Geologists have an informal name for the history of human influence on the Earth. They call it the Anthropocene. It makes sense. We have been raiding the earth for its contents, and polluting its atmosphere, land and oceans for as long as we’ve been here, and it shows. By any objective perspective other than our own, we are a pestilential species. We consume, waste and fail to replace everything we can, with  little regard for consequences beyond our own immediate short-term needs and wants. Between excavation, erosion, dredgings, landfills and countless other alterations of the lithosphere, evidence of human agency in the cumulative effects studied by geology is both clear and non-trivial.

As for raiding resources, I could list a hundred things we’ll drill, mine or harvest out of the planet and never replace — as if it were in our power to do so — but instead I’ll point to just one small member of the periodic table: helium. Next to hydrogen, it’s the second lightest element, with just two electrons and two protons. Also, next to hydrogen, it is the second most abundant, comprising nearly a quarter of the universe’s elemental mass.  It is also one of the first elements to be created out of the big bang, and remains essential to growing and lighting up stars.

Helium is made in two places: burning stars and rotting rock. Humans can do lots of great stuff, but so far making helium isn’t one of them. Still, naturally, we’ve been using that up: extracting it away, like we do so much else. Eventually, we’ll run out.

Heavy elements are also in short supply. When a planet forms, the heaviest elements sink to the core. The main reason we have gold, nickel, platinum, tungsten, titanium and many other attractive and helpful elements laying around the surface or within mine-able distance below is that meteorites put them there, long ago. At our current rate of consumption, we’ll be mining the moon and asteroids for them. If we’re still around.

Meanwhile the planet’s climates are heating up. Whether or not one ascribes this to human influence matters less than the fact that it is happening. NASA has been doing a fine job of examining symptoms and causes. Among the symptoms are the melting of Greenland and the Arctic. Lots of bad things are bound to happen. Seas rising. Droughts and floods. Methane releases. Bill McKibben is another good source of data and worry. He’s the main dude behind 350.org, named after what many scientists believe is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: 350 parts per million. We’re over that now, at about 392. (Bonus link.)

The main thing to expect, in the short term — the next few dozen or hundreds of years — is rising sea levels, which will move coastlines far inland for much of the world, change ecosystems pretty much everywhere, and alter the way the whole food web works.

Here in the U.S., neither major political party has paid much attention to this. On the whole the Republicans are skeptical about it. The Democrats care about it, but don’t want to make a big issue of it. The White House has nice things to say, but has to reconcile present economic growth imperatives with the need to save the planet from humans in the long run.

I’m not going to tell you how to vote, or how I’m going to vote, because I don’t want this to be about that. What I’m talking about here is evolution, not election. That’s the issue. Can we evolve to be symbiotic with the rest of the species on Earth? Or will we remain a plague?

Politics is for seasons. Evolution is inevitable. One way or another.

(The photo at the top is one among many I’ve shot flying over Greenland — a place that’s changing faster, perhaps, than any other large landform on Earth.)

[18 September...] I met and got some great hang time with Michael Schwartz (@Sustainism) of Sustainism fame, at PICNIC in Amsterdam, and found ourselves of one, or at least overlapping, mind on many things. I don’t want to let the connection drop, so I’m putting a quick shout-out here, before moving on to the next, and much-belated, post.

Also, speaking of the anthropocene, dig The ‘Anthropocene’ as Environmental Meme and/or Geological Epoch, in Dot Earth, by Andrew Revkin, in The New York Times. I met him at an event several years ago and let the contact go slack. Now I’m reeling it in a bit. :-) Here’s why his work is especially germane to the topic of this here post:  “Largely because of my early writing on humans as a geological force, I am a member of the a working group on the Anthropocene established by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy.” Keep up the good work, Andy.

19 comments

  1. Markus’s avatar

    So what? 90% of all times the earth has been without any ice at all. We have fastened melting, no doubt, but it would have happened anyways. Also, where are all those minerals we mine disappearing to? We’ll be mining our own dumpsters soon. And the Helium issue is solved by fusion in twenty years. So – maybe we won’t be able as mankind to support seven billion or more people. I don’t think that would be so bad at all. Three billion will do too. Don’t you think? It’s an evolutionary process – and we humans as the most adaptable species ever won’t have much trouble adapting to the new environment and conditions of living. The current state of simple technology and overpopulation is only a step into a smarter, smaller (in numbers) and better future.

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    By that logic, all bad things are okay because everything will work out in the end. You actually think it’s fine to waste more than half the human population?

  3. Brian Ahier’s avatar

    I wonder how much human population is appropriate?

  4. Martin’s avatar

    Personally i would say its a lack of information, ignorance or ability to look beyond your own personal agenda that creates the problems. I agree on the fact that Greenland are rapidly changing, but even if people realized this and got more knowledge about the situation id’ reckon nothing would change, its simply not having consequences for people personally, therefore they tend to see the problem as irrelevant.

  5. Spooked Wolf’s avatar

    Jim Morrison (qua poet, not rock star) said it best: “I tell you this: No eternal reward will forgive us now for raping the dawn.” Also, “The Matrix” has a marvelous scene in which one of the bad guys speaks to one of the good guys about humanity as a virus. No kidding. We may(or not!) hold Light, Spirit, Love, God & other high and lofty thoughts, feelings, and actions within our individual micro-worlds, but as a species in general? Despicable: greed, hubris from the very beginning. Even aboriginals, who seem to be or have been closest to the pulse of the Earth, are guilty — think Chaco Canyon in New Mexico & why it was deserted. For myself, I will continue doing my best to not raid/rape the Earth, but methinks it’s a bit like pissing against the wind, & a strong one at that.

  6. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Spooked Wolf, you are a man after my own record collection.

    I am an original hard-core Doors fan.

    And The Matrix (through part II) is (are) my favorite movie(s).

    Another from Jim:

    “What have they done to the Earth?
    What have they done to our fair sister?
    Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her.
    Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn and
    Tied her with fences and
    Dragged her down.

    With your ear down
    To the ground.

    I hear a very gentle sound.

    The scream of the butterfly…”

    From “When the Music’s Over” on the Strange Days album.

    Piss on, brother. And keep listening. Can’t hurt.

  7. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Spooked Wolf, you are a man after my own record collection.

    I am an original hard-core Doors fan.

    And The Matrix (through part II) is (are) my favorite movie(s).

    Another from Jim:

    “What have they done to the Earth?
    What have they done to our fair sister?
    Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her.
    Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn and
    Tied her with fences and
    Dragged her down.”

    From “When the Music’s Over” on the Strange Days album.

    Piss on, brother. And keep listening. Can’t hurt.

  8. Chip’s avatar

    Doc
    Many many comments come to mind, but will be brief
    Doors – !!!

    Other : James LoveLock
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Lovelock

    Was reading him decades ago …
    hunkered down in NWMich, building a fair, just and resilient food network (just in case)

  9. Patrick’s avatar

    Are we to be the locusts or the honey bee? How the earthy has been over time is not relevant. How are we being right now is what matters. How are we preparing to stay warm and well fed, and will we bother to make that possible for others?
    If you acknowledge the reality of the changes coming, embrace the concept, get to despair as soon as possible so you can pass through acceptance and get on to the optimism required to reinvent everything for a sustainable future.

  10. mad.madrasi’s avatar

    I can only think of Sri Aurobindo’s couplet:

    A scientist played with atoms and blew out -
    The Universe before God had time to shout!

  11. Carl’s avatar

    Does this really matter?
    Humans deserve this for what they have done to the earth for the past 30 years.
    Nobody seems to care about global warming and all the wars that are being fought seems to boil down to one resource: Oil.

  12. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Carl: so do nothing?

  13. Mary’s avatar

    Markus: By that logic, it wouldn’t be so bad to just throw you and your family in the lot of the population to be wasted. After all, the world population is just a number, and you are part of that number, right? Dispensable and insignificant. Of course I’m not trying to threaten you, but I hope you realize how cold you sounded with that comment.

    As for mining precious metals such as tungsten and titanium, is there any way to replace the minerals mined? Would the only solution be to NOT mine at all? This whole article addresses the issues without discussing any solutions, and this is the first time I’ve come across an article that highlights mining as a major problem to the earth’s demise.

  14. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Mary, I believe the only terrestrial source of mined-out heavy metals is landfills. So I’m sure we’ll be mining those eventually.

    In some cases the choice not to mine would also be the choice not to have microcircuits, medical diagnostic machinery and other technologies using rare metals.

    As for helium, Markus may be right that helium shortages will be “solved by fusion” eventually. But I wouldn’t count on it.

    Earth is about all we’ve got. Nature gave us an unusual sum of stuff to build with here, and the cycle of life and death provides a great deal more. (For example, concrete, asphalt, plastics, limestone, travertine, marble, rubber, paint, natural fabrics and sources of energy for countless purposes.) But our species has shown almost nothing other than oblivity to consequences of rapacious and shorted-sighted exploitation, waste and ruin of natural resources — and the millions-year-long processes by the grace of which we have many of those to use in the first place.

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