15 votes

The Anthropocene Is a Joke: On geological timescales, human civilization is an event, not an epoch.

22 comments

  1. [3]
    Algernon_Asimov
    (edited )
    Link
    The writer makes a valid point. He's right that the name "Anthropocene" is anthropocentric. But who are we doing geology for? We're not doing geology for our...

    The writer makes a valid point. He's right that the name "Anthropocene" is anthropocentric.

    But who are we doing geology for? We're not doing geology for our great-great-umpteen-great-grandchildren, or our non-human successors in some far-distant future. We're doing geology for ourselves, here and now. And, here and now, our effects on the planet matter to us.

    Let the intelligent descendants of cockroaches work out their own geological chronology, based on what they find in the world around them. They won't be using our system anyway.

    16 votes
    1. [3]
      Comment deleted by author
      Link Parent
      1. [2]
        Algernon_Asimov
        Link Parent
        Yes, I agree about the epoch reflecting the fact that we have more data. As we go further back in time, the data becomes less available and less reliable, and our identification of eons, eras, and...

        Yes, I agree about the epoch reflecting the fact that we have more data.

        As we go further back in time, the data becomes less available and less reliable, and our identification of eons, eras, and epochs reflects that: the older cut-offs are just arbitrary divisions, while the later eras are more precise. The oldest eon doesn't even have sub-divisions, while the second-oldest eon is almost arbitrarily divided into eras of 400 million years. Meanwhile, the most recent epochs have very specific cut-offs, and are of shorter lengths (such as 20.45 million years for the Neogene epoch).

        This is a consequence of us having more information about more recent times, and less information the further back in time we go.

        2 votes
        1. Loire
          Link Parent
          Part of the reason the Hadean (so named because we initially believed the planet was still a ball of magma and fire) and the Archeozoic (so named because it's... Neither the oldest Eon/Era, nor...

          Part of the reason the Hadean (so named because we initially believed the planet was still a ball of magma and fire) and the Archeozoic (so named because it's... Neither the oldest Eon/Era, nor were there any fossils to derive the -zoic at the time of it's naming...) have no subdivisions is because we do a lot of geological dividing using paleontology. The Hadean had no life by definition and we are just now discovering the sparse cyanobacteria "fossils" that made up the first organisms during the Archeozoic.

          While in the broadest sense we have more information the closer we get to the present, that's not entirely true. The rock record, described as simply as possible, is a dance between depositional and erosional cycles. Lakes, beach heads, lagoons, deltas, estuaries, oceans, essentially water, are all depositional regions whereas the rest, no rock is deposited to create a record, or even worse, it is eroded away erasing the record and creating a nonconformity.

          A million years from now there will be little record of the regions of our planet that are distal from any depositional environment, despite how "recent" that period is. Pedantic, I know, but we have near-zero geological discussion on tildes so I need to make due where I can.

          6 votes
  2. [11]
    JakeTheDog
    Link
    Forget about timescales, what about the physical scale? Humans have made monumental changes to the Earth - the humongous mines and farms, massive oil spills, domestication or killing off entire...

    Forget about timescales, what about the physical scale? Humans have made monumental changes to the Earth - the humongous mines and farms, massive oil spills, domestication or killing off entire species, changes to the atmosphere, building cities and skyscrapers etc. All other epochs pale in comparison with the Anthropocene in terms of rate of change (and overall change, to a degree). If in the far future if/when humans leave and the earth reclaims the usual equilibrium without humans, any visiting scientists will definitely consider this a significant era.

    9 votes
    1. [10]
      emdash
      Link Parent
      Microplastics falling out of the sky with snow in the Arctic seem like a great example of what you're talking about here. It doesn't matter that our monuments and structures won't survive the...

      Microplastics falling out of the sky with snow in the Arctic seem like a great example of what you're talking about here. It doesn't matter that our monuments and structures won't survive the millennia, but the geological record will show our existence clearly. Just as the KT extinction event showered the Earth in a dust of iridium, our lasting impression on this planet will be marked by rapid erosion, loss of biodiversity, and a stratum of the remnants of rubber & plastics in the geological layer that is being defined by this time.

      4 votes
      1. [9]
        Algernon_Asimov
        (edited )
        Link Parent
        Today's rapid erosion won't show up beyond the next Ice Age. The loss of biodiversity will show up; the current time is already being referred to as Earth's sixth great extinction event. But there...

        Today's rapid erosion won't show up beyond the next Ice Age.

        The loss of biodiversity will show up; the current time is already being referred to as Earth's sixth great extinction event. But there will be no geological record of why all those species went extinct. (EDIT: Actually, that's not true. The increased atmoshpheric carbon dioxide will probably show up in future ice core samples, like past atmospheric fluctuations show up in today's ice core samples.)

        As for plastic: "Plastic, that ubiquitous pollutant of the oceans, might be detectable by analyzing small samples of this sediment—appearing, like many organic biomarkers in the fossil record, as a rumor of strangely heavy hydrocarbons. Unassuming peaks on a chromatograph would stand in for all of modernity." (from the article linked here)

        1. [8]
          emdash
          Link Parent
          The thing I don't like about this kind of discussion is I feel like it's surreptitiously designed as a scapegoat to discredit or otherwise minimize the effects we're having on our planet, or...

          The thing I don't like about this kind of discussion is I feel like it's surreptitiously designed as a scapegoat to discredit or otherwise minimize the effects we're having on our planet, or ascribe it to some form of "meh, who cares" argument. Now from what I know about you, I don't think this is your viewpoint, but it makes me feel uneasy because I can't help but feel some are using it that way.

          2 votes
          1. [7]
            Algernon_Asimov
            Link Parent
            My interpretation of this article is that it's just about outraged pedantry, rather than than anything political. "How dare we mere humans name a whole epoch after ourselves when, geologically...

            My interpretation of this article is that it's just about outraged pedantry, rather than than anything political. "How dare we mere humans name a whole epoch after ourselves when, geologically speaking, we've barely existed for an eyeblink!"

            That said, I have occasionally responded to climate change panic merchants who scream "The planet is doomed!" by pointing out that the planet and its biosphere will carry on regardless. It has survived mass extinctions and changes of climate before, and this is just another one.

            We do need to keep a bit of perspective about these things. We're not "destroying the planet omg!" We're damaging our civilisation and wrecking our way of life by changing the planet to make things uncomfortable for ourselves. The planet will still be here in a thousand years. What's at issue is whether we will be here, and how we will live. This is a classic example of shitting in one's own nest.

            3 votes
            1. [6]
              emdash
              (edited )
              Link Parent
              I take issue with such an anthropocentric view actually. Personally I think the planet and it’s biodiversity is far more important than ourselves. Worrying about the planet for our own sake...

              I take issue with such an anthropocentric view actually. Personally I think the planet and it’s biodiversity is far more important than ourselves. Worrying about the planet for our own sake screams of hubris. This also ultimately harps back to my comment here that arguing about the exact specifics of what "the planet is doomed" means is time-wasting pedantry.

              2 votes
              1. [4]
                JakeTheDog
                Link Parent
                How so? Important in what way? The real hubris is right there^ in thinking you can make such assertions. The universe doesn't "care". The only part of the universe that does care are the...

                the planet and it’s biodiversity is far more important than ourselves

                How so? Important in what way? The real hubris is right there^ in thinking you can make such assertions. The universe doesn't "care". The only part of the universe that does care are the humans/conscious beings in it, and those beings have their own value system. What you're saying here is that humans are less valuable than the biodiversity. (For the record, I think that humans are only slightly more valuable because of our dependency on biodiversity.)

                The earth and universe will carry on until it's eventual heat death, regardless of what we do. The only thing that matters to us, literally, is how we take care of our home so that we may live comfortably and safely.

                3 votes
                1. [3]
                  emdash
                  Link Parent
                  All you've said is subjective based on your internal belief system. I don't agree with what you're saying at all.

                  All you've said is subjective based on your internal belief system. I don't agree with what you're saying at all.

                  2 votes
                  1. [2]
                    Loire
                    Link Parent
                    It's really not though. What he is saying breaks down to: "Humanity is the only creature that we know of that can appreciate reality". If we are gone, as far as we know we may snuff out the only...

                    It's really not though. What he is saying breaks down to: "Humanity is the only creature that we know of that can appreciate reality". If we are gone, as far as we know we may snuff out the only candle in the darkness. That's not particularly debatable. Humanity is the only creature that has left the planet, studied the cosmos, contemplated the physics that underpins existence, created art, music, philosophy. Sure that is all important because I have a human perspective, but certainly we can agree that it's a little more advanced then eating breeding and dying.

                    That's not to say we shouldn't preserve other life on this planet as best as possible, or that we should take a path that puts humanity above all else, but we should do everything in our power to at least try and preserve our existence. At least until we determine there are others out there with a similiar or even greater ability to appreciate existence.

                    5 votes
                    1. emdash
                      Link Parent
                      I don't think we really can appreciate reality though. We can certainly observe it, but "appreciation" is a bit far. If we really appreciated reality we wouldn't have put ourselves in this...

                      I don't think we really can appreciate reality though. We can certainly observe it, but "appreciation" is a bit far. If we really appreciated reality we wouldn't have put ourselves in this situation to begin with. Those remarkable feats you mention are subjectively human-celebrated events because they're things we can accomplish for who we are. It's exactly what you said: it's a human perspective; and therefore because it's a perspective, it's also subjective.

                      I'd say the first species to walk on land after spending eons in the seas would be just as considerably important to that species as it is to us venturing into space. So what makes our accomplishment "better"? If anything, you have the primordial ooze of which you and I are a descendant of to thank for where we stand today. Surely the accomplishment of life itself is more important than life moving spatially across some pre-defined boundary.

                      I think using that as a meritocratic system to value ourselves over other species or the planet as a whole is misguided. It's the species-level equivalent of "company X is the best at what we do because we're company X".

                      1 vote
              2. Algernon_Asimov
                Link Parent
                I'm not worrying about the planet for our own sake. I'm pointing out that the planet doesn't need worrying about. The planet is fine. Our place on this planet is not fine. We are making this...

                I'm not worrying about the planet for our own sake. I'm pointing out that the planet doesn't need worrying about. The planet is fine.

                Our place on this planet is not fine. We are making this place... not uninhabitable for us, but bloody uncomfortable.

                It is still a bad thing that we're changing the climate and the environment in such a way as to cause the extinction of other species. That is a bad thing. But if we think about life on Earth rather than a specific species, life on Earth is fine. The biodiversity will come back. It has before - at least five times that we know of.

                arguing about the exact specifics of what "the planet is doomed" means is time-wasting pedantry.

                It is important to diagnose a problem correctly in order to be able to fix it. Shouting "The patient is doomed!" does not help to treat someone's cancer.

                1 vote
  3. [8]
    patience_limited
    Link
    As this article points out, on a geological time scale, humans are barely a blink, but we might as well be an asteroid impact in terms of our likely damage to the ecosphere of the planet. I'd...

    As this article points out, on a geological time scale, humans are barely a blink, but we might as well be an asteroid impact in terms of our likely damage to the ecosphere of the planet.

    I'd mentioned the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum event a few days ago as the nearest comparable event to human CO2 emissions. There's no particularly well-supported hypothesis about what triggered the PETM, or other similar but less drastic events.

    The evidence is time-blurred enough that we can only speculate as to whether some ancestral species made the same errors as humanity, only less efficiently.

    5 votes
    1. [7]
      Loire
      Link Parent
      No. That is not at all the case. There are numerous coeval igneous geologic events that would have degassed significant amounts of CO2. Look up the Lac de Gras Kimberlites for example. Any one of...

      The evidence is time-blurred enough that we can only speculate as to whether some ancestral species made the same errors as humanity, only less efficiently.

      No. That is not at all the case.

      There are numerous coeval igneous geologic events that would have degassed significant amounts of CO2. Look up the Lac de Gras Kimberlites for example. Any one of these geologic events eould be enough to cause methane clathrates to start releasing into the atmosphere causing the C13 spike involved with PETM.

      There is literally zero evidence of some sort of Precursor species.

      8 votes
      1. [5]
        Algernon_Asimov
        Link Parent
        Ah, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. :) As this very article points out: That's the point of this article: over geological timescales, most evidence simply gets wiped out and...

        There is literally zero evidence of some sort of Precursor species.

        Ah, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. :)

        As this very article points out:

        If, in the final 7,000 years of their reign, dinosaurs became hyperintelligent, built a civilization, started asteroid mining, and did so for centuries before forgetting to carry the one on an orbital calculation, thereby sending that famous valedictory six-mile space rock hurtling senselessly toward the Earth themselves—it would be virtually impossible to tell.

        That's the point of this article: over geological timescales, most evidence simply gets wiped out and what remains is ambiguous at best. There is zero evidence of a precursor species because there's nearly zero evidence of anything in the long distant past.

        For example, how do you know that some species of troodontid dinosaur didn't evolve intelligence, and build a pre-industrial civilisation? Wood, stone, glass, and metal all erode away over geological timescales. As the writer says, over a long enough timescale, even plastic becomes hard to detect. What if there was a saurian Aristotle, or even a suarian Galileo? We would never know.

        I'm not saying this actually happened. I'm pointing out that a lack of evidence is just that: a lack of evidence. It's not conclusive proof.


        Yes, I've given this some thought before. Troodontids were about human-sized, are described as having large brains compared to their body size, had binocular vision, and were carnivorous/omnivorous. They're perfect candidates to have evolved intelligence and developed techology.

        7 votes
        1. [2]
          Loire
          (edited )
          Link Parent
          But it is the absence of a verifiable thesis. Most, but not all. Precipitous increases in trace elements due to certain activities will create a visible trace in the rock record. We measure the...

          Ah, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. :)

          But it is the absence of a verifiable thesis.

          over geological timescales, most evidence simply gets wiped out and what remains is ambiguous at best. There is zero evidence of a precursor species because there's nearly zero evidence of anything in the long distant past.

          Most, but not all. Precipitous increases in trace elements due to certain activities will create a visible trace in the rock record. We measure the dinosaur extinction by a distinct but very small Iridium layer that marks the so called 'K-T Boundary'. Your pre-Industrial civilization would never leave a trace (unless they set a massive, multi-continent fire that consumed a theorized 90%+ of the worlds plant life) however any advanced civilization that progressed similiar to us will have likely left an identifiable trace in the geologic record.

          The whole point of the Anthrocene and it's (possible) chosen beginning at the Trinity Test, is that we have left clear and recognizablee geochemical signs that do not occur due to natural causes due to our use of nuclearweapons. Radionuclides like 14-Carbon, 239Pu and 36-Chlorine.

          Fossil fuel usage has also left a recognizable, although less in your face distinct, record. The Carbon for the history of industrial age humanity will be severely depleted in Carbon-14 relative to other geologic periods. Coal power generation has also left a unusually concentrated layer of Mercury that will mark the rock record for the "length" of industrialized human history until the end of coal use.

          So, yes, your Troodontids could theoretically have existed in a pre-Industrial state. But they certainly were not going to the moon, powering a large civilization or performing any digital computing.

          A saurian Aristotle is totally possible though.

          7 votes
          1. Algernon_Asimov
            Link Parent
            I never said they were. That's the author's hypothetical example - which I probably should have said I think is extremely unlikely. I specified "pre-industrial", and limited my examples to...

            But they certainly were not going to the moon, powering a large civilization or performing any digital computing.

            I never said they were. That's the author's hypothetical example - which I probably should have said I think is extremely unlikely. I specified "pre-industrial", and limited my examples to classical times, or the Renaissance at the latest. There is a point at which a civilisation would leave geological records, which we have passed but which was not passed until at least the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. However, even a Middle Ages-level civilisation, using wood, stone, metal, and glass, and not using fossil fuels or plastics or rare metals, would not have a big enough effect to leave geological traces.

            3 votes
        2. [2]
          NaraVara
          Link Parent
          After just a few centuries of human industrial activity we've managed to burn out all the easily accessible natural resources from steel to fossil fuels. If another civilization ever reached our...

          Yes, I've given this some thought before. Troodontids were about human-sized, are described as having large brains compared to their body size, had binocular vision, and were carnivorous/omnivorous. They're perfect candidates to have evolved intelligence and developed techology.

          After just a few centuries of human industrial activity we've managed to burn out all the easily accessible natural resources from steel to fossil fuels. If another civilization ever reached our scale and level of technical sophistication they'd have had to have been way way smaller and more judicious about how many resources they used.

          It is possible though, that there were previous civilizations that were intelligent, but felt no need to engage in the sort of consumerism that necessitates massive resource extraction. But if we humans met such a civilization, we'd call them primitive and take them as chattel even if they managed to send some philosopher astronauts to the moon.

          3 votes
          1. Algernon_Asimov
            Link Parent
            I was very careful to specify that these hypothetical predecessors were in a pre-industrial civilisation: no machines. I was also careful to limit my examples to classical times (Aristotle) and...

            I was very careful to specify that these hypothetical predecessors were in a pre-industrial civilisation: no machines. I was also careful to limit my examples to classical times (Aristotle) and the Renaissance (Galileo)- when everything was handmade and consumerism wasn't rife.

            3 votes
      2. patience_limited
        Link Parent
        Consider me enlightened, thanks. I'll maintain that the existence of organisms capable of drastic environmental change is a useful model, though. There's plenty of evidence for the biological...

        Consider me enlightened, thanks.

        I'll maintain that the existence of organisms capable of drastic environmental change is a useful model, though. There's plenty of evidence for the biological oxygenation of Earth's atmosphere, except that process took a couple of billion years.

        The point of the article is that anthropogenic carbon release is taking place so rapidly that the geological record might bear no remarkable trace that we were the cause rather than other processes.

        5 votes