Geologists are not particularly renowned for their conversational skills. They tend to be a hairy bunch of beer-drinking nerds who are probably the only people on the planet that still prefer Tevas to Chacos. But every now and then the earth sciences offer up an idea that reverberates and captures our attention.
Witness Charles Darwin. You may think of Darwin as a biologist, because he gave us an appreciation of the spectacular biodiversity of the planet. Geologists, however, claim his as their own: For evolution to work, you need a WHOLE lot of time. Darwin understood this. He’d studied geology.
More recently -- in the last couple of years, to be exact -- geologists have brought us another show-stopping concept. They call it the Anthropocene. Literally, anthropocene means “the age of humans.” We humans, the thinking goes, are a geologic event like asteroid impact or the end of an ice age.
At first this sounds like a joke. When you look at it through the long lens of earth history, our occurrence appears as an insignificant blip. We’re the last second on a 24-hour clock, the last inch before the end-zone on a football field. We’re nothing. We’re tiny. We’re a fraction of a percent, an evolutionary remainder.
But, if you think about it, there are, in fact, some very good reasons to think that we’ve created a new geologic age. We’ve certainly changed the terms of life. We killed off the woolly mammoth and the dodos, shipped pythons from Burma to Florida, and created breeding grounds for rats, raccoons, pigeons, and other urban-loving creatures. Throw climate change and ocean acidification into the mix, and it’s easy to make a case that our influence surges from continental to global. Even if a virus wipes us all out tomorrow, our impacts on the planet will be felt for a long time to come.