At a scientific meeting like the IBS, most of the presentations detail specific, narrowly focused studies, the bricks and mortar of the scientific edifice. But sometimes there are fora in which we get to explore BIG IDEAS. One of the Saturday sessions at the IBS meeting delved into an important recent big idea by examining The Biogeography of the Anthropocene.
So what’s the big idea? The Anthropocene. It has been proposed as a new geological epoch reflecting the emergence of humanity as a global force of nature, on a par with the other phenomena that shape the planet, things like asteroid impacts, glacial cycles, massive volcanism, and plate tectonics. You get the idea if you take a look at our global transportation system. We are big.
But what is the evidence for the dawning of the Anthropocene? That was the topic of the first talk of the session, by Tony Barnosky from UC Berkeley. For you see, the Anthropocene is an epoch that does not yet officially exist. It is being considered by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which, after careful consideration, will deliver a verdict on the status of the Anthropocene in 2016. Barnosky is part of the working group doing that careful consideration.
What was most interesting for me was that Barnosky’s talk was not about the abundant current evidence for human impact, but about how those stalwart stratigraphers would go about delineating the boundary of the Anthropocene. He emphasized that while we think of epochs as periods of time, and thus ultimately intangible, they are in fact defined by the most tangible of earthly things: rocks. Each age in the geological time scale corresponds to specific rock strata deposited during that period in Earth’s vast history, and the boundaries of the period must be clearly defined by globally observable stratigraphic zones. In particular, biostratigraphic zones, delineating particular changes in fossil assemblages, have been instrumental in defining distinct geological epochs. And like any other epoch, the Anthropocene requires a stratigraphic definition.
Listening to Barnosky, I imagined a time far in the future, tens of millions of years after the last human passed away, our species extinct, a ghost glimpsed in fossils, artifacts, and fragmented, indecipherable texts and codes. If some newly sentient and scientific creature were to arise on Earth (or, if you prefer, arrive on a spaceship) equipped with rock hammers and microscopes, how would they recognize the fact that a single species of (at least semi-) intelligent primate had come to dominate the biosphere and change the planet?
According to Barnosky, ample fossil evidence will point to big biogeographic and biogeochemical changes centered around our present geological instant (mid to late 20th century). For example, one future paleontologist, a specialist in fossil seeds, will note not only a global proliferation of maize seeds out of what was once North America, but also a synchronous differentiation of many new forms in the lineage, like the super sweet varieties we enjoy every summer here in Ohio. Another paleobotanist will note that in the same strata, so many newly introduced plant species appear in Australian fossil assemblages that they come to outnumber the previously recorded native species in a geological instant. In a separate publication, an invertebrate paleontologist will observe over the same period a global homogenization of marine fossils, transported worldwide by our shipping fleets. Bivalves isolated to the western Pacific in earlier strata will appear in north Atlantic deposits or on the coasts of the Indian Ocean. The title of her paper might be “Suddenly, everything is everywhere.” Another rock hound will note that in many marine deposits, this change in the invertebrate assemblage is associated with another sort of biostratigraphic zone, a horizon of microscopic shards of plastic, as dazzling in its array of colors and chemical composition as it is notable for its depth. The flattened remnants of our settlements and road networks, even the radioactive traces of our flirtations with nuclear power and nuclear weapons, all of these stratigraphic features will coincide. Slowly, those strange and wonderful new scientists will piece together a story, chronicling the biological evolution, cultural emergence, and perhaps inevitable decline of our species, the authors of our own geological epoch.
But as I listened to Barnosky’s presentation, I started to wonder not about the strata at the base of the Anthropocene, which he seeks to define its beginning, but about those layers of rock yet to be laid down. What story will they tell of humanity after its global emergence? Will they document a cataclysm of geological upheaval and mass extinction, like those that followed the Great Oxygenation Event or the Chicxulub impact? Or will those layers tell a new story, one never before seen in the history of life on Earth, of a species that sought to mitigate its newfound global impact in order to maintain a sustainable planet? What will those future paleontologists read of our own future?
Recognizing the Anthropocene is a sort of coming-of-age for our species, an acknowledgement that we can no longer live as simple children of nature, grabbing what we need or desire and discharging our waste without regard for our impact on the rest of the planet. More than just a new box on the geologic time scale, it is a first step towards “putting away childish things” and taking responsibility for our collective actions. We have a choice, and the future is watching.