Entering a no-analogue future

You’re seeing it happen around you right now

By David Salt

“We have reached a point where many biophysical indicators have clearly moved beyond the bounds of Holocene variability. We are now living in a no-analogue world.”

These are the words of Professor Will Steffen and colleagues from a paper published a few years ago on the trajectory of Planet Earth as it moves into the Anthropocene. These are truly chilling words yet their import is ignored by most people.

Well maybe that’s about to change. As we move deeper into the Covid-19 pandemic, their significance is surely taking on a sharper focus.

Welcome to the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is a proposal by many scientists of a new geological age in which humanity has become a ‘planetary-scale geological force’. It’s an idea that has been kicking around for the last two decades, and is finding increasing favour across the broad spectrum of academia, from the biophysical sciences to the humanities.

By ‘no-analogue world’, the scientists mean we can’t look at the past to guide our future. The Earth System is now behaving in ways that has no analogue in the past.

For the past 10,000 years, the Earth has behaved in a relatively predictable and stable way, in an age that geologists refer to as the Holocene. Scientists believe that if the Earth System was left alone (ie, if nothing interfered with the way it functioned), that Holocene conditions would continue for another 50,000 years.

However, in the last 10,000 years humans have become the dominant species on this planet and our activities have changed the very composition of the atmosphere, land and ocean – so much so that the Earth System is no longer behaving in the way that it did during the Holocene.

When it was originally proposed, most scientists suggested a good starting point for the Anthropocene was the invention of the steam engine in the late 18th Century as this was when the burning of fossil fuel (at this stage mainly coal) really ramped up powering the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

More recently, most Earth Systems scientists have revised their idea of when the Anthropocene started. These days they nominate the 1950s and ‘the Great Acceleration’ as a more suitable start date. While the Industrial Revolution was an important antecedent to the forces that brought about the Anthropocene, it wasn’t till the great exponential increase in economic development (what is now referred to as the Great Acceleration) that the human signal began to change the way the Earth System behaves.

Trust in the future

This is a big concept with big consequences. Climate change, for example, is but one manifestation of the impact of the Anthropocene though it’s a lot more besides.

And this idea that we can no longer look at the past to guide our expectations of the future is terrifying if you think it through. Our whole quality of life is based on the belief that we have certainty in the future. It gives us confidence to plan, to invest, indeed to hope.

When disasters hit us, our leaders tell us to not worry, things will return to normal soon. But what does ‘normal’ mean in the Anthropocene?

In the Holocene, ‘normal’ means things will return to how we used to know them. The flood / bushfire / earthquake (whatever) will pass and good (normal) days will return. And then we can get back to business as usual because that’s how it has always happened in the past.

But in the Anthropocene, the past is no longer a good guide to what we can expect in the future.

Sleepers awake

Along with most people who believe in science, I am scared of what the future holds. As a species we are not living sustainably, but ‘business as usual’ trumps all other forms of business. Efforts at reform simply don’t seem to make any difference to accelerating economic growth and the impacts of that growth (be that impact in the form of rising carbon emissions or declining biodiversity).

There’s a profound cognitive dissonance here. The evidence tells us we are headed for trouble. But society keeps on with economic growth because it underpins our quality of life and expectations of an even richer future.

When the Great Barrier Reef underwent an unprecedented mass coral bleaching in 2016 I thought the scale of this disaster, and what it signified, would galvanise a nation-wide response, that it would serve as a wake-up call to our soporific negligence around climate change. But I was sorely disappointed. Many people expressed sadness at the stress the Reef was under, the Government threw a few more dollars at the problem, but life proceeded as normal.

Then there was another mass bleaching in 2017, but this event caused barely a ripple in the broader community – ‘mass bleachings; been there, done that…’

The climate wars continued unabated with claim and counter claim creating a dissonant chorus of fact, ideology and fake news. People switched off, and a party with no climate policy trumped a party with too much climate policy at our national elections in 2019 (less than a year ago, seems like an age ago).

And then came the historic drought and the unprecedented fires of our Black Summer – only just finished.

But before we could catch our breath the world has been plunged into a terrifying pandemic.

No certainty

Suddenly many of the certainties we believed in changed overnight. We lost our jobs, we were told not to travel, all sporting events and entertainment involving more than two people together were cancelled, and everyone is in quarantine.

The future is suddenly a very uncertain place. What we did yesterday is no guide to what we can do tomorrow, and we’re all quite scared.

This is what a no-analogue future looks like; except it’s not in the future, it’s here now.

Many industries (and regional communities) are on their knees because of the coral bleachings, the drought and the mass forest fires. Such disturbances stress society and depress regional economies. We turn a blind eye to these consequences however because we believe there will be recovery of some kind in the future. That’s what has happened in the past.

But the pandemic has shocked us to the core because the certainty of things being the same is no longer there.

Sleepers awake. This is the Anthropocene and we need to engage with what it means.

First indications with our pandemic wake-up call are that we’re still asleep.

There’s been another mass bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef, the third one in five years and more extensive than the last two. The Conference of Parties meeting to discuss the Paris Agreement on carbon emissions has been cancelled suggesting climate change is still not a priority to world leaders. And the rhetoric coming from many industry groups is that governments need to dial back environmental regulations so the economy can get to double speed ASAP as soon as this pesky plague passes.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Trinity and the dawn of the Anthropocene

Reflecting on the moment the world changed

By David Salt

Seventy four years ago, at 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945, the US military detonated the world’s first atomic bomb. Code named Trinity, the test was run out on a lonely New Mexican desert on an air force bombing range. Small by the standards of later tests, Trinity still managed to light up the surrounding mountains brighter than day, fuse the sand underneath it into radioactive green glass and generate a shock wave felt over 160 km away.

Yet the significance of Trinity extends way beyond that New Mexican desert, and even beyond the end of the Second World War which, with the aid of atomic weapons, was now only weeks away.

By some reckonings, 5.29am on Monday 16th of July 1945, marks the beginning of a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene, the age of humans. Seventy four years on, the trajectory of the Anthropocene should be at the fore front of all our thinking.

Written in stone

The Anthropocene is not yet an ‘official’ geological time period. Such decisions require a formal review and proclamation by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), a fairly conservative scientific panel not keen on mixing their science with fashion and politics (and the ‘Anthropocene’ is jam packed with political ramifications).

According to the ICS, planet Earth is still officially in what’s known as the Holocene Epoch, which began after the last ice age ended some 12,000 years ago.

But many scientists have been unhappy with the title ‘Holocene’ believing human activity is now dominating the Earth system, and this should be reflected in the stratigraphic nomenclature – the Earth’s geological rock strata reflecting the deep history of our planet. The name ‘Anthropocene’ was proposed by the atmospheric chemist (and Nobel laureate) Paul Crutzen back in the year 2000.

For a new geological epoch to be declared the rock strata above a proposed boundary needs to distinctly different from those below, suggesting some major change in the processes that created them. But this difference also needs to be evident all around the world, indicating that the change is global and not merely regional in character.

Can human activity be seen in the geological record? You betcha! Particles of plastics, concrete and aluminium, all of undeniable human origin are now widespread around the planet and found in today’s emerging strata. But possibly the most undeniable material of human origin being found in the strata are radionuclides from atomic bombs, beginning with Trinity in 1945. Nothing like these substances had existed on Earth prior to 1945, but now they coat the planet.

While the radionuclides serve as an easily detectable marker, they only exist in trace quantities. Other artificial materials are so abundant we’re drowning in them. The total amount of concrete that humanity has produced, most of it in the post-1950 period, amounts to about a kilogram for every square metre across the entire surface of the Earth. The amount of plastic wrap produced since 1950 is enough to cover the entire planet in plastic. And enough aluminium foil has been manufactured to wrap the continent of Australia.

All of these stratigraphic markers begin to appear in significant amounts around the middle of the 20th century. This coincides with a time that is now commonly referred to as the Great Acceleration, a period of unparalleled economic growth and development. And it wasn’t just plastic production that skyrocketed; so too did water use, energy use, fertilizer consumption, international tourism, dam construction and paper production. Underpinning it all was a swelling human population and an insatiable drive to grow the economy.

When did the Anthropocene begin?

When Crutzen first began writing about the Anthropocene with colleagues he proposed that it began with the invention of the steam engine and the Industrial Revolution from the second half of the 18th Century. This was because this period coincided with increasing levels of carbon dioxide associated with greater levels of coal consumption.

Other scholars have suggested the Anthropocence began much earlier, back with the Agricultural Revolution some 5-8000 years ago. The spread of agriculture also led to increased greenhouse gas emissions through changes in land management.

Others have suggested even earlier dates with human making their mark through the extinction of mega fauna in areas where they appeared.

Each proposal for the beginning of the Anthropocene has its strengths and weaknesses depending on your frame of reference.

From an Earth systems perspective, however, it is only from 1950s that the cumulative impact of human activity began to distort the Earth system itself. Humanity was changing the very behaviour of our planet. None of the earlier ‘start’ dates can claim this.

And, when you combine this with the crystal clear signal of radionuclides and their sudden appearance, I believe Trinity is the best candidate for the opening of this latest planet-shifting epoch – the Anthropocene. The fact that Trinity also symbolises our ‘mastery’ over matter by unleashing the dangerous power of the atom only reinforces the significance of the 16th of July 1945.

So, 74 years into the Anthropocene, where is it taking us? I don’t think we’ll need another 74 years to find out.

Image: The Anthropocene began with a bang. The Trinity explosion is pictured here 16 milliseconds after the detonation. The highest point of the explosion’s dome in this image is about 200 metres high. (Los Alamos National Laboratory)