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July 24, 2011 / Daniel Kramer

Welcome to the Anthropocene

Here it is, already the Anthropocene, and I still haven’t figured out paper versus plastic. In 2002, Paul Crutzen published a paper arguing that we have now entered the “Anthropocene,” a human-dominated geological epoch. The idea seems to have gained some traction as even the Economist has published a sympathetic article on the idea. There is convincing evidence that this is a time unlike any other given man’s ability to profoundly affect the basic biophysical processes of the planet. We are all familiar with man’s effect on climate. In addition, humans, through industry and agriculture, have now increased the amount of nitrogen fixed on land by 150%. Conservation biologists have made the case that man has induced the sixth great extinction event in Earth’s history. The Economist, on their Daily Chart blog, illustrates the idea with a population-weighted metric that suggests that “28% of all history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century.” Need more evidence? Again, in the same note, the Economist states that “23% of all goods and services made since 1 AD were produced from 2001 to 2010.” That seems like a lot of stuff. I know, perhaps today’s stuff has less impact than past stuff… still. For an arresting visual illustration of human’s domination, see the short clip below created by James Syvitski of the University of Colorado on the proliferation of dams in the United States.

So, while many scientists are still trying to figure out what all this mucking about means, I am already looking forward to the end of the Anthropocene. How long ’til we get there? How does this end? Either well or badly I think. For me, the most interesting question is whether man has the ingenuity, the institutions, the prescience to safely navigate through the Anthropocene epoch with its vastly complex, spatially and temporally grand, human-induced and reconfigured biophysical processes.  The Economist article ends on a hopeful note. I too am hopeful but the evidence thus far is mixed at best.


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