Such as contemplating Anthropocene, the Age of Man, also his undoing.
By Sopan Joshi | Grist Media [ Published on Yahoo! Originals on 5 June 2014 ]
What message are you going to post on this World Environment Day (WED; you didn’t think you could escape the acronym, did you).
If you have a profound thought to post on your timeline, stop right now. You might want to save it three days, for World Oceans Day on June 8, which has its own website colored – yes, you guessed it – blue.
Actually, go ahead. There are probably several websites that will provide you content. Try the UN Environment Program, which links to a sweet editorial by the oh-so-dishy Ian Somerhalder – right there is a pretty picture to go with a morally uplifting message.
While you are at it, make a note of Global Wind Day on June 15. If you live in the US or have friends and relations there, you may want to tip them off about Garbage Man Day on June 17 – which, lest you forget, is also the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought.
The month of May – observed in the US as Bike Month and also as Mental Health Awareness Month – is full of environmental opportunities that I missed. There was the International Migratory Bird Day (May 3), World Biodiversity Day (May 22), Bike-to-Work Day (third Friday of the month). May 31 was No-Tobacco Day, observed with several adverts; but it was also Save Your Hearing Day, which didn’t make a whimper even.
That’s the trouble with our age: too much environment, too little time. Sample the Wiki page for environmental dates, and you’ll know what I mean. Which is why there are sites like Cute Calendar. How else will I know that July 6 is World Kiss Day and July 26 Aunt and Uncle Day? But this is WED, so let’s not lose the weighty dignity of the occasion.
Among Environment Day classics is a speech by Chief Seattle, which he delivered on March 11, 1854, when white settlers were negotiating the sale or surrender of native American land. There are several versions of the speech by this wise leader, who also wrote a letter to the then US president Franklin Pierce. Both the speech and letter paint a picture of the native American living in harmony with nature, and the European settlers bringing that idyllic world to an end.
The speech’s popularity grew along with environmentalism. In 1992, religious leaders from around the world were asked to read the speech by the organizers of Earth Day (April 22, not to be confused with March 22, World Water Day). The speech is readily quoted by environmentalists as well as activists working for indigenous people. The speech continues to nurture the idea of the noble savage in the world of social media.
Only nobody knows for sure whether the chief actually said those words. The only source of that speech is a newspaper article in 1887 – 33 years later – by a doctor called Henry A Smith.
“Does it really make any difference today whether the oration in question actually originated with Chief Seattle in 1855 or with Dr Smith in 1887? Of course it matters, because this memorable statement loses its moral force and validity if it is the literary creation of a frontier physician rather than the thinking of an articulate and wise Indian leader. Noble thoughts based on a lie lose their nobility,” wrote Jerry L Clark of the US National Archives and Records Administration in 1985.
This does not deter people looking for inspiration; one website acknowledges the historical inaccuracy, but says it will not “change the text above because of its impact”. It is not difficult to find others who find comfort in these words, despite several pieces warning about its inaccuracy. The craving for words of ancient wisdom is not readily kept within the bounds of non-fiction.
The noble-savage-living-at-peace-with-nature stereotype is contested by the likes of Napoleon Chagnon, a controversial anthropologist condemned by activists fighting for indigenous people, who blame him for perpetuating the idea of the brutal savage.
Why visit such ideas on WED, a marketing occasion to promote environmentally-friendly thoughts? Because the nature of Man is now central to the state of the environment. It is undisputed that the current environmental crises – from climate change to the contamination of soil and water sources – are the consequences of the Industrial Revolution and modernity, beginning in Europe in the mid-18th century.
For we live in the Anthropocene
Yet the story of Homo sapiens dramatically altering Earth begins much earlier – and not in Europe. There is reason to suspect climate change began with the deforestation that preceded agriculture. The growth of farming and cities, which created civilization and the success of humans, was made possible by a warm period that began about 11,700 years ago, an interglacial period called the Holocene, a Greek word meaning ‘entirely new’.
Lest we forget, Homo sapiens is at least 200,000 years old. It is only in the Holocene that humankind has progressed rapidly from Stone Age to Bronze Age to Iron Age. Climate data deciphered from the ice core of Antarctica has shown that Earth’s environment “has been unusually stable for the past 10,000 years”. The Holocene is our comfort zone, making possible everything from food surplus to cities, from democratic elections to Facebook, from colonialism to communism, from the Congress to the BJP.
Take out the stability of the Holocene and you may have to stop reading this and readying for some hunting-gathering.
Humankind’s dramatic success in the Holocene has meant we are consuming Earth’s resources – the forest, the fertility of the soil, the carbon locked in fossil fuels like coal and petroleum – at a rapid pace. We are converting those resources into a useless form.
In 2009, a group of 29 scientists created a list of nine Planetary Boundaries that give a safe operating space for humanity. Of these nine, three boundaries are in the danger zone: biodiversity loss (species extinctions), the nitrogen cycle (a glut of nitrogen due to synthetic fertilizers), and the carbon cycle (the greenhouse effect). The latter two are still in a range that can be corrected if humankind were to undergo a large-scale – and unimaginable – transformation. The species extinction rate, however, is completely out of control.
One of the authors of this paper is the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who in the 1970s showed how human behavior was depleting the ozone layer; he got the 1995 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work. Crutzen proposed in 2000 a term for the current geological epoch that began in 1784 with James Watts’ invention of the steam engine. He called it the Anthropocene, the age of man. By 2016 this term may get official approval, forcing changes in geology textbooks.
In this period the biggest driver of planetary changes is one species: us. This also means the climatic comfort of the Holocene is gone.
Has the bubble burst?
The bulk of the planetary changes that have forced this new term are bad for humankind and the innumerable species on which depends our survival. Scientists are now coming around to the fact that we are in the middle of the sixth major mass extinction. In February this year, American journalist Elizabeth Kolbert released her extraordinary book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. (There’s a book to post on your timeline, order online, or gift to a friend on the occasion of WED.)
Of the five great extinctions of life on Earth – deciphered in the fossil record – the greatest was the third, the Permian-Triassic extinction event that occurred 252 million years ago. Called the Great Dying, it wiped out 70-90 percent of all species that existed then; even insects perished in this. It took millions of years for life to recover on Earth.
The first extinction event happened 442 million years ago and is called the Orovician-Silurian mass extinction. The fifth and the last major mass extinction happened 66 million years ago. It wiped out the dinosaurs. Scientists are increasingly veering around to accept that an asteroid colliding into Earth caused that apocalypse. Kolbert writes on science for The New Yorker magazine. She travelled around the world to record disappearing species, and got up close and personal with scores of scientists who are investigating these extinctions. She’s added a lot of strength to scientists who believe this is Earth’s sixth major mass extinction. This time, the asteroid is us, she argues.
These extinctions did not begin with the modern age, though. There is reason to suspect that there is something dramatic about the omnivorous Homo sapiens that the species leaves a trail of extinctions. Fossil evidence has shown that up to 50,000 years ago, there were several large animals across continents. Mammoths and mastodons larger than today’s elephants, a rhinoceros-sized wombat that roamed Australia, several large animals that are clubbed by zoologists into the term megafauna. They included animals that had survived several ice ages over the past 50 million years.
They began to disappear suddenly and dramatically, first in Africa and Asia, then Europe, then Australia and then in the Americas. Their extinction is proved in the fossil record, but the reason is not established yet. One school of scientists says it was climate change, another says diseases and epidemics. Some say it was a mix of reasons. The explanation that is increasingly gaining acceptance among scientists, though, is the hunting (or blitzkrieg) hypothesis. It claims that as humans migrated out of Africa, they hunted these large animals to extinction.
Geoscientist Paul S Martin proposed this theory in the 1960s. The most remarkable aspect of his work comes through in just one graphic. It shows the number of megafauna species on three continents over the course of the past 100,000 years. The number declines rapidly after Homo sapiens enters and spreads in each continent. The extinctions begin in Africa with humans spreading there, but the decline is not very steep. Scientists estimate this is due to the fact that animals in Africa had evolved along with humans, so they could not be caught unawares.
Be it Australia or North and South Americas, several large animals went extinct a little after human tools become evident in the fossil record. These extinctions only intensified with the onset of the Holocene. Martin died in 2010 but his influence is only growing.
Even the scientists who believe these extinctions were due to climate change argue only about the scale of extinctions due to overkill. It is established that humans caused large-scale extinctions on islands much before the Industrial Revolution. “Human arrival in Madagascar is associated with the extinction of all of the island’s megafauna,” writes the zoologist Samuel Turvey.
Megafauna extinctions raise some unnerving questions about the nature of Man, whether modern or traditional, noble savage or brutal savage – and regardless of your carbon footprint, regardless of whether you drive an SUV or bicycle. It indicates the possibility that our success as a species has had terrible consequences for other forms of life. Especially large animals that fascinated pre-historic man to draw their pictures on cave walls.
Large animals have a critical role in the ecology. Their absence or presence can result in physical changes in the landscape. Elephants are important for the propagation of certain trees that co-evolved with them, and have learnt to rely on elephants for their survival. Take out the elephants and those trees suffer. The most storied example of how megafauna influence their surroundings, though, is of the reintroduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s.
Brought back after 70 years to the world’s first national park, wolves controlled populations of overgrazing herbivores and led to greater biodiversity. Environmentalist George Monbiot made a short film titled ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’ (here’s a link to post on your timeline today). This gives a fair idea of the role of large animals before they became extinct over the past 50,000 years. It also raises a haunting question: what ecological changes followed their extinction?
The pace of human success is directly related to species extinctions, which have increased rapidly since the dawn of the Industrial Age. The human population in the year 1900 stood at 1.6 billion. It has since nearly quadrupled to about 7.2 billion. This has been possible due to food being grown on ever-greater land that is taken away from forests. Artificial nitrogen produced through the Haber-Bosch process – the greatest invention of the past century that was the “detonator of the population explosion” – is now estimated to support about 40 percent of the total human population.
Homo sapiens means ‘wise man’ in Latin. How wise are we?
Save the planet!
What can we do to save ourselves from ourselves? Consider the efforts of the greatest government on our planet, the United Nations. At the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, leaders from across the world signed three treaties for environmental conservation. There was a treaty each on biodiversity, desertification and climate change. The first two were damp squibs right from the beginning; industrialized countries, which have little biodiversity and don’t face the dire threat of desertification, are not interested in them.
The Climate Change Convention, on the other hand, is the most hyped treaty. Each year in November-December, a UN conference is held to negotiate means to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to thwart climate change – 20 such conferences of parties have been concluded by now. Each such conference is preceded by hype; it is the norm to call it the last chance to save the planet. Each conference ends with national governments stifling any progress through cynical negotiations. For the price of averting climate change is to slow or reduce the consumption of resources, especially fossil fuels. Which means slowing down economic development. Which government will want to do that?
So governments do the next best thing, which is to produce a lot of politically correct promises. Occasions like Earth Day and Environment Day are useful for that. The popular media is awash with green advertisements; newspapers and magazines bring out special pages and issues to justify those adverts, full of feel-good stories with messages of hope. Children are encouraged to be sensitive towards the environment (because adults couldn’t be bothered).
Most popular environmental discussions follow one of two idioms. The first is the cynical jargon of diplomatic negotiators, who are trying to find the exact legal clause that makes their government look better without having to do anything.
The second is the feel-good language spawned by the counter-culture in California in the 1960s. It is hardly a surprise that a cult of Earth like the Blue Marble has its roots in 1966 in San Francisco, California – one of its variations is the save-the-planet images.
The counter-culture became a vehicle of environmentalism around the world. It also spawned the IT revolution in California, creating the Silicon Valley. No wonder the World Environment Day does so well in social media platforms. It’s only fair that Chief Seattle speech is such an attraction on such dates. He represented a people facing defeat, anonymity and destruction.
If we really were to develop so much that we become the greatest threat to several key forms of life, we won’t be the first species to do that. The Great Dying may have been caused by the spectacular success of a bacteria called methanosarcina. The oceans turned acidic due to their methane emissions; the addition of carbon in the air led to rapid global warming. Both these things have begun to happen now, although the scale is not comparable at all. Methanosarcina, meanwhile, receded to the depths of the oceans, but is also found in landfills and the human gut.
The Anthropocene may be the age of humans, but we surely are not in control of it. As a species, we are sitting in a vehicle hurtling down a slope at a fast speed with no brake and no steering. Our economic growth depends on consuming natural resources. Even as humans prosper and tame more resources, we’re setting in motion cycles that can thrive at our cost. They are called invasive alien species. You can find their examples in a patch of green around you. They include parthenium and lantana and eupatorium, among India’s most persistent weeds.
There will also be new diseases. In his book Spillover, science writer David Quammen dwells on zoonotic diseases like bird flu and SARS and the West Nile Virus and HIV/AIDS that have come to us from animals; in some cases because we have destroyed their habitat. “The next big and murderous human pandemic, the one that kills us in millions, will be caused by a new disease – new to humans, anyway. The bug that’s responsible will be strange, unfamiliar, but it won’t come from outer space. Odds are that the killer pathogen – most likely a virus – will spill over into humans from a nonhuman animal,” he says on his website.
Scientists are quirky tribe. Their calendars expand from ages to epochs and periods, to eras and eons and supereons. They can cover a few million years in a matter of a few paragraphs. The Boring Billion can sound like an exciting TV series. But they are afforded little space in either the government jargon of environment or in save-the-world catchphrases that follow cutesy environmentalist calendars earmarked like birthdays and anniversaries.
It takes a stand-up comedian to get their message. In 1992, more than two months before the Rio Summit got going on June 3, shock-comic George Carlin performed a show on April 24. “Save the planet? We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet. We haven’t learned to help one another,” he ranted (warning: foul language). “The planet isn’t going anywhere. We are.”
So what will replace us on this blue-green ball, floating around the Sun? Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester, believes it may be oversized rats. His book The Earth After Us is an interesting venture in scientific speculation.
Turkish artist Pinar Yoldas has a completely different response to this question. She speculates about life-forms that will succeed humans on Earth through her art; she calls it speculative biologies. Her response to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is to imagine what kind of creatures will thrive on the plastic trash. Paraguay has a Landfill Orchestra, which makes music out of garbage.
What will you do with your garbage this WED?