If you look at Earth without a human bias, it seems to be a world defined by two swirling liquids: the atmosphere and the oceans. Humans changed, and are changing, both liquids.
The oceans are full of plankton, microorganisms that served as Earth’s first “geoengineers.” Roughly 2.4 billion years ago, bacteria’s photosynthesis first altered the atmosphere. Now humans have added – and continue to add – carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuel, which makes the oceans more acidic and promotes global warming.
The “Sixth Mass Extinction”
Natural climate change already produced massive extinctions. Some “440 million years ago,” a massive ice age killed nearly “all the graptolites.” Their sudden near-extinction is scientifically useful to study since evidence of their changing presence marks differing geological ages.
“Chemistry is the enemy. The same nitrogen that crops require leaks into the air and flows away with the rains.”
It isn’t clear when this new era of human impact, “the Anthropocene,” began. Was it 50,000 years ago, when humans started killing major mammals, like mammoths, in large numbers and hunted them to extinction? Was it the dawn of agriculture, which permanently disrupted ecosystems or was it the Europeans’ arrival in the New World?
“Our world provides the setting of a great murder mystery: Where did all the big animals go?”
Did the Anthropocene begin in the 1700s, as some scientists suggest? At this time in history, contemporary writer Comte du Buffon argued, the future of humankind and the natural world had “become inextricably intertwined.” Or did it start 250 years ago, when James Watt invented the steam engine? On July 2, 1909, Nobelist Fritz Haber demonstrated his technique for creating fertilizer; the resulting technologies enabled massive population growth. On July 16, 1945, humans began atom bomb tests, generating radioactive isotopes not present in nature.
“This kind of ambivalent relationship to wildlife is likely to be a hallmark of the Anthropocene.”
Whenever this period began, humanity inevitably is rewriting the future of the planet by disrupting multiple ecosystems and the climate. People have acted and continue to act in countless ways that affect the Earth.
People debate whether doom will mark the Anthropocene or whether humankind can consciously achieve better outcomes than the mass extinctions and biological homogeneity that mark the era thus far. Species that humans need or like, such as cats, flourish and replace those that existed before civilization. Countless species have ceased to exist, including the passenger pigeon, which may have been the “most abundant bird in the world” before humans hunted it to extinction. Scientists are still trying to figure out what happened to some extinct species, like the “giant beaver.” Today the world is experiencing its sixth mass extinction, and humans are responsible.
Revival of the Species?
Some thinkers envision reviving extinct species like woolly mammoths through emerging gene engineering technologies. “De-extinction” inspires people who feel exhausted by negative environmental news. But it may not be possible, and it’s costly and labor-intensive. It takes months of gene sequencing samples just to determine if scientists are working with the right species. Even if they find the correct DNA, it may suffer from fragmentation or corruption.
“In large part, we live with a sea haunted by ghosts.”
Some scientists are utilizing DNA to guard against extinction. The “Frozen Ark” and other gene repositories freeze DNA samples of various species, hoping future generations can revive them. Others tinker with existing species to make them more functional – like making trees more disease-resistant. Some envision reviving one of humanity’s lost relatives, like Neanderthals, because of the large number of tissue samples available.
“Through ingenuity and technology, Homo sapiens has become the dominant species on the planet.”
Those embracing de-extinction recognize that humanity may not control evolution, but it establishes “the parameters” under which evolution functions. Ecology focuses on what it considers “wild” or natural environments. But, instead of untouched original nature, the world now has a set of human-created “novel ecosystems.”
The Anthropocene: Climate Change and Carbon
Two closely related challenges will define the Anthropocene: dealing with climate change and dealing with the CO2 emissions that cause it. Though the term “global warming” is recent, humanity has been aware of the greenhouse effect for centuries. Carbon dioxide traps heat. If it did not, Earth would be too cold to sustain human life. Trapping some heat through “greenhouse” gases is essential, but industrial activities emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate.
“Even if humanity were whisked away tomorrow in some kind of rapture, these changes would continue to propagate through time.”
That this practice drives climate change is a certainty. Without genuine change, it’s terrifyingly possible that the Earth’s temperature will rise too high for humanity to survive without continual use of technology, such as air conditioning, or to survive at all. Ideally, civilization eventually will release less carbon into the atmosphere, but people have not yet made that change.
“In the end, commerce may be the only thing that motivates humans to determine whether iron fertilization even works.”
Instead, researchers are investigating various methods of carbon capture, like growing more plankton to absorb more carbon. For example, marine biologist Victor Smetacek advocates dumping iron into the ocean because he believes that it would cause a plankton bloom. Then, the tiny organisms would use photosynthesis to draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and sink it harmlessly into the ocean. But no one knows if adding iron to the water would mix in the right way to drive the plankton growth this notion envisions.
“People’s collective actions have changed the world.”
Smetacek is one of an increasing number of geoengineers. Their activities aren’t new – people seeded clouds to generate rain in the 1950s – but their methods are growing in scale to address larger problems.
The world generates a lot of carbon to store, and proposed solutions often provoke political backlash. Some strategies attempt to recover aspects of nature lost through human action. They may be part of the shift toward stewardship that this new age demands. For instance, one idea is to apply technology to geology: Some rocks pull carbon from the air. Technology could enhance the rate at which that works. The most popular option for carbon capture is to catch carbon molecules as they leave smokestacks, but this encourages the continuing burning of fossil fuels.
In 1972, the rate of “global population growth” peaked and then declined. The most births – 87 million – may have happened in 1987. As the rate of growth drops — only 79 million births in 2017 – the population may hit 10 billion before it levels off. Women’s rights movements contribute the most to population control: If women can control their bodies and gain economic rights, population counts will fall. Population growth combines with the desire for a better life to increase demands on the planet and its resources. Poor countries are smoky because people burn fires for cooking, heat and light. Providing more-efficient stoves would reduce pollution in these lands. Bringing access to electricity to more people would help, but millions still live off the grid.
“Space travel, to Mars and ultimately even beyond, is not a luxury for a species that wants to last on geologic timescales.”
As the population grew in China’s Yunnan Province, more births and more tourism increased the need for wood. This made it impossible for the local Naxi people to maintain their ecologically balanced harvesting practices. One local school started the Earth Helpers, a student conservation organization. China builds dams to power its future while burning less coal. These dams change the ecology in their regions and displace large populations: The Three Gorges dam displaced a million people.
“Humanity faces threats that have reconfigured biodiversity in a geologic blink in the past. So spread our bets to more than one planet.”
Famines often occur because societies get stuck in outmoded methods. Some societies have survived by using technology well. One school of thought, “techno-optimism,” celebrates the world’s rising population as a good thing. It believes that more people will generate “more ideas,” thus accelerating progress and helping the world avoid catastrophe.
Cities like Copenhagen and Melbourne are trying to lead the way to a better future by becoming carbon-neutral. This is part of a larger shift to a “circular economy,” in which people reuse everything they can as part of a great cycle. This practice is ancient. Long ago, Chinese “dung gatherers” collected human waste from cities and sold it to farmers as fertilizer. The high yields Chinese farmers got from their land once inspired Western conservationists. But further study showed this remarkable return did not spring from superior processes, but from hard and heavy work to shift soil and dredge waterways. To this ancient principle of thrift, modern civilization adds new technologies, like a “biodigester” to convert plant waste into fuel.
“We will need to build a broad, even catholic ‘we’.”
Today, China is globalizing and urbanizing on a massive scale. How China builds the vast new cities it needs for its growing urban population will shape the world’s response to climate change. Today, China is hollowing out its hills for the cement it needs to build massive new cities. China’s modernization is inconsistent, contradictory and even corrupt.
A cadre of men who trained as engineers run China. Their backgrounds make them believe in planning. China has embraced and abandoned a number of multi-year plans. The central government issues edicts on pollution or energy efficiency, but local bureaucrats may or may not apply them, depending on the level of corruption and nature of local interests.
Soon to be the world’s largest consumer culture, China has committed to numerous enormous public works projects. Some focus on environmental issues, such as a reforestation project designed to keep deserts from spreading. Some Chinese plans do address industrial waste, but smog shrouds all of China’s new cities as they fill with far more private cars than their new roads can handle.
Designing a “Better Anthropocene”
Many poorer countries still burn coal for fuel, including Kenya, but it is trying “to become a green superpower” by providing power from wind, geothermal and solar sources. But the solution doesn’t reside in any one discipline or country. Instead, the world needs humanity to take a holistic approach that changes individual and collective behavior.
Elon Musk and his companies provide one model of response to the contemporary world’s challenges. He pours money and know-how into electric cars, space and solar power. But Musk can’t save the world. Neither can any other technocratic leader. Other promising leaders have arisen, such as Pope Francis, who praises technology for its accomplishments, but also warns of the very real threats it poses. He calls for a new stewardship of nature. But even the Pope can’t save the world. The human race collectively must be better stewards and must build a more inclusive sense of self, a “we” that includes everyone.