Article 38: What if Earth, as a system, is operating now in a quantifiably new state, because of the profound changes humans are making to Earth’s natural systems?
The following text is a summary of an article, authored by Owen Gaffney of the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
He introduces the term ‘Anthropocene’, increasingly used by Earth scientists to describe a new epoch in geological history, reflecting the profound changes humans are making to Earth’s natural systems.
Illustration by Arthur Rackham
He speaks about the Goldilocks effect, a term adapted from Robert Southby’s ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’ novel and generally used to refer to the habitable zone where a planet might sit in terms of its distance from the sun it orbits: not too far (too cold), not too close (too hot), but just right.
The Holocene was a “goldilocks” period for Homo sapiens: not too hot, not too cold. Preceded by a deep ice age, the Holocene’s climate allowed agriculture to arise and flourish independently in the Middle East, China, and elsewhere.
Humans have always developed increasingly innovative methods of using ecological landscapes that allowed them to exceed previous natural limits
More complex social structures such as towns and cities arose, followed much more recently by enormous population growth and development. The Holocene is the only known epoch capable of supporting a global civilization of 7.2 billion people, a rapidly growing number that is expected to stabilize at 10-12 billion in the coming century.
But what if Earth, as a system, is now operating in a quantifiably new state? What if Earth has moved out of the Holocene and into a new geological period? What if the ship on which we sail has grown so large, that its insatiable appetite and increasing affluence have radically altered all around it?
Tokyo: welcome to the Anthropocene
If true, such a revelation demands a seismic rethinking of our worldview, on par with Copernicus’ conclusion that the Earth orbits the sun, or with Darwin’s theory of natural selection. It also demands that we acknowledge that our actions now will shape the future of Earth’s life support system for centuries, or even millennia, to come.
For several years now the world’s top Earth-system scientists and geologists, and increasingly philosophers, theologians, urbanization researchers and other experts, have gathered to debate, discuss and describe a new geological epoch in Earth’s history.
This period is being called the Anthropocene, or the epoch shaped by man. The term itself had been coined only recently, in February 2000, by the Dutch chemist and Nobel Prize-winner Paul Crutzen in a flash of insight, during a scientific meeting in Mexico.
A visual representation of the breakdown of geological time. The Anthropocene would come after the Holocene.
Crutzen’s historic intervention is supported by a growing mountain of evidence. As an idea, the Anthropocene stands on solid scientific ground. That is not to say there is no debate.
One of the biggest questions is: when did this new geological epoch begin? Some argue that the Neolithic revolution, the dawn of agriculture around 10 to 8 thousand years ago, fundamentally changed the Holocene. As we cleared land, burned forests and dug irrigation channels to grow food, we undoubtedly altered landscapes and watersheds. But did we begin to alter the planet on a global scale? Evidence for that conclusion is slight.
In 2002 Crutzen proposed, in the journal ‘Nature’, that the Anthropocene could have begun around 1800, with the industrial revolution in Britain. Two decades earlier, in 1776, Scottish engineer James Watt installed the first steam engines to pump water out of mines. In the same year, economist Adam Smith, another Scot, published ‘The Wealth of Nations’, a blueprint for generating economic growth based on rapid industrialization. These innovations sparked a raft of others, leading to the first flexing of industrial muscle in Great Britain and elsewhere at the dawn of the 19th century. Perhaps 1800, Crutzen suggested, is the boundary between the Holocene and the Anthropocene?
The beginning of the Industrial Revolution around 1800
Two years after Crutzen’s proposal, in 2004, after almost two decades of research, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, IGBP, published its first synthesis of the Earth as a system. Led by Earth-system scientist Will Steffen and including Crutzen, the report focused heavily on the concept of the Anthropocene, reiterating that the industrial revolution looked the likely candidate as the boundary. But it also contained an intriguing series of 24 graphs, which pointed to a significant event that occurred around 1950…
About that next time!