Geeking Science: The Anthropocene

We Haven't Killed Ourselves Yet

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Anthropocene, Man is an Extinction Event

This one isn’t a cool, amazing geeking post. It still is SCIENCE – and I think it is science at its best. Not only does science gives us toys, but it helps us understand what we are doing. This is where science is the rubber on the road, supporting the vehicle of mankind.

“Anthropocene,” what a mouthful. One of my panels at ConCarolinas back in June of this year was “Welcome to the Anthropocene.” The panel happened at 10 pm after a day of panels starting at 10 am. I could barely say my introduction spiel, forget about the title of the panel. I was very grateful James Maxey was the moderator and I had fellow panelist Dr. Ben Davis to bounce things off of. 

The topic read

“This year, the International Commission on Stratigraphy is set to decide whether or not the Earth has entered a new geological epoch: The Anthropocene. This is an age when human activity is a geological force writing itself into the very stones of the planet. What is the evidence that a new age has dawned? Do the geological footprints we’ve already left on the planet give us any guidance on how to move forward in the future? “

Between the three panelists and three audience members we had a far livelier discussion than the combination of topic and hour would indicate.

I think the scariest part of the after-hours discussion is in order to qualify as a new geological age, actions man has taken will need to be recorded into the fossil records for whatever comes millions of years from now. To do that, we, as a species, need to qualify as a mass extinction event. And boy, howdy, do we. A mass extinction event takes out between 30 and 80% of species in less than a million years without corresponding replacement through evolution. 

How do we do this? 

Through our pets. Domesticated cats have killed over 33 species. [New Research]

Through our farms. Mankind has a few favorite plants which humanity plants exclusively, with little regard for natural habitat. The Anthropocene doesn’t have an onset date defined yet, but while many proponents say it started with the Industrial age, I will go with floral agriculture being the moment when our species started mass shaping of the planet and ecology for our purposes, around 11,000 BCE. I think our farms have impacted the planet far more than our cities.

Through our hunts. Every part of the planet USED TO HAVE large animals like rhinos, elephants, and lions. The only continent to still have them in any number is Africa, where the large animals grew up beside us. When we took our hunting techniques “on the road”, to Europe, Asia, and the Americas big animals went away. The most telling is the Americas since we arrived (humans in general, not the recent addition of Europeans)  pretty much all megafauna (animals over 45 pounds) has been dispatched. [10 Extinct]

We are good at the killing.

Through our travels. To get from here to there we navigate rivers (dredging and changing them), build roads (bisecting habitats), create bridges (moving massive foundations for our purposes), and bring stuff with us. We have introduced more invasive species from one end of the planet to the other that any other mobile fauna, more than even birds – and they are the second closest contender for picking something up and dropping it off in a new location.

Through our housing. Cities create mini-climates with their heat sinks and we put these things EVERYWHERE. We don’t care if the living space is below water level – heck will we reclaim an entire country (Holland) from the ocean. Or if it is miles in the air, we will find a way to live there.

I once read an observation, I think in a fiction book, we name housing developments after the animals which used to live there. … The observation stuck with me.

A recent study says in the past 100 years, extinction of some types of species (we are partial to mammals, so we keep lists of these creatures) is 100 times the normal rate. I love the upbeat aspects of “We’re Entering a Sixth Mass Extinction” (see bibliography for links) by limiting things only to the past 100 years and talking about how we have turned back extinction on several species. Only one hundred years … we have been shaping, killing, and re-purposing our planet and its ecology for 120 times that long. We’ve only noticed the results of our actions recently.

One of the sad things is the scientists keep referring to the background extinction rate as through the species numbers remain constant. The reality is after each extinction event the fossil records show a steady growth in species until the next planetary reset. Our specialists are measuring us against a fallacy of zero growth. The reality is the numbers should be growing, so we are not only losing the species we are killing but also preventing new species from forming.

But at least we haven’t killed ourselves yet. So we got that going for us.


Bibliography

“10 Extinct Giants That Once Roamed North America.” Geggel, Laura. August 15, 2015. Downloaded 6/28/2016 from http://www.livescience.com/51793-extinct-ice-age-megafauna.html.

“New Research Suggest Outdoor Cats Kill More Wildlife Than Previously Thought.” (updated) Downloaded 6/28/2016 from http://www.wildlifemanagementinstitute.org/index.php?option=com_content&id=610:new-research-suggests-outdoor-cats-kill-more-wildlife-than-thought&catid=34:ONB+Articles&Itemid=54

“We’re Entering a Sixth Mass Extinction, and it’s Our Fault.” Milliken, Grennan. June 24, 2015. Downloaded 6/28/2016 from http://www.popsci.com/were-entering-sixth-mass-extinction-and-its-our-fault.

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