How to Grow a Planet was a fascinating Netflix find this weekend. In this three part documentary, Dr. Ian Stewart reveals how plants, not animals, are the real designers of our planet. The air, the soil, the climate have all been shaped by plants over the last 400 million years ago to suit their evolutionary needs. We, the animals, just happen to survive on the by-products of plants’ complex energy conversion mechanism. We feed on photosynthesized carbohydrates and breathe oxygen that plants release.
Plants are complex creatures that haven’t been given their full due. I suspect that this documentary will be just the beginning of my study of the botanical world.
Years of Living Dangerously documents climate change’s impact in our world. The filmmaking is remarkable. The narrative weaves together stories from around the world: the stories of mill workers in Texas, rebels in Syria, palm-oil industrialists in Indonesia, and firefighters in California, among others.
Even in watching the first few episodes, I’ve been surprised by the far-reaching effects of climate change in the world. I knew about the immediate causes and first-order effects of rising temperatures, rising sea levels, droughts, and floods. But the secondary causes and effects are astonishing because they are so poorly understood in our collective consciousness.
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.
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But that label is outdated, some experts say.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.
Noam Chomsky presents the analogy of lemmings running towards a cliff.
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.”
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.”