On a sandy beach he spotted a glittering object at his feet that looked like a relic from a mysterious, undersea world. It was a rock about the size of a tennis ball, strangely deformed, as if water had been eroding it for millions of years. Ellis was excited and put his find in his pocket. Only a hundred metres further along, however, his dreams of having discovered a natural wonder were dashed when he came across a small rubbish dump. There, the islanders had deposited and set afire all kinds of garbage. In his pocket was a melted piece of civilization.
That little shiny thing is but a tiny symbol of a huge process. As a result of two centuries of industrialisation, humans literally rock the planet. Man-made substances and structures are almost everywhere. Enough concrete has been produced to put one kilogram of it on every single square metre of the planet. In our gadgets and machines, there is enough pure aluminium – a metal rare in nature – to cover the whole of the US with foil.
Triggered by his accidental discovery, Ellis measured on a global scale how much of Earth has been changed by humans. Using satellite data, he concluded that at least two thirds of the land surface have already been modified for agriculture, cities, mining and other human purposes. The oceans have also become an arena of human intervention: much of the sea floor has been ploughed over at least once through bottom trawling. Many species of fish have shrunk in size due to overfishing. And it’s the oceans where the effects of billions of tons of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere have the most tangible effects. The seas are soaking up a lot of the extra heat, and CO2 makes seawater more acidic, endangering coral reefs and algae built with chalky substances.
In 2001, Nobel Laureate Paul J Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer summarised the massive human effects on planet Earth with a single, powerful word: the ‘Anthropocene’, a new geological epoch in which humans act as the dominant force of change. It took a few years for the word to catch on, but now it is fast becoming a new paradigm for the environmental debate.
In the US, the Smithsonian Institution is actively exploring this idea, the world’s largest technology museum in Munich is showing a special exhibition about the Anthropocene until January 2016 and in the UK, the RGS-IBG and the Royal Institution among others are becoming part of the debate.
Perhaps most importantly, an official scientific body has been set up that will come up with a first vote in 2016 about whether the Anthropocene becomes a formal entity taught in schools and universities, replacing our current epoch, the Holocene.
But what is this idea good for? Is it a scientific hypothesis or just a fancy term for the sum of all environmental havoc? As more and more people come across this new concept, many discover an amazingly positive inspirational power. For one thing, the Anthropocene idea is firmly rooting human civilisation in nature and natural history. Crutzen himself described it like this: ‘Humans are not an outside force perturbing an otherwise natural system but rather an integral and interacting part of the Earth System itself.’
In the Anthropocene there is no longer an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside,’ no alien, antagonistic nature with which rational humans are faced. The environment becomes the ‘invironment’, something we are existentially linked with. This challenges long-held beliefs at the core of our destructive economic system that treats nature as an ‘externality’ without any intrinsic value.
Secondly, the Anthropocene idea is making us aware of the connections between our day-to-day lives and the deep future. Human civilisation is not just scratching Earth’s surface, we are fundamentally reshaping the planet’s climate, biodiversity and geology for tens of thousands, if not millions of years. This can amplify a sense of responsibility.
Thirdly, the Anthropocene idea expresses that it is far from enough to protect a small proportion of land and sea in ‘nature reserves’ while doing business as usual on 80 or 90 per cent of the planet. With human systems becoming characteristic of the Earth’s surface, those ‘anthromes’, as Ellis calls them, have to function like thriving, bio-diverse ecosystems. Cities, fields and industrial areas have to morph into new forms of touched nature, rich in life and able to regenerate soil, water, air and other things we live from.
The Anthropocene idea is an urgent call to develop better future fossils than melted garbage.
This story was published in the February 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine