Human impacts on the environment have achieved such unprecedented levels that scientists such as Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer have argued that we are now living in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.
Scientists use the term “epoch” to categorize periods in Earth’s geological history in terms of particular events and natural processes. Although the current epoch (dating back 11,700 years) is often referred to as the Holocene, the current influence of human actions on the natural environment is causing many scientists to reconsider today’s geological designation.
Humans have always had an impact on the natural environment. Ever since we starting domesticating plants and animals for our use and shaping ecosystems for the benefit of human societies, we have altered the natural environment, albeit in small ways. But as human societies have become more complex and “technologically advanced” we have had bigger and bigger impacts on the environment. Today, human civilization has advanced to the point where we are extracting resources at unprecedented levels, polluting rivers and oceans, relying on coal and other dirty fossil fuels for energy destroying biodiversity, and altering the earth’s climate.
It is therefore undeniable that anthropogenic processes are shaping the natural environment in a massive way. As Paul Crutzen and Christian Scwägerl asserted in a recent article in Yale Environment 360 “what we do now already affects the planet of the year 3000 or even 50,000.”
But what I like about the term “anthropocene” is that it is not a value judgement. It does not criticize humans for their influence on the environment; it merely draws attention to the fact that our actions influence the environment. Therefore, it is up to us to determine the consequences of our actions.
We have the power both to destroy or help the environment. Unfortunately, the current trajectory of human society suggests irreversible environmental degradation and changing climatic conditions. However, humanity can tap into its vast expanses of knowledge and technological expertise to alter our present course and properly align humanity with the natural systems on which we depend.
Image credit: NASA/GSFC: The night lights of North America seen from space