The Anthropocene: Have We Entered the Geological Age of Man?

Industrial Farming - Almería Province, Spain - On the arid plains of southern Spain, produce is grown under the world's largest array of greenhouses and trucked north. Greenhouses use water and nutrients efficiently and produce all year—tomatoes in winter, for instance. But globally the challenge is grain and meat, not tomatoes. It takes 38 percent of Earth's ice-free surface to feed seven billion people today, and two billion more are expected by 2050.Photo: Edward Burtynsky/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHICIndustrial Farming – Almería Province, Spain – On the arid plains of southern Spain, produce is grown under the world’s largest array of greenhouses and trucked north. Greenhouses use water and nutrients efficiently and produce all year—tomatoes in winter, for instance. But globally the challenge is grain and meat, not tomatoes. It takes 38 percent of Earth’s ice-free surface to feed seven billion people today, and two billion more are expected by 2050.

Five thousand years from now, geologists will be uncovering and excavating the earth and its stratifications for study, just as they do today. What will they discover? Will they find the sorts of signs that our scientists have, which divide the world into different epochs and eras – stratifications that show massive changes in our oceans and the earth’s rock composition, the impact man has had on the world in the last two centuries? We may have changed our planet so quickly and so detrimentally because of the effects of climate change, industrial farming and population explosion that some scientists believe we are in the middle of another epoch, called the Anthropocene, or the Age of Man.

Oil transformed Dubai in the 1970s. The city now boasts the world's tallest building, giant malls, and some two million residents, who depend on desalinated seawater and air-conditioning—and thus on cheap energy—to live in the Arabian desert.Photo: Jens Neumann/Edgar Rodtmann/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHICOil transformed Dubai in the 1970s. The city now boasts the world’s tallest building, giant malls, and some two million residents, who depend on desalinated seawater and air-conditioning—and thus on cheap energy—to live in the Arabian desert.

One of the biggest differences between our era today and past eras is population itself. Seven billion people is lightyears from what the population was after the last ice age. Then consider: what we have done in the name of progress for all those people? Factories and cars give out emissions, forests are cut down to make way for agriculture, and species are dying out due to both deforestation and overfishing.

Elizabeth Kolbert is examining what is occurring due to climate change and has written a piece about the Anthropocene for the March, 2011 issue of National Geographic. Officially we are in an era called the Holocene that started at the end of the last ice age, but a man named Paul Curtzen, a Nobel Prize winning Dutch chemist, had enough of this thinking.

Paul Curtzen recently attended a meeting of research scientists who kept referring to the Holocene: ‘”Let’s stop it,” Crutzen recalls blurting out (as quoted in National Geographic). “We are no longer in the Holocene. We are in the Anthropocene.” Well, it was quiet in the room for a while.”

Even though similar ideas had appeared before, notably in the 17th century, the idea of the Anthropocene is considered seriously now due to the huge population growth that has taken place and its increased impact on the earth. Our population has quadrupled in size, something unseen before in other related species: “The pattern of human population growth in the twentieth century was more bacterial than primate,” wrote biologist E.O. Wilson.

Rosignano Solvay, Italy - A Tuscan beach captures the textured drama of humans and the sea. The "tropical" sands aren't natural; they're whitened by carbonates from the chemical plant, which also discharged mercury until recently. The plant converts salt extracted from the sea into chlorine and other essential products. Fossil fuels power such transformations; worldwide, the CO2 from smokestacks and tailpipes is slowly acidifying the ocean, threatening marine life.Photo: Massimo Vitali/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHICRosignano Solvay, Italy – A Tuscan beach captures the textured drama of humans and the sea. The “tropical” sands aren’t natural; they’re whitened by carbonates from the chemical plant, which also discharged mercury until recently. The plant converts salt extracted from the sea into chlorine and other essential products. Fossil fuels power such transformations; worldwide, the CO2 from smokestacks and tailpipes is slowly acidifying the ocean, threatening marine life.

Jan Zalasiewicz, a British stratigrapher, put the question of this new epoch to the Geological Society of London’s Stratigraphy Commission, and 21 of 22 individuals asked agreed it should be explored.

Future rock records will tell the tale of how strong our impact has been, but many of the things we might think would be defining aren’t those future geologists will see. Rather than buildings, for example, it will be pollen records showing huge expanses of agricultural corn and wheat where rainforests, mountainous areas and seas would have been expected and were before.

The lack of forests will tell future scientists two things: one, how stripped land is increasing sediment; and two, perhaps even more importantly in terms of what we need to stop, massive records of extinction. When the forests disappear due to logging and their lands being used for agriculture, species become extinct due to the habitat destruction: “Loss of forest habitat is a major cause of extinctions, which are now happening at a rate hundreds or even thousands of times higher than during most of the past half billion years. If current trends continue, the rate may soon be tens of thousands of times higher.” says Kolbert.

March coverPhoto: National Geographic Magazine

The Age of Man may be remembered by future generations as the first era in which man himself impacted on the earth so strongly that it changed warming patterns, shifted seas and directly caused the extinction of thousands of animals. There is hope, though; we still have time to reverse some of this. Curtzen himself has room for optimism. “What I hope,” he says, “is that the term ‘Anthropocene’ will be a warning to the world.”

The images shown here are in the March 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine, on newsstands now

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