A Bitter Pill
People don’t like to hear bad news. But sometimes we need to. As most people know, the biosphere is in trouble. We’ve heard it most of our lives. Overpopulation, rampant pollution, species extinction, deforestation, mountaintop mining and removal, ocean depletion and acidification, habitat destruction, the cutting off of migration routes, climate change, the ozone hole, and on and on.
When did this all start? The answers vary, with some tracing the start back to the beginnings of human civilization. The Pleistocene Overkill Hypothesis states that as soon as people began to spread over the world extinctions of the world’s megafauna began in earnest. Certainly the timing looks right. Others put the main start of the problem at the beginning of the industrial revolution ~1750 or so. And that would be a logical conclusion as well. With that revolution and all the benefits it afforded us, resource extraction took off and human numbers, helped by medical advances which allowed people to live longer lives, did as well. Mass pollution of air, sea and land, previously largely unknown, began to spread.
But according to some who have done the math, what went before merely set the stage for the convergence – in around 1950, and thereafter, the rapid acceleration – of all of these various woes. By that time the global apparatus was in place to begin, in essence, the raping of the planet.
In 1999, Peter Raven, president of AAAS, or the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s premier science body, stated in the Forward to the AAAS Atlas of Population & Environment:
“Where do we stand in our efforts to achieve a sustainable world? Clearly, the past half century has been a traumatic one, as the collective impact of human numbers, affluence (consumption per individual) and our choices of technology continue to exploit rapidly an increasing proportion of the world’s resources at an unsustainable rate….At any event, during a remarkably short period of time, we have lost a quarter of the world’s topsoil and a fifth of its agricultural land, altered the composition of the atmosphere profoundly, and destroyed a major proportion of our forests and other natural habitats without replacing them. Worst of all, we have driven the rate of biological extinction, the permanent loss of species, up several hundred times beyond its historical levels, and are threatened with the loss of a majority of all species by the end of the 21st century. As George Schaller, the noted conservationist, has put it, “We cannot afford another century like this one” (i.e., the 20th century).”
What happened in and around 1950? The 50s are said to have been a “golden age” by some. The war was over, there was an oil boom, and consumerism took off. Cookie cutter communities sprang up like mushrooms, and people filled them with all the things they saw advertised on their new television sets. Environmentalism, as a personal responsibility, was pretty much non-existant.
Recently, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme corroborated this timetable. Some quotes from the press release:
“When we first aggregated these datasets, we expected to see major changes but what surprised us was the timing. Almost all graphs show the same pattern. The most dramatic shifts have occurred since 1950. We can say that around 1950 was the start of the Great Acceleration,” said Professor Steffen, a researcher at the Australian National University and the Stockholm Resilience Centre.
“After 1950 you can see that major Earth System changes became directly linked to changes largely related to the global economic system. This is a new phenomenon and indicates that humanity has a new responsibility at a global level for the planet,” he added.
“The Great Acceleration trends support the proposal that Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, coined by researchers Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000.
“It is only beyond the mid-20th century that there is clear evidence for fundamental shifts in the state and functioning of the Earth System that are beyond the range of variability of the Holocene, and driven by human activities and not by natural variability.
“Furthermore, choosing the beginning of the Great Acceleration leads to a possible specific start date: when the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert on Monday 16 July 1945.*
“Radioactive isotopes from this detonation were emitted to the atmosphere and spread worldwide entering the sedimentary record to provide a unique signal of the start of the Great Acceleration, a signal that is unequivocally attributable to human activities.”
Thus, they propose that the Holocene epoch ended (it began some 11,700 years ago) and a new epoch, the Anthropocene – the human era – began in 1945.
Following is an observation made by Jeremy Rifkin that comes to mind when I think of this.
“The flip side of urbanization is what we are leaving behind on our way to a world of hundred-story office buildings, high-rise residences and landscapes of glass, cement, artificial light and electronic interconnectivity. It’s no accident that as we celebrate the urbanization of the world, we are quickly approaching another historic watershed: the disappearance of the wild. Rising population; growing consumption of food, water and building materials; expanding road and rail transport; and urban sprawl continue to encroach on the remaining wild, pushing it to extinction.” ~ Jeremy Rifkin. Washington Post. Sunday,December 17, 2006. The Risks of Too Much City.
The human era. Let it not mean the end of the natural.
*Another notable milestone was the explosion in the production and use of synthetic plastics beginning around 1950.
“Since the end of World War II, plastics have proliferated, becoming a part of nearly everything we use in nearly every aspect of daily life. Yearly production has grown from 2 million metric tons of plastic in 1950 to 380 million metric tons in 2015.” says Quartz in referring to a study on the topic.
Video from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).