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Eaarth in the Anthropocene May 20, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in "Eaarth", Anthropocene, Bill McKibben, geologic time.

In her recent piece in Yale Environment 360The Anthropocene Debate: Marking Humanity’s Impact,” New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert addresses cogently the official reflection among my colleagues in the geological community regarding the possibility of crowning the geological time scale with a new name to characterize this age on Earth. Kolbert explains that the International Commission on Stratigraphy—the scientific group that minds geological time by tracking discoveries that effect the perceived location of Era, Period, and Epoch boundaries of the time scale—is taking seriously the question of whether or not to dub this geological moment on the planet the Anthropocene. Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer, an expert on ubiquitous microscopic algae (diatoms) used to study environmental change, proposed the designation at the turn of the millennium in the newsletter of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. By their report, since all components of the earth system (atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, and rock sphere) had been changed, and would continue to be changed on global scales by human activities, an important step towards a maintaining a livable environment would be to acknowledge with nomenclature this fact.

When I served on the Council of the Geological Society of America, I was glad to learn that the wider geoscientific community was considering this action. But regardless of the results of the deliberations that Kolbert details—ones that will be difficult because, as Kolbert aptly points out we geologists designate periods of geological time on the basis of fossils enclosed in sedimentary rock strata that mark the extinction or new appearance of life forms—I believe that humankind can’t wait for the slow wheels of science to dub formally this new time period. Regardless of whether the legend of the Roman emperor Nero is true, this contemplative mode could be perceived as the geoscientific community fiddling while Rome burns. Indeed, in the past when geologists have worked to parse earth history into discreet episodes, extended debate perhaps arising from our understanding of deep time has characterized our thinking. Resolution of the Devonian controversy in which members of the London-based Geological Survey, Adam Sedgwick, Roderick Murchison, and Henry de la Beche argued over the disposition of sediments in Devonshire took years.

In fact, in his newest, no-nonsense book Eaarth: Making a Living on Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben, author of more than a dozen books including The End of Nature (1989), perhaps the first book for the layperson about climate change, and founder of 350.org, the grassroots global warming awareness campaign, avers that we have passed through the geological moment in which Earth has mutated into Eaarth, a planet “not as nice as the old one” but one on which we still have to live. Though he doesn’t name it as such, McKibben rightly asserts that we have moved from The Holocene Epoch—the most recent 12,000 years since the Earth emerged from the last major ice age—into Crutzen and Stoermer’s Anthropocene.

Of all the ideas I hope my geology students will grasp, the notion that humans have acted as geological agents at non-geological time scales is most important to me. Though I will watch with interest the attempts of my scientific community to codify and articulate the scale of contemporary global change, I feel comfortable calling this new Epoch the Anthropocene.  Here’s why.

Earth formed approximately 4500 million years ago, also known as 4.5 billion years ago. It’s difficult to get a good sense of this length of time but it is critical to the project of grappling with the reality of the Anthropocene Epoch, whether officially recognized or not. As all geologists know and as John McPhee following David Brower popularized, using a calendar year as a metaphor for the 4500 million years of Earth history and employing January 1, New Year’s Day, as the Earth’s birthday, it’s possible to calculate the location of any calendar date in an Earth Year and detail the life and environment that existed at that moment in Earth history. “This Date in the Earth Year,” my name for this mental accounting, can help others develop an informed opinion on the issue of the Holocene/Anthropocene boundary.

For example today, May 17, is day 137 out of 365 days in this (non-leap) year. With approximately one-third of a calendar year having elapsed, one might think that at this point in the Earth Year, some pretty complex organisms might have been roaming the planet. Not so. In geologic time, May 17 represents 2811 million years ago, the Archean, when the only living things around were bacteria and the atmosphere was rich in methane and ammonia while oxygen poor.

Skip ahead to September 14, day 257 of 365; this date in the Earth Year brings us to 1330 million years ago, the Proterozoic —the second of the two eons that comprise the immense stretch of time called the Precambrian. Many of the most important events in earth history took place during the Precambrian including not only the formation of life, the accretion of the earth’s first tectonic plates, and the evolution of eukaryotic cells (single-celled organisms with internal organization). Still, at 1330 million years—the middle Proterozoic—the only living things on Earth were ocean-dwelling single-celled organisms. It took hundreds of millions of years but single-celled oceanic organisms changed the composition of the atmosphere so that by this point in the Earth Year, there was enough oxygen to cause iron to rust.

Fast-forward to November 10, day 314, approximately 629 million years ago. You think, “Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.” But that puts us only in the Vendian, the latest portion of the Proterozoic eon. Still, some rocks of this age, known most famously from the Ediacara Hills north of Adelaide, Australia, contain the earliest clear fossil evidence of multicellular animals; they indicate that these organisms, for the first time in earth history, have become a significant life form. Spindle-shaped, long and pointed at both ends; branching, tree-like or network-like structures; large, round, disc shapes; lumpy cabbage-like figures; and, frond-like leafy forms. The Ediacaran fauna was large and flat with lots of external surface area; their relation to younger life remains obscure. As a result, some paleontologists assign them to a completely separate kingdom of multicellular life.

“When do we get to us?” you ask. Well, November 17, day 321, marks the beginning of the Paleozoic Era when hard-bodied multicellular life began to proliferate and flourish. (Note that geologists also have debated the character and timing of this major boundary of the geologic time scale). But the entire Paleozoic Era, with its trilobites, brachiopods, and first land plants and animals is over by December 11, day 345. That’s 247 million years ago and we’re into the Mesozoic Era, the familiar age of dinosaurs. The Cenozoic Era began 65 million years ago on December 26. The Pleistocene, the epoch known as our most recent icy past—that which preceded the Holocene (now retired from my lexicon of the present)—occupies the waning hours of December 31. And that’s when we arrived and rapidly enriched Earth’s atmosphere in carbon dioxide, built mountains out of garbage, acidified the oceans, and melted the cryosphere.

Whether we place the Anthropocene’s beginning with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784 or the first atomic tests in the 1940s, we might well apply Henry de la Beche’s words from the Devonian controversy (as quoted by historian of science Martin Rudwick): “Let us hope that the day is past when preconceived opinions are to be set up, as good as arguments, against facts; because if they are, let that fact at least be clearly understood.” In our short tenure on Earth, we geological latecomers have swiftly and profoundly altered the planet. As McKibben asserts and Kolbert reiterates, we have built a new Eaarth. Like changes marking other divisions of the geologic time scale, whether tectonic, climatic, or organismal, Eaarth differs enough from Earth that we might as well acknowledge a new time as well as a new place.

Awaken, Eaarthlings! An Earth Day Missive April 22, 2010

Posted by Jill S. Schneiderman in "Eaarth", Anthropocene, Bill McKibben, book review, Buddhist concepts, climate change, earth community, earth cycles, geologic time, Thich Nhat Hanh.
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This piece is cross-posted at Shambhala SunSpace, CommonDreams.org, and Truthout.

In his recent book, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology (2008), the great Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh asserts that Buddhism, as a robust type of humanism, allows people to learn how to live on our planet not only responsibly, but with compassion and lovingkindness. Every Buddhist practitioner, he says, should have the capacity to “protect” the environment and determine the destiny of the Earth.

Though I would argue that we have moved beyond the point at which the planet can be protected and that we must join with Earth as kin, Thich Nhat Hanh contends that if we awaken to the environmental reality of our planetary circumstance, our collective consciousness will shift.  He declares that Buddhists must help rouse people on Earth, stating “We have to help the Buddha to wake up the people who are living in a dream.”

Bill McKibben, author of more than a dozen books including The End of Nature (1989), perhaps the first book for the layperson about climate change, and founder of 350.org, a global warming awareness campaign that coordinated what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history,” has devoted much energy to this project of awakening. McKibben may not be a Buddhist, but his interview with Krista Tippett, host of American Public Radio’s Speaking of Faith, reveals him to be a spiritual thinker. His most recent effort to bring about this tectonic shift in the collective human mind and heart is his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

McKibben argues that humans have changed Earth in such fundamental ways that it is no longer the planet on which human civilization developed over the past 10,000 years. Seawater is becoming acidic as oceans absorb carbon from the atmosphere; the cryosphere—Earth’s once frozen realms of ice caps and high mountain glaciers—has melted or is in the process of doing so; tropical regions of the globe have pushed two degrees further north and south changing patterns of rainfall and causing droughts, fires and floods.

What’s more, these geographically vast features are changing rapidly. As I tell my students, we humans have acted as geologic agents at non-geologic time scales. McKibben’s central point is a corollary to this formulation: global change is no longer a threat, a changed globe is our reality. Hence, McKibben’s homophone: we live on Eaarth, not Earth. His book is the call to stir that Thich Nhat Hanh prescribes. In the service of helping to rally the populace to such awareness, I’d like to add some Buddhist geoscience to McKibben’s already excellent reality check.

The Buddha spoke of the impermanence of things and in The World We Have, Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us that the sixth-century Greek philosopher, Heraclitus said that because a river changes constantly, we never step into the same river twice. Hanh writes, “Nothing stays the same for two consecutive moments. A view that is not based on impermanence is a wrong view. When we have the insight of impermanence, we suffer less and we create more happiness.” According to Thich Nhat Hanh, people resist two types of impermanence: instantaneous and cyclic. Using the analogy of water set to boil, he teaches that the increase in water temperature from moment to moment manifests instantaneous impermanence. However, when the water boils and turns to steam, we witness cyclic impermanence—the end of a cycle of arising, duration and cessation.

Thich Nhat Hahn suggests that we must look deeply at cyclic change in order to accept it as an integral aspect of life and as a result, not startle or suffer so greatly when we endure shifts in circumstances. Looking deeply at cyclic change—for example the transformation of rocks to soil and back again—is what we geoscientists do. We gaze deeply at impermanence and know that without it, life would not be possible.

McKibben avers that we have passed the geological moment when we might possibly have avoided the mutation from Earth to Eaarth. Though he doesn’t name it as such, we have moved from The Holocene Epoch—the most recent 12,000 years since the Earth emerged from the last major ice age—into what Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist called the Anthropocene—a new geological epoch denoted by novel biotic, geochemical, and sedimentary effects of global proportion induced by human activity. To a Buddhist geoscientist such as I, this formulation of our current planetary predicament makes deep sense. In order to understand why, I must mention a few monumental concepts in Earth history, namely evolution, punctuated equilibrium, and extinction. Impossible a task as it is to explain such big topics, since we humans seem to excel at taking in more than we can digest, I’ll give it a try.

Evolution—commonly misrepresented as improvement or progress—is, quite simply, change. Most familiarly, species evolve; they do so by punctuated equilibrium, a fancy phrase that means that organisms mostly stay the same but when they do change, they do so quickly and in spurts of geological time. Or they die.

Which brings us to extinction events. The geological record is replete with them, their intensity ranges from the small and local to the massive and global—the ones that shattered Earth’s biological order. Like the episode 65 million years ago that famously wiped out dinosaurs as well as numerous other species across the spectrum of life in all habitats sampled from the fossil record. Seventeen percent of families (the taxonomic unit above genus and species, a family can consist of a few to thousands of species) were lost in that extinction event. Or the greatest mass extinction as yet, the one 245 million years ago that marks the end of the Paleozoic Era; it rid the Earth of trilobites, those early marine invertebrates with a segmented body and exoskeleton that belong to the same group (Phylum Arthropoda) as modern-day crabs, insects and spiders as well as fifty-four percent of all living families.

These and other mass extinction events happened concurrently with vast climatic and physical disturbances on Earth that were outside the norm of what species and ecosystems ordinarily survived.  Such extreme physical changes doubtless had something to do with the occurrence of the extinctions in the first place. Lest I embark on a far-reaching lesson in Earth history, I’ll make the point simply, that over geological time life on the planet and Earth itself have morphed from one form to another. Our seas were acidic in the Archean and our atmosphere was oxygen-poor in the early Proterozoic (“age of first life”). This is the way I see our situation: all beings now live on Eaarth during the Anthropocene. Like other organisms before us we are challenged by changed environmental circumstances and must adjust to Eaarth in its current state.

To this Buddhist geoscientist the planet and its life forms epitomize impermanence. When I read the history of our planet I can’t help but see it as fitting with the concept of cyclic impermanence in particular. I ask, how will the species homo sapiens fare as we make our way across the epochs from Holocene to Anthropocene? Will humans and other great apes be counted among the taxonomic families that succumb in this latest great extinction? Will the record of our one-time presence on the planet comprise only an early Anthropocene stratum of bones, tools and garbage? Both McKibben and Thich Nhat Hanh give us reason to believe that human beings, if we wake up in the Anthropocene on Eaarth, instead may persist as one of the long-lived multicellular species on the planet (think horseshoe crab).

In the second part of Eaarth, McKibben argues that the catalyst for the evolution of Earth to Eaarth has been insatiable, fast growth. He says that any hope for our future on Eaarth depends on “scaling back” and “hunkering down”—creating communities that concentrate on the essentials of maintenance rather than the spoils of growth. He provides inspirational examples of neighborhood windmills, provincial currencies, corner markets, and local internet communities. Thich Nhat Hanh does the same, describing the efforts of his Sangha to practice mindful consumption. Both visionaries advocate proximal, small-scale ways of living.

By looking back in Earth history as we geologists do, I’d like to support with geological evidence the soundness of McKibben’s and Thich Nhat Hanh’s approach to surviving on Eaarth. The Earth’s most successful and abundant life forms are prokaryotes (organisms that lack a cell nucleus or any other membrane-bound organelles). They appear as fossils in 3.5 billion year old rocks and persist today in nearly all environments where liquid water exists. Some thrive in harsh regions like the snow surface of Antarctica while others persist at marine hydrothermal vents and land-based hot springs. Some use photosynthesis and organic compounds for energy while others obtain energy from inorganic compounds such as hydrogen sulfide.

Prokaryotes keep things pretty simple and make do with what exists in their immediate surroundings. Lots of them live together. They’ve survived numerous extinction events. Can it be that the collective simplicity they represent suggests a way forward for awakened Eaarthlings?

For more “Earth Dharma” from Jill S. Schneiderman, click here.

See also our Shambhala Sun Spotlight on Buddhism and Green Living.

This entry was created by Jill S. Schneiderman, posted on April 13, 2010 at 10:25 am and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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