We should formally recognize our impact on planet Earth. We should rename the epoch we are in. We should close the Holocene Epoch and open the Anthropocene or human altered geologically significant Epoch. We should use it as the rallying point to express the urgency of our fight to reverse humanity’s devastation of the planet.
The International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) is a professional organization that determines the Geological Time Scale under which the Earth operates. They, for example, formally named the Holocene or “entirely recent” Epoch that we are presently in. It began 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age and was progressing before our global affect on the planet was recognized.
The IUGS has formed an Anthopocene Working Group (from anthopo, for “man” and cene for “new”) with a target date sometime in 2016 to determine if we should change the name of our present Epoch to recognize humanity’s impact. This group is to make a formal recommendation to the IUGS this year.
It has already been well documented that humanity has fundamentally changed the planet. We know for example that we transitioned to the industrial age beginning in the early 1700’s. This represented the beginning of our global impact on the Earth. We started with England and by 1850 we were beginning to transform the rest of the world.
We quickly transitioned to fossil fuels and never stopped our increasing use. We moved from ongoing flows of water, wind, plants and animals to first coal then oil and gas. These fuels offered access to carbon stored in the ground from millions of years of photosynthesis. This represented a massive energy subsidy from the past to the present and became a great source of human wealth.
Today we use about five times as much energy as the hunter-gatherer societies that have gone before. Between the years 1800 to 2000 the human population grew more than six-fold with the worldwide economy growing about 50-fold and our energy use expanding about 40-fold. Nowhere was our growth more evident than our impact on the atmosphere.
An article by Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen, and John R. McNeil in December of 2007 said, “By 1950 the atmospheric CO2 concentration had pushed above the 300 ppmv, above its preindustrial value of 270-275 ppmv and was beginning to accelerate sharply.” In 2015 we have already had days and weeks above the 400 ppmv. It is only a matter of a short time when we will reach an average annual rate above 400 ppmv.
Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer originally proposed this formal adoption of the Anthropocene Epoch in the year 2000 in an article that appeared in the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) Global Change Newsletter. Readers will remember that Paul Crutzen was given a Nobel Prize for discovering the destruction of the ozone in our upper atmosphere by human used chemicals.
An article appearing in the March 11, 2015 issue of Nature magazine entitled the Anthropocene: The human age stated, “When Crutzen proposed the term Anthropocene, he gave it the suffix appropriate for an epoch…Between then and the new millennium, he noted, humans had chewed a hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, doubled the amount of methane in the atmosphere and driven up carbon dioxide concentrations by 30%, to a level not seen in 400,000 years.”
The same article observed, “When the Anthropocene Working Group started investigating, it compiled a much longer list of the changes wrought by humans. Agriculture, construction and the damming of rivers is stripping away sediment at least ten times as fast as the natural forces of erosion. Along some coastlines, the flood of nutrients from fertilizers has created oxygen-poor ‘dead zones’, and the extra CO2 from fossil fuel burning has acidified the surface waters of the ocean by 0.1 pH units. The fingerprint of humans is clear in global temperatures, the rate of species extinctions and the loss of Arctic ice.”
A key objective is to establish a key ‘geological signal’ or ‘golden spike’ that can be used worldwide by stratigraphers (scientists who study rock layers) and geologists to show the separation of one epoch from another. In an article entitled the Geology of Mankind in 2002 by Crutzen published in the journal Nature Crutzen argues “The Anthropocene could be said to have started in the late Eighteenth century when analysis of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane.” This would be around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and/or coinciding with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.
Other seminal events or golden spikes have been suggested. A leading candidate is a spike in geologic time or a visible signal shown in sediments worldwide that occurs in the 1950s and 1960s representing the worldwide fallout from nuclear weapons and their tests in the open air of the planet. In fact a member of the IUGS Working Group has suggested the specific date of 16 July 1945 or the day of the first atomic-bomb blast, as the beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch.
Those who have read the book Beyond Animal, Ego and Time know that chapter 12 states, “On July 16, 1945 the United States led an unknowing world into the nuclear age with the Trinity test nuclear explosion in New Mexico…Most people would credit the development of nuclear weapons as the tipping point where human beings moved from being incapable of destroying all life on planet Earth to fully capable.”
In a Smithsonian magazine article appearing in January of 2013 Joseph Stromberg writes, “Will Stephen, who heads Australia National University’s Climate Change Institute and has written articles with Crutzen, recommends starting the epoch with the advent of the industrial revolution in the early 1800s or with the atomic age in the 1950s. Either way, he says the new name sends a message: “[It] will be another strong reminder to the general public that we are now having undeniable impacts on the environment at the scale of the planet as a whole, so much so that a new geological epoch has begun.”
The article continues, “To Andrew Revkin, a New York Times reporter (now blogger) who suggested a similar term in 1992 that never caught on (“Anthrocene”), it’s significant that the issue is being debated at all. “Two billion years ago, cyanobacteria oxygenated the atmosphere and powerfully disrupted life on earth,” he says. “But they didn’t know it. We’re the first species that’s become a planet-scale influence and is aware of that reality. That’s what distinguishes us.”
For this reason and because it is true, the choice of this date and the use of the development of nuclear weapons as the beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch would be very appropriate. We should endorse this change and allow all of human kind to mark its ascension as the initiators of a new and dangerous epoch, the Anthropocene. It should give every one of us a new urgency to change the destructive path we are on. The future is ours to shape. Whether we are victorious or go down to a final defeat is up to us and depends on what we do in the coming days and years.
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