Monday, March 29, 2010

The Anthropocene Epoch

What will this new Anthropocene Epoch bring?

In an article in 2000, Nobel prizewinner Paul J. Crutzen of the Max-Planck-Institut für Chemie and Eugene F. Stoermer (Emeritus Professor, Natural Resources and Environment, University of Michigan) proposed that the Anthropocene Epoch began in the mid-1800s. (Crutzen, P. J. and E. F. Stoermer, 2000: The "Anthropocene". IGBP Newsletter, 41, 17-18)

An article in ScienceDaily suggests that this epoch may include the sixth largest mass extinction in Earth's history.
The scientists propose that, in just two centuries, humans have wrought such vast and unprecedented changes to our world that we actually might be ushering in a new geological time interval, and alter the planet for millions of years.

Zalasiewicz, Williams, Steffen and Crutzen contend that recent human activity, including stunning population growth, sprawling megacities and increased use of fossil fuels, have changed the planet to such an extent that we are entering what they call the Anthropocene (New Man) Epoch.

An excerpt from the full article, that poses much food for thought:
Whether to formalize the Anthropocene or not is a question that will be decided on geological, and, more precisely, stratigraphic grounds. Does the present scale of the global change, measured against deep Earth history, justify the term?—and will formalizing the term be beneficial to working scientists?

It can be argued that a formal Anthropocene Epoch would inherently downplay the scale and significance of preindustrial (early agricultural) modification of landscape (24, 29) and oversimplify the complex and historically protracted human effects on the natural environment. In response, one might say that existing formal boundaries within deep geological time do not typically have such a deleterious scientific effect; more typically the research carried out to establish them illuminates the complex course of palaeoenvironmental history. Regardless, the Anthropocene has taken root in the scientific community, and is now unlikely to decline through practical neglect by working scientists.

The term, also, has a resonance that goes beyond the modification of a geological classificatory scheme. It has attracted public interest, probably because it encapsulates—indeed integrates—the many and diverse kinds of environmental change that have taken place. The transition from the Holocene into the Anthropocene may be developed, too—somewhat controversially—into the concept of planetary boundaries (30), wherein a safe operating space for humanity may be defined. Moreover, formalization may represent “official” acknowledgment that the world has changed, substantially and irreversibly, through human activity—an acknowledgment akin to the IPCC consensus statements on climate change.

Much of this global change will be to the detriment of humans. Not all of it (Greenland, for example, is currently greening—and booming), but the present and likely future course of environmental change seems set to create substantially more losers, globally, than winners.
For further reading, check out the article in html or pdf as published in Environmental Science & Technology, 25 Feb 2010.

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