As a species, we’ve been on Earth for less than half of 1% of its existence … but our impact on the planet has been profound. So profound, some scientists are suggesting that we name our time the Anthropocene Epoch, in recognition of humanity’s lasting effect on all aspects of the environment.
The term anthropocene was first championed around 2000 by Paul Crutzen, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1995. Crutzen posits that the Anthropocene period began in the late 18th century, when growing industry and the invention of the steam engine began to increase emissions of CO2 and methane, as shown by analysis of polar ice. The Guardian reports that the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the official designator of epochs, is considering officially adopting the term to describe our time. It will be some time before any official designation is agreed.
In case we doubt humans’ impact on the land, sea and air, a recent Economist article, entitled “Welcome to the Anthropocene” gives this amazing statistic: “A single engineering project, the Syncrude mine in the Athabasca tar sands, involves moving 30 billion tons of earth — twice the amount of sediment that flows down all the rivers in the world in a year.”
No matter the label, human impact on the environment is greatly amplified since the Industrial Revolution. Human activities around energy and food production that leave their mark on the geological record include mining, damming, agriculture, deforestation, leading to air and water pollution, elevated carbon dioxide levels and reduced biodiversity.
The Guardian quotes Professor Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland: “We don’t know what is going to happen in the Anthropocene, but we need to think differently and globally, to take ownership of the planet.”
Since 1972, World Environment Day has been observed on June 5. Today, as thousands engage in actions across the globe that draw attention to our negative planetary impact, a change of mind is essential, no matter what we call these times. As the Economist put it: “Too many natural scientists embrace the comforting assumption that nature can be studied, indeed should be studied, in isolation from the human world, with people as mere observers.” Like it or not, we are having an effect on earth’s complex systems, of which we are a part. The first step is to accept that fact. The next step is to ask how we will deal with this responsibility.
Photo: Coal mine 12-03-08 © Mayumi Terao via iStockphoto
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