Dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch

February 11, 2008 in Building the Green Economy, Renewable Resources by Joseph Robertson

The Anthropocene is a geological epoch in which human activity infiltrates all natural processes


At a meeting of European scientists, in Stockholm, Sweden, the man who coined the term ‘anthropocene’ to describe the new geological epoch in which human influence dominates natural processes, announced that the term has gained acceptance in a growing number of fields. The real import of the term, and of its increasing relevance to what science is showing about the effects of human civilization on the environment, globally, is that ecological information is increasingly vital to implementing human ambitions in a responsible and sustainable way.

Paul J. Crutzen, of the Max-Planck-Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, wrote in the year 2000 that:

The name Holocene (“Recent Whole’) for the post-glacial geological epoch of the past ten to twelve thousand years seems to have been proposed for the first time by Sir Charles Lyell in 1833, and adopted by the International Geological Congress in Bologna in 1885 (1). During the Holocene mankind’s activities gradually grew into a significant geological, morphological force, as recognised early on by a number of scientists. Thus, G.P. Marsh already in 1864 published a book with the title ‘Man and Nature’, more recently reprinted as ‘The Earth as Modified by Human Action- (2). Stoppani in 1873 rated mankind’s activities as a ‘new telluric force which in power and universality may be compared to the greater forces of earth” [quoted from Clark (3)]. Stoppani already spoke of the anthropozoic era. Mankind has now inhabited or visited almost all places on Earth; he has even set foot on the moon.

The Financial Times, of London, is reporting “The EuroScience forum in Stockholm heard on Thursday that climate change was the most obvious of a complex range of man-made effects that is rapidly changing the physics, chemistry and biology of the planet.” Other effects will have a lot to do with crop resilience, soil fertility, elasticity of habitats vital for species on which our sustenance environment —the realm of ecosystems and resource production that feeds our species and its habits— depends.

The dawn of the Anthropocene epoch in geological history brings with it numerous challenges and opportunities. In terms of transitioning sweeping economic models and trends to sustainable methods, there is a vast opportunity to expand the potential output of the global economy, but meeting the challenges that create this opportunity will require massive amounts of ingenuity and investment.

A group of 21 leading scientists and researchers has published its study of the geological timescale topic in the GSA Journal, concluding that the fundamental shift to a human-altered geological environment occurred at the beginning of the 19th century. What is now occurring, however, is that awareness of the potentially severe impact of 200 years of rampant industrial expansion, resource exploitation, urban construction and terrain remodeling appears to have reached a tipping point, after which science cannot ignore the human element in the natural world, i.e. ecological impact.

That study specifically notes that human activity has led to fundamental alterations in sediment layering, soil quality, geological patterning, the biological habitat and its flora and fauna, as well as the obvious impact on the breathable atmosphere. Specifically:

From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to the present day, global human population has climbed rapidly from under a billion to its current 6.5 billion (Fig. 1), and it continues to rise. The exploitation of coal, oil, and gas in particular has enabled planet-wide industrialization, construction, and mass transport, the ensuing changes encompassing a wide variety of phenomena, summarized as follows. [...]

Humans have caused a dramatic increase in erosion and the denudation of the continents, both directly, through agriculture and construction, and indirectly, by damming most major rivers, that now exceeds natural sediment production by an order of magnitude [...]

Carbon dioxide levels (379 ppm in 2005) are over a third higher than in pre-industrial times and at any time in the past 0.9 million years [...]

The projected temperature rise will certainly cause changes in habitat beyond environmental tolerance for many taxa (Thomas et al., 2004). The effects will be more severe than in past glacial-interglacial transitions because, with the anthropogenic fragmentation of natural ecosystems, ‘escape’ routes are fewer.

Resilience mechanisms are eroded, and the natural environment is less able to adapt suitably to changes within its sometimes competing ecosystems. The study also cites evidence of increasing levels of species extinction, and the growing likelihood of a major wave of mass extinction, directly related to human activity.

“Scientists are building computer models that give a view of the whole ‘earth system’ in the Anthropocene era. These are beginning to show the hot spots or Achilles’ heels in Earth’s defenses against catastrophic change, said John Schellnhuber, director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change at the University of East Anglia”, also according to the Financial Times.

If we are to continue expanding our technological abilities, our industrial production, our standard of living, and the integration of human society across the planet (with the fuel demand and resource-stress this implies), then there will need to be a major change in the way in which policy-makers, private enterprise, consumers and markets generally, conceive of the human effect in the natural environment.

That change in consciousness will allow for a new approach to funding and producing major technological innovations that will make it far easier to gracefully slip away from reliance on carbon-based combustible fuels. That will, however, be only one thread in the fabric of advances needed to help human industrial civilization outpace its own capacity for mass resource depletion.