Monday, 4 February 2013

Now the Anthropocene, or what?

Why should I care?
Why to care whether the current geological times should be called “Anthropocene”?

Why do researchers undertake the endeavour, whether to call the current times "Anthropocene"; an undertaking that some label “insanely complicated” so Jan Zalasiewicz [#], but for whom it “is a great way of increasing understanding of the world we live in and what we are doing to it in this particular instance”. [*]

Earth at night
What kind of "geo-marker" would be the most suitable label of the onset of the "Anthopocene", that debate could be put aside when recognizing what political impact this debate could have.

Recognizing that the combined efforts of humans work and living changes the development path of the globe implies to take a different ethical position towards the globe as many take today. Recognizing our times as "Anthropocene" means recognizing simply that we are de-facto geo-engineering the Earth, whether we like it or not. And any engineer has to assume responsibility for its design.  That is the political message behind adopting the name "Anthropocene" for our times. 

Currently “Scientists... acknowledged widespread anthropogenic changes to the Earth's surface, subsurface, atmosphere and waters from mining, development, agriculture, the impacts of climate change, air and water pollution, trawling and dredging, and many other activities.” [*] However taking that widespread understanding forward, namely to enshrine in the common, official scientific understanding that we, humans, made entering Earth in the new geological epoch, the “Anthropocene”, that is a very big step.  

Taking this step would be even bigger for the public at large and governments. Just consider that currently public awareness for climate change is solid, including noticeable opposition towards recognizing anthropogenic climate change. That kind opposition would be small compared to what to expect when broadening the insight of an "anthropogenic climate change", namely to understand our (geological) times as “Anthropocene” because of man-made "anthropogenic global change". But just that broadening of insight is getting on the agenda now: "The 'Anthropocene' has emerged as a popular scientific term used by scientists, the scientifically engaged public and the media to designate the period of Earth's history during which humans have a decisive influence on the state, dynamics and future of the Earth system. It is widely agreed that the Earth is currently in this state." [##]

When public at large and governments would considering "living in the Anthropocene" then it would imply too the insight to undertake global stewardship. And stewardship, as a manner of responsible living and acting, is something to what most laymen would underwrite, simply because it reflects their habitual ethics. Evidently there would be much debate about what that stewardship would mean to do, but the basic insight of care-taking and stewardship will be very popular. Thus once public is getting convinced, one may expect that the notions of Anthropocene and stewardship would get deeply routed. However, that level of public insight is far away, and much of the challenges that could be enshrined in this insight will depend how, in contemporary or historical context, the boundary between Holocene [1] and Anthropocene [2] is set - or whether both are about synchronous for historical times, and thus the Anthropocene is our business as usual.

Currently the Anthropocene has got no precise start date, but settling that is just the purpose of the ongoing scientific debate,which may come to its end in some years.. Based on evidence from atmospheric sciences the Anthropocene may be considered to start with the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century. Other earlier events, such as the rise of agriculture ten-thousand years ago, has been advocated too. Evidence of global human impact on ecosystem-use, biodiversity, and species extinction still is somewhat controversial as well has man-kinds impact on the global hydrological cycles, up to shifting salinity of the global ocean [***]. But that evidence is rapidly accumulating.

Currently we witness first steps that the notion “Anthopocence” is going public; e.g. it is part of the sphere of matters described in Wikipedia. Therefore it may sound typical scientific insider-talk, saying that the formalization of a new epoch requires that it meet strict protocols, including whether the onset of the Anthropocene can be clearly distinguished at the same time in different locations around the world”. But setting a global "geo-marker" that can be observed around the globe is a most important foundation to start a convincing debate about us making and living in the Anthropocene. Therefore setting that  "geo-marker" should be done with care. However the related ethical debate, geoethics, about our responsible stewardship of the Earth as integral part of its functioning can be part of the Commons and laymen's thinking already now.

Ukko El'Hob

[1] from Wikipedia: “The Holocene is a geological epoch which began at the end of the Pleistocene (around 12,000 to 11,500 14C years ago[***]) and continues to the present. The Holocene is part of the Quaternary period. Its name comes from the Greek words ὅλος (holos, whole or entire) and καινός (kainos, new), meaning "entirely recent". It has been identified with the current warm period,... and based on that past evidence, can be considered an interglacial in the current ice age. The Holocene also encompasses within it the growth and impacts of the human species world-wide, including all its written history and overall significant transition toward urban living in the present. Given these, a new term Anthropocene, is specifically proposed and used informally for the latest part of this epoch since approximately synchronous lithospheric evidence, or more recently atmospheric evidence, of human impacts have been found on the Earth and its ecosystems; these impacts may be considered of global significance for future evolution of living species.”

[2] from Wikipedia: “The Anthropocene is an informal geologic chronological term that serves to mark the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth's ecosystems. The term was coined recently by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer, but has been widely popularized by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, who regards the influence of human behaviour on the Earth's atmosphere in recent centuries as so significant as to constitute a new geological epoch for its lithosphere.” .

 [#] convener of the Working Group on the Anthropocene, senior lecturer in palaeobiology, University of Leicester, UK; see:
[*] EOS, Transactions American Geophysical Union, 94(4) p. 41-42, 2013;
[**] Pierce et al., "The fingerprint of human-induced changes in the ocean's salinity and temperature fields",  Geophysical Research Letters 39(21), 2012;
[***] "14C years" years measured by the decay of a radioactive carbon isotope, about equal to calendar years;

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