Enter the Anthropocene - Earth Week

An Editorial:

At the heart of modern environmentalism is the idea that the planet must be saved from humanity, but as our population passes 7 billion, it seems impossible to go back to a time when we didn’t influence the planet so greatly.

In fact, our destructive behavior has changed the planet so much that the scientific community has established the term “Anthropocene” or the “Age of Man” to describe the era we are living in.

This means that we have had such an impact on the earth that, as Richard Alley, Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, claims, “A geologist from the far distant future almost surely would draw a new line, and begin using a new name, where and when our impacts show up.”

And, if we don’t handle this turning point correctly, future geologists might have nothing more than that little line in the rocks to remember us by.

Professor William Steffen, Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, identifies nine “life support systems” that are essential for human life on earth.  In his article, “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” he defines a threshold for each system which, when crossed, may cause irreparable damage to the planet’s ability to foster human life. Steffen warns us that we are dangerously close to crossing at least three of these major thresholds.

The most familiar of these thresholds is the amount of carbon in the atmosphere due to climate change, or “global warming,” which has made our planet around 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius) warmer since 1880.

If the temperature continues to rise at this rate, glaciers around the world will melt faster, causing sea levels to rise as much as 7 to 23 inches by the end of the century. This rise in temperature can cause hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and other natural disasters, to increase in their frequency and intensity. Worst of all, the ocean’s circulation system, also known as the ocean conveyor belt, could be altered or damaged, which could cause Western Europe to fall into an ice age.

UN climate scientists are trying to set the threshold for world temperature change to exceed no more than 2°C above the pre-industrial era. We are already halfway there. Most scientists don’t believe that political efforts can change the tide, and according to an extensive poll of over a thousand scientists by the Guardian, an average rise of 4 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of this century is the more likely outcome.

Most of the greenhouse effects are occurring at sea, where 80 to 90 percent of the heat is absorbed, but it’s not the temperature change that defines the ocean’s threshold to support life; it is the PH balance.

When seawater becomes too acidic, certain marine life, like corals and plankton at the bottom of the food chain can’t survive. This upsets the ecological system in the ocean, and causes a mass extinction for many marine species.

It happened once, around 56 million years ago. A mysterious event called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, (PETM) during the Cenozoic era, saw large carbon emissions from an unknown source cause major extinctions in fundamental marine life. The death of this basic marine life caused a domino effect and the whole planet went into peril. It ended up taking more than 150,000 years for the planet to equalize the excess carbon in the atmosphere. During this time, the planet was plagued with droughts, floods, and wild temperature fluctuation.

We are now facing a similar event, but the problem is we are pumping carbon into the atmosphere at nearly 10 times the rate of the PETM. One-quarter of coral reefs have already been lost in the past 50 years, and one-third of reef species are now endangered.

The threshold that Steffen claims we are already passing is one of biodiversity. “Species extinction is currently running 100 to 1,000 times faster than previous levels, and will increase further this century.” Professor Steffen states, “When humans look back… the Anthropocene will probably represent one of the six biggest extinctions in our planet’s history.” This means that we are causing an extinction that is on a par with the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs.

In order to survive as a species we must be careful to not cross these thresholds, otherwise we might inadvertently start an ice age, or worse – our own destruction. It is a daunting task to play God, but there is a silver lining; we know who to blame when things go wrong… ourselves.

The Anthropocene is defined by humanity’s mistakes, not an asteroid or a volcano, or any other external event; if we brake it, we should be able fix it. All we have to do is look for the root of the problem.

There is a convergence point at around 1800, called the “great acceleration” when carbon emissions, population, acidity in the oceans, and many other aspects of human civilization all exploded at the same time.

From the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, global human population has climbed rapidly from under 1 billion to just over 7 billion in just 200 short years. It was the invention of the engine, and the use of coal, gas, and especially oil that led to what is known as the “great acceleration.”

The world currently consumes around 88.64/mbd (million barrels of oil a day). One barrel of oil does work equal to 25,000 man-hours, or 12 men working all year long. So, in all, oil provides 2.21 trillion man-hours of work a day. If every living man, woman, and child were to work 24 hours a day, non-stop, it would only amount to 168 billion man-hours a day.

That means oil does 11.9 times more work than man every could, ever.

Cheap energy has become our savior, providing us with all the comfort and luxury we could ask for, and at the same time it is our master, because no matter how much destruction it causes to the planet we are so addicted to it that we may have reached peak oil without even noticing.

Do we care about running out? No. We continue to be as wasteful as ever, burning through our reserves and killing the environment at the same time.

We are throwing this remarkable energy away. It is a limited resource. When it is gone, it will be gone forever, and yet many are not even considering renewable energy.

It seems that the name of the game in the Anthropocene is balance. If the temperature varies by a degree or two in either direction, if the PH is unbalanced, or if we kill off any species (no matter how unimportant we think it may be), it has a profound impact on the future. We are at a crossroads; where we choose to go from here is up to us, but if we are unbalanced, wasteful, or ignorant we can just as easily end the human experiment.