Humankind’s footprint on planet Earth is now so deep that scientists argue we need to have our own epoch named after us: the Anthropocene.
Epochs are traditionally measured in terms of millions of years — longer than an age, but shorter than a period. Since humankind has been living on the planet for little more than a blink-of-an-eye in geologic time, that’s saying a lot. According to the Cosmic Calendar, an eye-opening chart that distills the 13.8 billion year history of the universe down to a single year, humankind’s early ancestors first walked upright at 10:30pm on the final day of December. Modern humans evolved at 11:52pm; the early human migrations out of Africa happened some time between 11:56pm and 11:59pm.
Everything we know and have achieved — from the early cave paintings to the beginnings of agriculture, permanent settlements and so on, to reading, writing, art, music, the Industrial Revolution and the age of the Internet, has happened in the final minute of the last day of the 12th month of the Cosmic Calendar year.
That’s a pretty sobering thought when you consider that roughly 1.2 seconds ago in geologic time, Columbus arrived in America; everything from overpopulation and human-influenced climate change to the despoiling of the rain forest, fouling of the oceans and mass extinctions has unfolded since then.
Geologists don’t just identify epochs out of thin air. An epoch has to leave a geological imprint in solid rock — in sediments buried below the ground, in ice glaciers (now melting) or on canyon walls, if you like. The Anthropocene epoch, many of these geologists now argue, is an actual thing because evidence of human activity is now being imprinted in geological formations. “We are mining the planet’s surface, acidifying our oceans, creating new rock layers laced with plastic, and exterminating many species,” science editor Robin McKie wrote this past weekend in London’s Sunday Observer. “The consequences of these actions will be detectable in rocks for millions of years.”
A new study by University College of London researchers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin identifies colonialism — the way guns, germs and steel shaped the New World — as the prime mover behind the tectonic shift on the geologic timescale; other scientists cite the detonation of the first atomic bomb as the moment when the Anthropocene epoch dawned (their argument being that the earliest atomic bombs left a radioactive record in Earth’s rocks), while still others point to the proliferation of plastics, which are forming their own geological layers by becoming embedded in rocks.
The real question, of course — and the great unanswerable — is how the Anthropocene epoch will shape and change planet Earth, and whether our home world can survive it, or whether, as geological time has shown over the ages, epochs and periods, nothing is forever and all life changes eventually, even life itself.
“We have become a new force of nature, dictating what lives and what goes extinct,” Maslin told the Sunday Observer. “Although, in one crucial respect, we are unlike any other force of nature: Our power, unlike plate tectonics or volcanic eruptions, is reflexive. It can be used, modified or even withdrawn.”
“It would be wise,” Maslin and Lewis wrote later on the BBC’s website, “to use this immense power to give the best chance for people, and the rest of life, all to flourish.”