The Me Epoch

What a long, strange trip it’s been, from apeman to hydrocarbon man. Is it time we humans aped Donald Trump and named a geological age after ourselves? I can see the argument laid out in this essay, but don’t we already know we’re masters of the universe? I don’t see how making it official is going to advance a greater ethos for the planet.

Rather, as human life becomes increasingly techno-gadgetized and accessorized, what I think we’ll see is a yearning for a simpler time, something along the lines of this classic, which spoke to the anxieties of a different era.

28 Responses to “The Me Epoch”

  1. Are you being half-serious?
     
    The point of the anthropocene label is not self-indulgence. The point is that geological epochs are distinguished because of substantial changes in surface conditions. If the present day doesn’t qualify on that score I don’t know what does.
     
    I saw a claim that your buddy Andy Revkin coined the term “anthrocene” before the earth scientists thought about it. It’s actually a much prettier word without the “po”, and much as I have some issues with Andy, he deserves credit for this if it’s true.
     

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    I am being half-serious. I’ve long believed that we should remove the dualistic scales from our eyes–nature on one side and man on the other.

    I also would be in favor of naming this period in earth’s history the anthropocene. I just don’t see how it could lead to a larger planetary ethos.

  3. Tom Fuller says:

    The surface changes man has caused to this planet date back thousands of years, principally comprised of desertification caused by over-use and deforestation for first, hunting and later, slash and burn agriculture.

    Notwithstanding the occasional fact-free lamentation, much of the past century has involved remediation of previous impacts. The odd glitch aside (see Aral Sea, et al), looking at the past century would give normal people hope for the future.

    Calling this the Anthropocene is appropriate, but getting the dates right could eliminate a round of wailing in certain quarters. And as soon as we can get per capita income up around $4,000 in the developing world, we can get on with cleaning up the messes we’ve made.

  4. harrywr2 says:

    “I think we’ll see is a yearning for a simpler time”
    A week of camping with no public ‘facilities’ will cure most of their desire for a ‘simpler’ time. Occasional blackouts work as well.
     
    As far as gadgets the latest generation of cell phones replace a lot of gadgets.

  5. Keith Kloor says:

    Tom Fuller is correct about having the dates be more in line with the historical and prehistorical evidence for widespread and expansive anthropogenic landscape change. (Both regionally and and globally) Those familiar with Steven Pyne’s scholarship on fire or the vast geographical and environmental history literature from recent decades is probably aware of this record.

    Of course, there are also those convinced that ancient humans are also responsible for wiping out much of the megafauna in the North America.

    For those interested, a seminal, pioneering work in the field of environmental history is William Cronon’s Changes in the Land.

  6. Stu says:

    “I think we’ll see is a yearning for a simpler time”

    No way. I just found this website…

    http://damnyouautocorrect.com/
     
    Ä°t’s great!

  7. Tom Fuller says:

    Keith, that makes me curious. I had thought that man’s responsibility for the elimination of megafauna was completely accepted. I hadn’t even heard of alternative explanations. Are there people who don’t think our grand-daddies did it?

  8. @ Tom # 3. The issue of when to delineate the “beginning of the Anthropocene” is in fact on the to-do list of the  Anthropocene Working Group, part of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy for the Geological Society of London, as they consider whether to formalize it as an epoch. As I understand it, the leaning is more towards dates closer to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, or possibly even more recently. But it’s an open question.
    @ Tom # 7. This is a great lecture by Anthony Barnosky for a current survey on the multifactorial evidence – which also tend to differ by continent…

  9. Keith Kloor says:

    Tom,

    There is more vigorous debate about this in the last decade or so. It’s not a cut and dried case by any means. For example, see here.

    When it comes to prehistory in North America, there’s a lot myths that have been punctured post 1960s-1970s, such as the one about American Indians being peaceful, nature-centric stewards of the land.

     

  10. Barry Woods says:

    😉 gasp, don’t tell me the science isn’t settled 😉 😉

    sorry couldn’t resist..

    A weeks camping would see most people off, mid winter that is…
    and the odd blackout.

  11. Keith Kloor says:

    @8

    Thanks for providing these excellent links. A similar debate has taken place in recent years with respect to restoration ecology–how do you know what’s natural and what year to set the clock back to when restoring disturbed landscapes? The problem is that all the ecological and historical literature shows that it’s not easy determining exactly when a landscape went from natural to man-made. People tend to have their own subjective criteria.

  12. Tom Fuller says:

    I think limiting discussion of the disappearance of megafauna to North America overlooks some useful hints. Madagascar was one of the last land masses to be permanently settled, about 1,000 years ago. Their megafauna endured a lot of the changes bruited about as contributory to loss of species in other places, but boom! Man shows up and most of them disappear overnight.

    I’ll try to be open about it, but really, I kinda think we’re the major culprit in this.

  13. Francis says:

    <i> And as soon as we can get per capita income up around $4,000 in the developing world, we can get on with cleaning up the messes we’ve made.</i>
     
    Is there a single pollutant out there where it turns out that it was a good, cost-effective idea to release it when we were poor, then clean it up later?  It’s one thing for coal plants to emit sulfur dioxides because scrubbers hadn’t been invented.  It’s altogether something different to forgo the use of available technology.
     
    After all, no one is serving Monterey sardines for dinner, or dodo, or passenger pigeon.  Our ancestors deprived us of that choice.  How many choices will we foreclose for our descendants?

  14. Tom Fuller says:

    Speaking strictly as an interested layman, as for dating the start of our era, isn’t it true that if we all disappeared tomorrow, geologists a million years from now from another planet would be far more likely to note the effects of much earlier forest fires and the desertification (‘creating a desert and calling it peace’) than the effects of modern humanity–apart from dams, which truly deserve a bit more study in terms of impact. Unless they chanced on the remains of a city, wouldn’t they be hard put to find any way of characterizing our existence at all?

    I’m not even sure they’d be able to identify as anthropogenic the global warming that has us in such a tizzy at this point.

  15. Tom Fuller says:

    Francis, on the other hand, we are not being served up as dinner for various Snaggletooths, either. (Just trying to be light-hearted…)

  16. Stu says:

    First thing I learned in Bush Revegetation 101 (my old job) is just how much the Australian Aborigines changed the land over 40.000 years. To get ‘really’ natural, you’d have to go a long way back I presume.

  17. laursaurus says:

    How nostalgic!
    Are you longing for the good old days by recalling a song about longing for what they thought were the good old days?
    I enjoyed the clip, but now “I’m an ape man, I’m an ape man, I’m an ape man, I’m an ape man…” is stuck in my brain.
    I wonder if it’s just me or do songs ever get stuck in other people’s heads, too? If we are really nothing more than our physical bodies, how can we account for phenomenon like nostalgia or melodies replaying over and over in our minds?
    And some scientists believe we will be able to reverse engineer the human brain within the next 15 years! That seems creepy to me.
    No more space age? Now it is the anthrocene?
    Did we ever decide what to call the past decade? Turn of the millennium?

  18. kdk33 says:

    “How many choices will we foreclose for our descendants?”

    Hard to say.  Some would like to place off-limits certain readily available low cost energy sources.  That probably counts.

  19. Tom Fuller says:

    Laursaurus, as big a fan as I am of the music of my childhood, anything that brings back ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by the Archies can ruin the next week of my life. I hate the song, I hate the forces that conspired to produce it, but the minute I even think of it it stays stuck in my head for a week. Tragic. And now I’ve thought of it.

  20. Stu says:

    I have the lyric ‘I am Damo Suzuki’ in my head atm, by the band The Fall.
     
    Could get dangerous if it stays there too long.

  21. Another good survey article on the “anthropocene” is Will Steffen’s Observed trends in Earth System behavior, Climate Change, May/June 2010.
     
    Although the thrust of this piece is discussing the manifestation of observable physical changes on the Earth System, and the related human drivers… I also want to highlight Figures 15 & 16 in the context of Tom’s point in # 3: “as we can get per capita income up around $4,000 in the developing world, we can get on with cleaning up the messes we’ve made.”
     
    Will Steffen uses these charts in many of his presentations, sometimes with different metrics. Figure 15 represents a number of proxies for human development and well-being: population growth, GDP, number of telephones, tourism, etc. Figure 16 details a number of measures of physical changes to the Earth over the same time periods.
     
    The point is that the physical impacts are clearly correlated to the human development indices. There’s no evidence that as more and more people get more and more rich that the impacts go down. In fact the evidence suggests exactly the opposite.
     
    And, as I cited elsewhere on this blog about a week ago, a study last year – Evaluating the Relative Environmental Impact of Countries – on exactly this sort of question found:
     
    “… total wealth was the most important explanatory variable ““ the richer a country, the greater its average environmental impact…  There was no evidence to support the popular idea that environmental degradation plateaus or declines past a certain threshold of per capital wealth (known as the Kuznets curve hypothesis)… “There is a theory that as wealth increases, nations have more access to clean technology and become more environmentally aware so that the environmental impact starts to decline. This wasn’t supported..””
     
    Now, this doesn’t mean that increasing wealth HAS to have increasing environmental impacts. But it sure as hell argues against prescribing increasing wealth as a sure-fire cure-all for our environmental impacts! The overall evidence runs completely counter this, seductive anecdotes about the Hudson River, eastern U.S. forests and the Soviet Union notwithstanding…
     
    If we want to be wealthier AND have a sustainable environment, we have to actually achieve both. Simply getting wealthier has NOT been a route whereby the environment just went along for the ride to a better and better state…

  22. Tom Fuller says:

    Rust Never Sleeps, the seductive anecdotes you decry do tend to mass up and become data. Developed countries all over the world have set about cleaning up their air, water and land. That progress has been uneven doesn’t invalidate the observation that richer countries are more able and more interested in addressing environmental issues.

  23. Yes, Tom, developed nations have made some progress addressing some environmental impacts. But the evidence on the whole is that they have continued to dump more and more greenhouse gases, nitrogen, phosphorous, mercury, plastics, etc., etc., etc. Overfish. Deforest. On and on.
     
    Where is most of the world deforestation occurring? Surprise! More than 58% is accounted for by just four countries: Brazil, Canada, the Russian Federation and the United States. Oh well, I guess once Canada and the United States get wealthier they can deal with this little issue. And bluefin tuna, etc.
     
    I agree with you that richer countries may indeed be more able and interested in addressing environmental issues. The issue is whether – on balance – they do. Anecdotes notwithstanding.

    Your original contention was: “And as soon as we can get per capita income up around $4,000 in the developing world, we can get on with cleaning up the messes we’ve made.”


    It sure seems to me that you are implying that increasing global income is – ipso facto – the route to improved environmental stewardship. But you are making this implication in direct contradiction of what the evidence shows is the correlation between these two metrics.
     
    Like I said upthread, there is certainly no reason to believe the two MUST be linked in a negative way. We can make choices. But there is DEFINITELY no evidence on the whole that they ARE linked in a positive way. And simply prescribing more and more income, more and more consumption as a way to mitigate our environmental challenges seems somewhat divorced from where the balance of evidence lies.

  24. kdk33 says:

    Wealthy nations certainly impact the environment more than poor nations. If for no other reason than: they can. 

    Environmental degradation is a different story and a strong function of how one defines degradation – some might not consider GHG emissions degrading, or be particularly swayed by lead emissions from tire balancing weights (on of my favorites). 

    A useful observational might be length and quality of life.  Wealthy nations win this one hands down.  That probably suggests something useful about environment-people interactions in wealthy countries – some might argue this is what really matters anyway.

  25. Tom Fuller says:

    That’s 58% of a deforestation total of 0.036% of the total forest cover, according to the FAO. Deforestation used to be 0.2% per year. Deforestation does exist.  Forest at its height was estimated to cover 37% of the Earth’s landmass (SuperTrends, 2010). Now it covers 30%.  But many countries such as China are developing enough to do things like plant 2.31 billion trees in 2008 alone.

    Urban air pollution in another developed country–the U.K., has declined by 90% since 1930. In that same country, in 1878 when the steamship Princess Alice capsized, 600 passengers died–not from drowning, but by being immersed in the poisonous waters of the Thames, a river which is now full of fish and has been called cleaner than at any time in 200 years.

    In the bad ol’ U.S. of A., and organisation called the Environmental Protection Agency had a budget of over $10 billion in 2010–a 34% increase from 2009.

    On balance, I remember the list of environmental ailments that inspired Earth Day. On balance, we have made progress on all of them. This developed country has better air, water and land than it did 40 years ago. Dramatically better.

    In The Environmental Performance Index 2010, the Yale Center for Environmental Law & Policy ranked th 15 cleanest countries. 13 of them were developed–they were joined by Cuba and Colombia. The 15 least clean countries were all lesser developed countries, and with the exception of the Emirates, were all very poor.

    The World Bank showed to everyone (with evidently a few exceptions) that there is a very clear negative correlation between income and air quality back in 1992, in their report titled Development and the Environment, and the subject was considered settled–until you came along.

  26. Tom, it’s apparent that you are sourcing your forestry statistics material from something called “Supertrends: Winning Investment Strategies for the Coming Decades”.
     
    In the actual most recent FAO Global Forest Trends report itself, they assert: “The rate of deforestation shows signs of decreasing, but is still alarmingly high.” It’s hard to figure out exactly what numbers your source is using, but if you look at Table 1 in that report, I am almost certain that he took an annual rate of loss of 0.18% over five years – and then mistakenly divided by five again to get to the dramatically reduced – and dramatically mistaken – 0.036% that you cite.
     
    That book also appears to be the same source for the rest of your response as well. I’m not much impressed. Did you enjoy it as much as you did Matt Ridley’s Rational Optimist?
     
    Look. Yes. The developed world has had notable successes in dealing with some short-lived and local air and water pollutants. But not so much with long-lived and widely dispersed ones, with  bioaccumulative ones, with overfishing, deforestation, biodiversity and species loss. These are kind of metrics that one would expect would define an “Anthropocene”, and even rich countries have not done well in dealing with these. That’s reality and we need to deal with it, not wave it away with “positive attitude” books.

  27. Tom Fuller says:

    I liked SuperTrends better because I’m cited in it ;). And I liked The Rational Optimist a lot.

    I don’t want to pretend that we live in a paradise without ecological problems. We don’t. But fisheries (and coral reefs) do get restored. Without acknowledging our successes who will want to do more?


    Analyzing not just catch data, but also population assessments, trawl surveys, small-scale fishery data and modeling, the scientists found that the average proportion of fish taken had declined in five of those 10 ecosystems. Among the regions that had been particularly successful in protecting fish populations were Alaska and New Zealand, which the researchers note did not wait until drastic measures were required to conserve, restore and rebuild marine resources. Other areas where fish populations showed increased abundance included Iceland, the continental shelf of the northeast United States and the region covered by the California Current, from Canada to the Baja California peninsula, Mexico.
    Most of the fisheries that showed improvement are managed by a few wealthy, industrialized nations, but some exceptions are noted.”

    And disparaging books you haven’t read doesn’t get you very far with me–I’m a bit too used to it.

  28. thingsbreak says:

    @12 Tom Fuller:
    I think limiting discussion of the disappearance of megafauna to North America overlooks some useful hints. Madagascar was one of the last land masses to be permanently settled, about 1,000 years ago. Their megafauna endured a lot of the changes bruited about as contributory to loss of species in other places, but boom! Man shows up and most of them disappear overnight.

    I’ll try to be open about it, but really, I kinda think we’re the major culprit in this.
     
    Tom, as your comment hints at, different areas have clearer evidence one way or the other. The big picture is that it’s not coincidental that so many megafaunal die-outs are associated with human migrations. But that doesn’t mean in every case it’s attributable solely or even mostly to anthropogenic influence. In some cases there are also clear indications of climatic stressors, and some of these stressors may have simultaneously dispatched some megafauna species while encouraging human migrations. In some of the less clearly defined cases, it looks like humans may have been the figurative straw breaking the camel’s back rather than the sole or even primary cause- i.e. clear evidence of some degree of die-off predates human interference, but these species had survived prior instances of equal or greater changes in climate, so it’s not clear why they would be wiped out completely that time.

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