Have you heard of the Anthropocene? It’s a relatively new term, but one which is rapidly becoming commonplace in scientific and geology arenas. Until recently, geologists had labelled that the current geological era, which we are currently in, as the Holocene (the period since the last Ice Age). But there are increasing calls for a new name to be used instead, in order to recognise the impact that man’s activities are having on the planet. The name Anthropocene seems appropriate given that man’s actions have caused many plant and animal species to become extinct, and the climate of the planet to change irreversibly. Looking forward, how will we adapt to meet the new changes of the Anthropocene era?
Geologists have historically used definite time boundaries to mark the change between one era
and the next. Often this is very clear cut, such as the start of an ice age, or the mass extinction of the dinosaurs. But just how do you determine when the activities of human beings started to have an effect on planet earth? Should it be when humans learned to farm on a larger scale? Or perhaps when radiation was discovered and atomic research left radioactive traces in soil. There is no agreement on this definition from scientists, and many have dubbed the Anthropocene a pop culture concept rather than a scientific one.
Moving into the Anthropocene
Leaving the scientific debate about definitions of Anthropocene and when it began to one side, there is scientific consensus that human activities are indeed having an effect on the planet. Mining has poured millions of tons of sediment into our rivers, we have covered large areas of the planet with roads, cultivated fields and cities, and have chopped down large areas of forest. The planet is unrecognisable from the one at the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago. Nobody knows for sure just how the planet will change further during the Anthropocene, but some general predictions are starting to be made.
Nature and “historical baselines”
Until now, much of the world’s conservation efforts have been focused on restoration. Planting trees in areas which were once forested, removing invasive species such as the American mink in the UK, or reintroducing native species which have become extinct. Getting things back to their original state is known as restoring the historical baseline. The problem is that many of these attempts have limited success. It is impossible to restore many areas of the world to their original state as we have built towns or farms on them. Scientists now agree that a new target is needed which accepts that there are some ecosystems which simply cannot be restored. A new baseline, the Anthropocene baseline, is now needed, and scientists agree that this should be a line drawn at present day conditions, with an agreement for no further actions which will damage ecosystems or damage biodiversity.
Participatory Science Projects
It is also thought that in the future, individuals and smaller organisations will take the lead on preserving ecosystems unlike, at present, where governments and international organisations take the lead. There are already projects underway to research the number and types of plastics in the ocean and determine whether these are having an effect on the health of marine creatures. A project aimed at reversing climate change in Peru was awarded a large sum by the World Bank, which will be used to paint mountains white rather than black, the theory being that white reflects the heat and light from the sun and this may lower temperatures and encourage the glacier to reform. Research is also underway into GM crops for Africa, with the aim of producing strains of food crops which are resistant to drought and which can be planted to help halt the process of desertification. In the Maldives, citizen science projects are researching coral reefs and fisheries, with the aim of preserving the biosphere and protecting the low lying islands, which are in danger of disappearing completely if sea levels start to rise. If anything, it looks as if the Anthropocene will see a shift towards personal responsibility for the future of the planet and away from us seeing it as the job of international organisations and governments instead.
Are you talking with your students about the Anthropocene era? Do you agree that we need another marker to measure the effects that the human race has had on our planet?