In Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made, Vince travels the world, documenting the irrevocable effects of climate change, urbanization, industrialization, and rampant greed.
We live in epoch-making times. Literally. The changes humans have made in recent decades have been on such a scale that they have altered our world beyond anything it has gone through in its 4.5 billion–year history. Our planet is crossing a geological boundary, and we humans are the change makers.
Millions of years from now, a stripe in the accumulated layers of rock on Earth’s surface will reveal our human fingerprint just as we can see evidence of dinosaurs in rocks of the Jurassic, or the explosion of life that marks the Cambrian, or the glacial retreat scars of the Holocene. Geologists are calling this new epoch the Anthropocene, recognizing that humanity has become a geophysical force on a par with the earthshaking asteroids and planet-cloaking volcanoes that defined past eras.
Geologists of the far future will find plenty of evidence to mark the Anthropocene: in rocks; in the fossil record; and in the planet’s changed chemistry, biology, and physics. But for those of us living now there is a conceptual difficulty with dating—in the context of deep time—an era whose paleontology and geology are still being created.
How then can we recognize the Anthropocene? Here are five signs that we are entering a new geological age:
1. In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide levels are almost 50% higher than the Holocene mean [the Holocene started 11,700 years ago]. Our greenhouse gas emissions are warming the atmosphere, changing the climate, and disrupting weather patterns across the globe. Climate change is often used to define past geological eras, and our human-made change is already being seen: glaciers are melting, especially on mountains in tropical latitudes; extreme floods, droughts, and storms are more frequent; and animals and plants are migrating to cooler climes.
2. Coral reefs are dying. As the oceans dissolve carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, they become more acidic. This, combined with hotter ocean temperatures, means that corals struggle to survive. Building their skeletons takes more energy under these conditions and frequent bleaching affects all tropical reefs. They are expected to be the first ecosystem to go extinct because of our changes. It spells disaster for atoll islands that are made from coral, like the Maldives, which are eroding under the onslaught of acidic oceans and higher sea levels (as glacial meltwater and storms engulf them). Maps will have to be redrawn as entire nations vanish.
3. Species are disappearing. Extinctions are a common sign of a new geological age, but this one is being caused by our voracious hunting, overfishing, deforestation, habitat-encroachment, pollution, and climate change. Currently, the extinction rate is one thousand times the background rate, and biologists say we are entering the planet’s sixth mass extinction, predicting that 75% of species are on their way out. Humans are now the most numerous big animal on Earth, and next in line are the animals we have created through breeding to feed and serve us—it’s a radical reordering of life on Earth and it will affect the genetic legacy as we extinguish entire phyla of species whose descendants will be absent from the future mix of wildlife.
4. The planet’s waterways have been replumbed. We now control 75% of the world’s freshwater, redistributing its weight around the world such that the globe now spins a fraction slower. Rivers have been rerouted, dammed, and drained; new lakes have been created as others have been sucked dry; wetlands have shrunk; and sediment patterns have dramatically changed so that many major deltas are sinking. Our extractions, mainly to irrigate agriculture, mean that many major rivers no longer reach the sea. We have criss-crossed land with canals, produced reservoirs that rival natural ecosystems, and piped vast quantities of freshwater across continents. We have drowned cities, farmland, forest, and infrastructure to create storage that is released in unnatural waterfalls though hydroelectric turbines, in pulses dictated by human power needs rather than seasonal fluctuations in rainfall. Our prodigious use of freshwater for agriculture, industry, and drinking means there is a very real risk we will run out of it.
5. We have created entirely artificial landscapes and materials. From farmlands of monocultures to towering cities, we have resculpted the planet’s surface—40% of Earth’s ice-free land is used to grow our food; meanwhile, the equivalent of a million-person city will be built every 10 days for at least the next decade. The global scale and magnificence of these surface changes are matched by our incredible burrowing abilities. Our urban areas are riddled with underground tunnels and foundations, canals and waste piles. Humans now shift three times more sediment and rocky materials than all the world’s rivers, glaciers, and wind combined. And we are combining and working with these minerals to create elements and materials that have never existed in nature, littering the planet with novelties like aluminium, radioactive caesium, and plastics. This is now a human planet.