Confronting the ‘Anthropocene’ (N.Y. Times)

May 11, 2011, 9:39 AM
N.Y. Times, Dot Earth

NASA. Donald R. Pettit, an astronaut, took this photograph of London while living in the International Space Station.

LONDON — I’m participating in a one-day meeting at the Geological Society of London exploring the evidence for, and meaning of, the Anthropocene. This is the proposed epoch of Earth history that, proponents say, has begun with the rise of the human species as a globally potent biogeophysical force, capable of leaving a durable imprint in the geological record.

This recent TEDx video presentation by Will Steffen, the executive director of the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, lays out the basic idea:

There’s more on the basic concept in National Geographic and from the BBC. Paul Crutzen, the Nobel laureate in chemistry who, with others, proposed the term in 2000, and Christian Schwägerl, the author of “The Age of Man” (German), described the value of this new framing for current Earth history in January in Yale Environment 360:

Students in school are still taught that we are living in the Holocence, an era that began roughly 12,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. But teaching students that we are living in the Anthropocene, the Age of Men, could be of great help. Rather than representing yet another sign of human hubris, this name change would stress the enormity of humanity’s responsibility as stewards of the Earth. It would highlight the immense power of our intellect and our creativity, and the opportunities they offer for shaping the future. [Read the rest.]

I’m attending because of a quirky role I played almost 20 years ago in laying the groundwork for this concept of humans as a geological force. A new paper from Steffen and three coauthors reviewing the conceptual and historic basis for the Anthropocene includes an appropriately amusing description of my role:

Biologist Eugene F. Stoermer wrote: ‘I began using the term “anthropocene” in the 1980s, but never formalized it until Paul [Crutzen] contacted me’. About this time other authors were exploring the concept of the Anthropocene, although not using the term. More curiously, a popular book about Global Warming, published in 1992 by Andrew C. Revkin, contained the following prophetic words: ‘Perhaps earth scientists of the future will name this new post-Holocene period for its causative element—for us. We are entering an age that might someday be referred to as, say, the Anthrocene [sic]. After all, it is a geological age of our own making’. Perhaps many readers ignored the minor linguistic difference and have read the new term as Anthro(po)cene!

If you’ve been tracking my work for a while, you’re aware of my focus on the extraordinary nature of this moment in both Earth and human history. As far as science can tell, there’s never, until now, been a point when a species became a planetary powerhouse and also became aware of that situation.

As I first wrote in 1992, cyanobacteria are credited with oxygenating the atmosphere some 2 billion years ago. That was clearly a more profound influence on a central component of the planetary system than humans raising the concentration of carbon dioxide 40 percent since the start of the industrial revolution. But, as far as we know, cyanobacteria (let alone any other life form from that period) were neither bemoaning nor celebrating that achievement.

It was easier to be in a teen-style resource binge before science began to delineate an edge to our petri dish.

We no longer have the luxury of ignorance.

We’re essentially in a race between our potency, our awareness of the expressed and potential ramifications of our actions and our growing awareness of the deeply embedded perceptual and behavioral traits that shape how we do, or don’t, address certain kinds of risks. (Explore “Boombustology” and “Disasters by Design” to be reminded how this habit is not restricted to environmental risks.)

This meeting in London is two-pronged. It is in part focused on deepening basic inquiry into stratigraphy and other branches of earth science and clarifying how this human era could qualify as a formal chapter in Earth’s physical biography. As Erle C. Ellis, an ecologist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, put it in his talk, it’s unclear for the moment whether humanity’s impact will be long enough to represent an epoch, or will more resemble “an event.” Ellis’s presentation was a mesmerizing tour of the planet’s profoundly humanized ecosystems, which he said would be better described as “anthromes” than “biomes.”

Ellis said it was important to approach this reality not as a woeful situation, but an opportunity to foster a new appreciation of the lack of separation of people and their planet and a bright prospect for enriching that relationship. In this his views resonate powerfully with those of Rene Dubos, someone I’ll be writing about here again soon.

Through the talks by Ellis and others, it was clear that the scientific effort to define a new geological epoch, while important, paled beside the broader significance of this juncture in human history.

In my opening comments at the meeting, I stressed the need to expand the discussion from the physical and environmental sciences into disciplines ranging from sociology to history, philosophy to the arts.

I noted that while the “great acceleration” described by Steffen and others is already well under way, it’s entirely possible for humans to design their future, at least in a soft way, boosting odds that the geological record will have two phases — perhaps a “lesser” and “greater” Anthropocene, as someone in the audience for my recent talk with Brad Allenby at Arizona State University put it.

I also noted that the term “Anthropocene,” like phrases such as “global warming,” is sufficiently vague to guarantee it will be interpreted in profoundly different ways by people with different world views. (As I explained, this is as true for Nobel laureates in physics as it is for the rest of us.)

Some will see this period as a “shame on us” moment. Others will deride this effort as a hubristic overstatement of human powers. Some will argue for the importance of living smaller and leaving no scars. Others will revel in human dominion as a normal and natural part of our journey as a species.

A useful trait will be to get comfortable with that diversity.

Before the day is done I also plan on pushing Randy Olson’s notion of moving beyond the “nerd loop” and making sure this conversation spills across all disciplinary and cultural boundaries from the get-go.

There’s much more to explore of course, and I’ll post updates as time allows. You might track the meeting hash tag, #anthrop11, on Twitter.