The Holocene hangover: it is time for humanity to make fundamental changes

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson writes: As a child growing up in the early 1980s, I often daydreamed of space exploration and interstellar frontiers. The leap into outer space seemed tantalizingly close. In the science fiction stories I read, the chronology of the future was also the potential biography of adulthood. One story projected a settlement on Mars in 1995; another depicted the grim labor of asteroid mining a decade later; a third imagined an encounter with alien artifacts in the Alpha Centauri system after 2020. The common thread in these stories, easily intuited even by an 11-year-old, was the lesson that the Earth was not our home.

Now the science fiction dream of leaving the planet behind appears to be coming true. One of the most striking effects of climate change — often remarked upon by writers — is its power to unsettle our basic understanding of the modern world. Our planet is changing into a strange and unstable new environment, in a process seemingly outside technological control. The fossil fuels that once promised mastery over nature have turned out to be tools of destruction, disturbing the basic biogeochemical processes that make our world habitable. Even the recent past is no longer what we thought it was. Scientists are telling us that the whole territory of modern history, from the end of World War II to the present, forms the threshold to a new geological epoch.

Our new planet is emerging quickly. The global climate is only one of nine earth system processes under threat. Land use is changing rapidly thanks to urbanization, agriculture, and population pressure. The rate of biodiversity loss is increasing in many ecosystems. Acidification is affecting marine biodiversity as well as the capacity of oceans to absorb carbon dioxide. The supply of fresh water in many regions is deteriorating. Aerosol loading and ozone depletion threaten the stability of the earth system’s atmosphere. Industrial agriculture has perturbed the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. Finally, chemical pollution may pose a risk not just at the local or regional level but also worldwide. Indeed, the planet’s biosphere bears so many marks of anthropogenic influence that it no longer possible to uphold the age-old distinction between the realm of wilderness and the world of human habitation.

To call attention to this unprecedented danger, the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and the ecologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000 proposed a new name for the geological epoch we inhabit: the Anthropocene. For the first time, humans have become the prime drivers of the planetary climate. We have left behind the relatively stable pattern of natural variability that governed the environment in the Holocene epoch, beginning some 11,700 years ago. In the original formulation, Crutzen and Stoermer picked 1784 as the origin of the new epoch: the year of James Watt’s patent for a steam engine with a separate condenser. Britain’s early transition into the fossil fuel economy marked the end of the Holocene. More recently, the Working Group on the Anthropocene, established to validate the epoch in formal stratigraphic terms, has shifted the chronology of the Anthropocene from the Industrial Revolution to the Great Acceleration—the economic boom after World War II. [Continue reading…]

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