When Did Humans Become A (FITB)?

FITB stands for “fill in the blank”. I was intrigued by a Grist article recently. The title was, When, exactly, did humans become an actual geological force? The story was originally published in Mother Jones.

Signs of human impact on the planet are everywhere. Sea levels are rising as ice at both poles melts; plastic waste clogs the ocean; urban sprawl paves over landscapes while industrial agricultural empties aquifers. Between climate change, urban development, and straight-up, old-school pollution, the Earth we inhabit now would be scarcely recognizable to our earliest ancestors 150,000 year ago.

While reading the article I realized that I had written a little about the subject. It was back in October of 2014, with a post called, The Anthropocene. In rereading that post I realized that I had actually published a good article, something I'm not always sure of. It was a book review. The book was, The Sixth Extinction–An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. Much of the post was devoted to a debate about if we have moved from the Holocene Epoch to the Anthropocene.

In the field of archaeology I've alway been impressed by the layering of civilizations. Civilizations build upon the previous civilization. In a million years what will our thin layer look like? What will it tell future archaeologists about us? They are beginning to have that discussion. Who are they? The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) that's who. I bet you didn't know they existed. The ICS is the “group responsible for maintaining the official timetable of earth's history.” It has formed a Anthropocene Working Group which hopes to propose the Anthropocene as a new Epoch by 2016. I know–those geologists work slow:)

It's a little strange to quote myself. Elizabeth Kolbert has won a 2015 Pulitzer Prize for her book. The mentioned Grist article is all about that debate. When did the Anthropocene start? Was it July 16, 1945, when the first nuclear bomb was exploded? Was it the 1950's when, “carbon ash particles characteristic of widespread fossil fuel combustion began to appear in soil records?” Was it the late 1700s and early 1800s with the coming of the Industrial Revolution? This would be my choice but what do I know? Does it go back even further to “when humans first started to cultivate crops, up to 11,000 years ago?” It's going to be a good debate.

Let me explain FITB. The Grist article used the term ” geological force”. I thought the use of that term created a sanitized and neutral impression. I will let you, the reader, decide if you feel that's appropriate. I got out an old Thesaurus and found many words I think would fit. Words like blight, cancer, blemish, pestilence, curse or plague would fill in the blank better. I will be posting pictures that I think proves my point. Most of them will be from the Guardian website in an article called, Overpopulation, Overconsumption-in Pictures. But first let me direct you to a May 2015, issue of Vice Magazine. There is a graphic that I think explains the problem we've gotten ourselves into while also explaining the debate on the Anthropocene. It's called We Blew it-A Time Line of Human Impact on the Planet. It will be better if you click the link and enlarge the graphic yourself for a readable version.

by Haisam Hussein

After looking at the graphic I'm beginning to think that the people suggesting the 1950s just might be correct. Just think–during my lifetime carbon dioxide went from less then 311ppm to over 400ppm. Population went from 2.5 billion to over 7 billion. Large dams went from 5,760 to 31,635. Cars went from well under 177 million to over 1.3 billion. That's just in 65 years. Think about what we have to look forward to!

Vice has a companion article to go with the graphic. It's called, We’ve Damaged the Planet So Badly It’s Entering a New Epoch.

The human population, they said, had grown tenfold over the previous three centuries, and along with it the cattle population had exploded to nearly 1.4 billion. Urbanization had also ballooned tenfold during the 19th century, and that growth would exhaust fossil-fuel supplies that were several hundred million years in the making. Humans had introduced nitrogen-infused fertilizers, they wrote, and—echoing Marsh—transformed up to 50 percent of the Earth's land surface. The rate of species extinction had gone up by at least a thousandfold. Greenhouse gases had substantially increased in the atmosphere, and other pollutants had punched a hole in the Earth's ozone layer.

Mexico City

Photograph: Pablo Lopez Luz

British Columbia clear-cut

Photograph: Garth Lentz

Joe Romm of Climateprogress.org recently blogged about the relationship between a warming planet and population projections.

I personally doubt homo sapiens will go fully extinct. The more important question for me is whether the planet can support upwards of 10 billion people post-2050 given that we have already overshot the Earth’s biocapacity — and the overshoot gets worse every year.


Most significantly, we are in the process of destroying a livable climate upon which so many species, including our own, rely. We are currently on a trajectory to warm the planet 4°C (7°F) or more this century and then continue warming in the next.

In particular, “drought and desertification would be widespread” and we’d see “large areas of cropland becoming unsuitable for cultivation, and declining agricultural yields.” At the same time, we’d “also rapidly be losing [the world’s] ecosystem services, owing to large losses in biodiversity, forests, coastal wetlands, mangroves and saltmarshes, and terrestrial carbon stores, supported by an acidified and potentially dysfunctional marine ecosystem.”

The bottom line, as the Science authors explain, is that “The relatively stable, 11,700-year-long Holocene epoch is the only state of the ES [Earth System] that we know for certain can support contemporary human societies.” As we move beyond that stable state, the risks for all species — including ours — grow and grow.

Believe it or not Joe Romm is the optimistic one. He's always arguing that we can keep the temperature rise to 2°C.

Oil wells Kern county

Photograph: Mark Gamba/Corbis

Rectangular fields

No room for nature, the entire landscape is devoted to crop production in China

Photograph: Google Earth/2014 Digital Globe

Trash wave-Java

Photograph: Zak Noyle

Greenhouses grow greenhouses Almeria, Spain

Photograph: Yann Arthus Bertrand

Hill-side slum Haiti

Photograph: Google Earth/2014 Digital Globe

We all live in our little bubble. We rarely see what's going on across our planet. Out of sight out of mind. But we should realize that much of the what is happening is a product of our lifestyles. There is a cognitive dissonance between our easy fossil fuel oriented world and how we act and what we see. We never see the consequences of a convenient jump into the car to the store or to chase a bird, a vacation plane trip, how we heat our homes, where we work and live and what we eat. Pictures like these are the results.

Tar Sands Production, Canada

Garth Lenz


Photograph: Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace

Satellite images of Rondônia in Western Brazil, taken in 1975 (left) and 2009 (right). (NASA, Images of Change)

I recently came upon a BBC.com article about the supply line for all our various conveniences. It's called, The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust. It rather shocking to read.

  • From where I'm standing, the city-sized Baogang Steel and Rare Earth complex dominates the horizon, its endless cooling towers and chimneys reaching up into grey, washed-out sky. Between it and me, stretching into the distance, lies an artificial lake filled with a black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge.
  • Dozens of pipes line the shore, churning out a torrent of thick, black, chemical waste from the refineries that surround the lake. The smell of sulphur and the roar of the pipes invades my senses. It feels like hell on Earth.
  • Welcome to Baotou, the largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia. I'm here with a group of architects and designers called the Unknown Fields Division, and this is the final stop on a three-week-long journey up the global supply chain, tracing back the route consumer goods take from China to our shops and homes, via container ships and factories.
  • You may not have heard of Baotou, but the mines and factories here help to keep our modern lives ticking. It is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of “rare earth” minerals. These elements can be found in everything from magnets in wind turbines and electric car motors, to the electronic guts of smartphones and flatscreen TVs. In 2009 China produced 95% of the world's supply of these elements, and it's estimated that the Bayan Obo mines just north of Baotou contain 70% of the world's reserves. But, as we would discover, at what cost?
  • After it rains they plough, unstoppable, through roads flooded with water turned black by coal dust. They line up by the sides of the road, queuing to turn into one of Baotou’s many coal-burning power stations that sit unsettlingly close to freshly built apartment towers. Everywhere you look, between the half-completed tower blocks and hastily thrown up multi-storey parking lots, is a forest of flame-tipped refinery towers and endless electricity pylons. The air is filled with a constant, ambient, smell of sulphur. It’s the kind of industrial landscape that America and Europe has largely forgotten – at one time parts of Detroit or Sheffield must have looked and smelled like this.
  • We reached the shore, and looked across the lake. I’d seen some photos before I left for Inner Mongolia, but nothing prepared me for the sight. It’s a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying. The thought that it is man-made depressed and terrified me, as did the realisation that this was the byproduct not just of the consumer electronics in my pocket, but also green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars that we get so smugly excited about in the West. Unsure of quite how to react, I take photos and shoot video on my cerium polished iPhone.

Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields

So when do you think humans became a geological force? Or if you're like me when did we become a (FITB)?


















One thought on “When Did Humans Become A (FITB)?

  1. One Last Post, Because It’s Important! – greenbirdingmendo

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