The Anthropocene: Humankind as a Turning Point for Earth

Categories: Climate Interview

Spiraling timescale chart of life on Earth.

The Anthropocene is the name of a proposed new geological time period (probably an epoch) that may soon enter the official Geologic Time Scale. The Anthropocene is defined by the human influence on Earth, where we have become a geological force shaping the global landscape and evolution of our planet.

According to this theory, the present epoch — still known as the Holocene, which started 11,000 years ago — would have ended somewhere between the end of 18th century and the 1950s (when the Anthropocene began). The earlier time limit considers the increasing amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere that is mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels for energy to power our growing industrial technology.

We may consider this process to have started in 1784, with the invention of the steam engine by James Watts. The present high levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are probably causing the climate to change to a long warm period. The later time period takes into account the increasing background radiation from the nuclear tests by US and USSR military during the beginning of the Cold War.

This new frontier in the geological timeline is potentially more precisely defined than any was before, due to its recent occurrence. It is also supported by increasing evidence of human influence on natural global processes, such as the sediment transport being supplanted by our construction processes; land occupation and transformation; water course deviation and water reserve appropriation; massive extinction and introduction of species into new regions; development and widespread use of previously non-existent chemical substances (eg. plastics and persistent organic pollutants); and even the creation of new elements (the last 20 in the Periodic Table).

In this interview, Dr. David Grinspoon, Baruch S. Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress and Curator of Astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, talks about a book he is writing on the Anthropocene from an astrobiology point of view.

Q: The Anthropocene concept has slowly emerging in science due to comments from Antonio Stoppani in 1873 (Anthropozoic era), LeConte in 1879 (Psychozoic), Pavlov in 1922 (Anthropogene) and Vernadsky in 1962 (Noosphere). Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen formally addressed the concept and introduced the Anthropocene term in a paper’s title for the Global Change Newsletter in 2000. Could you tell us when and how you got involved with the topic?

Man’s activity on Earth is changing the planet. Image Credit: EPA/Belinda Rain

David Grinspoon: It’s a topic I’ve long been interested in. Even as a kid enthralled with science fiction, I wondered about the role of people in the long term evolution of the Earth, the far future and the fate of humanity. And thinking about advanced life elsewhere in the universe also leads us back to wonder about how long a civilization can last, which raises the same questions. In my PhD thesis, written in 1989, I discussed the fact that when a civilization develops the technology to prevent catastrophic asteroid impacts it marks a significant moment in the evolution of the planet. And the book I’m writing now I actually started even before I finished my last book in 2003. It’s a natural sequel because in the end of that book I speculate about what the coming of “intelligence” and “civilization” mean for Earth and other planets. So even though “Anthropocene” is a recently popular term for this concept, I’ve been thinking and writing about it for over 20 years. I’m so happy that it’s becoming such a central topic of discussion in the worlds of science, policy and environmental activism. It’s about time!

Q: What should be considered the geological marks of the Anthropocene?

DG: There are a number of reasonable suggestions for this, but my favorite is the signature of the first atomic bomb tests. This produces a signature, both isotopic and in terms of new geological structures, that cannot be interpreted in any other way. And the symbolism is so potent – the moment we grasped that terrible promethean fire that, uncontrolled, could consume the world. Now it’s true that humans were altering the Earth before this time, as several scientists have pointed out – for example land use, agriculture, urbanization and atmospheric carbon dioxide. But, you know, other species have come along and changed the world before and we don’t name a geological epoch after each of them. What is really different now is that we are aware of our world changing role. Or potentially aware – some of us are at least. So for me, regardless of how you define the Anthropocene, this is when it gets interesting – when the mass of humanity starts to wake up to our world changing role. And after the Bomb, certainly after Hiroshima, we could not see ourselves, with our world-changing technology, the same again.

Nuclear bombs leave distinct isotopic signatures and geological structures. Image Credit: US Department of Energy

Q: How likely is the possibility that we are now living the sixth planet’s mass extinction event? Is it already big enough to be detected in a future paleontology effort using our present methods and capabilities of investigation?

DG: I have heard differing opinions on whether or not the sixth great extinction is assured at this point, but either way it is obvious we are having a significant impact on the evolution of life on this planet and many species have not, will not, survive our presence here. Our impact will be detectable for the rest of time on this planet. For example, it is clear that the existing coral reefs on the planet will not survive our impact. We are going to lose them. This is inevitable now because of ocean acidification even in the best case scenario. It is slightly comforting that the reefs have disappeared before, due to past episodes of acidification, and they have returned. So they may be back in the future but there will be a time of no coral reefs in Earth history that will forever be traceable to the actions we are taking now.

Q: Do you believe Anthropocene should be classified as a new geological epoch within the Quaternary period, or does it stand for a larger time-scale? Might the establishment of the Anthropocene geological time period include the present-known Holocene epoch?

DG: One interesting question about the Anthropocene is how long it might last. Geologically, will it be an event like the K/T boundary, an epoch like the Paleocene, or a transition like the origin of life? I think it will either be a brief event recording the failed experiment of our so-called civilization, or it will be a transition to an entirely new planet in which intelligent life has a permanent role in managing the planet. But if we call it an epoch it represents an ambition for our species that is somewhere between these two extremes, and maybe that is OK for now.

“This book is meant to offer what I hope is a novel take on the human chapter in Earth history, revealing the deeper story beneath the environmental challenges and conflicts we are now facing. As America’s inaugural Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress, I am being supported for a year to research and communicate a vision of the human role on Earth, informed by a cosmic perspective. I will portray our planet, this troubled but promising small blue orb, as seen through the lens of astrobiology, providing a view that sheds fresh light on the origin and future prospects of the human race. Comparative planetology, born of the space age, allows us to see our planet whole and in sharp contrast to its lifeless sibling worlds, providing a clear view of how life, and now intelligence, have changed Earth. The field of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, has long been concerned with the potential longevity of technical civilizations elsewhere in the galaxy – a key factor in calculations of the number of communicating species with whom we may be able to make contact. Here I will turn the telescope back toward our own planet, showing how the cosmic, interplanetary view can provide a fresh and expansive look, with a certain healthy detachment, at our current conundrums and thus try to reframe our present predicaments as part of a larger narrative of planetary evolution, a saga that has now reached the pivotal moment when geological and human history have become irreversibly conjoined. How successful we are at embracing this new reality will ultimately determine whether humanity can thrive.”
— Dr. David Grinspoon.

Q: How do you rate the chances that the Anthropocene Study Group – established in June of 2009 – do not convince the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) in their 2016 meeting on adding the Anthropocene epoch in the Geologic Time Scale?

DG: I don’t know. To be honest I haven’t been following this too closely. It’s really not that interesting to me whether or not it becomes formally adapted as part of the geological time scale. What I’m interested in is the conversations going on about the Anthropocene and what it means to view ourselves as a part of Earth’s geological history. These conversations will continue regardless of what this Commission decides.

Q: We can now observe the role of exotic species in many habitats around the world, usually disrupting the local ecology of where they were introduced by man. Do you see the growth of development and usage of transgenic organisms, nano-robots and even artificial (synthetic) life as possible key factors to influence the near-future of Earth’s biota?

DG: Yes, certainly. As you’ve pointed out we have already become an unprecedented kind of disruptive force in biological evolution, through our purposeful and inadvertent transport of species around the planet. With these new technologies we will have the capacity to much more dramatically affect the mechanics of evolution.

Q: If humanity was extinct (or reduced to nearly that point) today, what could be the large scale effects to Earth in a future of no more maintenance on all of our nuclear facilities, biological warfare and disease-control laboratories?

DG: The breakdown of the nuclear facilities would lead to some local disturbances for a long time but I don’t believe there would be any large global effects from this. I think the biggest signature would be the perturbation to the carbon cycle which will take tens of thousands of years to repair itself. The ocean will be acidified for a similar timescale with massive effects on reefs and other biomes. The hydrological cycle will gradually return to normal as dams break down.

Q: How do you see the possibility of the Anthropocene marking a period when humankind not only became a geological force in Earth, but also began to reach the other bodies in the Solar System as a first step to largely expand its zone of influence?

Eugene Filmore Stoermer (March, 7, 1934 – February 17, 2012).

DG: I don’t see it as coincidence that the great acceleration of the Anthropocene influences on Earth came during the same decades as our first exploration of the other planets. All this represents a certain phase in our technological development – I almost said “maturation” but I don’t think we can make this claim yet. It is the same wave of technological advances that allowed us to make nuclear missiles, truly span the globe with telecommunications, commerce and rapid industrial expansion, develop the capacity to monitor our own planet from orbit, and also launch spacecraft to the other planets. Hopefully the perspective and wisdom gained from exploring the planets and seeing our own planet whole, from a distance, will facilitate the changes in behavior and outlook we will need to survive this precarious transition we are experiencing – the transition to being a self-aware, technological species with the capacity to either destroy our own civilization or ensure our long term survival. I think it will be one or the other. I don’t think it will be anything in between. I don’t think we will muddle through. We are facing a choice where we will either become a new kind of entity on this Earth, or die trying.

Author’s note:
This article is a tribute to Eugene F. Stoermer, who coined the term Anthropocene in the 80s and is an inspiration for a whole legion of new researchers ( I speak as one of his fans from Brazil). I offer my condolences to all his family and friends.

This article has been translated into Portuguese.