Are humans really the planet’s top dogs? Geologists will make the final call
By now you’ve probably heard of the Anthropocene. Pin it on climate change, ocean acidification, mass extinction, resource depletion, global population, landscape transformation, or any other holy fuck hockey-stick graph: The point is that the stable environmental conditions of the Holocene — the geologic epoch we’ve known and loved — no longer apply.
The Anthropocene is more than just a fanciful notion held by those who believe homo sapiens has gone totally berserk. Bigwig geologists are taking the idea super seriously. In fact, members of the International Commission on Stratigraphy — the masters of the official geologic timetable — have organized a group of scientists and experts to consider formal adoption of the Anthropocene. The basic task of the Anthropocene Working Group is to try to imagine what the rock record will look like a million years in the future, and to figure out whether we humans will have a lasting enough impact to truly merit an epoch all our own.
To get a peek behind the curtain, the Generation Anthropocene producers recently sat down with four members of the Anthropocene Working Group: Jan Zalasiewicz, the group’s convener; Mike Ellis, head of climate change science at the British Geological Survey; Mark Williams, a paleobiologist at the University of Leicester; and Davor Vidas, an international lawyer and expert on the Law of the Sea.
“The signal — physically, biologically, chemically — will be quite clear,” Zalasiewicz said. “Unless the cavalry ride in, there will almost certainly be climate change on the order of 3-7 degrees globally over the next few centuries. There will be a major sea level rise … Beaches will be covered by offshore muds.”
Ellis added that submerged cities will be preserved for the ages as well: Rising sea levels “will fossilize the various urban structures that we have built over the past few hundred years.”
So those future geologists will see our signs. Now it’s up to Zalasiewicz, Ellis, and Co. to decide whether or not it’s hubristic and premature to say that we’ve kicked off a whole new geologic era. The team will make an official recommendation in 2016.
In the meantime, some members of the working group are concerned with the less academic implications of what we’re doing to the planet. Take Vidas, the lawyer. Rising sea levels will force a serious rethinking of maritime law, he said. “Our international law is the law of the Holocene. However, with the entry into the Anthropocene, with conditions that are not environmentally stable, we may be facing a problem.”
Every geologic boundary marks a redefinition of the terms of life on Earth, which is why the Anthropocene debate has that rare quality of being simultaneously academic and socially relevant. It is an exercise of deep-time imagination, but with real-world, right-now implications. So strap on your geology goggles and dive into the Anthropocene with the masters of the geologic timetable — for the 50th episode of Generation Anthropocene.
This interview is part of the Generation Anthropocene project, in which Stanford students partake in an inter-generational dialogue with scholars about living in an age when humans have become a major force shaping our world.
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