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Water – and Us – in the “Anthropocene”

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Numerous species of fish and other life forms face extinction due to human actions in this planetary time scientists propose to call the Anthropocene. Missions Media/National Geographic

In late May, 500 scientists from around the world gathered in Bonn, Germany, to converse about the global dimensions of water in the so-called Anthropocene – the proposed name for a new geologic epoch in which humans are a dominant driver of planetary systems and processes.
 
Without question, the scholarly evidence for massive human disruption of climate, water and other global systems is robust and growing.
 
Our changing of Earth’s climate has diminished snow cover and sea ice, intensified the water cycle, and altered patterns of rainfall and river flow.  Human actions have acidified the oceans, altered the nitrogen cycle, drained half the world’s wetlands, trapped behind dams 100 billion tons of sediment that would otherwise replenish coastlines, and diverted major rivers to the point where they no longer reach the sea.
 
Perhaps most importantly, biological extinction rates are now 100-1000 times background levels – due largely to habitat destruction, pollution and other human activities.
 
In convening a meeting in 2011 to discuss the merits of designating a new epoch called the Anthropocene – anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new” – the Geological Society of London, noted: “In the blink of a geological eye, through our need for energy, food, water, minerals, for space in which to live and play, we have wrought changes to Earth’s environment and life that are as significant as any known in the geological record.”
 
That we humans are now a force of geologic proportions is indisputable.  That we have entered a new age on earth of our own making seems certain.  But apart from the difficulty, at this moment, of deciding in a scientifically sound way when that age began, does it make sense to name it after us?
 
Leaving the science aside for a moment, what are the philosophical, psychological and technological implications and consequences of such a human-centered designation of planetary time?
 
During the last 10,000-years, when human societies developed agriculture, writing, cities, telecommunications and long-distance travel, the Earth’s climate has been remarkably stable and warm – a long summer, as some have called it.  For sure, it was punctuated by epic droughts and cool periods, but by and large this epoch, called the Holocene, has proved highly conducive to the growth and flourishing of human civilization.
 
Many scientists that favor designating a new epoch and calling it the Anthropocene are clear that the human-created disruptions of planetary systems that are its hallmark  pose enormous risks to human civilization.
 
In an excellent TEDx talk on the subject, Will Steffen, of the Australian National University Climate Change Institute, reminds us that there’s “no guarantee civilization lasts forever.”
 
“The Romans aren’t around, nor are the Mayans,” Steffen said, “and we might not be either unless we start thinking globally as well as locally.”.
 
Steffen and others propose the demarcation of “planetary boundaries” for such processes and cycles as carbon, water, nitrogen, and biodiversity loss in order to frame the “safe operating space” within which civilization can thrive.
 
While a laudable and theoretically useful endeavor, to date the human enterprise has ignored warnings about the dire consequences of ecological disruption (the dangers of ozone-depleting substances being a notable exception) and gone merrily on its way to initiate more of it.   Indeed, we have already overshot at least three of the proposed nine planetary boundaries.
 
There is power in a name.  The term Anthropocene seems likely to expand our hubris rather than inspire the humility we need to pull ourselves back from the brink of planetary transgressions that could well be our undoing.
 
The very notion of the Anthropocene encourages the risky belief that if we humans are now the dominant force of nature – the god species – then nature can’t hurt us.   We’re in the driver’s seat, and we hold the keys to power.
 
But unfortunately, while we’ve revved up the planet’s engines and shot some metrics off the charts, we have no GPS system to guide us through the unfamiliar terrain of this journey.   We may be in the driver’s seat, but we have no idea where we’re going.
 
The water scientists recently gathered in Bonn, for example, issued a stark warning about the dangers of billions of people “living under the handicap of severe pressure on fresh water.” But their recommendations – mostly for more interdisciplinary research, study and training of young scientists, along with consideration of more ecosystem-friendly solutions to water problems – fell frightfully short of what’s needed.
 
Perhaps most importantly, the Anthropocene perpetuates the dichotomy between we humans and the web of life that sustains us.  As I write, the planet’s armies of microorganisms are no doubt gearing up for the massive planetary shifts ahead.  They will surely influence us as much as we influence them.
 
It’s worth remembering that perhaps the greatest pollution incident in Earth history was brought about some 2.4 billion years ago by tiny aquatic organisms called cyanobacteria.  Through the chemical reactions of photosynthesis, they released massive quantities of oxygen into the atmosphere, driving then-abundant anaerobic organisms toward extinction and completely altering the conditions for life on Earth.
 
Were it not for the cyanobacteria, which have existed for at least 3.5 billion years and co-exist with us today, we would not be here.
 
Without question, humanity is now an agent of change of geologic proportions.  But we would be wise to broaden the conversation about what to call the new phase we have unleashed, lest we initiate solutions with as much hubris and disregard for the interconnectedness of life as characterized the actions that got us into this mess.
 

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