The Anthropocene Epoch

Humans have changed the planet remarkably quickly in the last two generations. We are only just starting to understand our own impact. However, as a global society, we are far from acknowledging the impending disaster that our species may be walking towards.

Video from the Smithsonian Magazine.

Excerpt from Smithsonian Magazine: What is the Anthropocene and Are We in It? by Joseph Stromberg

Have human beings permanently changed the planet? That seemingly simple question has sparked a new battle between geologists and environmental advocates over what to call the time period we live in.

According to the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), the professional organization in charge of defining Earth’s time scale, we are officially in the Holocene (“entirely recent”) epoch, which began 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age.

But that label is outdated, some experts say. They argue for “Anthropocene”—from anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new”—because human-kind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts.

This graphic from Nature, Anthropocene: The human age by Richard Monastersky, shows how quickly we’ve transformed our planet.

nature-anthropocene-1203-a

Lemmings Running Towards a Cliff

Noam Chomsky presents the analogy of lemmings running towards a cliff.

New Opportunities

Writing for the Breakthrough Journal, the geographer Erle Ellis reviews existing evidence and presents a counterpoint, saying “the history of human civilization might be characterized as a history of transgressing natural limits and thriving.”

Excerpt from summary of Breakthrough Journal article: The Planet of No Return by Erle Ellis

The main constraints on human populations are not environmental, Ellis concludes. Agricultural productivity around the world rises as population density increases. “Populations work harder and employ more productive technologies to increase the productivity of land only after it becomes a limiting resource,” Ellis notes. And in most places, yield-increasing technologies were introduced long before they were needed to overcome natural limits.

What’s ultimately at stake, Ellis argues, is not human civilization, but the ecological heritage of the Holocene. The good news is that urbanization could “drive ever increasing productivity per unit area of land, while at the same time allowing less productive lands to recover.”

We should neither turn a blind eye to our ecological impacts nor exaggerate them, says Ellis. Rather, we must embrace our role as planetary stewards and start seeing the Anthropocene as “the beginning of a new geological epoch ripe with human-directed opportunity.”

Well, that’s heartening.

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