The idea that humanity is changing the Earth’s geology has been around for more than 80 years. But it was only five years ago that geologists began the process of declaring officially that human influence has ended 10,000 years of stability on Planet Earth.
The final decision is inching its way up the geology profession’s august chain of command. However, popular culture has not waited. It has accepted that a new epoch called the Anthropocene has begun. The word has entered the lexicon of journalists, environmentalists, and politicians and is used to refer to humanity’s dominance on the planet.
At first, we might think the Anthropocene is a tribute to humanity’s superior intelligence and ingenuity. It isn’t. It signifies that civilization is degrading, if not destroying, life on Earth. The geological record, as well as obvious ecological evidence, such as the loss of biodiversity and global climate change, shows that we are the planet’s most invasive and parasitic species.
The committee of geologists that gave the Anthropocene preliminary approval in 2016, cited the following reasons for the decision:
• Radioactive atoms have spread worldwide because of thermonuclear bomb tests in the 1950s;
• Urbanization and agriculture have caused an order of magnitude increase in erosion and sedimentation;
• We have abruptly disturbed the planet’s critical cycles of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous while introducing new chemical compounds to the biosphere;
• These changes are causing global warming, rise in sea-levels, the acidification of our oceans and ocean dead zones;
• Rapid changes in the biosphere on land and in the sea have destroyed wildlife habitats, and have caused unprecedented increase in the numbers of domesticated animals and invasive species;
• We have created a proliferation of new minerals and rocks such as concrete, fly ash and plastics; and
• Our material goods are creating “techno fossils,” the detritus of civilization.
“Many of these changes will persist for millennia or longer, and are altering the trajectory of the Earth System, some with permanent effect,” the committee said.
While the Earth’s geologic record is written in stone, its ecological one is written in real time. For example, the concentration of climate-changing gases in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million (ppm) before industrialization began, and 316 ppm by 1958. About 350 ppm was considered safe. But the gases reached 400 ppm in 2017, climbed rapidly to nearly 420 ppm today, and continue to rise. Sea waters are invading cities, temperatures are reaching levels the human body cannot tolerate, and one of the largest extinctions of species in the history of life is underway.
The question before us is this: Now that humanity holds the chisel that shapes the history of civilization, how will we use it? Must we resign ourselves to the abuses industrial societies have inflicted upon the Earth’s ability to support life? Or can we adopt more benign ways to prosper? In fact, can we fix what’s already broken?
While geologists finish deciding whether we have bullied our way into a new epoch, the rest of us must decide how we will use our powers. The decision must be global, because that is the scope of civilization’s impacts. Change must be equitable if it is to be sustainable. And it must be now before our negative inertia takes us past points of no return.
The international community’s record of action – or rather, inaction – on climate change justifies pessimism about whether our moral conscience and political will are strong enough to overcome intergenerational greed. But should we decide to recommit ourselves to lives in service to life, we could begin by declaring that the rest of this century will be the “Biocene” – a period in which we reverse the damages that are reversible, heal the wounds that can be healed, and institutionalize a global ethic of planetary stewardship.
If we do not do this, we will have to stop calling ourselves the most intelligent species, assuming we are around to call ourselves anything at all. Our highest priority must be to fully understand and improve our influence on the ecology of life on the planet.
Maybe we can begin at the personal level by becoming more awake to the life that surrounds us in the natural world. Mindfulness, the practice of “being in the now,” has been a popular mode of therapy in the United States. Physicians prescribe it for pain, loneliness, anxiety, and burnout.
Mindfulness in nature appears to be especially beneficial.
In 2012, a team of researchers in the UK had subjects take 25 minute walks through three environments—two urban and one green space. The researchers then measured the subjects’ brain reactions with mobile electroencephalography (EEG). It showed that green space produced a sense of well-being, like the feeling many of us had when we went outside after long periods of quarantine due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Try this: One morning when you step into the shower, think about how you have just entered the planet’s water cycle. The water cascading down on you may have come from interstellar ice crystals older than the Earth and sun. It may have satisfied the thirst of a dinosaur hundreds of millions of years ago. The amount in the biosphere is always the same. It may be ice one day, gas the next day, and the liquid coming through your shower head the day after that, but there will never be more of it. And although 70 percent of the Earth is covered in water, only about one percent is drinkable. The rest is either saline or trapped in ice and snow.
Your breakfast cereal would not exist—in fact, half the food in the supermarket would not exist—without the help of pollinators such as bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats, beetles, and flies. With their assistance, fruits and flowers procreate in a process strikingly similar to ours. It’s a bit startling to realize that the strawberries in your cereal bowl are actually the plant’s ovaries protecting the seeds that contain the genetic code of its species.
When you step outside, imagine that all the living things above, around, and below you, from microorganisms in the soil to the trees towering overhead, are making audible sounds. You would be overwhelmed by a biotic cacophony.
A spoonful of the soil under your feet contains more busy microorganisms than there are people on the planet. Bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes are at work, each with its own job. Earthworms are sliming around silently beneath the surface, aerating the soil, breaking down organic matter so plants can use it, and shedding casings to fertilize the soil.
The trees are multi-taskers. Among other things, they are inhaling the carbon dioxide you exhale and exhaling the oxygen you inhale. Seven or eight of them produce enough oxygen to keep you breathing for a year. This symbiotic relationship is one of the ways you participate in another planetary cycle – the carbon cycle. Carbon dioxide is moving continuously through plants, soils, oceans, the atmosphere, and you. If it weren’t for the cars around you and the power plants that generate your electricity, the carbon cycle would be in balance rather than causing climate change.
But back to the trees. Scientists have recently realized that trees communicate with each other above and below ground. Fungal networks allow them to share water and nutrients and to send out alerts to other trees when they are in distress. The German forester who discovered this network calls it the “wood-wide web.”
You will be part of the planet’s life even after your death. Your body will slowly decompose into elements that are food for other organisms, and life in the biosphere will go on. However, students of this process say that a small part of us becomes helium that floats off into space, where it may be captured by the sun, or another planet, or where it may leave the solar system and drift off into what the fearless space explorer Buzz Lightyear calls “infinity and beyond.”
In the millisecond between life and death, you may discover the answer to the most mysterious question of all: Are we humans annuals or perennials? Until that time comes, we all bumble along through a miraculous, mind-boggling array of life serving us and the world around us, with the knowledge it has refined through 3.5 billion years of evolution.
While you are alive, you must decide what role you will play in this incredibly diverse and dynamic world. Your life is in your hands, but so is the life all around you and, in a small but significant way, the well-being of life on Earth.
This article is adapted from Bill Becker’s newest book, “The Creeks Will Rise: People Coexisting with Floods,” published Sept. 7 by the Chicago Review Press.