So This is The Anthropocene?

Or, Rather, is Our Hubris Showing?

The term “Anthropocene,” although originated by some Russians in the 1980s, was given its current common meaning by USan “ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer, and has been widely popularized by the [Dutch] Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, who regards the influence of human behavior on the Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries as so significant as to constitute a new geological epoch for its lithosphere.”

The most recent time periods of geological history (see below, source), consist of (a) 5 Ages of the Holocene Epoch of the (b) Quaternary Period of the (c) Cenozoic Era.  What Crutzer and Stoermer want to do, evidently, is claim that the Holocene Epoch has been superseded by the Anthropocene Epoch:  “The Earth has now left its natural geological epoch, the present interglacial state called the Holocene.”  (p. 614)

The authors go on to state (pp. 616 – 617):

Around 1850, near the beginning of Anthropocene Stage 1, the atmospheric CO2 concentration was 285 ppm, within the range of natural variability for interglacial periods during the late Quaternary period.  During the course of Stage 1 from 1800/50 to 1945, the CO2 concentration rose by about 25 ppm, enough to surpass the upper limit of natural variation through the Holocene and thus provide the first indisputable evidence that human activities were affecting the environment at the global scale.  We therefore assign the beginning of the anthropocene to coincide with the beginning of the industrial era, in the 1800 –1850 period.

So far as I know, geologists have not given their consent to this interference, by non-geologists, with their nomenclature.  And why should they?  The geological time table is their bailiwick, and “In the Geologic Time Scale, time is generally divided on the basis of the earth’s biotic composition, with the Phanerozoic Eon (i.e. the Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic Eras) representing the period of Earth’s history with advanced life forms, and the Pre-Cambrian (or Proterozoic and Hadean Eras) representing the period before advanced life.

Underlying changes in “biotic composition”, of course, are those changes of most direct interest to geologists;  however,  changes in (a) Earth’s surface; i.e., its configuration and rock composition at any given location; (b) when those changes occurred; and (c) why; i.e., the “forces” responsible for those changes.  The forces most commonly identified are ones of an internal nature (such as volcanism), along with asteroids.  In fact, the Permian—which occurred from about 299 to about 252 ybp (i.e., “years before present”)—at the end of “which nearly 90% of marine species and 70% of terrestrial species died out”—many scientists believe that: an asteroid or comet triggered the massive die-off, but, again, no crater has been found.  Another strong contender is flood volcanism from the Siberian Traps, a large igneous province in Russia.  Impact-triggered volcanism is yet another possibility.

That is, either an external force — an asteroid or comet — or internal ones were responsible for the “Great Dying”, the worst in the geological record to date.

The above are not my only reasons for objecting to the use of the word “Anthropocene” for the period from about 1800 – 1850 CE to the present, however.  Consider the following passage from an article published in early January of this year, written by science journalist Gaia Vince:

The changes humans have made in recent decades have been on such a scale that they have altered our world beyond anything it has experienced in its 4.6 billion-year history.  Our influence is no longer confined to a local area or even a region—it’s global, and so profound, it is pushing the planet into a new age that geologists [Oh?!] are calling the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans.

And:

In the Anthropocene, humanity has become a geophysical force on a par with the earth-shattering asteroids and planet-cloaking volcanoes that defined past eras.  Earth is now a human planet.  We decide whether a forest stands or is razed, whether pandas survive or go extinct, how and where a river flows, even the temperature of the atmosphere.  We are now the most numerous big animal on Earth, and the next in line are the animals we have created through breeding to feed and serve us.  Four-tenths of the planet’s land surface is used to grow our food.  Three-quarters of the world’s fresh water is controlled by us.  It is an extraordinary time.  In the tropics, coral reefs are disappearing, ice is melting at the poles and the oceans are emptying of fish because of us.  Entire islands are vanishing under rising seas, just as naked new land appears in the Arctic.

In her recently-published Adventures in the Anthropocene:  A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made she continues by asserting (p. 6) that “We [humans] live in epoch-making times.  Literally [in that Crutzer and Stoermer consider it a geological “epoch”].  The changes humans have made in recent decades have been on such a scale that they have altered our world beyond anything it has experienced in its 4.5 billion-year history [her article had said 4.5 billion].  Our planet is crossing a geological [Oh?] boundary and we humans are the change-makers.”

The “anthropo” in “Anthropocene” refers to humans, of course, and there’s no doubt that it is humans who have been responsible for changes that have been occurring—atmospheric (not geologic!) changes directly, other changes caused by those atmospheric changes.  But given the bases for how geologists have identified different eras-periods-epochs, etc. in our geological past, there is no basis for identifying the Anthropocene as a geological epoch.

More importantly, however, what Vince has written (as quoted above) brings to my mind the word “hubris,” which “means extreme pride or self-confidence.  When it offends the gods of ancient Greece, it is usually punished.”

Vince is correct in declaring that our influence on the planet has been “profound,” but when she writes (in her book, p. 6) that “Humans have the power to heat the planet further or to cool it right down, to eliminate species and to determine its biology,” she strikes me as “profoundly” (!) ignorant.  She noted a few lines earlier that while conducting her “research” she “heard plenty of dire predictions about our future on Earth.  But at the same time I was also writing about our triumphs, the genius of humans, our inventions and discoveries, about how scientists were finding new ways to improve plants, stave off disease, transport electricity and make entirely new materials.”

In the course of her reading and interviewing, then, although she had encountered both negative and positive views, it was the latter that most convinced her.  In doing so, she neglected to recognize the fact that—as Guy McPherson has put it so well, and so succinctly—“Nature Bats Last.

Granted that humans have played a significant role in “changing the face of the earth.”  But our powers are puny in comparison with Earth’s.  And because Earth is a system, the changes which we make in Earth not only result in changes which directly make our lives more difficult, but other changes which may very well make a “turning back” impossible (see my recent “The Ironies of Our Present Situation” and this video).  Meaning that we humans may be heading inexorably toward extinction!

Nature, because it “bats last,” will have the “final say,” and people like Vince are foolish to think otherwise, and place their faith in our ingenuity as humans—especially because it is our “ingenuity” that has given us our current predicament!  Vince is by no means alone, of course!

The Greeks may have believed that the gods would punish those guilty of hubris.  Today, however, we know that our hubris will be the fundamental cause of our demise as a species:  We have mistreated Earth, and Earth will—is in the process now—of removing that cancer known as the human species.  What we humans should do before that happens has been well-stated by Guy McPherson.  However, the probability that more than just a few will heed McPherson’s advice is close to 0.00!  Who was the fool who called ours the most intelligent of all species?!

Al Thompson retired four years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: sven3475@gmail.com. Read other articles by Alton.