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Save the Holocene!
Alex Steffen, 6 Apr 09
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The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological era, meant to signal the idea that we've changed the Earth's biosphere and climate so dramatically that we've left the Holocene, the interglacial period that began 12,000 years ago.

It's a catchy (if grim) concept, but one whose utility I find myself seriously questioning. I don't doubt the magnitude of human impact on the planet. Quite the opposite. I think we consistently underestimate the degree of disruption we've already caused by altering the raw biological function of nearly every corner of the Earth and changing the chemistry of its atmosphere, oceans and soils. Very little "wild" anything remains, and all that does remain exists at our sufferance and will endure only with our conscious commitment. None of this, it seems to me, is really a matter of much debate. It's just how the world is now.

I get the utility of using the idea of the Anthropocene to provoke recognition of the mind-bending reality that we are transforming the very planet on which we walk.

Where the Anthropocene as a concept breaks down, it seems to me, is in the implications it raises, particularly among certain crowds who seem to be saying with increasing frequency, "well, dude, we're in the Anthropocene, anything goes."

The first troubling implication is that we can sketch the blueprint of an era better than the Holocene -- the era that produced the planet on which agriculture, civilization and cities arose -- and that we can geoengineer the climate at will to fit that (or any other) blueprint. Because we're really not up for the job.

The reality is that modern humanity and human civilization are the fruit of a very tightly banded set of interconnected climate and biological conditions. We need a certain kind of world in order to thrive, and that world is essentially the mild, moderately wet, biologically abundant world of the Holocene. We've never left that world, and in fact we are still intimately dependent on its plenty for our very survival. We don't know of another set of conditions that would allow us to thrive on this planet. There is no human-designed set of planetary conditions that we know of that will suit us better. We don't want the Holocene to end: the whole point is that we want to go back to lower greenhouse gas concentrations in order to continue the Holocene climate indefinitely, as long as we possibly can.

The second implication is that we know what we're doing well enough to get the results we want from planetary engineering, even if we don't have a better climate blueprint. We don't. The magnitude of our ignorance about even the most fundamental aspects of the planetary systems on which we depend staggers the informed mind. We're just coming to understand the climate system. We've discovered only a tiny fraction of the planet's species. We are almost still in the age of alchemy when it comes to truly understanding all the interplay of influences that make up an ecosystem. We are simply not up to the task of running the biosphere as a whole like a machine, because we don't have a copy of the operating manual, and we're probably still illiterate anyways. This may be true for generations to come.

That doesn't mean that we aren't being forced to make all sorts of choices about how the planet functions. We are, effectively, choosing to screw the climate system up in some unpleasant predictable ways and some potentially disastrous unpredictable ways. Wild nature now pretty much only exists where we protect it and garden it (and this will be more true as climate change shifts habitats). A great many species will only survive if we make saving them a priority (for some, the best we can do may be to find them, freeze them and archive them, but we're not even doing that). What the planet looks like is now largely a matter of our choices.

But that doesn't mean that we can choose to do anything. There's a crazy mistaken logic out there that assumes that because we're having to make real choices about the planet's climate and biosphere, we can choose anything we want, redesign the planet in any way we see fit; even that no environmental problems are even problems, because between terraforming and bioengineering, we can figure out how make new planets.

I've heard the sneering comments about how environmentalists think natural systems are better because they're natural. But the reality is this: natural systems are better not because they're natural but because they're better at being ecosystems than anything we could possibly come up with in the foreseeable future -- they're more complex than we're able to understand, with creatures and relationships between creatures that have evolved into marvelous particularities of place. These elegant solutions are profoundly more intricate, complex and resilient than anything we know how to make.

Preserving those ecosystems, and the species in them, is the best thing we know how to do. Humble and attentive restoration -- through a multitude of interconnected careful efforts crafted to a particular place and alive to the adaptations climate change may demand; each small, but in aggregate massive and planetary -- is the next best. Everything else is a distant, almost wishful, possibility. Our goal, in essence, is to preserve and restore the Holocene biosphere, wherever we can (and in some cases, that might mean looking back to restoring systems and relationships damaged long before the industrial era even began, through re-wilding and resurrection ecology).

So, do we need to take responsibility for the planet? Yes. Do we need to take the climate in hand, and aim to release zero or less-than-zero greenhouse gasses? Yes. Do we need to garden nature, greatly reducing our demands on ecosystem services and preserving wild biological hotspots but also practicing adaptive restoration and so on? Yes.

But our goal in all of this ought to be clear: preserve the planet on which humanity evolved, and, even more importantly, the planetary era whose attributes underpin everything we now are. Our goal should be, simply, to save the Holocene.

Image credit: flickr/rpongsaj, Creative Commons license.

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Comments

One of the first scientists to propose that we may enter a new era was palentologist, Dr Tim Flannery.

He used the term Anthropocene in his book The Weather Makers, to describe what would happen if climate change became irreversible, causing massive change to global ecosystems and mass extinctions.

By failing to curb emissions and allowing events such as permanent melting of the northern polarcap, or melting permafrost in the Tundra to take place, we would irreversibly reduce the planet's reflective index or release huge quantities of methane and carbon. Without major geo-engineering (which in itself is fraught with risk), we could not reverse these events. The event would therefore, 'open a gate' to a level of warming that could not be closed.

Such events would then set off a chain of compounding warming effects that would change the environment so significantly, that it would literally be the end of an era - the Holocene.

Unfortunately, once the gate is opened we won't have much of a choice in whether or not we rename the era in which we live. It will simply be a matter of scientific categorisation.

Nevertheless, we must as you say, do all we can now to prevent these events taking place: to extend the Holocene for as long as the planet will naturally allow.

We are not yet in the Arthropocene, but it is a scientific reality of what is likely to happen, if we do not take steps to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The very thought that a new era (one incompatible with human life) could dawn, should be enough to motivate positive action. I find it difficult to comprehend how it could be an excuse to do nothing.


Posted by: Priscilla Bracks on 6 Apr 09

"Humble and attentive." Yes. Once Worldchangers are able to help make these ever-so-human attributes attractive again, make these Bright Green -- then we may have a future.


Posted by: Ted Wolf on 7 Apr 09

Alex, good article though I disagree with a few points.

Rather than a "catchy" concept, it is a fundamental ecological reality...that humans have become a geologic force. That creates profound implications for design, i.e., what systems we choose for our buildings and communities. This transformation, first of perspective, translates to fundamentally different design choices, materials, etc...

I agree, completely, that our current models and thinking are too isolated, focused and specialized to give any indication of critical thresholds and the rate and consequences of the disturbances and chances we are creating in natural systems. So, absolutely, we likely are underestimating the potential scale in time and space of change in the next 20 to 50 years.

Regarding your thought about the "breakdown"...I don't believe that's something to ascribe to or is an inevitable product of advocating that our industrial society has shifted from the Holocene to the Anthropocene (Crutzen argues that the Anthropocene actually began somewhere around 1750). So your "troubling implication" really does not relate directly to the shift to Anthropocene. Sure, there's an element there but given our species' predisposition to pride and self-centeredness (we consume 40% of Earth's NPP!)...some would make that argument regardless. In fact, many have, before the concept of the Anthropocene was raised by Crutzen in 2000 (interestingly, others as early as the 1700's identified this shift). So implication that we can geoengineer as we please is not a consequence of the Anthropocene, but rather an additional justification glom'd onto the standard arguments of the geoengineering/tinkering mindset.

Also, you write that:

"Very little "wild" anything remains, and all that does remain exists at our sufferance and will endure only with our conscious commitment. None of this, it seems to me, is really a matter of much debate. It's just how the world is now."

That itself is, counterintuitively, boastful statement, grounded somehow in the belief that Man has the power to ultimately destroy something that S/He did not create. Many native cultures see wilderness as something that arrives when Man stops cultivating Nature. Wendell Berry defines fertility as the integration of wilderness in human systems of thought, belief and action. We may be destroying biodiversity, in the 6th Great Extinction event, what EO Wilson calls the "Death of Birth"...but that does not inevitably mean that we have destroyed "wilderness" or that all that remains exists at our sufferance. I think it's the reverse...we have a tenancy at the sufferance of natural systems, the ecosystem services they provide, and their link to continued human well-being. The MA spells this out all too clearly.

I agree with your conclusions, that we must preserve diversity, both functional and response, in functional groups and communities. It is about protecting, restoring and enhancing the social-ecological relationships of the Holocene. But frankly, in agreeing that our best models have substantially underestimated the impending change (on the visible horizon, honestly, it is hard to see anything but disintegration of various scales of the Panarchy, a truly frightening thing)...I would agree that we must make the Holocene as "Durable" as possible, by restoring diversity by design that "Remembers" (as CS Holling describes as an essential cross-scale force in the Panarchy)...but we must also undertake a value change for survival, which means Adaptability of human society in the Anthropocene. Right now our design and building systems, and economies, are failing miserably to acknowledge this fundamental shift. And with it, our potential futures diminish.


Posted by: Josh S on 9 Apr 09

I agree with Josh S. Whether it is catchy or not, it is real. Humans are the disturbing force in these global changes and there is probably no way back to the Holocene. It is not a flight of fancy, but a serious agenda item for the Geological Society of America. The following extract is from this 2008 GSA article:

In 2002, Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize–winning chemist, suggested that we had left the Holocene and had entered a new Epoch—the Anthropocene—because of the global environmental effects of increased human population and economic development. The term has entered the geological literature informally (e.g., Steffen et al., 2004; Syvitski et al., 2005; Crossland, 2005; Andersson et al., 2005) to denote the contemporary global environment dominated by human activity. Here, members of the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London amplify and extend the discussion of the effects referred to by Crutzen and then apply the same criteria used to set up new epochs to ask whether there really is justification or need for a new term, and if so, where and how its boundary might be placed.

I think for most thinking people, this rings alarm bells and don't think it is taken as an endorsement of how we got here. Clearly, most of our problems (loss of biodiversity, climate chaos, water scarcity, soil degradation, fisheries losses, ...) are unintended consequences of our mindless pursuit of technology and unsustainable economic paradigms.

Personally, I would be loudly shouting we have now entered the Anthropocene. It makes it very clear to those deniers that we certainly can have a global impact on those biogeochemical cycles our very lives depend on. At some point, even investment bankers will realize their securities have very little nutritional value.


Posted by: John Faust on 10 Apr 09

I agree with Josh S. Whether it is catchy or not, it is real. Humans are the disturbing force in these global changes and there is probably no way back to the Holocene. It is not a flight of fancy, but a serious agenda item for the Geological Society of America. The following extract is from this 2008 GSA article:

In 2002, Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize–winning chemist, suggested that we had left the Holocene and had entered a new Epoch—the Anthropocene—because of the global environmental effects of increased human population and economic development. The term has entered the geological literature informally (e.g., Steffen et al., 2004; Syvitski et al., 2005; Crossland, 2005; Andersson et al., 2005) to denote the contemporary global environment dominated by human activity. Here, members of the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London amplify and extend the discussion of the effects referred to by Crutzen and then apply the same criteria used to set up new epochs to ask whether there really is justification or need for a new term, and if so, where and how its boundary might be placed.

I think for most thinking people, this rings alarm bells and don't think it is taken as an endorsement of how we got here. Clearly, most of our problems (loss of biodiversity, climate chaos, water scarcity, soil degradation, fisheries losses, ...) are unintended consequences of our mindless pursuit of technology and unsustainable economic paradigms.

Personally, I would be loudly shouting we have now entered the Anthropocene. It makes it very clear to those deniers that we certainly can have a global impact on those biogeochemical cycles our very lives depend on. At some point, even investment bankers will realize their securities have very little nutritional value.


Posted by: John Faust on 10 Apr 09

Alex, Very nice article. You’re an eternal optimist. Bio Engineering is a frightening concept the concept in itself demonstrates the arrogance of the human condition. Two stories or examples of Bio engineered outcomes are lessons for all of us. Flathead Lake in Northwest Montana is the largest body of fresh water west of the continental divide. Kokanee salmon used to be in abundant supply. The salmon were a natural food supply for wildlife and humans forever. Then one-day scientist’s decided that they could increase the salmon population by adding more food to the system. They introduced a little shrimp species into the lake so the salmon would have more food. The desired outcome was salmon would thrive and populations would flourish. It was a win win solution for wildlife and humans. Suddenly the salmon populations failed to the point that Kokanee salmon are now extinct in the Flathead Lake system. The Salmon are gone but the shrimp are thriving. Turns out that the shrimp foreign to the eco system have no predators, other species that want to eat them for food. Further, the salmon didn’t eat the shrimp once they were in the lake, they may have in fact ate them in the laboratory. But turns out when the salmon were feeding near the surface in the day time the shrimp were on the bottom of the lake. When the salmon returned to the deep water at night, the shrimp went up to the surface to feed. Soon the shrimp were eating the same food source as the salmon. The new competitor the shrimp with no natural presence in the lake prior won the contest and the salmon died and became extinct. Now no one can figure out how to get rid of the shrimp without killing everything in the lake and it is a big lake.

The second case that is now unfolding is the re-introduction of the Wolf. Wolves are wild and everybody loves em, well almost everybody. The wolf is doing well here in Montana. Wolves are growing in numbers and are very successful predators; too successful. Once back in time the wolf lived in a system with abundant prey, Elk, Deer, Buffalo what have you. These heard animals roamed the continent by the millions and there was plenty for all. The wolf played an important part as a control in that system a system in the distant past before humans populated and fenced everything. Today the success of the wolf has created an emerging disaster much like that of Flathead Lake. The sustainable food population the wolf depends on no longer exists today in North America. Of course, the Buffalo have really been gone for a century and now the Elk and Deer are under pressure, not by just the wolf but human development. It is a system, because of the math that is going to fail; regardless of how romantic the notion is of the wolf again in the wild. The natural populations of prey and predator are out of balance and cannot co-exist. We humans could stop hunting and we could open fences and allow nature to re-establish the balance. But that isn’t going to happen is it. So the poor wolf looks for prey, sheep, goats, cows and gets into more trouble. Fact is, so do all the big predators. Perhaps if we humans stepped back and allowed the natural system to take their natural course for a century things would workout. If we abandoned large areas of the continents and allowed balance to be restored without human interference. That is not going to happen. Fact is we may have passed the point where that would even work.

I read in the NY Times that the Presidents Scientific Advisors want to create a chemical shield around the earth to slow global warming, bio engineering terra forming. Science Fiction or Nightmare is the question. Fact is we need to be focusing our energy and talent on figuring out how we can live on a radically changed planet. The change is here now. Once large numbers of the human population begin to fail, the majority will take notice and believe. Soon the planet will find a new balance and a dominate species will emerge once again who or what will that species be?


Posted by: David E on 11 Apr 09

You wrote: "The reality is that modern humanity and human civilization are the fruit of a very tightly banded set of interconnected climate and biological conditions. We need a certain kind of world in order to thrive, and that world is essentially the mild, moderately wet, biologically abundant world of the Holocene."

What you propose as a "reality" is merely a conjecture. In fact, what allows humanity to thrive is the technology that we have developed over hundreds of thousands of years. During most of those years, mind you, the climate was much colder than it is today.

If your argument were true, and since humanity arose during a period of extended glaciation -- think of New York City as the terminus of a glacier -- then we should we have perished during the holocene, as it is much warmer than during the period when we arose and spread as a cogent, innovative species.

Instead, we prospered during the holocene just as we evolved and spread during the prior period. And we'll continue to prosper. Humanity is not some frail plant in a pot, but an incredibly adaptive species.

Global warming is an opportunity, not a virulent threat.



Posted by: John Fulton on 15 Apr 09

Apart from Alex's description and conclusion of the tight interconnections between modern humanity, human civilization and the Holocene, your spatial/temporal cut-and-paste comparison of our pre-Holocene evolution, development inside the relatively stable Holocene, and where humanity finds itself today, as unintended geologic force in the Panarchy.

Any technology, of our species or any other, is ultimately a negotiation with Nature. A negotiation for survival. Our systems of carbon accounting, green building rating, etc...all human fictions aimed at reducing or preventing perceived ecological and human harms. But when not based on natural realities, these only create an illusion of benefit, while actually blocking the beneficial adaptive response that is vitally needed. And we are the only species of an estimated 10 to 100 million that uses an industrial-type model to shape our interaction with natural systems.

On what basis do you believe that "we'll continue to prosper"? While not potted, humanity is arguably quite frail (think of the thin veneers of biology, geology, and ecology that support all life on earth). And research in Resilience is showing that our "incredibly adaptive" nature actually can limit our rate and response to changing conditions, exactly because we are so clever. We make assumptions and beliefs such as "we'll continue to prosper", really without any verifiable basis to do so. Often we become the slowest part of the system for different reasons, partly because entrenched systems slow inevitable change arbitrarily.

We did evolve immense functional health as a species, within a particular context, that of the Holocene. We rely on natural diversity, both functional and response, to purify our air, create our soils, produce and pollinate our foods, cleanse our water and wastes...and these systems are failing.

Even if Climate is not an issue, or we solve it tomorrow, evidence of declines in natural systems due to human action is showing a clear and present threat to our continued survival. Context here is essential...i.e., "life as we know it." All life is contextual, relational and reliant on community. We are in a "Great Acceleration", of our own inadvertent design. Over the past 50 years, we have modified Earth more than at any time in comparable human history. One consequence...it is likely that Earth will change more rapidly in the next 50 years than at any time that humans have ever known.

The likely conclusion...both crisis and opportunity. But perhaps an opportunity that we never wanted, and a crisis that never had to have happened.


Posted by: Josh Stack on 16 Apr 09

Oops, meant to finish in that first paragraph...the idea that you can't make cut and paste comparisons of human evolution and development, concluding that we'll be just fine, because the context is so fundamentally different between then and now.

Earth certainly is in a state of dynamic nonequilibrium...but rates, scales and the pace of change differs, as does the composition, likely threats to any species' continued survival...etc.

In fact, most biologists and ecologists would accept humanity's extinction at some undetermined future date as a certainty, a conclusion directly opposite your claim of humanity's continued prosperity.


Posted by: Josh Stack on 16 Apr 09

Alex, whatever we end up calling the age we are living in, I think what you are actually calling for is moral development in privileged human beings. We need to develop the ability to see clearly what we are -- adaptive, clever, maybe even sacred in our ability to think reflectively -- and what we are not -- anywhere near the ability to redesign natural systems that have evolved over millions of years.

This requires that we neither throw up our hands in pessimism nor bury our heads in unfounded optimism, but look clearly at the world and ourselves, with respect for the incredible process that brought us to this point and with courage to take responsibility for it.

This also requires humility, a value which reminds me of Peak Oil in the way it seems to have peaked and begun to decline. We are the most narcissistic people ever to have lived, possessed of both apathy and unreasonable idealism. Figuring out how to get more of us growing into more morally developed, adult people is a huge part of our task.

Since modernism and reason came onto the scene, the vast majority of the great evolutions of our culture have come out of moral growth, the recognition that our thinking had been small coupled with the need to expand. How do we frame climate change and peak oil in terms that awaken our hearts as well as our minds?


Posted by: Megan Dietz on 10 May 09

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