created a data platform that aligns information on the death of millions of Americans with a day-by-day summary of the air those people who died were breathing. What a great idea! But the results of her investigation were disturbing. Her data goes back for 20 years.
How she got the data is an interesting story in itself, but I will leave you to read the article in the Geographic. She was collecting the information for years before any one had ever heard of Covid-19.
First of all, she and her researchers noticed that even in places where air quality standards were met, pollution was linked to higher death rates. This meant the air quality standards were too lax! The air that will meet the standard won’t be safe enough. Of course, death is not the only result of bad air. Other health conditions are also concerning if you care at all about quality of life. I know I do.
The research team discovered that a host of ailments that required hospitalizations had gone up wherever there was air pollution. Her research showed that things like kidney failure and septicemia also went up where air quality was poor. They learned that air quality with particulate matter, even very small matter, had a big effect.
For example, as Beth Gardner explained her findings,
“added to a mountain of evidence demonstrating the dangers of PM2.5, or particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers, about a 30th the width of a human hair. Some of those particles—of soot, for example—can cross into the bloodstream. Scientists have found them, including even tinier “ultrafine” particles, in the heart, brain, and placenta.”
The researchers found there was a very close connection between Covid-19 deaths and poor air quality. As she said,
“the places where decades of exposure to bad air had primed people’s bodies to be susceptible to the coronavirus. Worldwide, the team reported in December, particle pollution accounted for 15 percent of COVID-19 deaths. In badly polluted countries in East Asia, it was 27 percent.”
This surprised many ordinary people, but most scientists were not so surprised. Dominici said, “It made perfect sense.” She already knew what much of the public doesn’t—that dirty air ends far more lives, and with far greater regularity, than the novel coronavirus.”
Its time we started to realize that. This is also an environmental problem is not something in our future; it is with us here and now.
We are all familiar with the Covid-19 pandemic. The world economy shut down to deal with it. Who ever thought that was possible? Why was it possible? Only because the world realized this was an emergency and as a result the world took emergency measures.
There are actually bigger problems out there. One is climate change; another is bad air quality. There are others too. They require emergency measures as well.
Beth Gardner wrote an informative article on air pollution in National Geographic. Not exactly a left wing rag. The National Geographic called “air pollution… a pandemic in slow motion.” People just don’t realize how dangerous it is and because it is stealthy, except in some very large cities like Beijing, Mumbai, Los Angeles and Phoenix, we seldom take notice of it. I know I did pay attention when I lived in Phoenix. It bothered me to see that constant haze in the atmosphere when I drove into the city from the suburbs where we lived for 3 months.
As leader writers for her article said, “Dirty air is a plague on our health, causing 7 million deaths and many more preventable illnesses worldwide each year.” But the solutions are clear.” So far, in over a year of the Covid-19 pandemic which I do not want to make light of, nearly 5 million people have died world-wide. And, of course, we hope the disease is nearing the time in which it will be controlled because of vaccines. Dirty air is really a big problem, we just don’t realize it yet. We will.
We could tackle dirty air too and actually it would cost us a lot less money than fighting Covid-19.
We seem better at tackling fast moving pandemics than the slow ones.
In early 2020 the world changed–we experienced Covid-19. This was something new an international pandemic that hit home to everyone except the most obtuse virus deniers, religious fanatics, anti-science cranks, and conservatives and their fellow travelers.
Covid-19 was big. It changed the world. In many respects the world changed including massive economic slow-downs or even lockdowns. For more than a year we were required to wear masks in most social settings. Many of us were not able to work. An international Marshall plan was established to work on vaccines. Millions of people died while millions of people denied the reality of their illness or the efficacy of the vaccines created to stem the tide. Yes, the world was different.
In the midst of this pandemic and the international response it was difficult to see anything else. As a result, we missed some pretty important things. For example, few paid attention to air quality. That was a mistake.
Rebecca Solnit was the first to draw my attention to this disturbing fact. As she reported in The Guardian,
“While Covid ravaged across the world, air pollution killed about three times as many people. We must fight the climate crisis with the same urgency with which we confronted coronavirus.”
I was shocked to read that. It couldn’t be true. Could it?
After all at the time she wrote, 2.8 million people had died as a result of Covid-19 and it captured our entire attention. Whether we believed it or not, clearly covid-19 was the issue. Since then of course, millions more have died, and we are nowhere need done with this pandemic.
What most of us did not know is that during the first 15 months of the pandemic that Solnit was writing about “3 times as many people died from air pollution.”
While Covid ravaged across the world, air pollution killed about three times as many people. We must fight the climate crisis with the same urgency with which we confronted coronavirus.
According to a recent scientific study, 8.7 million people per year die of the effects of air pollution. And part of the problem is that most of us are unaware of this disturbing fact. Air pollution is a largely invisible enemy unless you visit some place like Phoenix Arizona as I did for nearly 10 years in a row. You can see it there. Air pollution usually arrives by stealth. As a result, unlike Covid-19 the world has not rallied to defeat it. There have been no lockdowns or mask requirements because of air pollution. Largely this stealth attack has gone unnoticed and unquestioned. We have normalized the havoc by treating it as what Solnit called “moral background noise.” Instead Covid-19 gets all the attention. Solnit says we should treat air pollution like an emergency, like we have done with Covid-19. She does not say attention to Covid-19 was misplaced.
The first thing we must realize is that there is more than one serious consequence to burning fossil fuels. We must also recognize that climate change is not the only serious effect of our determination to burn fossil fuels. Climate change is a serious problem, perhaps the most serious in the world right now, notwithstanding Covid-19, but so is air quality. The problem is that burning fossils fuels is to deep a part of the status quo that we don’t really see it. We are blind to it and have come to believe there is no reasonable alternative.
As Solnit said,
“We are designed to respond with alarm to something that just happened, that breaches norms, but not to things that have been going on for decades or centuries. The first task of most human rights and environmental movements is to make the invisible visible and to make what has long been accepted unacceptable. This has of course been done to some extent, with coal-burning power plants and with fracking in some places, but not with the overall causes of climate chaos.”
We cannot let this stealth bomber slip under the radar. Climate change creates similar problems as until we experience dramatic effects as when wild fires consume British Columbia and California forests, or ice bergs break off continents, birds disappear, or in my case, beautiful flowers come earlier in spring, we often fail to take note of the serious changes. It is also difficult to notice when some of the richest and most predatory corporations in the world pay huge sums of money to pundits for hire to confuse the science and persuade these problems are not real.
We must be alert to these problems and the consequences they foist on us. We must dissent from the normal. We must resist the fake reality that predatory capitalist firms try to impose upon us. As Solnit said,
“According to CNBC, at the outset of the pandemic, “New Delhi recorded a 60% fall of PM2.5 from 2019 levels, Seoul registered a 54% drop, while the fall in China’s Wuhan came in at 44%.” Returning to normal means drowning out the birds and blurring out the mountains and accepting 8.7 million air pollution deaths a year. Those deaths have been normalized; they need to be denormalized.”
Solnit also reminded us that,
“A lot of attention was paid to whatever actions might have caused Covid-19 to cross from animals to humans, but the actions that take fossil fuel out of the ground to produce that pollution that kills 8.7 million annually, along with acidifying oceans and climate chaos, should be considered far more outrageous a transgression against public health and safety.”
One of the excuses these corporations have tried to get us to believe is that we can’t afford to change. One thing Covid-19 has showed us is that we can afford to spend the money that it takes to fight off disaster. Hugely impactful changes require huge responses. We can do it. We must. We must not tolerate a “normal” that costs the lives of 8.7 million people every year (in addition to all the other horrific effects of fossil fuel consumption.
Rebecca Solnit left us with some hope in her important essay:
“My hope for a post-pandemic world is that the old excuses for doing nothing about climate – that it is impossible to change the status quo and too expensive to do so – have been stripped away. In response to the pandemic, we in the US have spent trillions of dollars and changed how we live and work. We need the will to do the same for the climate crisis… With a drawdown on carbon emissions and a move toward cleaner power, we could have a world with more birdsong and views of mountains and fewer pollution deaths. But first we have to recognize both the problem and the possibilities.”
We need to get serious about climate change and air pollution and stop ignoring the problem or paying lip service to them as we have been doing in Canada. It is time for change. It is time to realize that this is not a future problem—this is happening now. This is apocalypse now.
I heard Mark Ruffalo who played Bilott, and Bilott himself on the PBS television show, Amanpour & Company and the real life Bilott. They made some important points.
Commenting on the legal fight that took almost 20 years of relentless endurance on the part of Bilott, Ruffalo had this to say:
“The system is rigged—against the people. They want us to think that it will protect us, but that is a lie. We protect us. Nobody else. Not the companies, not the scientists, not the government. Us We protect us. Nobody else.”
This is the fundamental idea behind the film. The system is rigged. Against us.
Of course, this was just one case. But is in any different in the pharmaceutical sector? Or oil and gas? Or tobacco? Or anywhere else? Not according to Ruffalo.
Ruffalo put it this way in his interview by Amanpour:
“We have a system where the government is not responsive to the needs of the people and where it is slavish to the corporate system. We have a democracy that is in service to an economic capitalist system, instead of that system being in service to our democracy. Yes that system is rigged. It has been rigged because there is so much money in politics. If you wanted to fix the problem, really quickly, you would have the state have a stake in health care. Then this stuff would get cleaned out really fast because right now we’re getting poisoned. We have to pay to get ourselves healthy and the state just keeps taking money from both sides, to keep the vicious circle going.”
In the American legal system the people have to prove the chemical harms them. The corporations can sit back and do nothing other than, of course, block the science of the opponents. This is a fundamental flaw.
According to the film there is still no regulation of PFOSA in America. And PFOA’s are ubiquitous. As Nathanial Rich who wrote the article on which the movie was based, explains,
“But if you are a sentient being reading this article in 2016, you already have PFOA in your blood. It is in your parents’ blood, your children’s blood, your lover’s blood. How did it get there? Through the air, through your diet, through your use of nonstick cookware, through your umbilical cord. Or you might have drunk tainted water…
Where scientists have tested for the presence of PFOA in the world, they have found it. PFOA is in the blood or vital organs of Atlantic salmon, swordfish, striped mullet, gray seals, common cormorants, Alaskan polar bears, brown pelicans, sea turtles, sea eagles, Midwestern bald eagles, California sea lions and Laysan albatrosses on Sand Island, a wildlife refuge on Midway Atoll, in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, about halfway between North America and Asia.”
As Manohla Dargis said in a New York Times review of the film:
“But at its strongest, the movie makes you see that the poison that is killing Wilbur’s cows and so many other living things isn’t simply a question of toxic chemicals. There is, Haynes suggests, a deeper malignancy that has spread across a country that allows some to kill and others simply to die.”
This is the bigger issue. The exploration of this issue is what makes this film, and the article on which it is based, so important and so interesting. Ultimately it comes down to these two closely related questions: is our modern political system democratic and is modern capitalism anti-life? Those are two very big questions. Worth thinking about.
Dark Water is a really good film. It is a monster/horror film, but not but not the kind you might expect. This is a real life horror show with real life monsters,.
The opening scene is dramatic, spooky and menacing. The scene is idyllic at the outset, like so many scenes in so many horror films. In 1975 a group of cavorting teenagers trespass onto property for a classic midnight swim. It’s obviously loads of fun. I have done exactly that type of thing. But just as in any self-respecting horror film you know from the menacing music that something is wrong. Danger lurks and teenagers dressed only in skimpy swimsuits are defenceless before the danger. There must be a monster lurking in that dark water. And there is. But it is not the typical horror film. It is much worse than that.
The water is oily—slimy. This can’t be good. Suddenly the strong deep male voice of authority rousts them up. The kids are forced to leave. And they do. After they leave a small boat softly glides across the pond spraying something over the slick and shiny surface of the water. The boat is marked “containment.”
In time we learn the monster is not supernatural. It is real. It is indeed profoundly menacing and dangerous. It is a chemical monster the result of corporate malfeasance of a high order.
The film was based on an article in the New York Times Magazine by Nathaniel Rich in 2016 titled, “The Lawyer who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” That lawyer was Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo). He was a lawyer that typically acted for chemical corporations. He was an environmental lawyer—for the wrong side!
Bilott was persuaded to go to the other side by a friend of the family, a West Virginia dairy farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who was profoundly angered by what happened to his cows. His cows were strangely dying in horrible ways on land he farmed. He was suspicious. Something was wrong. It was a mystery and Bilott was intrigued. Like a relentless detective on the trail of truth. And the truth is ugly and leads to an astonishingly long drawn out legal battle against a corporate giant and weak government regulators.
Tennant was unable to get help from anyone before Bilott. No veterinary or lawyer would talk to him. DuPont owned the town and the town was grateful for the ownership. People did not want to rock the boat. It got good paying jobs and security. But did it get something else too? Something less benign?
The corporate giant at the heart of the case, DuPont, never admitted liability or wrongdoing, but it did pay hundreds of millions of dollars for harm caused to animals, property, and people as a result of their chemicals ending up in a local stream and drinking water. The chemical central to the case is called PFOA short for perfluorooctanoic acid. It is a chemical that was entirely unregulated.
In the lawsuit Bilott asked for and got an order requiring DuPont to provide all relevant documents to Bilott. But he got more than he bargained for—110,00 pages of documents! He was literally swamped with paper. It took him months to just sift through the papers. Information in those papers did not come out easily.
It took 16 years for the case to wind through the courts, but of course all the resulting lawsuits have not been completed. Far from it in fact. Many of the parties involved died before judgment of the court was delivered, including Wilbur Tennant.
Yet with enormous—no heroic—work Bilott found a story. Sometimes, I am proud to say, lawyers are heroes. This was one of those times. According to Rich’s articles this was the story:
‘‘I started seeing a story,’’ Bilott said. ‘‘I may have been the first one to actually go through them all. It became apparent what was going on: They had known for a long time that this stuff was bad.’’
DuPont used TFOA in its wonder product Teflon. According to Rich, it was the source of about $1 billion in annual profits for DuPont. Worth defending with vigour. And that is what DuPont with the aid of their team of expensive lawyers did. They defended in the American style—with overwhelming force as the Powell doctrine demands.
PFOA, although unregulated at the time had some very interesting properties. According to Rich,
“PFOA’s peculiar chemical structure made it uncannily resistant to degradation. It also bound to plasma proteins in the blood, circulating through each organ in the body.”
For decades DuPont had been dumping it into their own landfill near Tennant’s property and that in turn drained into a local creek. As Rich explained:
“By 1990, DuPont had dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA sludge into Dry Run Landfill. DuPont’s scientists understood that the landfill drained into the Tennants’ remaining property, and they tested the water in Dry Run Creek. It contained an extraordinarily high concentration of PFOA.”
The court ordered an independent scientific analysis of Tennant’s claims that the harm was caused by DuPont’s chemicals and that report blamed poor animal husbandry on the part of Tennant instead of the chemicals. But DuPont had not been entirely forthcoming in disclosing information for the scientific panel to make its determination. The fight should have been over here. But Bilott was as relentless as a bulldog with its teeth in a human leg.
Bilott kept digging and as he kept digging he kept finding interesting stuff. Watch the movie or read the article to find the details and they are fascinating. Well worth the read or view. And he discovered a lot of people that were harmed. Horrendous birth defects and worse. An interesting little scene showed an adult person with horrible birth defects who had been shown in a photograph as a young baby in the film. The actual adult man, played himself as a happy-go-lucky gas jockey.
Here is Bilott’s side of the story according to Rich:
‘‘I was irritated,’’ he says.
DuPont was nothing like the corporations he had represented at Taft in the Superfund cases. ‘‘This was a completely different scenario. DuPont had for decades been actively trying to conceal their actions. They knew this stuff was harmful, and they put it in the water anyway. These were bad facts.’’ He had seen what the PFOA-tainted drinking water had done to cattle. What was it doing to the tens of thousands of people in the areas around Parkersburg who drank it daily from their taps? What did the insides of their heads look like? Were their internal organs green?
Tennant’s suit was eventually finalized after 16 years, but this film actually raises a much bigger question. Or even two. I will talk about that in my next blog.
As we drove to Arizona we listened to CBC radio. There was a story about Lynn Lake. In many ways it is a familiar story. It is a story about mining towns. And it happens over and over again. A valuable mineral is discovered, a mining corporation or international conglomerate gets wind of it, scoops up the rights, usually along with some “incentives” from various levels of government, and establishes a mining town.
For a while the town booms. Everybody is happy. Everybody makes money. People move in to work in the mines, others to support the miners. Life is good. For awhile at least.
Then the industry collapses either because the rich vein of minerals is exhausted or prices drop so low it is no longer economical to keep the industry alive. Profits dry up and so does the town. The mining corporation of course, gathers up its chips and moves out. Ordinary people are left holding the bag, in more ways than one. People who owned homes in town find that their homes are worthless. No one wants to move in. Most want to move out, not in. Some die-hards want to stay. After all this is their home. They want to live there. Even though it no longer makes economic sense to stay. This can work for awhile, until the population is so low the town just can’t keep going anymore.
Then sometimes–as in Lynn Lake–remnant problems remain. Often these are environmental. The corporations leaves a mess behind. A mess that someone else has to clean up. This is what happened in Lynn Lake. According to the former Mayor who was interviewed on CBC, the contamination of the water was caused by tailings from the mine. A fund has been created from mining taxes but for some reason can’t be used to clean it up or pay for the Lynn Lake Water Treatment Plant upgrades that are required. So poor citizens in a dying town are left holding the bag. The townspeople don’t want to pay more for water they are told not to drink. That is understandable but who should pay?
I would say the polluter should pay. If that was the mining corporation they should pay, but often it is costly and time consuming to pursue legal uncertain remedies. The townspeople want the province to pay, but why should the province pay? I am all in favor of the collective helping out a group down on their luck, but does it really make sense to keep a town like Lynn Lake going? Is this going to be a classic case of throwing good money after bad?
The town of Lynn Lake now has a population of about 500 from a high of near 4,000. Now it has many abandoned houses. Such homes are not easy to deal with. There were at one time more than 230 abandoned lots in the town and 50 of those have vacant homes that are an invitations to rodents and vandals. They also pose a fire threat to the rest of the community. The town has taken to burning them down or pushing them, literally pushing them, to the dump. After that their foundations have to be covered up and sewer pipes closed. All of this costs money, for a community that does not have a lot of money.
Is this the best the mining industry can do? Can it just cut and run without any heed to the consequences. Is this how our mining industry works. Often it seems that is exactly how it works. If so is it time to abandon the mining industry? I admit I don’t now squat. I just raise questions. Awkward questions.
I heard David Schindler speaking on National Public Radio in April 2017 on our way home from Arizona. I have also heard him speak a couple of times in person. He is one of Canada’s most respected scientists. He is an expert on water and the harm we do to it. Schindler warned that the damage to the environment that we hav caused would have profound effects on people 50 to 100 years from now. But it seems we are incapable of looking ahead that far. No one cares. That short-sightedness is extremely unfair to future generations. Don’t we have obligations to them too? Instead of worrying about them we continue to spew out pollutants into the atmosphere, the ground, and the waters we use. That damage might become irreversible.
The classic example of this, according to Schindler, is the Alberta Tar Sands that he had studied for the last decade or so of his scientific career. The pollution in those Tar Sands are a ticking time bombing, he said. We are leaving it behind. We will have a lot to answer for.
Another long-term problem we are creating for future generations is climate change. Scientists are 90% (or more) certain that our actions are causing irreparable harm to our climate. We can’t afford to wait until they are 100% certain.
Many people—like the editorial writers in the Wyoming newspaper I read early that morning driving home from Arizona concentrate instead on short-term economic losses of pollution or climate change mitigation. I don’t want to entirely discount those consequences. They will hurt some people. But these writers fail entirely to take into consideration the immense longer-term damage. The costs of mitigating climate change will dwarf the cost of the damage to our economy, but others (like our grand children for example) will pay them in the future. That makes it easy to ignore those costs now. It will be someone else’s problem. Our actions are extremely selfish, unwise and unfair. The editorial writers consider the cost of current job losses, extra taxes, and things like that. These are nearly insignificant in comparison to the costs of the harm of doing business as usual. We cannot afford to ignore the cost to the planet.
The editorial writers appeal to the same people Republicans and Conservatives appeal. Or my Member of Parliament. He only cares about the economic cost to his current electors. The next generation is not his problem. All these leaders are concerned about is what costs will they have to pay. The next generation can be dammed. That attitude could lead to disaster. In fact, it looks like it is leading to disaster.
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 orPleiocene 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?