Anthropocene: Are we in the age of man?

Published on Monday, 06 June 2016

Published by Anuradha Rajivan on Monday, 06 June 2016

Electrical power transmission lines in the Hindu Kush.
Electrical power transmission lines in the Hindu Kush.

We may well be. And, yes, I do mean man for now, since major decision-making is still largely a male domain.

The Anthropocene is the name of a potentially new geological epoch that we have been tipped into due to the huge upscaling of the human footprint on earth. The term, introduced casually by Nobel Prize laureate Paul Crutzen a decade ago, has now found its way into scientific debate.

It is not just us versus nature any more – people now decide what nature should be. The age of man crystalizes the idea of a time period when humanity itself has become a driver of the earth’s systems, even a geological force in its own right.

So have we entered the Anthropocene, and is it in fact a new epoch? A “yes” answer to the first question is easier, while the second is being debated.

Humans are modifying and controlling nature’s processes to serve their ends in unprecedented ways. While this started with the Industrial Revolution, more recently we seem to have ushered in new, geologically significant, alterations. Examples of this are hundreds of metric tons of plastic annually finding its way permanently into bodies of water, escalated volumes of concrete used in construction, dramatic reduction in the space for wildlife, species becoming extinct at rates exceeding long-term averages, isotopes from nuclear tests, an altered nitrogen cycle through the ubiquitous use of fertilizers in soil, or lasting markers in sediments from fossil fuel burning.

We think of humanity as separate from nature, rather than a part of it. Humans alter the earth and its resources to serve our needs, aspirations, and comforts. Big dams have changed major water courses, mountains have been moved or pierced to make way for roads or extract coal, enormous chunks of earth have been excavated to access minerals, forests have been cleared for cultivation, and cities created for dense human settlements. The list is endless. The cycle of ever-increasing consumption and mountains of waste have so altered the earth in the last century that geologists are debating whether we have already ushered in a new epoch.

Epochs are the smallest chunks of geologic time in the history of Earth under identifiable periods and era; the Jurassic period under the Mesozoic era had three epochs. Officially we are still in the Holocene epoch under the Quatermary period of the Cenozoic era. There is not agreement yet on shifting from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, but the proposal is under serious discussion. Erosion and sedimentation or species extinction produce geo-markers in rocks that provide stratigraphic evidence, as do clearing forests, mono-cropping or building dams that hold back sediment. However, other highly significant changes may not leave any markers behind. For example, CO2 emissions, which make oceans more acidic and contribute to climate change, are colorless and odorless.

Today’s human society does not have a symbiotic relationship with the rest of nature, as it intentionally alters natural processes. Global warming is one of the better-known outcomes, but there are many others. More and more studies are adding to the body of evidence, debate, and an emerging consensus that something very significant is under way. But is it a new epoch?

There are scientists who say that the occurrence may be more a cultural phenomenon, like the end of the Stone Age, rather than an epochal change from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Some argue that we are not yet at the start of a new epoch, since the phenomenon may be peaking only now as the next decades will prove to be even more geologically significant that the last century. Other experts are waiting for the accumulation of more evidence of stratigraphic markers. The decision to officially announce at some point a new epoch rests with the International Union of Geological Sciences.

The good news is that governments, businesses and people are much more aware of environmental damage in 2016—with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—than a decade back. Unlike the Millennium Development Goals, the SDGs have targets that support the environment simultaneously with inclusion and prosperity. There is also greater consensus that recognition alone is not enough; it needs to be backed by action. Nevertheless, there are also difficult trade-offs in the short run that need to be eased. This is where multilateral development banks can join hands with governments, the UN, and businesses to choose the right projects, enact policy-based lending and raise finance. More knowledge work will also be critical for informed dialogue, without which social consensus will not be feasible. 

A point to ponder – do we wait for things to get worse until the earth yields stronger geological evidence of a potential new epoch, or do we modify our behavior now? Regardless of whether it is an epochal change, the “age of man” is real enough for us to act now.