The Anthropocene Epoch: Challenges and Opportunities
By Debananda S. Ningthoujam, PhD
Our Earth was formed around 4.5 billion years ago. Life arose on our planet approximately 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. Geologists have divided the time from the formation of the Earth to the present time into 2 supereons, 4 eons, 14 eras, 22 epochs, and more than 100 ages.
We are currently in the Phanerozoic eon which began 450 million years ago (mya), in the Holocene epoch which started about 11,700 years ago (just after the last ice age), and in the Meghalayan age that began 4,200 years ago.
However, some scientists view that we live in an epoch in which human beings have been the most powerful agents for environmental change often with catastrophic impacts. This epoch has been aptly called the Anthropocene (“The Age of Man”). Some have argued that the most crucial change has been the inordinate burning of fossil fuels in the developed world (largely in the West) to drive their economy or accumulate capital; so they proposed that this epoch may also be called the Capitalocene.
What is Anthropocene?
This term was coined by Dr Paul Crutzen in 2000. He received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 for his work on ozone depletion. Crutzen is of the opinion that the beginning of the anthropocene coincided with the start of the Industrial Revolution around 1784. But other scientists have differing views: some suggesting that it began much before with the invention of agriculture some 5,000 years ago while some others propose it to start much later, after World War II, around the year 1950.
However, the concept of anthropocene is now hugely popular and have percolated into the worlds of science, social sciences, humanities, art, film, journalism, and books.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the anthropocene as “The period of time during which human activities have had an environmental impact on the Earth regarded as a distinct geological age.”
When did the Anthropocene begin?
On May 21, 2019 the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) comprising of 34 scientists voted in favour of formally declaring a new epoch: the Anthropocene. This new epoch would follow the current Holocene epoch, which began around 12,000 year ago. However, AWG’s proposal is still waiting for approval by the ICS, which may be decided sometime in 2021.
The Anthropocene Working Group proposes that the Anthropocene might have begun around 1950 when major cataclysmic effects of anthropogenic environmental change became obvious such as human population explosion, rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration, spike in atmospheric CH4 concentration, mass extinction of species, biodiversity erosion, adverse impacts of atomic weapons, and global climatic change etc.
Whether or not the anthropocene is officially approved or not, it is quite clear that we humans have changed the Earth in profound ways.
Major problems in the Anthropocene
Some intractable problems humankind is facing in the anthropocene epoch are:
Mass Extinction of Species
Melting of glaciers and sea level rise
Ocean acidification, marine pollution and coral bleaching
Rise in incidence of vector-borne diseases etc.
We are currently facing the 6th Mass Extinction of Species on our planet. Scientists estimate that, at present, about 150-200 species of plant, insect, bird, and mammals become extinct every day. That is to say that every hour we are losing about 6 to 8 species. These species have been permanently erased from the face of the Earth i.e. they would be lost forever as man can at present only eliminate species but cannot create them!
The current rate of extinction is nearly 1,000 times the background (or natural) rate and is unprecedented in the sense that all earlier mass extinctions were either caused by sudden climatic shifts such as onset of ice ages, sudden warming or natural disasters such as impacts of asteroids or volcanic eruptions. For example, the extinction of dinosaurs is attributed to the bombardment of the Earth by a large asteroid at the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico about 65 million years ago. All other mass extinctions were also due to asteroid impacts, massive volcanism or sudden cooling or warming of the Earth. The current mass extinction is largely due to anthropogenic causes.
Deforestation is also taking place at an alarming rate: an area of forest the size of the UK is lost every year around the world.
And, as the CO2 level rises in the atmosphere, the oceans absorb significant amounts of this greenhouse gas, the pH of the sea water drops leading to ocean acidification. Consequently, coral bleaching is spreading in the world’s oceans on a massive scale. Corals are known as “rainforests of the sea” and corals and the marine biodiversity they harbor are dying at an unprecedented rate. It is reported that due to bleaching the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is degrading fast and may soon be lost forever.
Due to global climatic change, large glaciers are melting fast, which may lead to sea level rise and submersion of low lying countries such as Bangladesh. The world may soon face the problem of ‘climate refugees’ with concomitant economic, social, and political crises. As we are fast losing our forests, and as they are the regulators of climate and disease, we are increasingly going to face climate catastrophes such as large-scale droughts, floods, and cyclones. As deforestation and global warming worsens, the world is going to increasingly face the rise in vector borne diseases such as malaria, dengue, chikungunya, Zika, and encephalitis.
The proposed solutions for climate change and other crises associated with the anthropocene are varied and complex. However, they largely belong to two approaches: carbon dioxide reduction (CRD) and solar radiation management(SRM) methods.
The CDR methods include cutting down fossil fuel use, carbon capture and sequestration, ocean fertilization, use of alternative energy sources such as solar energy and massive reduction in meat consumption and large-scale shift to plant-based diets etc.
The SRM methods include an array of geoengineering solutions such as painting rooftops white (to reflect sunlight), keeping large space mirrors, and injecting reflective aerosols into the atmosphere etc.
We must quickly realize that we are in the anthropocene epoch before it’s too late. We must own responsibility for wreaking havoc on the planet’s ecosystem. And, we must rapidly take steps to cut down fossil fuel consumption, stabilize human population, and drastically reduce rates of deforestation, biodiversity erosion, global warming, coral bleaching and levels of meat consumption before we delete our species from the face of the Earth-the only planet in the vast universe which is known to harbor life.
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