Blog 17. The Anthropocene: Mankind Overwhelms Geology

Geological forces move mountains, but now people do bigger things faster.  Bigger is not always better.

Geological change.

As outlined in Blog 1, population, commerce, interconnectedness, geopolitics, land development, and knowledge are all changing-largely the result of expanding technologies in agriculture, machines, transportation, and communication.  Some of us are frustrated, not finding a comfortable place in the increasing inequality of rich/poor, the polarization of political belief, the vanishing ethics in commerce, the congestion, and the unrest that occurs when job, home, and family may be linked electronically but separated by time or distance.  The average commuter in Los Angeles spends 368 hours each year* (equivalent to 46 work days) in commuting by automobile.  Is there something bigger going on? Do we feel the tail, ear, or leg, but not see the elephant?

Although the adjective “rock solid” implies something permanent, the good earth is shifting under our feet.

Geologists describe the geologic time scale according to when various life forms appeared and rock strata of the earth’s surface were formed, indicating different conditions in continents, global chemistry, and climate. The current Quaternary period started about 2.5 million years ago, when humans first appeared. Within that, the Holocene epoch started about 12,000 years ago, as the current interglacial interval began. At least on the scale of a continents, geology has regarded rocks and landforms as changing slowly compared to the lifespan of a person or even the age of civilization.  Not anymore.

The ground under your feet is changing, so much so that the science of geology tentatively identified a new epoch called the Anthropocene, in which geologic things are changing due to humans, on a human time scale. That’s fast. The dinosaurs hung around for a few hundred million years or so; now we’re seeing things change in ten or twenty years?  I can’t think that fast.


Geologists say so.

The American Geophysical Union (AGU) is the professional association of 61,000 earth and space scientists-geologists, climatologists, hydrologists, oceanographers, planetologists, and the like. The AGU noticed that change in the earth’s surface is no longer occurring at sub-glacial speed, so to speak. In fact, profound changes are so rapid that the AGU just founded a new international professional journal called “Earth’s Future” to feature primary research on human-caused changes AND to connect that research to policy. That combination of science with policy is rather rare for a research journal. Most such journals are dispassionate, guarding the purity of their science.

Regarding the speed of change that requires a new journal, here’s what the AGU says in its weekly newsletter (EOS 94, 24, 6/11/2013).

The Anthropocene epoch is characterized by the idea that humans are now a primary geologic and ecologic agent.  Human activities have altered the chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere, affecting global and regional climates.  We have driven some species to extinction and helped other species recover.  Cities and agriculture are increasingly covering earth’s surface, and humans now move more material on the land surface than geologic processes.  Humans have modified the hydrologic cycle and several global geochemical cycles and are taxing energy and mineral resources, in some cases unsustainable.  All ecosystems are influenced and some are dominated by human activities.”

There you have it, from the experts. Sixty-one thousand of them. Humans are changing the earth faster than natural processes.


Any relation to complex systems?

Remember, a complex system is many actors interacting by nonlinear rules (Blog 2).  The global changes resulting in a newly-recognized epoch are not the result of one actor (or agent). The geologic and climatologic changes are symptoms of entire systems-societies, economies, cultures, and populations-complex systems with unchecked positive feedbacks.  What’s a positive feedback?  That’s when you do things that subsequently provide you with the capability to do even more of what you’re doing. Like raising prolific rabbits.  Or commercial enterprises buying governance (Blog 16).

Readers who have understood prior posts of this sequence will recognize that, if it is to succeed, any policy intended to alter the human-related geologic changes must adjust one or more of the nonlinear rules within a system, or adjust a goal of the system (Blog 14).  The rules and/or the goals may be unwritten, unspoken, invisible.  Like the rule by which a gentleman tips his hat to a lady. However, systems resist alteration.  After all, a dominant characteristic of almost all complex systems is an implicit goal of self-preservation.  Otherwise, the system wouldn’t exist!


     * Jared Diamond, Collapse, p. 500.