Michel de Montaigne, one of the great thinkers of the French Renaissance, once posited the question of whether anything could be dreamed of “so ridiculous, that this miserable and wretched creature [man] … should call himself master and emperor of the world, of which he has not power to know the least part, much less to command the whole?” There is no question that humans are the dominant species on Earth at the moment. Our impact can be seen from space, in the unceasing lights of civilization that keep out the darkness of infinity. Our weapons can wipe out entire cities, nations, ecosystems in the infinitesimal slice of time it takes to pull a lever or issue a command. We have defied gravity and taken to the air, denied the ocean’s sublime grandeur and mastered the waves, and broken the very bounds of the atmosphere.
But what happens when we’re gone?
The human race has had a profound impact upon the makeup of planet Earth. For most of the planet’s existence, natural forces have molded the surface and programmed the climate’s drastic changes. An evolving atmospheric makeup, the spawning and shifting continents, the birth and extinction of species – these were driven by nature. For the first time, a single species has taken much of that into its own hands. For one, the rate at which we are burning fossil fuels is staggering. In 2015, the United States consumed on average 19.4 million barrels of oil per day, not including the legions of other natural materials consumed to drive our society. Beginning with the industrial revolution, mass production took over as the primary driver of industry across the globe. Handmade goods were cast out in favor of cheap, mass-produced items. Demand required production on a budget. These factories emitted massive amounts of carbon along with waste products that were dumped in rivers and oceans without a thought to the consequences. The goods produced for mere pennies then needed to be shipped by automobile, train and steamship around the world, further disrupting the chemical makeup of the atmosphere and devouring fossil fuels for the sake of efficiency.
Over time, humanity has only exacerbated the issue. Scientists have predicted that our planet could be on course for its sixth mass extinction. Further advances in transportation and production technology, while incredibly cost-and-time-effective, have dealt our planet a catastrophic hand. We have altered the landscape, carving highways into mountains and levelling forests to be replaced by cities. We’ve also managed to destroy a vast quantity of species, both flora and fauna, that could have survived long after the expiration date we assigned them. For a prime example of humanity’s impact on the planet, look to the the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a massive collection of insoluble plastics and waste that is currently on an odyssey across the ocean. There is no Charybdis lurking in the abyss, waiting to devour it. There is no Scylla, either, to tear it bottle from bottle, or Poseidon to strike it to the depths of Hades with a current-borne trident. It will simply keep wandering the ever-rising sea, kept safe in its knowledge that it will never freeze to death, for the global temperature is on the rise.
Given the indelible impact our species has had on the planet in our short time here, scientists have begun questioning whether our contributions are grounds for the naming of a new geologic epoch. The concept of the Anthropocene is a relative newcomer in the scientific community. The term Anthropocene, derived from the Greek “anthropos” for human and “kainos” for new, rose to prominence in the early 2000s through the work of Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzan. Crutzan used it to refer to the period after which human existence has had an observable impact upon the planet’s geologic evolution. In a piece co-authored by Christian Schwägerl for Yale’s Environment 360 portal, he writes:
“We humans are becoming the dominant force for change on Earth. A long-held religious and philosophical idea — humans as the masters of planet Earth — has turned into a stark reality. What we do now already affects the planet of the year 3,000 or even 50,000.”
The designation of “Anthropocene” is proposed as the title for the next geologic epoch to follow the Holocene, which began around 9,700 BC at the end of the last ice age. An epoch is a division of the geologic time scale that is categorized by significant shifts in the overall geologic makeup of the planet. For example, the Pliocene epoch saw the creation of the Mediterranean Sea and the appearance of land bridges between both Asia and Alaska and North and South America. These developments also saw mass animal migrations between once-segregated ecosystems.
Is there a wrongness in the degree to which we take from the biosphere?
Depending upon whom you ask, we are either in the dwindling days of the Holocene, or the opening fanfare of the Anthropocene. The Holocene has had quite a storied career. It has overseen the rise of humanity from tribal hunter-gatherers to a mind-bogglingly complex web of civilizations. The Earth, however, has been subsumed into a tool for humanity’s use over the past 12,000 years. What once was a wondrous mystery has now become a playground for ambition. In fact, the very idea of the Anthropocene points toward a shift in the power dynamic of the planet; never before has a single species had so much influence upon the natural world that it was a driving factor in significant geologic and climate change.
Humanity will symbolically drive its flag into the Earth when the Anthropocene debate is brought before the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the governing body that determines the designations of geologic history. A major question on the table: when did the Anthropocene begin? Was it when the Industrial Revolution took off? Certainly the effects of industrial innovation are still reverberating throughout the world. But we could go back even further, to the point when irrigation appeared on humanity’s toolbelt. Being able to reroute rivers and bend them to our will to improve agricultural production certainly changed the landscape. But what about agriculture itself? Plowing fields and flattening forests to make way for crops drastically changes the ecology of an area, displacing wildlife and native plant types. Even when humans weren’t carving the land for farms, they were mining for iron, copper, and other resources, constantly reshaping the planet’s geologic makeup. To a degree, humanity has always had some sort of effect on the planet’s composition.
Yet the most resounding changes began relatively recently. The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre, first published a series of graphs in 2004 denoting the “Great Acceleration” of humanity from 1750 to the present day. The graphs cover myriad areas from energy usage to the growth of population, along with ecological effects varying from surface temperature to the amount of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. In the early days sketched on the graphs, there is some rising activity, but nothing very significant. Come 1950, though, each graph rockets upward in a drastic fashion. Terrestrial biosphere degradation, marine fish capture, ocean acidification – these all rise along with use of water, transportation and population growth. If the graphs are not enough, humanity’s developmental impact can be seen in photographs of cities across the world. Many, when compared to pictures taken one hundred years ago, are almost unrecognizable, their younger selves standing in a monolithic shadow.
Some scientists have gone so far as to pinpoint an exact date and time for the dawn of the Anthropocene – July 16, 1945, at 5:29 AM, in Jornada del Muerto, New Mexico. At that moment, the first recorded nuclear bomb was detonated in what was code-named the Trinity test. The location’s name, a barren patch of desert, can be roughly translated to mean “Dead Man’s Journey”. At that moment, some argue, humanity’s intertwined history with the planet was solidified. The introduction of fallout that came about with the advent of nuclear weapons, as well as the destruction of both societal and ecological developments in their detonation, introduced a new and unnatural element to man’s existence on the Earth. Temperatures comparable to those at the center of a star could not occur on our planet. Now they could. Furthermore, the widespread testing of nuclear weapons caused a spike in 14C (radiocarbon) levels Earth’s atmosphere. It occurs naturally and is what allows plants to photosynthesize, but according to the Smithsonian, the tests of the nuclear era in the 1950s and 60s nearly doubled levels of 14C in Earth’s atmosphere. Such a large effect on atmospheric composition is one indicator that humanity is actively altering the makeup of the planet. Yet, according to the same Smithsonian article, this actually allows scientists to carbon date organisms by comparing levels of radiocarbon in tissue to levels in the past.
Once humans disappear the Earth will reshape itself yet again. New life forms will evolve, and the climate will shift to accommodate the changes we have wrought. It may look nothing like the world we inherited so many eons ago, but it will certainly live on.
Like carbon dating, plenty of the byproducts of humanity’s modernization have given us benefits that we would never have had otherwise. But in drawing back the microscope and looking at the length of time that the Earth has existed, the amount of change that it has undergone in the short span of human life – especially the last hundred years – is somewhat alarming. The changes we have made to the planet will not just affect us now, but have the potential to alter the future. “Technofossils”, deposits of plastic, concrete, and other inorganic materials, are being discovered buried in naturally occurring materials and scattered across the globe. These deposits are altering the natural geologic layers of the Earth’s surface and changing the way ecosystems operate. The makeup of sediment in many industrialized areas contains new types of rocks and compounds. The increased erosion from developmental infrastructure is causing our planet to reshape itself in unnatural shifts of landmass. Our cities and highways will eventually become “technofossils” in a much more literal sense. Generations down the line, humans (if we are still around) will look back on these structures in much the same way as we look at the ruins of ancient Greece or the Middle East. They will not see any of the processes that built them, only the legacy. The image of a sunset fading behind the ruins of Shanghai or New York may not have the same romantic tone to it that a Roman evening holds, but eventually the same scenario could very well be the case.
The argument over whether the Anthropocene is the current geologic epoch is not as important as its message. Is there a wrongness in the degree to which we take from the biosphere? From a few different angles, yes. The question returns to one of morality. Merely utilizing the resources provided to us is not harmful in and of itself. It is the consequences that are where the water gets murky. Consider future generations’ inheritance; what will their outlook on the world be? Depending upon the course humanity takes, one cannot say for certain whether the world our great grandchildren grow up in will be one of waste or plenty. That part of it is unpredictable. We do, however, have a moral obligation to balance our side of that equation. What we do now will echo for as long as we exist, and possibly longer. Right now, we must take heed of the reality of the Anthropocene – like it or not, we have had an impact upon our planet. Our actions now will determine whether that impact is one that can be set to heal in time. No matter what, though, we must remember that we are only a tiny part of the Earth’s story. Our questioning of the role of humanity on Earth also raises questions of what may occur once we disappear.
Death is the grand overseer of life. Eventually, humanity will follow the path that almost 99% of species that at one time existed have trod before us. Life’s cessation is a touchy subject for the human brain – it’s peculiar that death on as grand a scale as extinction rarely crosses our minds in the same fashion. Part of what sustains our interest with death is the consideration that no one truly know what it is like. That fear of the unseen, the unknown, is sublime. It is grand in its overarching power, and with that comes a feeling of terror. We tremble before the unknown. Yet, we as a species have revelled in tackling the unknown bounds of this planet. Some of our greatest cultural heroes are explorers such as Tenzing Norgay, Neil Armstrong, and others who have gone beyond the limits of what is perceived to be possible. There is nobility in that, to be sure. But when we take this drive to defy the unknown to an extreme level, to pollute the azure emptiness of the ocean with our filth when we have little knowledge of what truly lies beneath the waves, is there not some measure of hubris in our actions? The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek wrote;
“The fact that a cloud from a minor volcanic eruption in Iceland—a small disturbance in the complex mechanism of life on the Earth—can bring to a standstill the aerial traffic over an entire continent is a reminder of how, with all its power to transform nature, humankind remains just another species on the planet Earth.”
Humanity is just another species, and the concept of the Anthropocene (looked at through this lens) is yet another attempt to categorize the unknown. The earth’s shifting geology, so diverse and on so great a scale, can never be fully understood. We have existed for a mere fraction of the time that this planet has been reworking itself. Yet we have done our best to make sense of it, to understand its changes and define our place within the scale of time as best we can, even in the face of inevitable extinction. In following the course of history, it is safe to say that someday we will become extinct. Maybe that will be on earth, maybe on another planet, or maybe not for millennia – whichever way that wind blows, though, eventually the last human will take one final breath and with them will go everything we have ever done. Sure, what we have created will most likely stick around for a while. But eventually, the universe will tick on without us. What happens then?
Assuming that we go extinct before the Earth does, the planet will rebound. It has in the past, as evidenced by evolution. The pre-Cambrian Earth was a far more hostile place than the one we now inhabit. Even then, life existed – granted, it was mainly unicellular organisms, but the case stands. Out of that fiery mire multicellular life emerged, and through the ages developed along with the planet until complex species such as reptiles and mammals became the dominant figures. The cycle continues even to today. Once humans disappear the Earth will reshape itself yet again. New life forms will evolve, and the climate will shift to accommodate the changes we have wrought. It may look nothing like the world we inherited so many eons ago, but it will certainly live on. The Anthropocene will be just another blip on the grand scale of the history of our planet.
Humans are egotistical creatures. We tend to enjoy entertaining the idea that whatever surroundings we find ourselves in revolve around us – our family, friends, workplace. We, the pivotal axis, the gravitational pull at the center of this miniature universe. But let’s extrapolate. We are humans, after all, and simply cannot hold our minds at bay from projecting far beyond our own way of life. Let’s carry ourselves outward, to towns, cities, countries. Erase borders and shift the continents around, followed by the order of the planets. A far future manifest destiny, where the death of a solar system is but another river to cross. Let’s tie up the stars and chain them to our course, driving the Milky Way further into space and colonizing every particle of cosmic ash with our thoughts.
We are the dust of dead stars, and this is our inheritance.