“The Myth of the Anthropocene”

Is just one of a number of variations of search hits that seem to provide a constant flux of readers to this blog and it is to them that I write this article.

I could refer such a surfer to a number of studies that have attempted to define the Anthropocene (such as those listed below), but by the wording of the searched item, it is very unlike that the papers will appeal – for, the search terms are clear not designed to accumulate evidence to strengthen a conclusion, but to reassure the reader that such a conclusion must be nonsense.

Are we really in the Holocene or Anthropocene? Here, is how I look at it.

We are a force of nature

Mountaintop Removal Mine Site above Route 23 in Pike County, Kentucky

In many ways, our species, although less numerous globally than the community of organisms living on just one of us, has done more than a single other species to shape the world around us – especially over the industrial era. It is in this way that we could see ourselves as a force of nature. Let me provide a few examples.

  • Shaping the natural world: The natural chisel of fluid movement (ie. liquid and gaseous) over landscapes and crashing into coastlines over millennia crumble mountains, shift watercourses and shape the oceanic borders of continents. Yet, from the appalling “mountain top removal”, to mega open cut mines, top soil dispersal (loss), dams and weirs, artificial island creation and other landscape conversions, we’ve proven ourselves capable of matching the natural chisel in shaping the natural world.
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  • On the roof of Sacre Coeur basilica by Bruno Monginoux

    Species expression: The environment is in constant flux and it is the flexibly of the genetic tool kit within each organism that allows life to adapt and persist within such a dynamic system. We define certain species assemblages with an age and watch them, through the fossil record prosper or become increasingly rare due to the environmental forces acting on them and their ecosystems. From cultivation and domestication to wild harvest, our species has shaped the gene pool expression the world over. Arguably, extinction rates are high enough to quantify modern mass extinction event due to direct and indirect anthropogenic forces acting upon them. Some species – those you and I are most familiar with within the urban landscape – have adapted well, suggesting how life may express itself under the human influence.
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  • Runoff from a 'Reclaimed' Mountaintop Removal mine in Kentucky

    Chemistry: It takes massive events, such as volcanic activity, permafrost thawing or ocean warming and wild fires to change the chemistry of the atmosphere, oceans and landscapes. Human activity has changed the chemistry to the atmosphere through emissions; CFC’s, NOx, CO2, SO2, CH4 – all of which have had their impacts. Nitrogen enrichment of soils and estuaries. Increasing soil salinity. Phosphorus contamination of waterways. Urban run off containing everything from tyre wear and organic residue to hard rubbish. You name it, our species has changed it chemically.

  • Climate and weather: The constant flux of the environment, discussed above, is the result of dynamic climatic influences. Solar activity, albedo, evapotranspiration, greenhouse gas concentration; all these and more influence the climate and ultimately weather expression. The urban heat island effect and landscape use change, alter local albedo, evapotranspiration and heat sources and thus change the local climate and weather patterns. At a broader scale, our changes to the greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere is impacting longwave radiation movement – leading to a warming most obvious in the past 30yrs of data.
Cobar NSW, by amandabhslater

I could go on to say that, incredibly, human activity is evident from space, but that hardly does justice, for not only is our landscape use change visible from the void of space, our influence has even reached space with the many satellites and and anthropogenic radiation sources that are sent out into the cosmos. We truly are a force of nature and a beacon in the vastness of space and yet, I’m aware that, like the papers previously mentioned, all of this is meaningless to those who would disregard it all to refute the Anthropocene.

A rose by any other name…

We have developed a useful tool; we label everything. Some have suggested that it’s needlessly compulsive a behaviour, but I’d like to see a human society that could function as well without it.

Shakespeare was of course correct, the exact label is meaningless. More importantly for this article, it is completely justifiable to refute the label of the “Anthropocene” completely. We make the decisions as to what defines one thing as distinct and different from another, thereby requiring separate labels for each. This is the exact nature of the discussions in the papers linked to below; the authors are trying to make definitions, based on various indicators, as to when one ages shifts into the next.

As with the tired old creationist argument surrounding “the missing link”, it becomes a useless fight over semantics when referring to something under constant change. From one day to the next or one year to the next, as with different generations, change is most often so small that we cannot hope to define a meaningful shift in the noise. It is only after millennia that trends appear so greatly that change can be argued.

Earth at Night from Space

Therefore, not only is the label “Anthropocene” meaningless in itself, but it is early days and ultimately open to debate as to what defines a new age overall.

But please, excuse me if I refer to us as Homo sapien as something distinct and different from a distant ancestor, such as Homo erectus and for finding justification in the scientific literature for supposing that there is reason to conclude that the human force on nature is great enough to warrant a new geological age classification.
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Yet none of this is behind the reasoning for the blog’s title, New Anthropocene.

New Anthropocene is strictly based from a human perspective. Neo-Anthropocene may make it clearer to some. It really shouldn’t matter whether or not our force on nature is distinct enough to justify a new age. We know that we now have technology powerful enough to drastically alter the world, whether it’s a nuclear winter or the complete collapse of oceanic ecosystems. It could simply be that we could, if we so wanted, deny the day / night pattern for a region or, as we have done, changed the functional ecosystem of an island. It doesn’t matter if we’ve flexed our true potential muscle on the world or not – we have the potential.

The Anthropocene is of course a myth – as much is the label Holocene or even Homo sapien. We choose such labels entirely on whatever definitions we select and so the reader seeking evidence for the Anthropocene being a myth can of course sleep easy. Hell, you’re entitled to suggest it’s still the Cambrian if you so wish – just please expect that you may be surrounded by a persistent chuckle.

New Anthropocene is about the realisation of our potential and taking obvious responsibility for our actions. The above indicators of change, dot pointed above, are worrying to a great many people. It is easier to play them down or to refute our input (as is typical with the climate debate – ie. the laughable, “human CO2 contribution is only tiny” line). If we are as clever as we like to think we are or if we want to refer to ourselves as custodians, we much be honest about our actions and throw some intellect behind the human storm.

Pleading ignorant only works until the evidence is in and then it becomes either acceptance or denial. The evidence is in and we’re only too happy to acknowledge it when it reflects our ingenuity and power, but fleetingly when we must also accept the mess we made along the way to get to that point. Through true acceptance can we best exploit our potential to retrofit human activity to work with and shape the world for all the best possible outcomes. The Anthropocene refers only to the anthropogenic force of nature. The New Anthropocene instead applies intelligence to that force to promote sustainable prosperity for us and the wider ecosystem that makes our civilisations possible.

References

The Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time? Zalasiewicz, Williams, Haywood and Ellis (2011) Proceeding of the Royal Society A
Carbon and Climate System Coupling on Timescales from the Precambrian to the Anthropocene
Doney and Schimel (2007) Annual Review of Environment and Resources
Are we now living in the Anthropocene? – Zalasiewicz, Williams, Smith, Barry, Coe, Bown, Brenchley, Cantrill, Gale, Gibbard, Gregory, Hounslow, Kerr, Pearson, Knox, Powell, Waters, Marshall, Oates, Rawson, and Stone (2008) GSA Today
The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives – Steffen, Grinevald, Crutzen and  McNeill (2011) Proceeding of the Royal Society A
Stratigraphy of the Anthropocene – Zalasiewicz, Williams, Fortey, Smith, Barry, Coe, Bown, Rawson, Gale, Gibbard, Gregory, Hounslow, Kerr, Pearson, Knox, Powell, Waters, Marshall, Oates and Stone (2011) Proceeding of the Royal Society A
Chemical signatures of the Anthropocene in the Clyde estuary, UK: sediment-hosted Pb, 207/206Pb, total petroleum hydrocarbon, polyaromatic hydrocarbon and polychlorinated biphenyl pollution records Vane, Chenery, Harrison, Kim, Moss-Hayes and Jones (2011) Proceeding of the Royal Society A
Societal responses to the Anthropocene
– Tickell (2011) Proceeding of the Royal Society A
Emergent dynamics of the climate–economy system in the Anthropocene – Kellie-Smith and Cox (2011) Proceeding of the Royal Society A


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