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By Jay Fancher

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. (Credit: Jens Neumann/Edgar Rodtmann/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC)

To paraphrase Carl Sagan, science has a way of deflating human conceits.  Anthropology reveals that humans are special – just not for many of the reasons proposed throughout our history.  Thanks to biology, astronomy, and geology, we now know that:

  • Modern humans are one species among many, not the pinnacle of all creation.
  • We’re not the center of the universe; our planet orbits a fairly average star.
  • We haven’t been around since the beginning of time – far from it.

On a 4.5-billion-year-old planet, with a 3.5-billion-year history of life, anatomically-modern Homo sapiens only go back about 200,000 years.  We’re brand new, a tiny blip on the geologic time scale!  Despite this, a new National Geographic article explores the possibility that the “Anthropocene” may have already begun.  Here is a brief excerpt:

Enter the Anthropocene—Age of Man It’s a new name for a new geologic epoch—one defined by our own massive impact on the planet. That mark will endure in the geologic record long after our cities have crumbled…Probably the most obvious way humans are altering the planet is by building cities, which are essentially vast stretches of man-made materials—steel, glass, concrete, and brick. But it turns out most cities are not good candidates for long-term preservation, for the simple reason that they’re built on land, and on land the forces of erosion tend to win out over those of sedimentation.

The author of the article, Elizabeth Kolbert, graciously agreed to an interview with Anthropology.net.  The text of our discussion, conducted via e-mail, follows:

Fancher: The greatest strength of anthropology is its all-encompassing view of humanity.  We’re proud of this breadth, frequently describing our work as the study of all people, in all times, and all places.  But, as you state in your article, stratigraphers take an extremely long view – the entire 4.5-billion-year history of Earth.  How can students of the human past benefit from this geological perspective?

Kolbert: I’m not sure I have a good answer for this.  As all anthropologists know, we are a young species.  So human history doesn’t tell us much about earth history.  What is particularly alarming about a lot of recent discoveries in geology is that you have to go way, way back – i.e., tens of millions of years – to find analogues for some of the things we are doing today, like, for example, acidifying the oceans.

Fancher: I was surprised to read that our proudest technological achievements might not be easy to recognize in the geological record.  It’s humbling to think that urban centers will ultimately be as fleeting in the geological record as short-term hunter-gatherer camp sites are in the archaeological record.  Despite our human desire to leave huge, everlasting monuments, is it better not to be noticed in the geological record?

Kolbert: Well, it’s not clear that we will be noticed, because it’s not clear there’s going to be anything around to notice us.  But we will be noticeable.  And certainly from the standpoint of the other organisms on earth, it would be a lot better if our impact were not so obvious.

Fancher: Some issues of scientific classification appear to have little practical relevance.  For example, the debate over whether Pluto qualifies as a planet or not.  In your article, Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen concludes that the value of the Anthropocene classification goes far beyond textbook revisions.  Can you elaborate on the meaning of the Anthropocene?

Kolbert: Officially, we live in the Holocene, or “wholly recent” epoch.  The Anthropocene translates basically as the man-made epoch.  It’s an acknowledgment that humans, rather than what are sometimes quaintly called “the great forces of nature,” have become the driving force on the planet.

Fancher: How might recognition of a geological epoch called the Anthropocene influence human behavior?

Kolbert: I end the piece with a quote from Paul Crutzen, the Nobelist who coined the term.  Crutzen says, “What I hope is that the term ‘Anthropocene’ will be a warning to the world.”  I think what he means by that is: we are now in the driver’s seat.  Unfortunately, we don’t really know how to operate the vehicle.  So we’d better think about what we’re doing very carefully.

Many thanks to Elizabeth Kolbert for writing such a thought-provoking article, and for agreeing to this interview.  Enter the Anthropocene – Age of Man is part of National Geographic magazine’s year-long coverage of the global human population reaching 7 billion.

What do you think about the possibility of a geological epoch called the Anthropocene?