We stand at the dawn of the Anthropocene Age. That is the claim of a small but growing number of scientists. The idea of a new age in geologic time, on par with the Cretaceous or Quaternary ages, is intriguing. It is also very likely untrue.
Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist, is credited with the coining the term Anthropocene in 2000. His notion is that we have reached in era in planetary history when the actions of human beings have a significant, perhaps even primary, impact on the biophysical systems of Earth. It is an age in which the natural world is man-driven.
Crutzen specifically intends to group the Anthropocene among the geologic eras. The hallmarks of differing geologic periods are recorded in fossil records, but typically include things like sea level and composition of atmospheric gases. Crutzen and supporters posit that man, largely through the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere, have become the prime drivers in earth science. The CO2 we add may be disproportionately insignificant to contributions of millennia old natural causes, yet it is enough to disrupt the cycles maintained in delicate balance. Long story short, humans are changing the air, which in turn changes the climate, which changes the water, and so on.
If only for an occasional moment, there are people who ponder what they would do if tomorrow was the start of the zombie apocalypse as in the Walking Dead (or two dozen other films). There are people who wonder about Skynet (from the Terminator movies), or terra-forming dead planets (think of the genesis program from Star Trek), or any idea found in a Philip K. Dick story. The point is that we as a species like big ideas. We also enjoy pondering the “what ifs.”
Our combination of imagination and theorizing is a very good thing. These traits propel us forward and increase our resolve in overcoming challenges. We should, collectively, wonder and then wonder some more. The necessary caveat is the terrible track record of our attempts to discover and invent. Thomas Edison, the man who still holds the record for most patents at 1,093, explained that one success is preceded by 10,000 failures.
Thomas Malthus today remains the embodiment of wrong science for his 1798 predictions of massive depopulation through famine, pestilence, and plague brought on by overpopulation. Beyond Malthus, as suggested by Edison, science has a very poor record of being correct. From Aristotle’s spontaneous creation theory to a geocentric universe, from phrenology to cold fusion, science is usually wrong. Sometimes, as is the case with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, heeding the wrong advice can have deadly consequences.
Samuel Arbesman takes up this point in a new book. An expert in scientometrics, Arbesman notes that the body of scientific knowledge doubles every 10 to 15 years. Applying the idea of a chemical half-life, Arbesman quantifies how rapidly what was once fact has been demonstrated to be untrue. He concludes that the half-life of scientific truth is about 45 years. A 2011 study in Nature suggests Arbesman may be generous. In that study researchers were able to replicate a mere six out of 53 landmark papers on cancer research. That is, in 47 of 53 cases, the peer-reviewed published scholarly research findings were simply wrong.
Failure, of course, is no reason to stop trying. In many cases the science fiction of yesterday has become the scientific fact of today – at least for another 45 years. How then are we to evaluate whether or not we are initiating an Anthropocene era?
The history of science encourages skepticism, and science itself should demand it. New ideas are, generally speaking, more likely wrong than right. Personally, I find the theory of a man-dominated geologic period to be the height of arrogance. We know so little about our universe and our oceans, and are unable in any way to influence cosmic, geologic, and physical forces, that any theory that places man at the fore seems laughable.
At the same time, the Anthropocene idea may prove a useful model for future scientific inquiry, and therefore be of great service. Time will tell. I am not a scientist and will hazard no guess. However, I do know a little bit about history, politics, and public policy.
As it concerns government, Anthropocene thinking is potentially very dangerous.
A May 2011 article in the Economist muses that geo-engineering – engineering the planet to cultivate desired outcomes – may be required. A group of scientists which includes Dr. Crutzen has formed a movement called “planetary boundries.”
This group argues for “increased restraint and, where necessary, direct intervention aimed at bringing all sorts of things in the Earth system, from the alkalinity of the oceans to the rate of phosphate run-off from the land, close to the conditions pertaining in the Holocene.” In layman’s they call for a return to pre-industrial revolution norms. As Al Gore said in Earth in the Balance, “when we manufacture millions of internal combustion engines and automate the conversion of oxygen to CO2, we interfere with the Earth.”
The Anthropocene movement takes the global cooling-then-global warming-then-climate change environmental movement and injects it with steroids. Where eco-warriors were trying to slow and curtail the side effects of modernity, the Anthropocene geo-engineers are offering carte blanche to undo and remake the Earth. Given how wrong science often is, and how little we understand about all forces, this is less than appealing. Understanding what policies would come from such a movement is completely frightening. The malaria-related deaths resultant of the pesticide bans enacted by acolytes of the Silent Spring should be warning enough. That these unintended consequences would have to be bought with basic personal liberties and a diminution in standard of living is too much.
Our current geologic epoch began some 12,000 years ago. We may need a new construct. Similarly, the Anthropocene idea is, as I said, interesting. It is also plausible. Yet, the costs to act on such an untested idea that is likely to face the same fate of failure as statistically every scientific theory, are too great. So, consider Crutzen’s thesis. Engage in wonder and experimentation. But do not adopt his thesis as a governing philosophy.