the Anthropocene

Geological Time Spiral. Courtesy of the US Geological Survey

Geological Time Spiral. Courtesy of the US Geological Survey

“For decades scientists have been warning that human actions are pushing life toward a sixth mass extinction. Evidence in this year’s Living Planet Report supports this. Wildlife populations have already shown a concerning decline, on average by 58 per cent since 1970. While environmental degradation continues, there are also signs that we are beginning a transition towards an ecologically sustainable future.” Living Planet Report, 2016

We are at the dawn of a new age, according to the authors of the Living Planet Report: the Holocene age has ended and we have moved into the Anthropocene. This word, says the authors, “encapsulates the fact that human activity now affects Earth’s life support system.” It also underlines the profound responsibility that lies on our shoulders at this unique point in the Earth’s history. This watery ball of life we call home supported a mere 1.6 billion human souls in 1900; today 7.5 billion jostle for space. We have reached global saturation point.

This is a dangerous time. The world teeters on the edge of a disaster that will impact on humans in every way and will teach us, let’s hope not too late, just how much we need the plants, animals and microorganisms of a biodiverse ecosystem to survive. It is a system which cleans our air and water, pollinates our crops, gives us a liveable climate and provides us with bountiful food sources.

Scientists place the blame on overpopulation, continued population expansion, and over-consumption of resources by rich nations. Professor Paul Ehlrich of Stanford University admits that citing human overpopulation is a controversial issue. See the fallout around the latest views of French President, Emmanuel Macron, on the problem of overpopulation in some African countries. People in third world and failing economies tend to have more children for economic reasons. The richer the nation the fewer children families have, but those smaller families help themselves to a much larger share of the world’s resources than, say, a family of eight in Niger.

According to the report, the average rate of consumption worldwide would need about 1.6 Earths to sustain it, but US levels of consumption would need 4 planets, and the UK, which doesn't get off lightly, is currently consuming 2.5 Earths worth of bounty. 

But despite all the doom and gloom there is a glimmer of hope. The report praises, among other initiatives, the European Union's Nature Directives across its 28 member states in helping to rewild the landscape, protecting the apex species: wolves, lynx, wolverines and bears, so that biodivesity has increased in some regions. Nature conservation is robust in Europe, but more needs to be done. Rivers are hardest hit by human activity, with the disappearance of 81% of fresh water species, by far the largest area of decline among the wildlife stocks.

What is clear, no matter what kind of mess humans have made, the Earth will survive our onslaught and long outlive us. Consider the last five known Mass Extinctions:

1.      443 Million years ago – marked the end of the Ordovician, when a severe ice age caused the sea levels to sink by around 100 meters. To add insult to injury the oceans were starved of oxygen when the ice melted soon after. These events killed around 70% of all life, which at that time was predominately sea-dwelling.

RIP Orthoceras, an apex predator from the Ordovician Period

RIP Orthoceras, an apex predator from the Ordovician Period

2.      360 Million years ago, or thereabouts, marks the Devonian Period, when 70% of all species living in shallow waters, including all corals, were wiped out in a protracted climate change event.

3.      250 Million years ago, the end of the Permian period saw the biggest extinction yet, when 95% of species were wiped out. Severe global warming wiped out, among other species, the trilobites, the most successful of the early arthropods (invertebrates with an exoskeleton, like today’s shrimps or spiders); they had roamed through the world’s oceans for 270 million years until fate intervened. 

A fossilised trilobite

A fossilised trilobite

4.      200 Million years ago the Triassic Period gave way to the Jurassic, and 75% of the world’s species were wiped out possibly by more volcanic activity, then the dinosaurs surged ahead in the evolutionary marathon.

5.      65 Million years ago in the cusp between Cretatious and Tertiary, a massive asteroid falling on Mexico and volcanic activity in India killed off all the dinosaurs and ammonites, leaving the Earth free for mammals, and eventually humans, to proliferate.

The authors of the report are hopeful. Although we live in perilous times we are learning more than ever about our responsibilities to this planet we call home. There is a window of opportunity still, and rewilding is an important part of that.