Welcome to the Anthropocene

You might not be fully aware of it yet, but the evidence is all around us: humanity's impact upon planet Earth is now so profound that we are about to be recognized as a geological force of nature, right up there with the ice ages and the massive asteroid collision that wiped out the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. The same geologists responsible for naming the various divisions of the history of Earth - pre-Cambrian, Paleozoic, Jurassic, and so on - are on the verge of declaring that the present epoch should be named in honor of humans: they are thinking of calling this epoch the Anthropocene.

Up until a few years ago, geologists were content to call our present epoch the Holocene. Holocene means wholly recent, and it is the term used to define the last 11,700 years - the very near past, geologically speaking - since the end of the last major ice age. But Homo sapiens have been busy during the Holocene. We domesticated animals and invented agriculture; we settled down and organized into civilizations; and we embarked on the explosion of population, industrialization, and technology that has precipitated planetary changes in climate itself.

All this has the earmarks of a geological transition. Add to this the vanishing of thousands of miles of forests, the widespread destruction of biomes, and the eradication of species on a scale not seen for millions of years, and there you have it: we have become a geological force of nature. What an honor, right? What an accomplishment! The present age can only be named after us.

Oh, but wait. Is this really such an honor? Do we honor that asteroid that plowed into Earth and decimated the dinosaurs and half the other species then living? Are we proud of the glaciers that covered the continents in ice a mile deep?

Well, let's leave that an open question for the moment. For better or for worse, Nature has met her match in us. We have conquered her beyond any doubt. If we were able to gather together and weigh, pound for pound, every living creature on Earth, we would find that all the pigs, cows, chickens, and other domesticated animals we raise for food account for two-thirds of the total weight. The 7.3 billion human beings account for 30 percent. And all the other animals, all the wildlife remaining on Earth, add up to three percent.

Oh, yes. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

And so there is no doubt that geologists will soon rename the Holocene, or some fraction of it, on our behalf. Only a couple of nagging questions remain. Have we really subdued Nature altogether? And, if so, is that such a good thing? Can we survive as a species without the global ecosystem from which we have arisen? In subduing Nature, have we cut the ground out from underneath ourselves?

Let's check back and ask this again in ten thousand years or so. Ten thousand years is the blink of an eye in geological terms. In the battle of Man versus Nature, might Nature have the final say after all? And what would that suggest about the prospects for Homo sapiens in the epoch of the Anthropocene?

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