Understanding the Anthropocene – we have cast our planet adrift on a dangerous voyage, and need to take charge before it is too late.

Posted by on July 17, 2017

Our only home is adrift, and moving fast into dangerous waters.  We need to man up, take over the controls, and bring it to safer waters.  The terrible irony is that Earth is adrift because of our unthinking actions.  It’s high time to clean up the messes we have made.  Yet mostly, we do not even realize we are in a predicament.

The enormous success of Hokule’a, the Hawaiian voyaging canoe which on June 17th 2017 completed its 3-year, round-the-world tour using only traditional Polynesian navigation is a great inspiration, revealing that people are capable of seemingly impossible feats.  We now need to build new navigation skills and sail our planet towards calm waters, and away from the dangerous place into which our carelessness has pushed it.  Photo © Bryson Hoe, ʻŌiwi TV and the Polynesian Voyaging Society

Our sheer abundance is part of the problem, and our impatience re the future

Back when I was born, there were about 2.3 billion people on the planet; today 7.5 billion.  That is more than three times as many of us eating other plants and animals, drinking water, breathing oxygen, and using much more than 3 times more energy, along with a host of other resources, because most of us have more stuff and do more stuff that burns energy than people of my grandparents’ time did.  Furthermore, our population continues to grow, although at a slower rate than it did when I was younger, and by 2050 will have increased by a further 2.3 billion (the total population at the time of my birth) or more of us.  I have lived through what is called the great acceleration – that enormous change in the intensity of human activities that occurred beginning in the mid-1950s and continuing until today.  And most of the time, I am not aware of this.

None of us are.  Immersed in a global culture of consumerism that values only the new, we know that the times they are a’changing, but we do not appreciate just how rapidly, nor how profoundly.  Except when we deliberately look back, or look at data revealing temporal trends, and most of us, mostly, do not look back.  That would be nostalgic, old-fashioned, out-of-touch.  Instead we peer excitedly into the future like so many spaniels, heads out the windows of the speeding car, ears swept back, flapping in the breeze.  Our evolution has not prepared us for this ride we are on, and the ride will probably get rocky because of that.

Is this us?  Always looking into the future while moving as fast as possible.  Photo © Daily Mail/London Media

Humans (genus Homo) evolved out of earlier australopithecines about 2 million years ago, and our species, Homo sapiens, is about 150,000 years old.  We spent most of the Pleistocene in Africa, venturing out to the rest of the world only about 60,000 years ago.  Some of us. endured the final glacial episode (the Wisconsin) in southern France (among other places), moving north as it waned and the Pleistocene gave way to the Holocene some 11,700 years ago.  Humans developed agriculture in several locations around the world about 8,000 years ago, and the entirety of human civilization since then has been spent in a remarkably benign and stable environment.  Until now.  Our Holocene experience has not prepared us for a world that is changing more rapidly than at most times in the geological past.

In Our Dying Planet, I talked about how our evolution has prepared us for jumping out of the way of Sabre-toothed cats and other predators, but not for making long-term plans to cope with advancing (or melting) glaciers.  That is one major reason why we have such difficulty making decisions about climate change, but climate change is not the only slow-by-human-standards, but fast-by geological-norms, change now occurring on this planet.  Relatively suddenly, over the last 50 years or so, we have been ripped from the bosom of a benign Mother Earth, and plunked into a world of constant change.  Mostly, that change is of our own making, but that does not make it any easier to appreciate.  The Anthropocene really is a very different world to any we have known during all of recorded human history.  We all need to understand where we are.

News media report new events; they don’t provide much context

Some neonic news

Our media brim with information on planetary-scale change.  Unfortunately, most media reports deal with a particular event (the news), and do not relate it to the wider pattern of change.  For example, a recent article on the effects of neonicotinoids on queen bees, published by Gemma Baron and colleagues at University of London, UK, and University of Guelph, Canada in Proceedings of the Royal Society B earlier this year attracted the attention of the Globe & Mail.

Honeybees (Apis mellifera) and other pollinators are vital to our agriculture, yet are being seriously harmed by our use of insecticides.  Photo © Zachary Huang

In a lengthy article, G&M reported the study accurately.  Baron and colleagues had dosed queen bumblebees with neonics at levels representative of what they would have picked up foraging in an agricultural environment where such chemicals were in use, and then measured fertility, egg production and so on.  They found significant effects of the insecticides on egg production and survivorship which would have led to colony failure.  The G&M article also provided some background – bee populations are in decline around the world, neonics are one of several possible causes, the plant fertilization services of bees are important to our crop production.  But the article did not flesh out that background information with the details that have appeared over time in other studies.  To find a summary of such background information, you have to look further, such as to the report on pollination issued by IPBES – the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.  That report, published in 2016 contains gems such as 30-35% (by area farmed) of current crop production depends at least in part on animal pollinators, and that a total loss of pollinators would result in loss of 5-8% by volume of agricultural production worth $235-577 billion per year worldwide as well as critical erosion of the global food supply.  Further, our dependence on pollinator-dependent crops has increased in recent years due to shifts in crop species while our total production has increased, so that, overall, our dependence on animal pollinators has increased 300% over the past 50 years.  And, finally, yields of pollinator-dependent crops are dependent on presence of a diverse pollinator community, managed domestic bees cannot replace such diverse natural communities as pollination agents, and many pollinator species of bee, butterfly, other insect and vertebrate species have been declining, or going extinct, in recent decades.  The New York Times reported on the release of the IPBES report, but without including any details of the magnitude of changes already observed.  Oh, and in case you are wondering, recent evidence in other publications reveals that insect populations in general have been undergoing steep declines wherever they have been measured.

One summary of such studies appeared in Science for 12th May 2017.  Gretchen Vogel, a Science journalist reviewed results of long-term monitoring of 100 European nature reserves by the Krefeld Entomological Society, a German NGO of primarily amateur entomologists who have been tracking the abundances and diversity of insects since 1905.  Beginning in 2013, society members noted dramatic reductions approaching 80% in insects caught in standardized sampling procedures at a dozen different nature reserves in Germany.  Most of the group’s results are not yet published and the generality of this observation is not known, but it is indicative of serious changes in insect numbers and that has to mean serious changes in pollination activity.  A more recent experiment, also reported in Science in an article by B.A. Woodcock of the UK’s NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, and 18 colleagues, examined the effect on three bee species of using neonic-coated seed in growing rape oil-seed crops in UK, Germany and Hungary.  In 22 treatment and 11 nearby control sites across the three countries, colonies of honeybee (Apis sp), wild bumblebee (Bombus sp) and solitary bee (Osmia sp) were sampled for reproductive effects.  They showed variable, but primarily negative effects of neonics on the capacity of the three species to persist from one year to the next.

Some Antarctic ice shelf news

The effects of our insecticides are not the only impact on the planet not being well-covered by reliance on the media.  Just this month, sometime between July 10th and 12th, the Larsen C ice shelf finally separated from Antarctica to produce an iceberg larger than Prince Edward Island or Delaware and containing ice sufficient to fill Lake Erie (if it was transported north, melted, and Lake Erie happened to be empty).  The widening, more than 120 mile long, split between the now-calved berg and the ice shelf has been followed, off and on, since it first started forming in 2010, and the final break was expected.  How did the media report this event?  Variously.  The American media generally began with the facts: it has broken off, it is very big, its eventual melting will not raise sea level because it was already floating.  Mostly they then reported some background – the earlier breaking off of Larson A and Larson B, and how reduction in extent of ice shelves can lead to acceleration of glacier flow and further melting which does raise sea level.  Interestingly to me, many American media then focused on whether or not this was a sign of climate change.  In The Daily Caller, based in Washington DC, Michael Bastasch devoted all but the first sentence of his report to the idea that the rest of the news media have been grievously incorrect in tying this event to climate change (they had not, but that does not matter),  He focused on comments of denialist Bjorn Lomborg and perfectly reasonable comments by Helen Fricker, Scripps glaciologist, that what had happened at Larson C was a normal Antarctic process.  The Atlanta Constitution Journal website had a ‘7 things to know’ article, ending with the role of climate change, where it managed to come down strongly on the view that climate change had nothing to do with it.  The Los Angeles Times, in an article by Sean Greene, was more circumspect (and accurate), but with a tone that stressed that there is nothing to worry about here.  It even quoted Fricker as saying, “Its still winter down there, for the next six months the ice shelf is going to be completely fine” – as in, don’t worry children, the sky is not falling tonight.  The Alamagordo Daily News stuck closely to the facts, noting that there is no evidence directly linking this calving event to climate change, but that warming will inevitably put more stress on the ice.

The progression of the split across the Larson C ice shelf.  Image © New York Times

An exception in my simplistic survey was the New York Times.  Its website provided a primary report with extensive background on the history of the split since 2010, and a nuanced discussion of the consequences of ice shelf breakup.  It covered the fact that this particular event is likely not directly a consequence of warming, while stressing that warming is taking place and radically altering the environment in Antarctica.  Reading this article would provide a good education on what has been happening, as well as on what had just happened.  The Times, however, went further with an op-ed by Yale University’s Fen Montaign who provided background to the event, including published comment by glaciologist John Mercer who stated in 1978, “If present trends in fossil fuel consumption continue… a critical level of warmth will have been passed in high southern latitudes 50 years from now, and deglaciation of West Antarctica will be imminent or in progress”.  We do not know how imminent the break-up of the West Antarctic shelf is.  We do know that the break-up of the Larson shelves in recent years is a good predictor of what may be coming next.  I did not look at media outside the USA on this topic.

I recognize that the news media are charged with reporting the news.  My point is that reading the news does not give us an understanding of the true extent of our impacts on the planet unless we are keeping track, maintaining some sort of record of past news, or reading more deeply to find the articles that give an overall review.  Most of us do not have the time for such in-depth inquiry, and the story of our impacts on the planet is received as a continuing series of apparently unrelated facts that most of us will be unlikely to stitch together.  When we don’t stitch them together, they fail to convey the real message – that we are seriously degrading our only home.  The fact is that our deleterious impacts on the planet are varied and the damage they lead to develops slowly (by human standards).  Becoming aware of what we are doing requires a major effort that most of us do not have time for.

One of the reasons I get so angry with the (now near continuous) reporting of coral bleaching is that each event is reported as something that happened to a coral reef somewhere far away.  Coral bleaching, in reality, is an ongoing commentary of our deleterious impacts on the atmosphere and the ocean; it is a story about us, our failures, and our need to act.  It does not come across that way very often.

The several ways in which we are stressing our only home

How are we degrading our planet?  An excellent introduction to this story is the small, easily-read book, Big World Small Planet, by Johan Rockström with some amazing photos by Mattias Klum.  It came out in 2015 as a way to convey the findings of the Planetary Boundaries project to a wider community.

Pointing out that the world as we know it is scarcely 10,000 years old, they argue that through the history of the genus Homo prior to the Holocene, the Earth’s climate shifted so radically from ice age to warm interglacials that it provided an environment inimical to the invention of agriculture, and that, indeed, we came close to extinction about 75,000 years ago during a critical cold period.  In a (to me) interesting twist on the conventional story, they relate the spread of Homo sapiens out of Africa to this climatic squeeze.  In any event, we have benefitted immensely from the benign climate of the Holocene, because by developing agriculture we were able to become sedentary, create food surpluses, and build the first complex states with citizens with diverse, specialized skills who were sustained by the food produced by equally specialized farmers.  Our populations grew, and our impacts on the environment began to grow.

Initially, of course, our impacts were almost entirely local.  And it is conceivable that our growing agriculture and land management activities may have increased the global rates of primary productivity over what they had been – not a bad thing.  However, as our global population grew, and as our technology advanced, we became able to harness vast amounts of energy locked in the muscles of other species, in flowing water, in wind, and in the chemistry of organic materials including wood and fossil fuels.  With the invention of the steam engine our growth in energy use began its rapid climb, and our impacts on the planet became far more intensive.

Greenhouse gases climbing

Since 1959, we have increased the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere by 88 ppm or 28% (from 316 ppm in 1959 to 404 in 2016).  It is 42% above its level in preindustrial times.  We have also increased concentrations of methane, CH4, by 57%, and nitrous oxide, N2O, by 13% since 1950; 143% and 20% respectively since 1800.  Look at those percentages, these are substantial changes to the composition of the atmosphere, and the increase in these greenhouse gases is responsible for the climate change we are now witnessing.

Loss of biodiversity

We have increased the global extinction rate until it is now between 1000 and 10,000 times faster than the background rate of between 1 and 0.1 extinctions per million species years.  Along with the greatly increased rate of extinctions, we have been substantially reducing densities of species living on the planet, whether these species are insects, fish, birds or anything else.

This incredible photo expresses the sheer abundance of life in the oceans, but if we could weigh all the fish in the sea today, we’d find it is only 10% of what it was in the 1940s.  In less than a century we have reduced abundance in the oceans by 90%.  Photo © Greg LeCoeur.

Nitrogen and Phosphorus excess

We have massively altered the global nitrogen cycle.  Nitrogen, in its gaseous form (80% of our atmosphere) is inaccessible to plants and animals, but nitrogen in various organic forms, such as nitrates or ammonia, is accessible to plants which extract it from the soil.  Lightning strikes generate 3-10 Tg (teragrams) of fixed nitrogen per year, while certain bacteria fix between 100 and 300 Tg nitrogen per year (most estimates closer to 100).  In preindustrial times, this total fixation of under around 150 Tg nitrogen drove all biotic activity.  Humans, through cultivation of certain plants, chiefly legumes, that have symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots, and (to a far greater extent) through our manufacture of fertilizers using atmospheric nitrogen, now generate an additional 170 Tg fixed nitrogen per year.  Effectively we have doubled the rate at which nitrogen is made available for biotic uses, and while some of this leads to enhanced agricultural production, most of it is surplus to agricultural needs, resulting in pollution and toxic algal blooms in many water bodies around the world.

We have similarly made massive changes to the availability of phosphorus through our mining of phosphates.  Overuse of phosphate-bearing fertilizers is causing significant problems in freshwaters around the world.


Our changes to the landscape itself have also been enormous over the last 50 years.  We now occupy in excess of 40% of the non-ice land surface for agriculture and have taken substantial additional land for urban areas.  Little land potentially suitable for non-irrigated agriculture remains, and we are not going to be able to feed the growing population without greater efficiencies in the entire food production chain.  We have also reduced the extent of forested land by about 40%, focusing our extractions on old-growth forests – the ones with the greatest biodiversity and greatest ecological resilience.  This drives down the capacity of the planet to withstand the changes that are inevitably coming with climate change and other stresses.

Freshwater, ocean pH, novel chemicals

Then there is the waste, and the pollution of freshwater supplies around the world – a subject which should be of existential concern since we all need water to live.  Also, our progressive acidification of the oceans due to the CO2 which dissolves into them from the atmosphere, and has already changed ocean pH more rapidly and to a greater degree than at any time since at least the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum 56 million years ago.  When I was a student, I was taught that the chemical composition of the ocean, including its pH, was so uniform that we could talk confidently about standard ocean water.  Not any more.

Finally, we are generating new novel chemicals at an enormous rate, such as neonicotinoid pesticides and plastic nanoparticles, and most of them find their way into the environment eventually.  Some prove benign; others do not.  Their consequences for ecological systems, and for us, vary, but many are severe and we find it very difficult socially and technically to correct the damage our novel chemicals produce.

As one tiny example of this problem of novel forms of pollution, the Globe and Mail published an Op-Ed by Tim Gray, of Environmental Defense, on 14th July, 2017.  Gray drew attention to the fact that Canada, at both national and provincial levels, lacks law that would require business enterprises to post bonds, or in other ways provide secure funding sufficient to clean up environmental damage done as a result of their activities, in the event they should fail financially.  The problem primarily concerns mining and other resource extraction and processing firms although heavy industry and electronic manufacturers are also frequent culprits.  At present, for example, Alberta law requires only that a mining company include in its business plan evidence that it has the financial capacity for, and plans in place to remediate environmental damage once extraction activities are finished.  If the company fails financially, or is liquidated, society is on the hook for any environmental damage left behind.

Gray pointed out that “Canadians are burdened by the accumulating financial liability associated with cleaning up the environmental messes made by abandoned oil wells, closed mines and decaying tailings dams.  For example, in Alberta, the oil sands have been producing a vast and growing legacy of tailings ponds. These ponds contain leftover toxic hydrocarbons, heavy metals, water and sand. They now cover an area larger than the preamalgamation city of Toronto and Vancouver combined and are growing at a rate of 25 million litres a day.  Estimates show that it will cost at least $44.5-billion to clean up the existing tailings ponds. This represents a bill greater than all the royalties paid to the Province of Alberta since the inception of oil sands business in 1970.”

His ire was provoked by news that the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) planned to appeal a recent judge’s ruling that gave creditors priority access to a bankrupt oil company’s assets, over its financial obligations to clean up abandoned wells.  As he pointed out, the government, through AER, was right to appeal, but the long-term solution is better law.  And it’s not just in the tar sands.  Far too often our global economy generates novel pollutants (and I think the mysterious mix of chemicals used in extracting tar sands oil can only be called novel), manages to leak them into the environment to cause damage, and we then discover that clean-up is tremendously costly, mechanisms to do the clean-up do not exist, and the company concerned has already ceased to exist.  While Gray’s concern was motivated by one bankrupt oil company, the inevitable winding down of the tar sands industry has begun a process of divestiture, departure, and disappearance as corporate bodies restructure their assets away from owning tar sands.  I do not believe for an instant that companies that have spent their entire lives delaying, postponing and in other ways deferring the cost of clean-up will magically tidy up the day before they all leave town.  The tar sands story looks set to become one more story about how we have consistently avoided paying for environmental damage, planned or otherwise, in the course of doing business – all part of our conviction that protecting the economy comes first.

Our Terraforming seems to know no limits, not to mention our toxic litter.  Syncrude site, Alberta.  Photo © David Dodge, Pembina Institute.

The existential need to act

Getting back on track (I could not resist a comment on my beloved tar sands), once we add up the many ways in which we are altering the planet, it should be clear that we are creating enormous change, and therefore enormous stresses on the ecological systems that operate here.  I think we need to understand this fact, and be very worried.  We depend, far more than most of us appreciate, on the benign Holocene planet our global economy has developed on.

I also believe that we need that understanding in order to be inspired to develop the motivation to actually do something serious about this problem.  Recycling our garbage, and using active transport are fine, even noble, things to do, but we have to aspire to do a lot more than that to deal with our irresponsibility over the last couple of centuries.

What is called for now is a concerted effort first to stop doing those things that stress the ecological systems upon which we depend.  This means not only curtailing emissions of greenhouse gases in order to avoid having global temperatures increase more than 2oC above the preindustrial average, and eventually bringing the increase down to 1.5oC.  It means cutting our rate of production of fixed nitrogen by at least two thirds, curtailing growth, and eventually reducing the size of our own population, and moving aggressively towards a circular economy that maximizes efficiency with which we use energy and resources while minimizing waste.  In short, it means radical retooling of the human enterprise so as to ensure the long-term sustainability of the rest of the biosphere.

Effectively, we have got to recognize just how powerful we have become, and begin to use that power to repair our past excesses.  Long ago, our actions could not have affected our planet in any significant way, even if we had wanted to.   Now we cannot avoid affecting our planet and must behave in responsible ways so that our impacts are benign, or else move the planetary system in desirable directions.  Effectively, having grown up into the powerful beings we are, we have got to take on the responsibility of steering this amazing craft we call Earth, so that it moves into places that are conducive to the continued prospering of creatures like us.  Right now, we are in danger of steering into very risky waters; we need to navigate towards safe waters.  And we need to get moving now, because nearly all the trends I have mentioned are continuing to worsen into the future.

The story of Hokule’a, which I alluded to in a post not long ago, convinces me that the task before us is doable.  The story of Hokule’a actually begins well over 2000 years ago as Polynesians were expanding out into the Pacific.  That immense area of open ocean, with tiny islands scattered through it was settled by an amazing sea-faring culture, capable of long-distance, open-ocean voyaging at a time when European and Chinese sailors clung close to continental shores, afraid they might fall off the edge of the world if they did not.  The Polynesians, with no metal and limited technology, developed a science of navigation, called wayfinding, that made use of myriad clues, beginning with the stars and planets, but including the waves and tides, the flotsam in the water, fish and seabirds, and the smell of reefs and land.  They used this science to sustain trading journeys among the island groups throughout the Pacific.  For reasons unclear, the long-distance trading had more or less ceased by the time that James Cook and others were ‘opening up’ the Pacific to Europeans.

Despite this, when the Tahitian priest, Tupa’ia, agreed to accompany Cook as he continued his first voyage from Tahiti towards New Zealand and on to the west back to England, Tupa’ia knew the locations of the various island groups and their approximate distances from Tahiti, and he was able to impart this knowledge to Cook.  Tupa’ia had never travelled far beyond Tahiti; his knowledge was traditional, embedded in his culture.

Despite the evidence provided by Tupa’ia, the conventional western view that emerged, as it dawned on Europeans that all those tiny islands had been colonized by Polynesians, was that Polynesia had been settled by accident, as islanders out on the ocean fishing, or making short coastal journeys, got taken by storms and pushed off to new places.  The absurdity of this belief should have been obvious given that each island group was colonized by people bringing dogs, pigs, yams, coconut palms along with them – not the sort of goods one would anticipate being in the average canoe on a fishing trip.  We were still being taught that nonsense when I was a graduate student in Hawai’I in the late 1960s.

In 1975, as part of a resurgence of interest in their culture by Hawaiians, a forward-thinking group decided to build a new ocean-voyaging canoe using the traditional methods.  Canoes of that size had not been built in Hawai’i for at least 400 years.  With building under way, they strived to learn the now-lost science of wayfinding, and they located Mau Piailug, a Micronesian master navigator from far away on the island of Satawal, Micronesia, and brought him to Hawai’I to teach wayfinding to Hawaiians.  Hokule’a made its inaugural long-distance voyage to Tahiti in 1976, with Mau Pialilug finding the path.  It was the first wayfinding voyage between Hawai’I and Tahiti in 400 years.  There have been many subsequent voyages with Mau-trained Nainoa Thompson and subsequent Hawaiians wayfinding, all without use of modern navigational aids, and Hokule’a completed a three-year circumnavigation returning to Honolulu on 17th June 2017.

Hokule’a, and the interest in voyaging and traditional Polynesian wayfinding it has inspired has been a vital part of the revitalization of Hawaiian culture.  It not only demonstrated that traditional knowledge, almost totally lost, could be rehabilitated.  It showed that people, with sufficient learning and experience can do amazing feats – such as sailing across the Pacific from one small dot of an island to another without use of any instrumentation.  Hokule’a’s story also encourages me because we are pushing our planet towards a very bad place, and it is high time, as I argued in a recent post, that we start steering back towards quiet waters.  I know we have the capacity to undertake this new navigational challenge.  We just have to build the will to try.

Is our planet a Blue Marble, seemingly motionless in the heavens, or is it a giant canoe that we must now start navigating towards safe spaces?  I favor the canoe.  Photo © Polynesian Voyaging Society, ‘Oiwi TV and Kaipo Ki’aha.

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