Welcome to the Anthropocene

The Holocene was the most recent epoch in the history of the world. It began 11,700 years ago when glaciers from the last Ice Age began to retreat. This paved the way for organized farming, which in turn led to the dawn of civilization. From there, humanity prospered. We developed medicine and transportation, we mused on the stars and the nature of life, we learned to control the world. What have we done with that control?

Anthropocene

Human beings have irradiated the planet with nuclear fallout from mid-20th century weapons tests. We’ve slashed and burned fields and forests to grow crops such as corn. People have torn apart mountains looking for gold and other precious metals. We’ve drilled millions of meters into the Earth to extract oil. Flora and fauna alike have been decimated in our pursuit of convenience and self-interest. Professor Chris Rapley of University College London believes that the human actions leading to the dawn of the Anthropocene will have dramatic consequences:

Since the planet is our life support system – we are essentially the crew of a largish spaceship – interference with its functioning at this level and on this scale is highly significant. If you or I were crew on a smaller spacecraft, it would be unthinkable to interfere with the systems that provide us with air, water, fodder and climate control. But the shift into the Anthropocene tells us that we are playing with fire, a potentially reckless mode of behaviour which we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on the situation.

Aside from climate change and resource depletion, we may have even more to worry about in the near future. Many scientists believe that the Earth’s carrying capacity, the peak population is can sustain, is 10 billion people. Given the current amount of arable land and crop production, 10 billion is the number of humans that could survive, if everyone became vegetarian.

Due to the extreme impact of human activity on the Earth, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen proposed the name “Anthropocene” in 2000. This year, a contingent of scientists formally submitted the name to the International Geological Congress. A working group has been created to test whether the scientists’ claims meet the rigorous standards required to designate a new geological epoch.

It seems, at the moment, that the 1950s might designate the start of the Anthropocene, due to the increased radiation content present in the soil. Interestingly, even if we stopped all destructive human activity right now, most of the negative aftereffects of our previous actions would linger for hundreds if not thousands of years. Take, for example, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. This area of the Pacific Ocean contains microscopic plastic particles; currently, the gyre’s size is estimated to be larger than Texas.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

At this point, it should be obvious that human beings have messed up in a big way. However, our society is not mobilizing to deal with the impending crisis. Why?

It has to do with short-term gratification and long-term costs. When we make choices that hurt the environment, they tend to benefit us in visible ways in the short-term. For example, our usage of fossil fuels allows us to get fuel and heat right now. We don’t see what happens to the environment in the long term; most people don’t ever see oil sands or drilling sites.

Math and reason are poor motivators for most people. Facts are most effective when persuading the highly educated. Even then, people tend to respond to emotion more often than not. This is why instant gratification is such a powerful motivator. Providing for our own self-interest makes us feel good. Why give that up to prevent ill effects that are mostly invisible to the human eye and that we might not even be alive to experience?

Unfortunately, this is the logic that most people adhere to. Even people who are aware of the dangers of unchecked human activity can find it hard to give up the conveniences of modern life. The only sustainable road forward is for innovators to come up with new technologies that actually help the Earth deal with the pressures of supporting humanity. The time for legitimate clean and green tech has come. While companies like Solyndra burned out quickly, the next decade will herald new opportunities (like lab-grown meat) as more and more consumers seek to protect their future.

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