Rise of the anthropocene

Illustration by Keith Negley

It’s a potent image of the early 21st century: the wind farm.

Colossal white towers striding across farmland or wading mightily offshore. Some see them as impressive testaments to human progress and sustainability. But others see a crude imposition on the landscape and are moved to anger when clusters of turbines intrude on a cherished outlook onto the sea or a comforting patchwork of fields and hills. 

Wind farms embody the conundrums of what many scientists and trend-spotting media have started calling the Anthropocene. That is, the Age of Humans: a geological epoch defined by the impact of human activity on the earth. Wind power is supposed to lessen humans’ burden on the planet, but our footprint is so omnipresent that wind turbines just make it all the more visible.

This may not seem all that new. Humans have been hard at work remaking the earth for millennia, since the close of the last ice age ushered in the Holocene epoch about 11,000 years ago. It’s been an auspicious few thousand years for humankind. Agriculture flourished, enabling the rise of civilizations, bustling cities, prosperous economies and the flowering of culture, science, medicine and technology. A dizzying amount of global change in what amounts to the blink of an eye for a 4.6-billion-year-old planet.

But the Holocene may already be in the rear-view mirror. Consider how the past couple of centuries of human activity and population explosion have altered the face of the earth. Sprawling cities. Vast forests replaced with cropland or barren tracts of stumps. Networks of roads and railways spanning continents. Mountaintops blown off their bases to expose the coal underneath. We’ve become a nation of pavers, diggers and drillers, leaving the landscape pocked and scarred.

But the imprints made by concrete, chainsaws and cultivators seem almost quaint, like kids scraping out canals and building castles in a sandbox, compared to the way humans have insinuated themselves into the workings of planetary systems.

“One of the ironies is even as we’ve closed off the idea of wilderness, we’ve also made natural forces, wind and rain, far more violent and unpredictable,” says Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Earth and one of the leaders of the fight against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline in the United States. “Natural forces will be far more a part of our lives. It’s just that they won’t be divorced from us; they will be us at some level.

“All you really need to do is turn on the news. We’ve seen astonishing quantities of new record temperatures, rainfall and droughts. All the things scientists have predicted we’d see more of as we move from the Holocene – that 10,000 years of climatic stability that underwrote civilization – into a new, more violent, unpredictable Anthropocene.”

Climate change is creating a new world, threatening low-lying islands and coastlines with rising sea levels, melting ancient glaciers and turning the Arctic into a much less frozen place. And the Anthropocene is strewn with many more accidental byproducts of human ambition and ingenuity, as we’ve changed the chemistry of the global ocean and atmosphere. To wit: ocean acidification, soil depletion, ocean dead zones, holes in the ozone layer. It’s as if humans were handed the keys to the planet and started souping it up into a gas-guzzling hot rod.

The changes to biodiversity caused by humans may be the most telling impact of the Anthropocene. Between climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, overfishing and overhunting, it looks like the Anthropocene may have the dubious distinction of spurring the Sixth Great Extinction – the last one being 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs died out, presumably the result of a cataclysmic asteroid strike.
“This time,” McKibben says, “the asteroid is us.”

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.

“We can see how much vigor the natural world still has and how much it can resume being the way it was if we let nature take its course. The most important human ability is to not do something we’re capable of doing, to back off, to choose to not always put ourselves at the centre of the world.”

The way Tim Flannery, Australia’s chief climate commissioner and author of The Weather Makers, sees it, the Anthropocene doesn’t leave us with much choice.

“It’s very clear that the species that got us into this trouble is the only one that can get us out. Our technology’s become very powerful, but also part of the problem and potentially part of the solution. So it’s a fair question – will we just dig ourselves into a deeper hole? The only answer to that is that to do nothing is worse.”

For humans to live comfortably within the earth’s limits, it seems likely that renewable energy technologies will be a big part of the equation – though, if looked at without bias, they also come with a big footprint of their own. Fossil fuels may torque the climate with greenhouse-gas emissions, but they do it mostly out of sight. Wind and solar farms keep their paws off the climate, but you can’t help but see them.

That may also be one of their virtues, if you think about it. Our way of life weighs heavily on the planet, and it may not be such a bad thing to have an unsubtle reminder when we cast our gaze across the landscape.

Adapted from a documentary done for The Current on CBC Radio One.

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