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‘Anthropocene’ Debate Tries To Pin Down When Humans Started Affecting Climate, Geology

A power plant
Wladimir Labeikovsky
Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

No matter where you land on the climate change discussion, humans have become a geophysical force that impacts everything from local ecosystems to the atmosphere itself.

“Humans are having, for a single species, pretty much unprecedented effect on their entire biosphere, such that it could possibly be recorded permanently in the geological record,” University of Oklahoma anthropologist Noah Theriault argues. “If an extraterrestrial species came down and studied our planet sometime in the distant future, they would be able to tell there was some big change right around what we would consider to be the geological present.”

But what do you call that?

The International Commission on Stratigraphy, which tries to standardize geological time periods, has proposed the name “Anthropocene” (anthropo- meaning “human” and –cene meaning “new”). Theriault told KGOU’s World Views it’s not clear when exactly this proposed geological epoch should start – at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution? During the height of post-World War II manufacturing in the United States? Or even thousands of years ago with the advent of agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals?

“Regardless of whether the geologists decide to make this division, it’s worth thinking about these profound effects that we’re having today that aren’t necessarily an inevitable result of being human, but rather a result of the way in which we organize our economy and our society,” Theriault said.

Read Noah Theriault's Contributions To The Blog Inhabiting The Anthropocene

Theriault says the idea of the Anthropocene forces humans to think about the global connections that come with using resources and the effects on the planet. But the concept isn’t as cut-and-dry as “humans win, Earth loses.” Theriault says that simplification overlooks the diversity of human history, and how humans have affected and adapted to their environment.

“Part of what we’re seeing today, and part of what’s leading to this proposal of the Anthropocene as a new epoch, is the sense that humans are becoming very dominant in the ecosystems in which they exist,” Theriault said. “To the extent that they may not be leaving enough space for other species to flourish. And in the long run that could even undermine our own ability to continue existing in the way that we exist now.”

University of Oklahoma anthopologist Noah Theriault
Credit Brian Hardzinski / KGOU
University of Oklahoma anthopologist Noah Theriault

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Noah Theriault, welcome to World Views.


GRILLOT: So, Noah, with your background as an anthropologist and an environmentalist, somebody who studies environment in certain parts of the world, human interaction with the environment, you've become interested in or involved in scholarship in what's called the Anthropocene. This proposed new epoch in the history of the planet that focuses on human interaction with the environment. Can you tell us a little bit about what that means? It's a proposed epoch. It hasn't, I guess, been accepted yet by the geological society. Or who gets to accept these sorts of things? But what is all that all about?

THERIAULT: The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch that is being intensively studied by a group known as The Anthropocene Working Group. It's an interdisciplinary team that was set up by the International Commission on Stratigraphy. And it's up to them to decide whether to officially accept this as a new official geologic epoch in, as you said, the history of the planet. But meanwhile, the term has really become popularized and has become something that scholars, activists, and others across the social sciences, environmental studies, humanities, are using as a way of talking about the fact that humans have really become a geophysical force on the planetary scale that are having impacts on all aspects of the earth's system from local ecosystems to the atmosphere and the climate itself. So the question from a geological point of view is whether to declare a new geologic epoch. But regardless of that, I think part of the reason why geologists and others have started using that term is to really try to draw attention to the fact that humans are having, for a single species, pretty much unprecedented effect on their entire biosphere, such that it could possibly be recorded permanently in the geological record. So that if an extraterrestrial species came and studied our planet sometime in the distant future, they would be able to tell there was some big change right around what we would consider to be the geological present. Because they're still debating whether to put the shift, if they want to put anywhere, at the start of the Industrial Revolution, or maybe in the 1950s, or even perhaps in the advent of agriculture. All of these big events in human history that, in geologic time, have been very recent, but have had very dramatic effects on the planet.

GRILLOT: Well, I think pointing out the extraterrestrials or whoever might come study us someday, or I was thinking along the lines of if humans were to become extinct someday like species before us, that somebody or something that comes after us would be studying these sorts of things. But you’re mentioning of the timing I think is what's really interesting, because from what I can gather some even suggest that you should go back and start this epochal period really at the age of human history from the beginning. But is this really the case? I mean humans, as a species, it seems to me as you've just pointed out with the Industrial Revolution, with the development of technology, maybe with the advent of agriculture and a true impact on the planet in that respect, at least intervention, right? It seems to me like it's kind of an intervention. You're not just living off the planet of what grows naturally. But you're actually intervening and growing things on purpose. So it seems to me like it's difficult to determine when it is that humans had that initial impact, I guess, on the planet.

THERIAULT: Yes, and I tread with some trepidation on the geology of all of this in terms of what standard it would take to declare a new epoch in terms of what sorts of changes in the earth's system would permanently recorded in the stratigraphic record. But I think it's absolutely true that human societies have been having profound impacts on their environments for as long as humans have existed on the planet. You know one of the things that you see when you look at the paleo-archeological record of early human societies as they migrated out of Africa is that as they moved throughout the world, they have very profound impacts, particularly on large mammal species that they hunted. And that of course has cascading effects across an ecosystem. Even hunter-gatherer societies then have profound impacts on their environment. The question I think is whether there's some kind of qualitative and quantitative difference between those types of impacts, and the types of impacts that come along with industrialization, the use of fossil fuels, just the really profound effects that has on things like the nitrogen cycle, the fact that humans are probably bringing about a sixth mass extinction event currently, which as far as I know a single species has never done before in the history of the planet. So I think regardless of whether the geologists decide to make this division, it's worth thinking about these profound effects that we're having today that aren't necessarily an inevitable result of being human, but rather a result of the way in which we organize our economy and our society in particular.

GRILLOT: Well, just to be clear, though, so previous epochs, previous eras, I'm just curious, have largely been focused on geology, and the geological, as we've been talking about, the planet itself physically. Can we suggest that this epoch, the human-planet interaction, includes more atmosphere as well? Obviously we're emitting a lot of things into the atmosphere now. Or has it always been the case that we've taken into consideration not just the geological formations and the physical geography and planet itself, but the atmospheric implications? Because that seems to be relatively new in terms of human impact on what's going on in the atmosphere with the emission of gasses and that sort of thing.

THERIAULT: I think so. I think the fact that humans are impacting the climate in such a profound way today may be new and is definitely part of what has led people to think about changing to a new geological epoch. On the other hand, though, I think the use of fire by humans - both intentionally and unintentionally - goes back a very long time and that can certainly have atmospheric effects even if maybe not to the same degree that the effects that fossil fuel has had. So the use of fire by Native American populations is a very ancient practice, and I've heard Charles Mann describe the Great Plains as one massive buffalo farm. And that was largely maintained through the use of fire. And that certainly would have atmospheric effects at various scales.

GRILLOT: So fires that we see today, of course, and I think you have some examples of some fires, particularly resource-related fires, there's something different about or the same about what we experience today? Fires are in the news a lot, right? Massive wildfires, fires that are out of control that can't be managed. But some are not necessarily man-made or human-made. Some just naturally emerge, and I imagine that's been going on forever and ever.

THERIAULT: Certainly. I mean, lightning can cause fires. Fires can emerge in different kinds of ecosystems for different reasons, and I think they play an important role in ecosystems. Whether they're being used by humans intentionally to prevent the spread of forests and maintain grasslands. Or whether they are part of an ecosystem's way of replenishing the forest and preventing the buildup of a lot of old, dead trees in the forest. But I think, you know, for example, this huge fire we're seeing up in Alberta in Canada near the oil sands, where they had to evacuate almost 90,000 people from a city up there. So they don't know yet what caused that particular fire. But even if it was caused by lightning, a putatively natural cause, it links to the concept of the Anthropocene and the global effects of humanity on the planet, because it's occurring in the context of an unprecedented warm winter. And a broader warming trend that is leading to the winters not being as cool as they used to be. And fire conditions in the spring and summer being much more severe, or the risk of fire being much higher. So you can't attribute any single fire, any single typhoon, and any single event like that to human-caused climate change, per se, but you can observe these trends. And I think one of the virtues of the Anthropocene concept is it forces us to recognize these connections between the ways that humans organize their society and broader effects on the planet. There are, of course, trade-offs and downsides to a concept like the Anthropocene which we can talk about.

GRILLOT: Yeah, I'd like to get to a discussion about the pros and the cons, I guess, of human interaction with the environment. Because let's be clear, it seems to me that a lot of the commentary publicly discussed, the debate, is really about the negative effect that humans have on their environment. A "humans win, planet loses" situation. You don't really hear about the benefits of that relationship so much as you hear about the costs of the relationship. Is it truly the case that humans are just horrible for the planet and so that interaction is really one-sided? Humans taking from the planet and the planet struggling to revive or regenerate. And I've heard people argue before that humans are a species. And the planet's been around for a long, long time. And humans aren't going to destroy the planet. They're using the planet. They need to replenish and replace and reuse all of those things. Conserve. But the planet is a resilient thing. So is that the case? Are there benefits for the way in which humans interact with the environment? Or is it just strictly a one-sided relationship?

THERIAULT: Well, I'm glad you asked this question because I had said that one of the virtues of the Anthropocene is that forces us to think about these global connections and maybe even promotes some accountability around humans' planetary effects. On the other hand, though, I think one of the downsides to this concept is that it does sort-of obscure the variability that exists in human relationships with the environment. And it sort-of implies that perhaps this is our destiny somehow as a species is to either wreck or either dominate our planet in this way. And I think that overlooks not only a huge amount of diversity in human history, but a huge amount of diversity in the present. Both in terms of human adaptations to their environments and the effects that those have on the environment - positive and negative. And also in terms of responsibility for the things, the conditions, that lead us to want to propose a new geological epoch like the Anthropocene. So I think whether a particular environmental effect is positive or negative is always going to depend on whatever value system you're using to evaluate it. But I think if we're thinking about adaptations that might be sustainable in the sense of not leading to sort-of long-term degradation of an ecosystem, humans are perfectly capable of that. And we've seen that, including where I do research in the Philippines, with people who practice swidden agriculture, which over the long term can be a sustainable adaptation to a tropical forest ecosystem. Perhaps even can increase the biodiversity of an ecosystem by leading to a variability in the maturity level of the forest to create niches for different species that wouldn't be able to live in a more homogenous forest. But I think humans are always creating niches for both themselves and other species. It just kind of depends on what those other species are and whether we're leaving room for a wide enough array of other species in our environments that we can have flourishing ecosystems. And I think part of what we're seeing today, and part of what's leading to this proposal of the Anthropocene as a new epoch, is the sense that humans are becoming very dominant in the ecosystems in which they exist. To the extent that they may be not leaving enough space for other species to flourish. And in the long run that could even undermine our own ability to continue existing in the way that exist now.

GRILLOT: So needing to find a mutually beneficial relationship. I think the word that you said and that I want to pick up on, and we can end here, because we're talking about whether there should be an epoch or not, and obviously there's a lot of research and consideration going into that. But at the end of the day there's got to be some sort of proposal in terms of how should we behave. And your word "sustainable," right? That there should be some consideration among the human population to maintain a sustainable relationship between our environment. Is that basically the bottom line of this whole discussion?

THERIAULT: I think so. I think part of what we need to think about as a society, perhaps even as a species to the extent that that's possible is how can we enable a good life for ourselves without undermining the ability of other species? Or maybe perhaps thinking more holistically of whole ecosystems to persist and to reproduce themselves and not be destroyed by our own pursuit of a good life? That's obviously a very difficult and fraught question that I don't think there's any simple answer to. And I think sustainability really needs to be defined specifically to be a workable concept to start with. But I do think that pursuing sustainable ways of pursuing a good life is the route that we need to take.

GRILLOT: Alright, well I'm sure we could go on and on about that as well. There are of course many perspectives on this relationship between humans and the environment. Noah, thank you so much for being here and sharing your thoughts with us today.

THERIAULT: Thank you very much.

Copyright © 2016 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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