The Anthropocene Epoch

B.W. Wojciechowski

The period of recent glaciations, lasting for the most recent 2.5 million years, is known in the geological record as the Pleistocene (the most recent) Epoch. Repeated glaciations during this period gave the ecology of the earth a wild ride between severe cold spells interspersed with periods warmer than today. It was the time when mammals found many ways of surviving the vicissitudes of nature, but the smartest of them looked for ways to circumvent nature’s whims. At present we are in a relatively warm period, though some believe we are due for a new ice age soon.

Past geological epochs lasting millions of years have been named after environmental, geological, speciation and various other events. Now we are entering a period which deserves to be named after a new influence: human control of Earth’s environment. It is the new Human-Dominated Epoch; the Anthropocene Epoch. It may even be the beginning of a more protracted Anthropocene Era which will last for hundreds of millions of years. Some of our fellow humans may not realize how profoundly we now influence the environment of the Earth and how this burdens us with the stewardship of our speck in the cosmos. We tend to either decry or ignore the subtle process of the evolution of our Anthropocene times. We do so at our peril; the Earth will continue to be subject to our demands and we can destroy our planet if we do not consciously take care of it. The Anthropocene Epoch is ours to manage to success or to a disaster.

The Anthropocene Epoch began when we Anthropoids mastered fire. At that moment we harnessed energy that was different, versatile and enormously useful in affording us ways to control our environment and to improve our lives. We could now cook food avoiding diseases while improving flavors and making many previously hard to digest materials edible. We could keep warm in climates which were barely inhabitable without the warmth of fire. And most importantly we discovered metallurgy and fired pottery, two technologies made possible by the mastery of fire which set us on the path to altering our life-style from purely natural to increasingly man made.

It is hard to pinpoint precisely when we mastered fire adequately to do these things but 10,000 BCE might be a reasonable date to pick. The date coincides neatly with the end of the most recent glaciation of the Pleistocene Epoch and we can conveniently take it as the start if the Anthropocene; 12,000 years ago. In terms of geological epochs and eras we are in the very early stages of the Anthropocene. Early stages yes, but think of how we have impacted our Space Ship Earth in the brief moment of geological time we have controlled fire.

In this short time we have progressed from cooking meat by the family campfire to activities with global impact. We have done things which wittingly or not have changed features of our Earth in ways that nature may have taken thousands, maybe millions of years to accomplish. In fact much of what we have done to alter the Earth, nature left to its own devices would never have achieved. We have changed our Earth in ways nature had no need to do. We did it for our own benefit. Many things we now find necessary and take for granted would never have come about if we had to depend on nature. We humans made them happen because it suited our purposes.

Start with canals. We have joined the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean to facilitate transport. But by doing this we have allowed species of sea life which may never have migrated from the one body of water to the other, to do so. This made possible a change in the ecology of both bodies of water. The Suez Canal has joined two even more distant bodies of water making the Mediterranean Sea accessible to species from the Red Sea and vice versa. We in general have paid little notice to these ecological consequences since they had little effect on the lifestyles of the canal builders. But often unwittingly we have changed the Earth’s ecology with our actions in the pursuit of purely human goals; and some of the results have been dramatic.

In water management we have built dams and diverted rivers causing great changes in local conditions. The Colorado River and the Mississippi among many others have been utilized for agricultural and cities’ needs to the point where their deltas are disappearing, causing loss of shore land and changing river-mouth ecologies. This time we sacrificed the lands and life styles of our shore-based fishermen for the benefits of upstream farmers. The Aswan Dam on the Nile and the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze have affected great areas of land, populations and even the geology of their reservoirs and surrounding area. In future works on this scale will probably be undertaken whenever we are capable of carrying them out to satisfy our human objectives. We have done much in the field of water management but we will do much more. Water is essential to our subsistence and we will continue our management of it both on an ever increasing and a more detailed scale.

Take for example the fate of the Aral Sea. This inland body of water once encompassed about 70,000 km2 of surface area, a shallow sea almost the size of Austria or South Carolina, dotted with thousands of islands. It supported a thriving fishing industry and served as a venue of waterborne communication and transport for a large region of the southern Asian region. Today it has dried up leaving behind several small lakes and a desert dotted with rusting hulks of ships. The Aral was once so important that in nineteenth century Russia maintained a naval presence on the sea. This major and disastrous geological change was caused by diverting rivers which supplied it with water, for irrigation of farmlands upstream. We changed this part of the world for our own purposes. Nature had no intention to do this.

We have altered the Earth in many other ways. We have built cities covering arable land introducing local microclimates in the process, not to mention various forms of pollution. We have captured land from the seas and defend it with polders and pumps. We have wittingly or nor transferred plants, diseases and animals across the globe. The plague of rabbits in Australia comes to mind as does the Dutch Elm Disease in North America.. Both unwitting transfers of alien life forms have devastated native ecologies. At the same time the transfer of beneficial plants, say potatoes, has made a great contribution to human diet everywhere. The dispersal of beneficial plants has contributed greatly to the availability of food and the consequent rise in human populations; an important item in the arrival of the Anthropocene Epoch.

Rapid transport, a purely human contribution to the Earth’s capabilities, has facilitated the spread of diseases which we now combat on a world scale, demonstrating our burgeoning stewardship of the world’s overall ecology. We grow crops in optimum locations and ship the produce round the world to satisfy local demand. We mine minerals wherever they are found and employ the refined products wherever the demand and technology that uses the mineral is located. Then we ship finished products made from these raw materials wherever the customers are. All of this shows how we have woven a net enfolding the Earth in systems of transport, communication and production that unify the globe in ways we control. This entanglement is the real One World, not the imagined socially-homogeneous version.

Most recently we have realized that we are altering the composition of our atmosphere. Here is the next and demonstrably global problem to solve using technology underlining the fact we are in the Anthropocene Epoch in charge of our space ship Earth. Our plan, however vague its current beginnings, is to control the climate of our planet to our satisfaction. We already control local climate in our habitations and places of work but now we want to establish a global average temperature to our liking. Who knows, we may ultimately implement detailed climate control beyond our habitations and build cities with city-wide climate control. I commented on the political and technical issues relevant to this in an earlier blog.

What does this promise for the future? More control of Earth’s resources in the service of humanity. All of this depends on the use of energy and it began with our mastery of fire. But that source of energy is tiny compared to what we presently have and aspire to. Nuclear, solar, geothermal and other sources yet undreamed will continue to provide us with ever increasing access to energy thus increasing our ability to accomplish our plans. And how will we use this power? to satisfy our needs and whims. We will not “return to nature” as some might wish.

Using energy and technology we will take charge of our Space Ship Earth and steer it to achieve our goals. The Earth will provide us with the resources and we will optimize their uses. This is not a dastardly attack on the marvels of nature. We will continue to love and protect nature; but we will be in charge. Nature is our mother and our heritage. We will continue to enjoy its variety and its bounty. But we will adjust nature’s ways to suit our needs using energy and science to accomplish our goals. This is what we will do: treasure and employ Earth’s nature as we reach for the stars.

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For more on this topic, see my books on Amazon.com.

Amazon.com: Zamora Texts: The Year 9000: How We Got Here. Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link: amzn.to/1Xt6raE

Amazon.com: Zamora Texts: The Regression: Was this our Last Social Disaster? Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link: amzn.to/1U4Vgas

Amazon.com: Zamora Texts: Space Exploration: Are We Alone? Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link: amzn.to/1nLSisM

Amazon.com: Zamora Texts: A Chronicle of Martian Colonization: Terraforming a Planet. Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link:Â amzn.to/1RjnE8f

Amazon.com: Zamora texts: Region of Luna. Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link: amzn.to/1pm6hGX

Amazon.com: Zamora Texts: Democracies: Their Fall and Revival. Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. LINK: amzn.to/1Rkwz2M

Amazon.com: Zamora Texts: Human Societies: Our Search for an Organized World. Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link:Â amzn.to/1Rkws7j

Amazon.com: Bohdan W. Wojciechowski: Biography, Kindle Books, Blog. Link: amzn.to/1nLTtbP

Amazon.com: Zamora Texts. Bohdan W. Wojciechowski. Link: amzn.to/1Pal6By

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