The Journey We Are All Responsible For


28 Millimeters, Women Are Heroes. Action in Phnom Penh, Open Eyes, Cambodge, 2009

A big part of what we do when we are not adding to these pages involves helping people all over the world plan journeys. We want them to stay in places that we have developed and/or that we manage because we have worked to reduce our contribution to negative anthropocentric travel impacts. There are positive impacts also, of course, including resources flowing to places where they are needed for human development, which in turn increases the likelihood of conservation efforts succeeding.

I was happy to see this newly revamped online publication back in these pages recently, and today as I went to their website I am even more happy to see this amazing article by a writer who was liberally linked to in our first couple of years on this platform. We have enormous respect for Mr. Revkin’s commitment to many of the same things we work on day in and day out. This is a long article, but worth the time and attention:

An Anthropocene Journey

The word “anthropocene” has become the closest thing there is to common shorthand for this turbulent, momentous, unpredictable, hopeless, hopeful time—duration and scope still unknown

By Andrew C. Revkin
October 2016

My reporting career has taken me from smoldering, fresh-cut roadsides in the Amazon rain forest to the thinning sea ice around the North Pole, from the White House and Vatican to Nairobi’s vast, still-unlit slums. Throughout most of it, I thought I was writing about environmental and social problems and solutions.

Lately I’ve come to realize that my lifelong beat, in essence, has been one species’ growing pains. After tens of thousands of years of scrabbling by, spreading around the planet, and developing tools of increasing sophistication, humans are in surge mode and have only just started to become aware that something profound is going on. The upside has been astounding. Child and maternal mortality rates have plunged. Access to education has soared. Deep poverty is in sharp retreat. Despite the 24/7 distilled drama online and on TV, violence on scales from war to homicide has been in a long decline.

Origin Story

To navigate this terrain, it’s best to start with the foundational anthropocene idea, as blurted out in February 2000 during a scientific meeting on human-caused global change. A prominent participant was Paul J. Crutzen, who’d won a Nobel Prize for helping identify the threat certain synthetic chemicals posed to the planet’s protective ozone layer. At the meeting, his frustration grew as peers described momentous shifts in Earth’s operating systems, but always anchored them in time by mentioning the Holocene. Holocene is the formal name for the “wholly recent” epoch of planetary history that began at the end of the last ice age 11,700 years ago.

At one point, Crutzen couldn’t hold back. He interrupted a colleague, as the scientist Will Steffen later described: “Stop using the word Holocene. We’re not in the Holocene any more. We’re in the … the … the … (searching for the right word) … the Anthropocene!”

In his 2014 book The Anthropocene, Christian Schwägerl describes how the room fell silent at first, and then the word became the center of conversation. “The scientists in that conference room in Mexico were profoundly shaken,” Schwägerl wrote. “[O]ne of the most frequently cited natural scientists in the world … was not only describing the past with this new term (something to which geologists are accustomed), but he was also redefining and connecting to the future … a new Earth sculpted by humans.”

Shortly after that meeting, Crutzen learned that Eugene F. Stoermer, an admired analyst of tiny lakebed diatom fossils, had used the word in the 1980s. The two scientists collaborated on an essay for a newsletter for Earth systems scientists. They laid out a scientific rationale for the term and explained why, even though there was no tradition of naming geological spans for their causative elements, in this case it was justified:

Considering these … major and still growing impacts of human activities on Earth and atmosphere, and at all, including global, scales, it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term “anthropocene” for the current geological epoch.

Crutzen and several collaborators refined the concept in subsequent papers. The term quickly spread, propelled in a dizzying array of directions as if filling a linguistic vacuum. It began popping up in peer-reviewed literature in a variety of disciplines and eventually spawned at least three scientific journals (and one magazine) using “Anthropocene” in their titles.

It’s not hard to see why reverberations, pro and con, built so quickly. It was an audacious notion to recommend that a human age deserved to join the Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene as the epochs of geological history comprising the Age of Mammals. This stretch of time, more formally called the Cenozoic Era, began 65 million years ago, after the mass extinction that ended the dinosaurs’ age and enabled ours. And it could continue for a very long time—if the most powerful mammal, Homo sapiens, demonstrates it can turn the sapience in its name into a sustainable journey.

The proposal of an Anthropocene epoch was particularly audacious because it came from a chemist and an ecologist, not a stratigrapher. Stratigraphy is the discipline within geology that develops and maintains the official Geologic Time Scale and International Chronostratigraphic Chart.

In 2008, a group of stratigraphers and other earth scientists, led by Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester, published the first careful assessments of the intriguing Crutzen-Stoermer hypothesis. Indeed, they found a concrete and durable human signature—literally. Tens of billions of tons of concrete are part of that signature, along with vast amounts of smelted aluminum and more exotic alloys, distinctive spherical particles of fly ash from power plants, bomb radioisotopes, 6 billion tons (and counting) of plastic, and so much more. In a 2008 paper, Zalasiewicz and others concluded that there appeared to be “sufficient evidence” for an Anthropocene epoch to be considered for formalization by the international geological community.

But a long road lay ahead. The following year, Zalasiewicz and some colleagues began assembling a working group on the “Anthropocene” at the invitation of one of the 16 subcommissions of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. Those quotation marks around “Anthropocene” in the group’s name won’t disappear until some final judgment on the validity of a new epoch is reached.

In 2010 I was invited to join the working group, largely because of a quirky role I had played in the evolution of this anthropocene idea in 1992, when I essentially predicted Crutzen’s Mexico moment and what has unfolded since. Since 1985, I’d been writing articles about human impacts on the climate system. In 1991, I finally got a chance to synthesize what I’d been learning, in a short book that would accompany the first major museum exhibition on global warming, at the American Museum of Natural History. Closing out a chapter on the growing human impact on Earth, I typed an almost offhand proposal that we’d jolted the planet out of the Holocene:

Perhaps earth scientists of the future will name this new post-Holocene era for its causative element—for us. We are entering an age that might someday be referred to as, say, the Anthrocene. After all, it is a geological age of our own making. The challenge now is to find a way to act that will make geologists of the future look upon this age as a remarkable time, a time in which a species began to take into account the long-term impact of its actions. The alternative will be to leave a legacy of irresponsibility and neglect that will manifest itself in the fossil record as just one more mass extinction—like the record of bones and empty footprints left behind by the dinosaurs.

I vaguely recall musing on how to spell my passing reference to a name for this age. (I can’t probe the floppy disks on which any trace of that process sits.) “Anthrocene” seemed more streamlined than other choices, and I was pretty naïve when it came to word roots in scientific terminology. It didn’t really matter. The book was published shortly after the end of the Persian Gulf War and the planet-cooling eruption of Mount Pinatubo. Public attention was focused elsewhere. I’m sure no more than a few thousand people read it, certainly not Crutzen or Stoermer. It now floats’s used listings for as little as one US cent (plus shipping, of course)—another kind of anthropocene shard, in a way.

Reflecting on this now, I’m quite certain that when I wrote “earth scientists of the future,” I was thinking generations, if not centuries, into the future. But it took just eight years for scientific rigor to be applied to the idea of an anthropogenic geological age. We do live in fast-forward times…

Read the whole article here.

One thought on “The Journey We Are All Responsible For

  1. Pingback: The Journey We Are All Responsible For — La Paz Group |

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