Have You Heard of the Term Anthropocene?

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You probably have heard about the term Pleistocene, which refers to a geologic epoch or geological time period.  Often referred to as the Ice Age, it is a period in Earth’s history that occurred from about 1.85 million to 11,700 years ago.  During this time, the Earth experienced the most recent episodes of natural global cooling and much of North America and other continents were shaped by the advancing and retreating glaciers.  As you can imagine, the movement of huge ice sheets drastically altered the landscape of North America, pushing rocks and dirt creating hills and crevices.  You may also be familiar with the term Holocene, a term used to represent the geologic epoch that followed the Pleistocene up to and including the current time.  I wonder, however, if you are familiar with another term. Have you heard of the term Anthropocene?  As you might gather, “cene” is a suffix that in geologic terms represents a period of time, while “anthrop” means human.  Many argue that we have transitioned from the Holocene to another epoch, the Anthropocene, which is a new period in the history of the Earth where the major impact on the landscape and the biodiversity of the planet are shaped, not by nature, but by human actions.  However, is this really so?

I, for one, fear we have moved to the Anthropocene. Consider some of the following sobering facts and predictions.

  • The current population of the United States is growing by one person every 15 seconds (https://www.census.gov/popclock/), and the world population currently exceeds 7.5 billion people. Consider that in 1998, less than 20 years ago, the world population was estimated at just under 6 billion (http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/). It is estimated that by 2045, with a world population at 9 billion, approximately half of the Earth’s land surface will be substantially disturbed or outright converted to agricultural or urban use (http://news.berkeley.edu/2012/06/06/scientists-uncover-evidence-of-impending-tipping-point-for-earth/).
  • In addition, many scientists agree that we are currently in the midst of the sixth great species extinction in the history of the planet, http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/biodiversity/elements_of_biodiversity/extinction_crisis/). Extinction of species is of course a natural process and occurs continually for a variety of reasons, but currently it is estimated that we are losing species at somewhere between 1,000 and 10,000 times this background rate.  Unlike other extinctions that have been tied to volcanic eruptions or asteroid strikes, the only common thread currently are the wide spread impacts of humans.

  • Finally, consider the issue of global warming. While it is not the intent in this post to consider the data supporting this position in detail (but we will soon), suffice it to say that the vast majority of scientists and concerned individuals that have studied the issue concur that warming on a global scale is occurring and that the activities of humans play an important, if not sole, role.

I know this sounds bleak; however, it is not my intent to portray a picture without hope.  While some conservation scientists do feel that perhaps a tipping point of no return is close to or already has occurred, acknowledging the existence of the Anthropocene, and hence the notion that man is a significant change agent on the planet, is essential to moving the dialogue further.  I believe that all change starts with education followed by constructive dialogue and I strive to find value in what we do at Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center in this regard.  Let us use this wake-up call to stop pretending the resources of our planet are endless and that we can continue to rob future generations of humankind, and plant and animal life, for immediate, short-term gain.  Let us acknowledge that our actions have consequences and it is our moral obligation to consider those and mitigate for impacts.  It all starts with opening your mind to what may be uncomfortable to accept and agreeing to all work cooperatively to address solutions.  Let us at least agree to learn about the issues and discuss respectfully.

Thank you,

Dr. Mike Dentzau

Executive Director of Oxbow Meadows Environmental Learning Center

and Assistant Professor at Columbus State University




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