From: Issue 39
Rise of the Anthropocene
Page 3 of 4
With seven billion people on the planet and rising, the human footprint is adding up
The Holocene itself was scarcely around long enough to even register on a planetary time scale. The arrival of the Anthropocene – with a starting date around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when the fossil fuel age began and our global population reached one billion – would signal not just remarkable global change, but a speeding up of geologic time.
Mind you, there are still a couple of hoops the Anthropocene needs to jump through before it’s a fully accredited geological epoch. The gatekeeper of geological time is the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London. Since 2008, the commission has been looking into whether to officially adopt the Anthropocene as the successor to the Holocene in the Geological Time Scale.
The geoscientists on this commission are not easy to impress. They’ve seen it all. Or at least, they’ve seen the geological record of it all – from mass extinctions to the comings and goings of ice ages. They won’t just be looking for evidence of our footprint; they’ll be looking for our fingerprints on the earth’s geology, our impression on the fossil record.
“My impression is that the earth has changed considerably,” says Jan Zalasiewicz, head of the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. “If you had geologists far into the future looking back, what they see will be indistinguishable from a meteoroid impact where all of the world changed in a geological instant.”
Future geologists and archaeologists would discover the fossilized remains of inundated cities and evidence of massive biodiversity change. They’d find the record of manmade compounds, toxic substances and plastics, along with the signatures of nuclear power and atomic bomb explosions. Not exactly like turning up fragments of pottery from a mid-Holocene civilization.
“I wouldn’t want to be an archaeologist in the future,” says Ronald Wright, whose many books include A Short History of Progress. “The garbage we’ve produced – toxins, waste ponds, nuclear waste – will make it very dangerous. We will not leave friendly ruins.”
Mark Lynas, author of The God Species: How Humans Really Can Save the Planet, takes a more sanguine view of the Anthropocene’s legacy. “The Anthropocene has been an enormous success for humans,” says Lynas. “We now have a quality of life that only kings and queens had in previous ages – but it’s been bad news for other species. Still, it’s worth celebrating what humans have achieved, not least because we have an intelligent civilization on earth now.”
But there remains the question of whether humans are intelligent enough to survive the Anthropocene. Wright fears that unless we become a more thoughtful and less numerous species, the Anthropocene will end with the collapse of civilization because we’re overwhelming, if not wilfully destroying, the planet’s capacity to sustain us.
Lynas thinks we’re equal to the challenge. “I believe people can live within planetary boundaries and continue to get richer and have much greater numbers, maybe up to 9.5 billion people. With continual advances in technology, which have been amazing in the past half century, and a vastly concentrating intelligence, we have enormous power and also enormous responsibility to manage the planet in a way that is sustainable.”
Technology seems likely to be the tool of first resort to solve the self-inflicted problems caused by our technology. Geoengineering schemes are floated as quick turnaround fixes to the accelerating climate change we face. Biotechnology promises drought-resistant, more productive crops to address food shortages brought on by climate shocks and population growth.
But those solutions amount to jerry-rigging the planet all the more. We may manage to engineer our way out of trouble, but it can also look like we’re creating a Frankenplanet. Perhaps that’s why McKibben thinks we’d best take our foot off the gas.