Last week, reading the Press I saw two articles that left me stunned. Both related to a happening that scientists, especially those from environmental, ecological or geological backgrounds have known about for a few years, but which only now are confident enough to say, could really be happening: We as a race on a rock ball called Earth, are coming to the end of an Epoch, an era in geological time.
This is, to be totally honest, quite incredible to be possibly witnessing the beginning of the end for a period in evolutionary history that has spanned 11,000 years. Prior to the Holocene, which began about 11,700 years ago was the Pleistocene which began about 2.58 million years ago and encompasses a significant of the evolution of the pre-human hominids including Lucy.
It is not to say that this is in any way a good thing. It is testimony to the unsustainable demand for natural resources, our poor environmental management strategies and short term political vision that humanity has taken just 11,700 years to reach what is being tentatively termed the Anthropocene – an Epoch covering an era in time where human activities are having a lasting impact on the global ecosystem which in turn will have increasing impact on humanity’s future.
But here we are. Humanity is possibly staring down the dawn of a new epoch that exists as much because the impact of human beings on the ecosystems of this planet and all that live in them as continuing evolutionary processes. If one compresses the total lifespan of the Earth system into a standard day, human’s have been on the surface for barely one minute, or about 3.194 million years, which is about when the first evidence of stone tools can be traced back to. First use of fire was about 2.5 million years ago, near the start of the Pleistocene. Due to the small and isolated nature of hominid populations at the time, the large scale use of fire did not take hold for thousands of years, and required changes in the climate and vegetation to support fire friendly material such as kindling.
Around 9,130B.C. in what is now Iraq, the first evidence of a civilization with basic societal foundations began to take shape in Mesopotamia. The wheel, mathematics and astronomy were all conceived during this time. The Stone Age where tools with an edge, point or striking surface at this point began to give way to the Bronze Age about this time, and finished around 2,000B.C. At this point, metals including and in particular bronze were beginning to be discovered and uses found for them. Following the Bronze Age was the Iron Age, which was when the
Since the Industrial Revolution of the 1700’s, where major changes included hand tools giving way to machinery, the introduction of steam, chemical processes. In the 300 years since the Industrial Revolution commenced, the era of steam has ended, to be replaced by electricity. The consumption of coal and oil to create electricity and fuel vehicles has released vast quantities of gas into the climate, which aside from being suspected of causing anthropogenic cliamte change, is quite definitely linked to probably hundreds of thousands of deaths from airborne pollutants per annum.
Prior to the Industrial revolution, environmental damage was occurring, but the uptake of natural resources, their processing as through puts, and the eventual outputs that were enabled by the changes in process resulted in the second quantum leap in environmental impact. A third quantum leap may be in making our environment so toxic that it directly rebounds on human health with our fascination for devices that need rare earth substances such as neodymium and europium.
If that is the case, I am not sure I want to know how this Epoch is going to end.