Wednesday, October 05, 2016

The Myth of the Anthropocene

To explore the messy future that modern industrial society is making for itself, it’s necessary now and again to stray into some of the odd corners of human thought. Over the decade and a bit that this blog has been engaged in that exploration, accordingly, my readers and I have gone roaming through quite an assortment of topics—politics, religion, magic, many different areas of history, at least as many sciences, and the list goes on. This week, it’s time to ramble through geology, for reasons that go back to some of the basic presuppositions of our culture, and reach forward from there to the far future.

Over the last few years, a certain number of scientists, climate activists, and talking heads in the media have been claiming that the Earth has passed out of its previous geological epoch, the Holocene, into a new epoch, the Anthropocene. Their argument is straightforward: human beings have become a major force shaping geology, and that unprecedented reality requires a new moniker. Last I heard, the scholarly body that authorizes formal changes to that end of scientific terminology hasn’t yet approved the new term for official use, but it’s seeing increasing use in less formal settings.

I’d like to suggest that the proposed change is a mistake, and that the label “Anthropocene” should go into whatever circular file holds phlogiston, the luminiferous ether, and other scientific terms that didn’t turn out to represent realities. That’s not because I doubt that human beings are having a major impact on geology just now, far from it.  My reasons are somewhat complex, and will require a glance back over part of the history of geology—specifically, the evolution of the labels we use to talk about portions of the past. It’s going to be a bit of a long journey, but bear with me; it matters.

Back in the seventeenth century, when the modern study of geology first got under way, the Book of Genesis was considered to be an accurate account of the Earth’s early history, and so geologists looked for evidence of the flood that plopped Noah’s ark on Mount Ararat. They found it, too, or that’s what people believed at the time. By and large, anywhere you go in western Europe, you’ll be standing on one of three things; the first is rock, the second is an assortment of gravels and compact tills, and the third is soil. With vanishingly few exceptions, where they overlap, the rock is on the bottom, the gravels and tills are in the middle, and the soil is on top. Noting that some of the gravels and tills look like huge versions of the sandbars and other features shaped by moving water, the early geologists decided the middle layed had been left by the Flood—that’s diluvium in Latin—and so the three layers were named Antediluvian (“before the flood”), Diluvian, and Postdiluvian (“after the flood”).

So far, so good—except then they started looking at the Antediluvian layer, and found an assortment of evidence that seemed to imply that really vast amounts of time had passed between different layers of rock. During the early eighteenth century, as this sank in, the Book of Genesis lost its status as a geology textbook, and geologists came up with a new set of four labels: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, and Quaternary. (These are fancy ways of saying “First, Second, Third, and Fourth,” in case you were wondering.) The Quaternary layer consisted of the former Diluvian and Postdiluvian gravels, tills, and soil; the Tertiary consisted of rocks and fossils that were found under those; the Secondary was the rocks and fossils below that, and the Primary was at the bottom.

It was a good scheme for the time; on the surface of the Earth, if you happen to live in western Europe and walk around a lot, you’ll see very roughly equal amounts of all four layers. What’s more, they  always occur in the order just given.  Where they overlap, the Primary is always under the Secondary, and so on; you never find Secondary rocks under Primary ones, except when the rock layers have obviously been folded by later geological forces. So geologists assigned them to four different periods of time, named after the layers—the Primary Era, the Secondary Era, and so on.

It took quite a bit of further work for geologists to get a handle on how much time was involved in each of these eras, and as the results of that line of research started to become clear, there was a collective gulp loud enough to echo off the Moon. Outside of India and a few Native American civilizations, nobody anywhere had imagined that the history of the Earth might involve not thousands of years, but billions of them. As this sank in, the geologists also realized that their four eras were of absurdly different lengths. The Quaternary was only two million years long; the Tertiary, around sixty-three million years; the Secondary, around one hundred eighty-six million years; and the Primary, from there back to the Earth’s origin, or better than four billion years.

So a new scheme was worked out. The Quaternary era became the Quaternary period, and it’s still the Quaternary today, even though it’s not the fourth of anything any more. The Tertiary also became a period—it later got broken up into the Paleogene and Neogene periods—and the Tertiary (or Paleogene and Neogene) and Quaternary between them made up the Cenozoic (Greek for “recent life”) era. The former Secondary era became the Mesozoic (“middle life”) era, and was divided into three periods; starting with the most recent, these are the Cretaceous, Jurassic, and Triassic. The former Primary era became the Paleozoic (“old life”) era, and was divided into six periods; again, starting with the most recent, these were are the Permian, Carboniferous, Devonian, Silurian, Ordovician, and Cambrian. The Cambrian started around 542 million years ago, and everything before then—all three billion years and change—was tossed into the vast dark basement of the Precambrian.

It was a pretty good system, and one of the things that was pretty good about it is that the periods were of very roughly equal length. Thus the Paleozoic had twice as many periods as the Mesozoic, and it lasted around twice as long. The Mesozoic, in turn, had three times as many complete periods as the Cenozoic did (in pre-Paleogene and Neogene days)—the Quaternary has just gotten started, remember—and it’s around three times as long. I don’t know how many of my readers, as children, delighted in the fact that the whole Cenozoic era—the Age of Mammals, as it was often called—could be dropped into the Cretaceous period with room to spare on either end, but I did. I decorated one of my school notebooks with a crisp little drawing of a scoreboard that read DINOSAURS 3, MAMMALS 1. No, nobody else got the joke.

In recent decades, things have been reshuffled a bit more.  The Precambrian basement has been explored in quite some detail, and what used to be deliciously named the Cryptozoic eon has now sadly been broken up into Proterozoic and Archean eons, and divided into periods to boot. We can let that pass, though, because it’s the other end of the time scale that concerns us. Since Cenozoic rock makes up so much of the surface—being the most recently laid down, after all—geologists soon broke up the Tertiary and Quaternary periods into six shorter units, called epochs: from first to last, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene. (These are Greek again, and mean “dawn recent, few recent, some recent, many recent, most recent,” and “entirely recent”—the reference is to how many living things in each epoch look like the ones running around today.) Later, the Eocene got chopped in two to yield the Paleocene (“old recent”) and Eocene. Yes, that “-cene” ending—also the first syllable in Cenozoic—is the second half of the label “Anthropocene,” the human-recent.

The thing to keep in mind is that an epoch is a big chunk of time. The six of them that are definitely over with at this point lasted an average of almost eleven million years a piece. (For purposes of comparison, eleven million years is around 2200 times the length of all recorded human history.) The exception is the Holocene, which is only 11,700 years old at present, or only about 0.001% of the average length of an epoch. It makes sense to call the Holocene an epoch, in other words, if it’s just beginning and still has millions of years to run.

If in fact the Holocene is over and the Anthropocene is under way, though, the Holocene isn’t an epoch at all in any meaningful sense. It’s the tag-end of the Pleistocene, or a transition between the Pleistocene and whichever epoch comes next, whether that be labeled Anthropocene or something else. You can find such transitions between every epoch and the next, every period and the next, and every era and the next. They’re usually quite distinctive, because these different geological divisions aren’t mere abstractions; the change from one to another is right there in the rock strata, usually well marked by sharp changes in a range of markers, including fossils. Some long-vanished species trickle out in the middle of an epoch, to be sure, but one of the things that often marks the end of an epoch, a period, or an era is that a whole mess of extinctions all happen in the transition from one unit of time to the next.

Let’s look at a few examples to sharpen that last point. The Pleistocene epoch was short as epochs go, only a little more than two and a half million years; it was a period of severe global cooling, which is why it’s better known as the ice age; and a number of its typical animals—mammoths, sabertooth tigers, and woolly rhinoceri in North America, giant ground sloths and glyptodons in South America, cave bears and mastodons in Europe, and so on—went extinct all at once during the short transition period at its end, when the climate warmed abruptly and a wave of invasive generalist predators (i.e., your ancestors and mine) spread through ecosystems that were already in extreme turmoil. That’s a typical end-of-epoch mess.

Periods are bigger than epochs, and the end of a period is accordingly a bigger deal. Let’s take the end of the Triassic as a good example. Back in the day, the whole Mesozoic era routinely got called “the Age of Reptiles,” but until the Triassic ended it was anybody’s guess whether the dinosaurs or the therapsid almost-mammals would end up at the top of the ecological heap. The end-Triassic extinction crisis put an end to the struggle by putting an end to most of the therapsids, along with a lot of other living things. The biggest of the early dinosaurs died off as well, but the smaller ones thrived, and their descendants went on to become the huge and remarkably successful critters of the Jurassic and Cretaceous. That’s a typical end-of-period mess.

Eras are bigger than periods, and they always end with whopping crises. The most recent example, of course, is the end of the Mesozoic era 65 million years ago. Forty per cent of the animal families on the planet, including species that had been around for hundreds of millions of years, died pretty much all at once. (The current theory, well backed up by the data, is that a good-sized comet slammed into what’s now the Yucatan peninsula, and the bulk of the dieoff was over in just a few years.) Was that the worst extinction crisis ever? Not a chance; the end of the Paleozoic 251 million years ago was slower but far more ghastly, with around ninety-five per cent of all species on the casualty list. Some paleontologists, without undue exaggeration, describe the end-Paleozoic crisis as the time Earth nearly died.

So the landscape of time revealed to us by geology shows intervals of relative stability—epochs, periods, and eras—broken up by short transition periods. If you go for a walk in country where the rock formations have been exposed, you can literally see the divisions in front of you: here’s a layer of one kind of rock a foot or two thick, laid down as sediment over millions of years and then compressed into stone over millions more; here’s a thin boundary layer, or simply an abrupt line of change, and above it there’s a different kind of rock, consisting of sediment laid down under different climatic and environmental conditions.

If you’ve got a decent geological laboratory handy and apply the usual tests to a couple of rock samples, one from the middle of an epoch and the other from a boundary layer, the differences are hard to miss. The boundary layer made when the Mesozoic ended and the Cenozoic began is a good example. The Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary layer is spiked with iridium, from space dust brought to earth by the comet; it’s full of carbon from fires that were kindled by the impact over many millions of square miles; and the one trace of life you’ll find is a great many fungal spores—dust blown into the upper atmosphere choked out the sun and left most plants on Earth dead and rotting, with results that rolled right up the food chain to the tyrannosaurs and their kin. You won’t find such anomalies clustering in the rock sample from the middle of the epoch; what you’ll find in nearly every case is evidence of gradual change and ordinary geological processes at work.

Now ask yourself this, dear reader: which of these most resembles the trace that human industrial civilization is in the process of leaving for the rock formations of the far future?

It’s crucial to remember that the drastic geological impacts that have inspired some scientists to make use of the term “Anthropocene” are self-terminating in at least two senses. On the one hand, those impacts are possible because, and only because, our species is busily burning through stores of fossil carbon that took half a billion years for natural processes to stash in the rocks, and ripping through equally finite stores of other nonrenewable resources, some of which took even longer to find their way into the deposits we mine so greedily. On the other hand, by destabilizing the climate and sending cascading disturbances in motion through a good-sized collection of other natural cycles, those impacts are in the process of wrecking the infrastructure that industrial society needs to go its merry way.

Confronted with the tightening vise between accelerating resource depletion and accelerating biosphere disruption, the vast majority of people in the industrial world seem content to insist that they can have their planet and eat it too. The conventional wisdom holds that someone, somewhere, will think of something that will allow us to replace Earth’s rapidly emptying fuel tanks and resource stocks, on the one hand, and stabilize its increasingly violent climatic and ecological cycles, on the other.  That blind faith remains welded in place even as decade after decade slips past, one supposed solution after another fails, and the stark warnings of forty years ago have become the front page news stories of today. Nothing is changing, except that the news just keeps getting worse.

That’s the simple reality of the predicament in which we find ourselves today. Our way of life, here in the world’s industrial nations, guarantees that in the fairly near future, no one anywhere on the planet will be able to live the way we do. As resources run out, alternatives fail, and the destructive impacts of climate change pile up, our ability to influence geological processes will go away, and leave us once more on the receiving end of natural cycles we can do little to change.

A hundred million years from now, as a result, if another intelligent species happens to be around on Earth at that time and takes an interest in geology, its members won’t find a nice thick stratum of rock marked with the signs of human activity, corresponding to an Anthropocene epoch. They’ll find a thin boundary layer, laid down over a few hundred years, and laced with exotic markers: decay products of radioactive isotopes splashed into the atmosphere by twentieth-century nuclear bomb testing and nuclear reactor meltdowns; chemical markers showing a steep upward jolt in atmospheric carbon dioxide; and scattered freely through the layer, micron-thick streaks of odd carbon compounds that are all that’s left of our vast production of plastic trash. That’s our geological legacy: a slightly odd transition layer a quarter of an inch thick, with the usual discontinuity between the species in the rock just below, many of whom vanish at the transition, and the species in the rock just above, who proliferate into empty ecological niches and evolve into new forms.

In place of the misleading label “Anthropocene,” then, I’d like to propose that we call the geological interval we’re now in the Pleistocene-Neocene transition. Neocene? That’s Greek for “new recent,” representing the “new normal” that will emerge when our idiotic maltreatment of the planet that keeps us all alive brings the “old normal” crashing down around our ears. We don’t call the first epoch after the comet impact 65 million years ago the “Cometocene,” so there’s no valid reason to use a label like “Anthropocene” for the epoch that will dawn when the current transition winds down. Industrial civilization’s giddy rise and impending fall are the trigger for the transition, and nothing more; the shape of the Neocene epoch will be determined not by us, but by the ordinary processes of planetary change and evolution.

Those processes have been responding to the end of the so-called Holocene—let’s rename it the Late Pleistocene, given how extremely short it turned out to be—in the usual manner.  Around the world, ice caps are melting, climate belts are shifting, acid-intolerant species in the ocean are being replaced by acid-tolerant ones, and generalist species of animals such as cats, coyotes, and feral pigs are spreading rapidly through increasingly chaotic ecosystems, occupying vacant ecological niches or elbowing less flexible competitors out of the way. By the time the transition winds down a few centuries from now, the species that have been able to adapt to new conditions and spread into new environments will be ready for evolutionary radiation; another half a million years or so, and the Neocene will be stocked with the first preliminary draft of its typical flora and fauna.

It’s entertaining, at least to me, to speculate about what critters will roam the desert sands of Kansas and Nebraska or stalk its prey in the forests of postglacial Greenland. To many of my readers, though, I suspect a more pressing question is whether a certain primate called Homo sapiens will be among the common fauna of the Neocene. I suspect so, though of course none of us can be sure—but giving up on the fantasy that’s embodied in the label “Anthropocene,” the delusion that what our civilization is doing just now is going to keep on long enough to fill a geological epoch, is a good step in the direction of our survival.

172 comments:

William Knight said...

Even if our current free ride of easy fossil fuel flames out soon, what's to stop the rapid and radical disruption of the climate (and consequent mass extinction) by burning through remaining coal reserves? It isn't as easy to extract, and is massively toxic, but I don't think that will stop a declining industrial system of production from digging and burning it to the bitter end.

Unknown said...

JMG Tomxyza here. It seems to me the appropriate label for our effort to name an era after us is hubris. Alas an all too common condition of the current population of homo sapiens.

Angus Wallace said...

Hi JMG,

I think that a lot of people, on hearing the term "Anthropocene" think something like: "oh good, humans are in control." I'm not sure that's what the geologists who coined the term were thinking.

Here's a lecture about it which, to me, demonstrates that at least one geologist understands the depth(s) of our crises.
http://video.flinders.edu.au/events/GoldLecture_7Sept2016.cfm

A stand-out fact to me was that the previous ice age was, on average, about 4 degrees Celsius cooler than now -- something to consider as we discuss potential 4 degrees of warming!

Cheers, Angus

jessi thompson said...

Excellent essay, as always! I have also considered the "Anthropocene" to be a boundary layer rather than an epoch; it's amusing to think of the hubris involved in naming the following epoch after our own hand in creating it, since we created it by destroying so much. Thank you for mentioning the remains of the plastic, as well. It's everywhere. It's literally everywhere.

Just a reminder, 200 species a day go extinct. Well, if any of you geology hobbyists out there wondered what a boundary layer looked like from the ground, here it is. As to the big question, will humans be around to see the next epoch, well, I think even humans, if their progeny continue to exist, will look very different. Probably smaller and smarter, and possibly limited to the poles (a hundred thousand years from now). Of greater concern is the future diet of homo sapiens sapiens, as that sort of climatological instability does not promote agriculture in any way. Do not believe anyone who says that agricultural losses in the current breadbaskets will be offset by greater agricultural productivity in Canada and Siberia. You can't water the garden from droughts and floods, both kill the plants. Moreover, hotter summers do not prevent devastating winters. Recent studies of the jet stream suggest that a warmer Arctic creates a chaotic jet stream that meanders in wide peaks and troughs, carrying hot weather far north while sweeping cold air much further south. It's not uncommon to see Texas and Alaska post eerily similar temperature readings on a day, even now. How will this change over the next 50-100 years, as the Arctic ice continues to decline?

Finally, for those who question anthropogenic climate change, here is one sobering statistic:

Burning 1 gallon of gasoline produces 3 gallons of carbon dioxide. (How is this possible? Gasoline is a hydrocarbon, composed of hydrogen and carbon. In combustion, each carbon atom bonds with 2 oxygen atoms in the air, and the CO2 molecule is much larger than the original carbon atom. Incidentally, the hydrogen atoms pair up and bind with a single oxygen to create water, H2O, but that has no affect on carbon dioxide.) How much gasoline do you burn in a year? (Our beloved Archdruid doesn't own a car, so we should all pat him on the back for that right now!) That doesn't even include power for electricity or natural gas or coal. How can that NOT have a major effect on the climate? I agree that blindly following the dogma of the scientific community isn't advisable, so I encourage everyone to go outside and look at what's happening, and then talk to local old-timers and ask them how the weather has changed. Read the actual published articles in scientific journals (not the watered down versions in the press), and look them over for incompleteness and logical inconsistencies. Look at the climate skeptic sites, and then check their facts, too. Look at climate projections made decades ago, and then look at the data, comparing the present state to the predictions. I know exactly what you will find, because I've already done it. But above all don't take my word for it, I'm just some random voice on the internet. With the scale of the problem and the possible catastrophic consequences, we can not afford to be wrong. We all need to see the scope of the problem before we can even think about solutions.

Rüdiger von Finckendorff said...

A friend of mine, who is a biologist at the University of Cologne (Germany), says we should call it "the TAnthropic Event" instead of "Anthropocene", for exactly these reasons.

Bruce Port Byron said...

In a comment on the scale of earth movement caused by man this item - http://serc.carleton.edu/vignettes/collection/36315.html- seems to suggest possibility of mans "deep" geologic contribution. This is made in reference to significant recent increased sediment deposition- even compared to long term geologic time spans. Even then would still not lessen man as just a fly speck on natural cyles but is,perhaps, another small marker of mans deleterious (from our POV) impact.

Dwig said...

Hmmm; directly from the Post-Liberal era to the Pleistocene-Neocene Transition; fasten your seat belts!

If I'm getting it straight, Trey's Meriga will be in the late transition. If you were to rewrite Star's Reach, would you include some transitional species, or mention of current species that have gone extinct? Also, how does the Ecotechnic Future fit into this picture?

A couple of questions perhaps more germane to the Well of Galabes: have the inner planes, and the life forms they contain, been going through a similar history over the eons? Would it be appropriate or necessary to create or rework some magical systems to deal with the forces involved in the P-N Transition?

Anthony Romano said...

An excellent post that lays the hubris of the term bare. Thanks as always.

I've only encountered the term as a sort of marketing gimmick to draw attention to environmental issues. Namely climate change and the ongoing mass extinction event humans are causing. I haven't seen a real push to adopt this term as a genuine addition to the geological lexicon.

siliconguy said...

The Holocene may end up being a long interglacial, but in the end an interglacial is all it is. The Eemian or Sangamon was a decent interglacial in its day too, but the ice came once again. To date, the Holocene has not been as long as the Eemian was. It will catch up in about 3,000 years, but a 20,000 year interglacial is not uncommon. Marine isotope stage 11 was an interglacial that lasted about 50,000 years, occurring about 400,000 years ago.

I think the honorable scientists have a severe case of hubris.

James M. Jensen II said...

I hope I won't sound ungrateful for your insights on the behavior of local political fauna if I say that I'm quite glad to see a post about Nature and peak oil! The post seems quite well-argued to me, though I admit an almost complete ignorance on the subject of geology (that has to do with rocks, right?).

It really is liberating to get beyond the anthropocentric worldview that places, whether as heroes or villains, humans at the center of history, and see ourselves as an otherwise-unremarkable species that happens to have gotten a bit out of hand at the moment. It's good to acknowledge that we're responsible for the latest planetary crisis and mass extinction, but it's also good to remember that it's not going to be even close to the worst our planet has been through, and it will likely be dwarfed again the next time a stray comet gets that little bit too close.

John Michael Greer said...

Hi folks, this is your friendly neighborhood temporary moderator, piggybacking on JMG's account. JMG is on the road for a few days and will have limited internet access, so he may not be able to reply to comments until he gets back. In the meantime I'll be here to put through comments, so please comment as usual in his absence!

patriciaormsby said...

I have wondered about the dangling Tertiary-Quaternary, but too vaguely to go out and try hunting down the missing Primary-Secondary. I love how our our vision of past eras has "evolved." Thank you for checking the fossilized record of obsolete terminology for us! I heartily agree with your proposal. We will have an impressive enough transition clearly attributable to an upright monkey, that we don't really need a whole era named after us.

@Shane, re your latest comment on last week's blog: there were two types of Americans the Russians became acquainted with, the exploitative travelers, whose contacts were restricted to the similarly exploitative post-Soviet plutocracy, and caring Americans, who made friends widely and tried to warn them about the former as well as the abusive coterie forming in Washington. Regarding the latter travelers, the worst that could be said was they were naive, and they fell under suspicion of being allied with the former when the necessary crackdown occurred. That's how these things go. What really changed the average Russian's perception of America as a country was the war on Yugoslavia. The western media told us a bunch of lies about it, but the Russians had friends and relatives living there, so they had a completely different perception from us. Still, such a lot of the Russians met kindly Americans trying to help their communities get on their feet again, that if the average Russian is empowered in the transition that Putin has initiated (he limited the influence of money in politics), they have a favorable view of the average American. Perhaps they will try to return our favor, however meager it may be.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

Completely agree about fossil-fueled industrial civilization, it's
really a blink of the eye geologically. However if humanity does
survive long-term, and keeps on building civilizations and altering
the land on a large scale, the next epoch may be heavily influenced by
humanity on an ongoing basis. Since civilization is so young in a
geological time frame, who knows what a world that's been influenced
by it for a million years would look like?

I'm thinking human civilization's appearance on Earth may have an
effect like the introduction of a predatory mammal to an island that
never had and mammals or large predators before. If the island is
large enough to sustain their population, the evolution of other
creatures will be influenced far into the future, as traits that lead
to escaping the predator are selected for and traits that worked just
fine before (like birds that have no defense against a large predator)
no longer work.

How human civilization's presence in the long term will effect things
is impossible to say now, but climate can be influenced (to a
considerably smaller degree than with fossil fuels) by things like
deforestation (or reforestation and soil building as well), building
of rice paddies on a massive scale and the extra methane that comes
with it, etc. I wonder if the next epoch will be a turbulent one with
more chenges from inch to inch than most because the boom/bust cycles
of human civilization change the ecosystems faster than happened in
the middle of previous epochs, unless something changes that smooths
out these cycles.

Other species will also adapt themselves. Weedy plants that started as
plants adapted to natural disturbances have already been evolving to
take better advantage of the increased disturbance of the soil brought
by humans, and I can only imagine what the future will bring. I
suspect that the tenacious weeds of our era like bindweed, bermuda
grass and johnson grass are nothing compared to the aggressive weeds
of 100,000 years from now. Human agricultural practices may have to be
quite different just to deal with the continual evolution of rests and
weeds, but then there will also be 100,000 more years of plant and
animal breeding to humans' advantage.

On a longer time scale, I've wondered if human presence over a long
enough period could make it more likely that other species would
evolve more of the same type of intelligence than humans have. You've
posited an intelligent species descended from raccoons after humanity
is gone, but what if they were around at the same time? Over enough
time, it might happen that the smarter raccoons are the ones that
adapt best to life among people, because it helps them able to avoid
being trapped and hunted, and they can figure out ways to get into
places that people don't want them to to get food. I wonder if by the
time your neocene epoch is over in a few million years, humanity could
have some more rivals in the intelligence scene, making for a much
more complicated and messy world.

I wonder if species with humanity's sort of intelligence on Earth will
be something like the emergence of flying creatures. Flight evolved
multiple times, and the species that first got good at it are long
gone, but the presence of flying creatures has stayed around and has a
large role in all land and shallow water ecosystems.

Not something we can know, but just interesting to speculate.

Unknown said...

As a Geology graduate, I thoroughly approve of this message! Well done sir! Dinosaurs 3 Mammals 1 LOL!

canon fodder said...

Perhaps we need to consider Anthropocene more of a cultural label than a geologic one. It is rather fitting that the selfie generation would name an epoch after itself.

I agree that any changes in geology due to modern industrial society will be done on a vanishingly short time frame, geologically speaking. As you say, our industrial legacy in a couple hundred million years will be a thin stratum of heavy metals, radioactive materials, and funky hydrocarbons.

As for the appropriateness of the Anthropocene label, it’s useful to consider two future scenarios - one dominated by technology, and one apocalyptic.

Apocalyptic first, since it’s been done before. The bright flash of nuclear holocaust followed by nuclear winter and a whole lotta nothing. Here, human impact is definitely transitory, and the new epoch may well be called the Necrocene.

The technical future is more difficult since changing our current course would take something radical. Let’s make one assumption: someone invents “Mr. Fusion” from Back to the Future, and is able to make them fast, cheap, and plentiful. In our banana peel-fueled future, fossil fuels are still depleted and the ecologic and climatologic changes still are in play, but man will have the energy to keep shaping the planet in all sorts of ways, both good and bad. In this case, we still have the industrial age marking the transition, but this time to an epoch that could be fairly called the Anthropocene.

My vote? Let’s keep Holocene around for a couple million more years.

SamuraiArtGuy said...

This seems entirely logically sound. The geologic brevity of human industrial civilization does not appear to warrant the distinction of an era. But it is certainly indicative of the utter hubris even our scientific community is suffering in the midst of the self-inflicted demise of our civilization. There is a given assumption, that even as we consume and befoul the ecosystem that sustains us, somehow the human race shall endure forever as a technological species. As we've discussed before here, the notion of "progress" has reached accelerating diminishing returns, but the faith in it has hardly shaken among most people. But with a near-200 year track record of breakneck technological advance, it's a tough sell.

Ironically, it's the failure to grasp the magnitude of geologic time that is an obstacle of accepting the reality of climate change, despite ever mounting evidence. To most people, a century "feels" almost infinitely longer than a decade, and any longer period of time – millennia versus era or epoch are emotionally indistinguishable. So the not-quite-two centuries of warming since the launch of the Industrial Revolution seems equivalent to a geologic era in the minds of most humans, but it is a fleeting BLINK, by comparison with *actual* geologic timescales. Hardly an era, but our human egos would stamp it such, even by folk who ought to know better.

Of course, you could be trying to impress this upon someone convinced the whole shootin' match is just under 6000 years old... But THAT'S an entrely separate rant.

gjh42 said...

Regarding the Holocene, my understanding is that the major geologic and fossil distinction from the Pleistocene would be the extinction of megafauna, plus temperature and ice cover effects. This might be barely distinguishable at a few million years' distance from the current mass extinction, just a precursor as it were. So Pleistocene > Neocene makes a lot of sense.

SamuraiArtGuy said...

Angus Wallace said... "I think that a lot of people, on hearing the term "Anthropocene" think something like: "oh good, humans are in control."

It's still towering hubris. Being able to start a snowball rolling down the hill does not necessarily denote the ability to do much about it at the bottom of the hill. Human agency seems disappointingly inconstant in these area.

Airplaneman said...

Hi JMG,

Thanks for your article as usual I find that you have a good perspective on the issue at hand. I find the 28 contributors at http://arctic-news.blogspot.com/ spell a pretty dire scenario on where we stand in the likely runaway climate situation we most likely are facing. I'm not personally sure we have 10 or 100 years before society as we know it will come crashing down but I suspect thing will fall apart faster than anyone is now predicting and that it wont be much longer before we can no longer pretend it is not starting to happen. I do have a glimmer of hope that some of us somehow will make it though but I expect to see the Overshoot nosedive of our population in my lifetime and I am 63. We will be a very thin layer indeed in the geologic history of time.

-Greg

SamuraiArtGuy said...

jessi thompson said..." I agree that blindly following the dogma of the scientific community isn't advisable, so I encourage everyone to go outside and look at what's happening, and then talk to local old-timers and ask them how the weather has changed."

Agreed. I am not all *that* old at 57, but it's apparently old enough to notice. Most specifically I recall consistent winters. In most of the Northeast, it would get properly cold in November, t-shirts put away well by Thanksgiving. The snow that feel the end of December tended to linger on lawns till March. January and February tended to stay below freezing, straight through. And that was Winter, year after year.

But we've not seen those kinds of winters since the 80s.

We still have snow, storms, cold days. But we also routinely have days in the 50s, often days after a foot of snow. This past Winter in WV, we had a near four-foot single snowfall - then almost NOTHING for the rest of the season. This amount of volatility and randomness is new. Other extreme weather patterns linger for weeks instead of days. Also tornadoes in Brooklyn, when I was a kid - not so much. Apparently additional atmospheric heat manifests as more energy for global weather systems, resulting in more volatile and extreme weather events.

But for people in their 30s and younger, this random craziness is their normal. They're growing up with it and don't recall weather being much more predictable and consistent.

Jay Moses said...

as he so often did, george carlin made the same point in a typically terse and furiously funny way:


The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!
We’re going away. Pack your sh%t, folks. We’re going away. And we won’t leave much of a trace, either. Maybe a little Styrofoam … The planet’ll be here and we’ll be long gone. Just another failed mutation. Just another closed-end biological mistake. An evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas.

well perhaps he is wrong about us going away. maybe you are right john that some fraction of homo sap will find a way forward in the future. but carlin touched on the underlying dynamic. naming this era the anthropocene illustrates remarkable arrogance, the same arrogance that has lead to the impasse that industrial societies face.

Robin Datta said...

Thanks for another very insightful post
With regard to the fauna, speculation has been quite interesting:
After Man: A Zoology of the Future by Dougal Dixon
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/After_Man

And about Homo sapiens sapiens:
Man After Man: An Anthropology of the Future by Dougal Dixon
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_After_Man

KL Cooke said...

"The Holocene may end up being a long interglacial, but in the end an interglacial is all it is. The Eemian or Sangamon was a decent interglacial in its day too, but the ice came once again..."

Here's a neat graph from the wiki.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eemian#/media/File:All_palaeotemps.svg

ed boyle said...

Putting time in perspective as change in concrete material objects is interesting. We are used to days, years, months defined by sun and moon cycles. 20 years is a generation defined by our birth cycles. 80 years is a lifetime, 4 generations, defining gdeaf war cycle. Civilzations, empires last between 250-1200 years or 3-15 lives. We have stringed together a number of civilizations in last 10,000 years and are peaking now. Preholocene we were nonagricultural, without surplus, living hand to mouth in small groups. It took several millions of years to reach a high level of human brain use and manual dexterity, use of fire, hand tools, clothing, art at tail end to reach jump off point. Perhaps humans creted holocene by agricultural gardening of earth and methane, co2 emissions from fires preventing ice age renewal. Toba limited human diversity 70,000 years ago to smartest or luckiest. Anthropocene is a good shock label on a cigarette package to get people stopping with industrialism but according to your depiction of terminology inaccurate. We will need an evolutionary jump to make it to next stage.

In astronomical terms I heard that comets hit sarth regularly. Ort cloud gets mixed up every 60 million years by twin star, what have you. So those are cycles. Planetary cyxcles known to astrologists. It takes a million years to repeat same horoscope. Galactic center and various visible stars, asterisms, lunar astrology, was more prevalent in early civilization. I guess sitting on hilltops at night staring at sky was interesting even without telescopes. How llong for sun to orbit galactic center? 250 million years, call it a galactic solar year. 13 billion years for whole universe age, one 'brahman' perhaps. Parallel universes all together in clusters which we don't see, perhaps trillions of years old, coming and going. If biological life is sparked by a godly consciousnesss, transforming mere stones thrown down and spirit as seed corn then we have had a good run here. If DNA came in on comets it is much the same result. I hope for reincarnation or whatever so I can keep watching the show but I could be satisfied just passing on the baton to next generation.

drhooves said...

Tonight's post was a trip down memory lane to my earth history class in college some 35 years ago. I recall one discussion we had about why the more recent geologic history was so much more "sliced and diced" in terms of eopochs and eras and the like. We came to the conclusion that it was mostly because the recent geologic record was more intact - and it didn't occur to us the potential hubris involved.

I'd agree that tossing the Holocene out along with the potential Anthropocene epoch would still leave us in the Pleistocene for now, late or otherwise. And while the climate is changing, I'm not sold on AGW being the dominant factor. Sea level rise appears to be quite linear, indicating to me more of a naturally occurring cycle, and computer climate models can spit out rapid warming or cooling - depending on the result desired.

The challenges ahead for mankind in the near term to come to grips with peak oil, other resource depletion, and overpopulation will likely result in climate change and the naming of the current geologic timeframe being placed on the back burner - as society will struggle with the "human" side of the problems as they become resolved. 100 million years out the impact of mankind will indeed be a half inch or less of sediment deposited here and there, and most likely there will be a diverse variety of life once again - flourishing at the limits of solar input. My money is riding on homo sapiens, or their direct descendants, not being part of that picture.

Mikep said...

A thought provoking post and a nice diversion from those of late. The Anthropic Event is progressing at a jolly pace, we can pretty well see the environment changing around us on a day to day basis, which in geological terms is effectively "lightspeed". This may be the most interesting time in Earth's history since a dinosaur looked up at a streak of light across the sky and a bright flash on the horizon and thought to itself "that's interesting".
I agree that Humans are likely to survive as we are a highly adaptable species. A few years ago it was fashionable to claim that humans had stopped evolving in a Darwinian sense as culture had made that sort of thing obsolete. There had been, so we were assured, no genetic change to humans since the paleolithic. Recently as scientists have started looking at the human genome in detail they have found that not only is this wrong but in fact the opposite is true. Humans appear to be evolving faster over the last few millennia than at any time in our history. The suggestion being that cultural change and natural selection proceed in lock step in a form of positive feedback loop, which effectively "turbo charges" evolution. If this is correct then 500,000 years should be ample time for a diversity of different human types to develop and exploit a whole range of novel and interesting ecological niches. Plenty of fuel here for a science fiction writer.
Enjoy your road trip, I look forward to your next post.
Mike.

Brian Kaller said...

You make an interesting point, JMG.

A bit of rumination on your theme: I’m not personally bothered by the term “Anthropocene,” simply because all these divisions are, to a point, imperfect teaching tools created by and for humans. Our divisions reflect a physical reality, of course – there really is a K-T boundary about 65 million years down through the rock, for example – but as you mention, they represent modern scientists building on and adapting the terms handed down to them from their predecessors, who did the same, back to the beginnings of science.

Someone doing the whole thing over from scratch might make the major division the Great Oxygenation Event – or the Iron Rain, as I call it when teaching my daughter – when the seas and sky became saturated with oxygen. It would be about halfway through the Earth’s history, and it changed the planet in what, for us and most living things, are the most tangible ways – the seas and sky turned blue, the iron rained out of the sea, and most life was wiped out. Or before and after eukaryotic cells, or Hox genes, or land vertebrates, or any number of other game-changing developments.

Our divisions tend to be biased towards what we can see, because we can see it, and biased toward animals rather than plants, because we’re animals; the spread of mammals also coincided with the spread of flowers, fruits and grasses, which changed the world more than mammals did. We divide eras or divisions into single-digit groups of three or seven, rather than thirty-three or five thousand and seven, partly because that’s what human brains can remember.

I mentioned in a comment some weeks ago the difference between fact and truth; facts are data, but how we put them together reflects the truths we believe in. It doesn’t mean we’re not describing reality – we are, and can back it up with evidence. But we can describe the same reality in a number of different ways.
In other words, it’s like the debate over whether Pluto is a planet – no one can deny that there are several large bodies and many small ones orbiting the sun, but the inner rocky planets are small and solid, asteroids are smaller and solid, gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn are stillborn stars, and Pluto and the comets are dirty snowballs with weird orbits.

We group the four rocky spheres and the four gas giants together and call them “planets,” and possibly Pluto if we feel like it, but not the asteroids or comets.

The planets and their orbits are proven facts; how we group them with our human language reflects our human truths. We group them into eight or nine partly because we remember that a lot more easily than the several million smaller bodies. We called Pluto a planet when we discovered it in the 1930s, partly because society believed in progress and wanted to celebrate new discoveries, partly because the growing power of the USA in the 1930s wanted to claim its own astronomical discoveries, and partly because Percival Lowell (whose initials, supposedly, were part of the reason it was called Pluto) had long predicted there would be another planet out there, and people thought Pluto was it.

What I’m getting to here is, if referring to the current ecological disruption as an era helps us take it more seriously, call it an era – it is from our human perspective. It won’t be an era to God, who exists outside of time, or to an intelligence that lasts millions of years, of course, but we can’t second-guess them anyway.

That made sense in my head; JMG and fellow readers, let me know if that made sense to you.

thecrowandsheep said...

I nominate the label "Anthroobscene"

Artorias said...

There's nothing like geology to put things in perspective, and that post certainly did. Classic ADR.

Brezelburg said...

Dwig,

I'm not JMG, but let me address some of your questions anyway. The 400 years from now to Trey's time won't be nearly enough for transitional species to develop, but the replacement of sheep with loms (llamas?) is a hint at extinction. I'd guess that Meriga's resources wouldn't allow for relatively unnecessary and costly research such as the large-scale field biology the determination of extinction processes takes. At most, people would notice the disappearance of certain plants or animals around them, just like we do today.

As for the ecotechnic future, that would probably be the standard form of human civilisation in the neocene. Its distictive features are that it puts hardly a dent into its ecological surroundings, and potentially lasts much longer than the civilisations we have today. Both make it fit into the thick, rather homogeneous layer future raccoon geologists would find above the plastic-plutonium-line. The steps toward it, I'd assume, fall in line with the regulatingg processes that turn the biosphere back on track.

JMG,

I chuckled at the dinosaurs: 3 mammals: 1 joke.
To expand on that: Now that biology finally classes all birds as dinosaurs, we find the "age of mammals" to be populated by twice as many dinosaur species as mammal species, the dinosaurs outnumber us vastly with the biggest congregations of animals being birds, the most numerous land vertebrate being the chicken (ok, we breed those, but that can also be seen as a successful strategy of theirs), and, most amazingly, since scientists strapped a camera to the back of a penguin a while ago and found that it caught every fish it set its sight on on pretty much every hunting trip, we can also give the trophy for "most effective predator" back to the dinos.
They never left, we never won.

JacGolf said...

Jmg wrote 'On the one hand, those impacts are possible because, and only because, our species is busily burning through stores of fossil carbon that took half a billion years for natural processes to stash in the rocks, and ripping through equally finite stores of other nonrenewable resources, some of which took even longer to find their way into the deposits we mine so greedil'

Not finished reading, but this struck me as a holy crap moment. This use of resources that will deplete the future of their use is much like older civilizations stripping the pyramids of their skins of alabaster (and any messages carved therein) which is why we keep having to relearn history. Same behavior, but at some point in the future, someone or something will wonder, what civilization in their right mind would do that? How chronocentric of them!

Unknown said...


Nice post as most of yours.

It is not the point of the post but may be useful to know, although you probably do already.
The last research points to a massive volcanic eruption (Decan Traps), and subsequent climate change as the real killer of the dinosaurs, coinciding or caused by the asteroid impact.
http://www.sci-news.com/geology/science-deccan-traps-volcanism-dinosaur-extinction-02345.html
http://earthsky.org/earth/dinosaur-killing-asteroid-caused-indias-deccan-traps

Interestingly, the larger Permian-Triasic extinction could have been also caused by an even more gigantic volcanic eruption (Siberian Traps) that, in this case, induced the burning of a whole subcontinent of carbon-coal deposits, and in turn causing massive climate change. But we should not feel bad. The speed at which we are producing CO2 is not so far behind that of the Siberian Traps.

http://phys.org/news/2015-09-siberian-culprit-end-permian-extinction.html
http://www.skepticalscience.com/Burgess-Bowring-2015-Siberian-Traps-Dates.html

sgage said...

@JMG,

I very much agree with your analysis. I have always thought that the 'anthropocene' thing was self-congratulatory nonsense. But I still miss the 'luminiferous ether' ;-)

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Fair enough about the “phlogiston” too as that would have been what the people would have observed to date. Thanks for the new word too. I thought at first it was some sort of label for a medieval torture device...

I'm not so sure how much impact we have on the geology of the planet as my understanding of the word "geology" leads me to think about tectonic plate movements, volcanic action etc. Sliding a good chunk of the ice off either Greenland or Antarctica may produce a change in geology as the landmasses rise and certainly we will have something to do with that, although no much evidence will be left around in the far distant future that that is in fact the case. Of course, I may be biased in my thinking because I do live on the side of an extinct (hopefully, please let me know if you are aware that it is not?) volcanic massif and that makes it hard for me to ignore geology as I understand it. I mean it is in front of my eyes most days - you can even see the volcanic cones if you know where to look.

Interesting, I have read that those Latin terms as they have applied to geology and had not realised their original source. It seems like a rather dodgy source material to me...

Your dinosaur versus mammal ultimate fight challenge score joke was quite amusing! Weren't the mammals at the time of the dinosaurs meant to be small rat like creatures? If it was, it is nice to read that we descended from rat like creatures as those rats are way smart! :-)!

In South Australia (which has copped some pretty severe weather recently) there is a geological drive up in the Flinders Ranges. And there are various stop offs along the road and you can see first hand the different materials and strata in the rocks and there are even indications that the mountains at one time were at least 10,000m (33,000ft) above sea level. Incidentally on this old continent it is no unusual thing to come across such ancient and weathered mountain ranges. For instance the MacDonald Mountain Range in the Northern Territory shows either sides of the once massive mountain range and you can drive down a road that runs through the middle of the once massive but now flattened mountains. It is pretty awesome to get a grasp of just how deep time and life is on this amazing planet.

My money is on the rats. They are very flexible and they adapt faster than I can come up with new ways to foil them. And best of all, their material requirements are far less than mine...

Cheers (although that sounds oddly inappropriate given the subject under discussion this week)

Chris

Phil Harris said...

JMG
You produce very useful teaching material. My schooling in British so-called Grammar School seems to have been sketchier than yours in USA. I am not sure we did any proper geology timeline.
However one can make up for lack of education later, with help. Smile

We could spare a thought for the PETM – a mere 2 million year interval.
http://www.bgs.ac.uk/research/climatechange/palaeo/PETM.html

Like Jessi, I tend to favour the term “boundary”. I do not have a name for the coming age. But how about “anthropic instability” for our disturbed carbon and other cycles, persisting with luck mere thousands of years? I would not wish a PETM interval on anybody or anything.

Quote from the above link: “Our study also shows that there may have been a period of big storms. Palynomorphs in the core seem to have been reworked which suggests erosion and redistribution of sediment by storms. The storms also seem to have lasted for long periods of time (1100 to 1400 years).” … “If the PETM is taken as an analogue for climate change today, we can expect to see prolonged periods of environmental instability accompanying the 1.1 to 6.4°C temperature rise predicted for the end of this century.“ [my italics added]

These folk are studying sediment cores from a semi-enclosed ‘North Sea’. The adjacent North Atlantic seems to be a climatically fickle place at the best of times but their results suggest it could get more extreme both here and elsewhere.

best
Phil H

Spanish fly said...


'That’s our geological legacy: a slightly odd transition layer a quarter of an inch thick, with the usual discontinuity between the species in the rock just below, many of whom vanish at the transition, and the species in the rock just above, who proliferate into empty ecological niches and evolve into new forms.'

We are nothing! (in geological terms).
How many 'mega-years' could last humans before going extinct?

W. B. Jorgenson said...

To all in the Ottawa/Gatineau area, the next meeting of the local green wizards group will be on Thursday October 13 at King Sharma, 205 Bank Street at 6 pm. Anyone who wishes to attend is welcome.

Cortes said...

An excellent essay! Thanks once more.

Ted Nield's "Underlands" which is beautifully written, humorous in many parts, and jarringly alarming in others, provides a terrific introduction to the reality of geological timescales and our puny significance.

John Roth said...

Nice coverage, and I've never seen the idea that the "Anthropocene" ought to be a boundary zone instead of a full-fledged geological event. Makes sense.

I'll just note that the role of the volcanism that created the Deccan Traps in the K-PG extinction has been revived lately. They both probably played a significant role. There's an outside chance that the asteroid impact in fact caused the volcanism.

NZ said...

Thanks for the essay. One of my personal "Ah-Ha" moments was reflecting on the fact that 99.9% of life that once existed on earth is now extinct. Recognizing and putting that statement into perspective wakes you up. How you interpret that fact determines your future outlook on life and sets the foundation for your actions. The spectrum of response from humble acceptance on one extreme to aggressive individualist abandon on the other, seem to be good markers. The human culture you are embedded in sets boundaries for exploration along that spectrum.

The study of geology is really the study of time, and like every other endeavor in modern industrial society, that vocation is narrowed to encompass only profitable actions. It would be interesting to explore the motivations of early geologists, every scientific discipline for that matter, to see the ultimate purpose of their studies. How much was the search for truth and knowledge and how much was the need to solve practical matters of supplying goods and services- or just raw personal self interest, glory seeking, and seeking social status.

In the end, the real crisis facing humanity is less of an energy crisis and more of a spiritual crisis. Being conscious of our existence in this world forces us to find meaning in what we are doing and how we make our way. We need a purpose for our life. The conquest of nature has provided that motivation for millennium. Striving to live with nature will provide a spiritual opening to move forward. A humble balance of interests redirecting the power of the human imagination toward sustaining life not conquering it.

We are currently living in a greek tragedy- hubris leading to nemesis indeed.

Howard Skillington said...

Your suggestion that, in geological terms, humanity’s destructive legacy may only be documented by the equivalent of another iridium layer, is spot-on. We would all have been better off if, after his absurd contention that “Man is the measure of all things,” Protagoras had been put in the Total Perspective Vortex.

Friction Shift said...

This post gets to the core of my discomfort with the term Anthropocene. More than once I've seen the term used in an almost congratulatory manner, and no doubt it will be brandished in support of all manner of looney geo-engineering schemes and the Stewart Brand "We are as gods" nonsense.

Steve Morgan said...

A hundred million years from now, the corvin geologists might find another use for the P-N boundary layer; below it, virtually no useful hydrocarbons are likely to be found. Just as modern petroleum geologists don't generally drill for oil in Precambrian rocks, their corvin equivalents will know they've got a dry hole if they pass through the plastic film.

It does make me wonder: will they find it odd that despite the evidence of so much life, many climatic swings, mass extinctions, etc., the only ocean anoxic events to lay down hydrocarbons occurred after the P-N transition? Perhaps those micron-thin layers of plastic will be considered the source of abiotic oil among their peak-oil skeptics.

Lawfish1964 said...

@jessi Thompson, there is no solution to the predicament we're in. That's why it's called a predicament, rather than a problem. As a species, we have already altered the climate sufficiently that, even if we stopped burning fossil fuels immediately, the next fifty years would continue the current trend.

I would add that the thin layer of rock laid down by our transition period will contain an extra dose of radioactive material, given that there are some 450 plus nuclear power plants which will release all their spent waste and melt down once there are no longer fossil fuels to maintain them. That event may well spell extinction for our species, as well as about 95% of the others on this planet.

Bill Pulliam said...

Many of the events of the Holocene likely had a human component underlying them, such as the mass megafaunal extinctions and possibly some of the climate shifts because of changes in fire regimes and land cover. The current extinction event, geologically, began about 10,000 years ago. There's an acceleration now from heavy industry, but in the post-industrial workd it will continue from the lingering effects of climate changeg, ocean chemistry and circulation, etc. All will run its course in the blink of a geological eye.

And this is entirely natural. We humans are 100% a product of the organic evolutionary forces on this planet. We are not an outside force. This is not the first time that a new life form has evolved that disrupted the global ecosystem and resulted in mass extinctions.

RetrovationSociety said...

I've started a new blog - can I post a link here please?

It's going to be stories of how future Ireland became a society that embraced Retrovation.

http://retrovationsociety.blogspot.ie/

Mallow

David, by the lake said...

John--

The Anthropocene is more a monument to our own hubris and inflated self-importance than anything else. The need to deflate our own collective ego is one of the reasons that the psyche-rattling "The Next Ten Billion Years" is my favorite post of yours so far.

weedananda said...

This is a brilliant post, JMG...thank you! Of course, the most (or should that be only?) self-important species ever wants to name an entire epoch after itself! It seems that since the dawn of civilization we've been enamored of the notion that God made us in his image. I've come to realize that the opposite is the case...we made God(s) after our own likeness and then carried it even a step further, imagining that 'we are as gods'. That hasn't worked out so well. From the dizzying heights of our hubris a humbling descent awaits. Adios Anthropocene and good riddance!

Mary said...

Good morning JMG (and moderator!) Hopefully some life will survive our hubris. Really it is embarrassing as well as sorrowful to be human at times.

In the meantime, updating Magical Thyme in the here and now; 1 week into October and we've had our first light frost. The forecasts have become totally unreliable, as it was supposed to stay above 40F last night! Anyway, the outermost leaves of the tomatoes were hit, but underneath, all is well. So I'll be harvesting tomatoes like crazy now. The cute little eggplants died, but their 6 babies were fine and are on the kitchen counter now. I grow them for fun, not to fill the freezer.

I'm now in my 3rd year running of squash magic, and the Squash God(dess?) did not fail. In the exact same spot as last year's unexpected mystery pumpkin, 2 large, dark green soccer ball/tear drop shaped squashes appeared. No clue as to what they are, but they can be seen at this link if anybody would care to fill me in: http://magicalthyme.blogspot.com/2016/08/squash-magic.html

And in case I failed to properly harvest the mystery squash, the Squash God(dess?) also left me a 2nd squash plant directly across the path from the one above. This was a normal summer squash and she gifted me with a half dozen or so yellow squashes:
http://magicalthyme.blogspot.com/2016/08/more-squash-magic.html

This years harvest season also included plucking 9 angora rabbits, with each baby providing enough wool to knit another bunny, lol. Their wool, with before and after pictures, can be seen here:
http://magicalthyme.blogspot.com/2016/09/bunnies-first-shed.html
http://magicalthyme.blogspot.com/2016/09/nillas-3rd-harvesting-session.html

And the season is finally capped off with Maizie being started under saddle. Videos coming soon...

and it's back to work....Mary

kristofv said...

Interesting tale. So we could just as well shift the beginning of the Holocene a bit. Have you heard anything that rather than a single asteroid, climate change through massive volcanic eruptions (Large Igneous Provinces: in this case the Deccan eruptions) would be to blame instead of or rather in collaboration with the asteroid? So what did in the dinosaurs on Skeptical Science. Maybe it could feed some fantasies that we will manage to create a period or even era ending instead of an epoch ending. Stories about the sixth mass extinction being underway point in that direction as well. Not really a batch of honor one would want to strive for of course.

Joel Caris said...

It's an interesting mix of sad and comforting to think of humanity reduced down to a thin boundary layer of sediment--though the micron-thick representation of all the plastic detritus we've created definitely falls into the comforting category. It also was a bit jarring to read it in such stark terms. Not that I don't get that that's where we're heading--that we are practically nothing in comparison to the sheer length of time this planet represents, let alone the universe as a whole--but I often lose it in the day to day until coming across a stark reminder like this.

Your note about the end of the Paleozoic brought back to mind the occasional thought I've had--spurred by the speculation of others--about how little we truly know about what has happened on this planet over its billions of years. If everything we've done ends up as little more than an oddly-spiced boundary layer a couple hundred million years from now, with the vast majority of the things we made being lost to history and geological processes, how possible is it that some very significant things have happened on this planet that we know nothing about? Do we really know if we're the first "intelligent" species (setting aside the problems with that definition) or the first to wield forms of technology somewhere on our level? And when you consider the ways in which we so often shove everything into the myth of progress, I'm not convinced that even if there was subtle evidence of some past intelligent species on this planet having an outsized impact on it--though not necessarily in the same way as us--that we would even interpret it correctly.

Granted, perhaps none of that is the case, but it does leave me wondering about just how little we know of what has happened here on earth over the past ~4.5 billion years.

Joel

P.S. For those who are interested, the newest Litterfall blog post is up, in which I talk about the need to recognize the full extent of the consequences of any new technology or policy and lay out some guidelines for evaluating the proposals I'll be making in my series of "Closed System Economics" posts.

Stacy said...

@jessi thompson, re: diet, You're not just whistling Dixie! My husband and I have been gardening for two decades now all up and down the West Coast of North America and it is getting harder, not easier, to grow many varieties of garden vegetables. Our most recent crop massacre was in the Portland (Oregon) metro area which is seeing large numbers of salary-class folks from California and NE moving in, thinking they've found Utopia, or Ecotopia perhaps. We've had no sun, no rain, few pollinators, drought, and flood and sometimes all in one season! We are changing both the types of veggies we plant and their varieties next season, hoping our local seeds can change along with the climate.

shhh said...

Thought provoking. The term Anthropocene hasn't arisen as a term of science though, as you note it's lack of acceptance by the scientific community. But there is one important and possibly useful aspect to the use of the term anyway, even though that use is contrary to your train of thought. That being:agency.

As humans named and refined the nomenclature describing the geo-temporal boundaries they observed, the lexicon's increasing sophistication served to better communicate ideas, as distinct from truth. One of the rules of thumb that guide scientific naming conventions is to avoid attributing agency while preserving the usefulness of terms. It can be very difficult to speak objectively if your nomenclature is cluttered with theory. Any decent scientist can distinguish between ideas as symbols versus ideas as fact, as any decent magician can distinguish between the pursuit of understanding and the role of symbols in that pursuit.

So, I like the term Anthropocene, not from a scientific point of view but from a symbolic point of view in that its use provides an attribution of agency. That is, human action is recognized as a causal factor in the destabilization of the atmosphere, which is a causal factor in geological formation.

Point being, science, art, self awareness, magic, etc. are distinct, yet not separate. To the extent terms like Anthropocene help people contextualize and come to grips with the impacts of our collective behavior, then I'm all for it. From a science perspective, Neocene is an excellent proposition and I fully support it.

From a behavioral perspective, I'm convinced that: a) nothing short of calamity will change the collective behaviors because there is no commonly identifiable threat among the many different consciousnesses, and b) it's already too late to stop the changes in the thermal gradient from having utterly catastrophic effects on water distribution in the atmosphere. This, in turn, will leave fingerprints in the geological record, the scale of which are unknowable to us.

It's extremely unlikely in my view that "civilized" people have a prayer of survival. The hope of humanity lies in "primitive" cultures like the Australian aborigines and the far north western Russian peoples.

Caryn said...

Oooooh! This is a really good one. I know little about this subject, but I find it fascinating.
As I am now looking out my window in Western Wyoming at the badlands,(The Wind River range, just east of the Grand Tetons) I can see clear stripes, layers of red and white rock. Hiking and walking in those hills we've found intact arrowheads and stone carving implements, petroglyphs, bones, (some very old, some new), seashells, a petrified palm tree, fossils of weird sea/water creatures. A Massive Jurassic dinosaur dig is about 3 hours away in Thermopoulos. History from many eras and epochs still just littering the ground here.
Down here in the warm valley we will probably leave behind, as you mentioned - a layer of brightly colored plastic junk, possibly some will stay intact for centuries or millennia to puzzle the next inhabitants.

If we humans survive at all, My guess is that we will splinter: Some of our descendants will develop long dormant telepathic sensitivities - due to our current need/love/dependence upon constant and ubiquitous communication with each other. Others will, like all species favor and develop on strength, hardiness, cunning and clannishness or pack-relationships. The latter will be more prominent here in the harsh Mountain West, if it still supports habitation at all, as it has for millions of years.

OK, Unless the Yellowstone Caldera blows - then we're all just a memory and that colorful layer of plastic goo-gaws left behind ,underneath the ash.

Chuck said...

If I may start a brief tangent:—

Of rhinoceri and glyptodons: "Rhinoceros" not being Latin, it doesn't pluralize like Latin; to be classical with it, you'd want "rhinocerontes", but the usual is just "rhinoceroses". And glyptodonts, unlike mastodons, end with a "t", even though the root is the same ("mastodon" being breast-tooth, because an old French naturalist thought their teeth looked like they had nipples; and "glyptodont" being carven-tooth or grooved-tooth). There is a genus Glyptodon, but you wouldn't normally refer to animals by pluralizing their genus (Boy, she had a lot of Felises in that little house!).

pygmycory said...

Yes, a boundary layer rather than an entire epoch makes sense. I must admit, I'd looked at the holocene and the anthropocene with a rather jaundiced eye for a couple of reasons.
1)Humanity has been causing significant changes in the ecology throughout the holocene, by causing many of the megafauna to go extinct, and by farming. What we're seeing now is an intensification of trends already present... although the amplitude has increased enormously, and we do seem to be looking at a true mass extinction event.
2)If the holocene is over, it was a ludicrously short epoch. Human self-importance strikes again, probably.
Rolling the holocene into the pleistocene, and 1850-? being a boundary layer to something else makes sense to me. A pity we can't go ahead a couple of thousand years in a time machine to confirm matters.

Renaissance Man said...

Thank you, I haven't dug into geology very much, so that was very instructive overview. Personally, I'd be tempted to call our era the 'obscene' for a huge number of reasons.

pygmycory said...

One of the more interesting changes to me, at least, is the changed distribution of species and higher-order groupings of organisms due to species introductions. We haven't just introduced species that are closely related to already-present organisms, we've introduced entirely new groups to various continents.

Placental mammals are now firmly established in Australia. Land-dwelling mammals are established in New Zealand. Rats and cats live in the Galapagos islands. Florida is crawling with more exotic fishes, reptiles, plants and amphibians than you can shake a stick at.

In terms of species movements, this is almost equivalent to the formation of Pangaea, where the continents became physically connected. This connection is one of the multiple factors involved in the enormous end-Permian extinction JMG mentioned, along with massive CO2 release due to very large geologic province eruption (the siberian traps). If you think the yellowstone supervolcano is scary, the siberian traps spread lava over a significant portion of siberia.

I sincerely hope that we don't manage to produce a mess on that scale. For what it's worth, I think H. sapiens will survive our current idiocy. Species that do well when the biosphere goes nuts tend to be generalists that are widely distributed and adaptable. Humans are very definitely this.

47ronin said...

I've been reading this blog with great interest for the past 6 years. This is my first comment.

To me, the great value in the writings here on the Archdruid Report, are the weekly demonstrations that so many of the unconscious beliefs we all hold dear are completely wrong. I'm not talking about making recriminations at the unwashed Philistines who mindlessly drive through suburbia eating fast food and watching reality TV. I'm talking about being challenged myself. There is something to offend everyone and it is fantastic!

To the theme of this week's post, most of the readers here are probably familiar with the book the Sixth Extinction, which might have done the most to popularize the term "Anthropocene". For folks interested in a very accessible review of the past 5 major extinction events, I would recommend the book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. It's far from clear to me that humans actually would survive such an event. However, I enjoyed the book's description of the relatively sudden, cataclysmic end-Paleozoic crisis as compared to, say, the Devonian extinction, which was a slow-motion crowding out of niche specialists by more generalist invasive species.

Urban Harvester said...

Wow, there's nothing like a geological perspective to put hubris in check! And a primer of the history of geological terminology to boot -- thanks! I can't help but wonder whether the Pleistocene-Neocene transition, or like terminology, will feature in your proposal for a political approach to conserving the ecologies of our time... There is a lot here to unpack!

Richard Green said...

Anthony, I'm with you on the hubris. If we really want to name this geological period after ourselves, let's at least be honest and call it the Civilizedocene. After all, indigenous peoples have nothing to do with it. Or maybe Derrick Jensen's term is more accurate, the Sociopocene.

Crow Hill said...

The use of the term anthropocene may also reflect the fact that an increasing human population living in cities and engaging nearly exclusively with other humans and human artefacts feel that the world is indeed all about humans and that this should therefore show up in the geological record too.

Graeme Bushell said...

I think Anthony Romano has it, more of a marketing gimmick thank a serious scientific proposal

Glenn said...

I'm in favour of abandoning the label Holocene as well as Anthropocene. As far as I'm concerned, we're still in the late Pleistocene. We're half way through an interglacial driven by Milankovich cycles and the current continental arrangement (the current ice age cycle, which we are still in, started when the gap between North and South America closed up about 3 million years ago). I don't think there's enough carbon we can get at to break the glaciation cycles before climate change renders industrial civilization moot. We now have about 10,000 years, more or less, for the normal processes to get our excess carbon out of the atmosphere before the next glaciation is due.

Now the extinction events at the end of the last glaciation _may_ warrant a change in labels, but I'd prefer to stick with Pleistocene as long as the glaciation cycles continue. At worst, we may skip the next round of glaciation, but I'll do my best for the one after that!

Glenn

in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea
Cascadia

Graeme Bushell said...

Sorry, I'm having trouble letting this go... That's only true in the unlikely circumstance that you liquefy the carbon dioxide, which is normally a gas. Substitute "gallons" with kilograms (pounds, if you prefer), and you're much closer to the mark

Five8Charlie said...

Well, that was an existential two-by-four to the back of the head. I think I need a beer after that one. A home-brew, of course.

Ultimately, everything we do will be measured by a very thin layer of debris between different rocks? That puts thing is a different perspective than worrying about whether we should buy the red Ford with the hands-free smartphone app built in, or maybe the Honda with the clever bluetooth widget that syncs with your iPhone.

So live well, do the best you can, help out, and don't have any regrets, because our troubles and worries ultimately aren't going to outlive us.

avalterra said...

I've got my money on the Coywolf. Mix a wolf with a coyote and a dash of dog and you've got a smart adaptable canid.

http://www.coywolf.org/coywolf-basic-info/

jessi thompson said...

Yes, this is true, and it needs to be acknowledged. However, it's no reason to continue doing so, rather it's more of a reason to stop immediately. Every molecule of CO2 or methane you find a way to avoid emitting is a very real step designed to preserve just a little more life on this planet. Do we want humans to go extinct? Keep burning, that milestone is coming up. How about all the fish in the sea? We could easily burn that much, too. Do we want to make the dominant life form on Earth a single celled organism? What kind of legacy do we want yo leave? The sooner we stop the more life we save. The less we consume the more diversity we save. We all need to ask ourselves, absent human life, does life itself have value? Is a species you have never seen more important than a trip to the Bahamas? If you believe that all living things have a value and are worthy of life, then you are obligated to stop killing them, no?

John Roth said...

Well, it looks like mama nature is doing something about our over-dependence on red meat. https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/07/tick-bites-that-trigger-severe-meat-allergy-on-rise-around-the-world .

Lynnet said...

On the K-T boundary: if you look at a globe, and mentally draw a diameter through it from Chicxulub, you'll be pretty close to the Deccan traps. Imagine the ringing of the planet when the meteorite plows in, and the waves go around the globe in every direction, and meet on the far side. Boom! This makes me wonder if opposite to the Siberian traps, we will some day find a huge meteorite buried under the ocean floor. Just musing.......

On the squash, within the various squash families, individual varieties can cross. So your mystery squash could be a hybrid. It may end up the world's greatest squash, or it might be hard, bitter, or whatever. Some amazing new varieties have been found in the same way.
See the book by Carol Deppe, "Breeding Your Own Vegetable Varieties".

234567 said...

I was pleased to read this - it is very accurate in terms of what might be found in a million years relative to us. As a guy with petroleum geology background, whose father was a geologist that took 'vacations' where numerous fossils were to be had, this entire bit made me smile.

Understanding geologic time affirms many things for me, not the least of which is keeping my perspective on what happens in the world. One more Yellowstone or a couple of Tamboras would change things quickly on this planet. I have a hard time with the entire anthropocentric climate thing due to what severe quakes and eruptions can do relative to burning oil. And burning oil will be tapering off as my generation declines into history.

I don't freak out because geology lets me keep perspective. It sounds kinda hokey, but it does. Handling my fossils makes me understand the brevity of homo sapiens and most other species. I do wonder what a fossilized PC board might look like, or if tire burial sites revert to oil in the future? We have scattered the metallic resources of earth all across he planet - hundreds of millions of years for volcanism to pump more concentrated deposits out...

And then what happens to the hundreds of tons of radioactive waste we have concentrated anthropically (new word..hmmm?)

Having been to abandoned cities, I know nature will cover us over quite rapidly once we cease having the largesse to push her back.

Thanks for a good piece - just the hubris of the word anthropocene sticks in my craw. It might be funny if felines inherit the earth in future - what would they call our little layer of detritus?

234567 said...

Will future beings pry apart shale layers, hoping to find the imprint of printed circuit boards - the way I was taught to do in order to find those elusive fish fossils?? Or will it be aluminum cans? And coins - those would make quite the puzzling fossils for those in the future, eh?

234567 said...

@pygmycory

Spot on - we have masterminded a diaspora of the animal and plant kingdoms in just a few hundred years that would have taken a few hundred thousand. I have a Chinese white pear growing at the farm from seed in the compost and a Chinese parasol tree in my backyard in the city. Kudzu? Pampas grass? Water hyacinth? Mussels? Anacondas? Boas? Norwegian rats? - we have been very busy helping other species try out new eco-niches.

I remember driving outside Darwin Australia one night, and when the wind picked up, the desiccated and flattened cane toad road kill were flying around the roadside in my headlights for what seemed an hour...

Rüdiger von Finckendorff said...

Oops, sorry, in my earlier comment it was supposed to say "Anthropic Event". Somehow an additional T slipped in.

NomadicBeer said...

I have to ask, how do you get your ideas? I sometimes get collapse-tired because the same thoughts go around in my mind - every time I see people driving everywhere, huge McMansions under construction, people brandishing the latest ISomething. All I can think is when are we going to learn? And yet almost every week you find a new angle of approach, a fresh look at makes our society so different in some ways and so similar in others to all other imperial phases of history.
Regarding the end of your essay - have you read "Evolution" (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution_(Baxter_novel))? It is a sci-fi novel but written more as a evolutionary history of Homo Sapiens with extrapolations to the future. It fits perfectly with your essay. I think humans will be the Lystrosaurus (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lystrosaurus) of the current mass extinction. Lystrosaurus was the most common animal after the Permian-Triassic mass extinction that you mention. After the dust settles, most animals bigger than a cat will be extinct. So the human species will diverge and fill all the available niches. In the process, Homo Sapiens will disappear.
But in a sense we are a very successful species, I think 10 million years from now most mammals around will trace their ancestry to either rats or humans.

Mountain said...

Interesting sidenote about the mechanism of how the asteroid destroyed the dinos, it seems all surface life was wiped out in a matter of hours around the globe.

Radiolab Live: Apocalyptical FULL SHOW

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K52vD4WBdLw

Ceworthe said...

On an entirely different note, here from National Geographic is the story of old fashioned seafaring kept alive in the meeting of a replica Viking longship and a Hawaiian canoe meeting in the Erie Canal this summer: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2016/09/12/hokulea-crosses-paths-with-the-worlds-largest-viking-ship/?utm_source=Facebook&utm_medium=Social&utm_content=link_fboc20160913voices-hokuleaviking&utm_campaign=Content&sf35802995=1

Lawfish1964 said...

I agree, @Jessie Thompson. I've personally been collapsing in place for about two years now. I don't fly and generally travel very little. Grow as much of my own food as possible and eat a lot of local fish, chicken, pork and beef (some wild). I have two chicken coops so I haven't eaten a grocery store egg in over a year. I built a clothesline, but confess I haven't used it as much as I'd hoped.

Unfortunately, I appear to be a crazy lone wolf to so many people around me. They're all driving big SUV's and taking vacations to Hawaii and Alaska. 99% of Americans would never give up their modern lifestyle. Alas, they will be forced to sooner or later.

Tyler August said...

@ Richard Green

I disagree completely. For two reasons:

First, and most important, is that the current round of mass extinctions started with indigenous hunter-gatherers. Ask the Maori where the moa went. Or Native Americans what happened to plains horses, mammoth, et cetera. Wherever 'indigenous' peoples first immigrated, extinction followed in their wake. That's going to show up on the geological record as the start of this transitional period.

Besides, the dichotomy you propose is flawed. Civilization is indigenous in Europe, North Africa, China, India and Mesoamerica. That the people living in those lands happened to develop a means of living different from hunter-gatherers elsewhere does not make them any less indigenous to their homelands.

Indeed, I'm hoping that the European Right realize this and make use of the UN's protections of indegenes to defend their homelands and way of life from the tide of refugees WITHIN existing international law.

RPC said...

Oh, sure, throw us in the Total Perspective Vortex and flip the switch! Time to start (keep?) gibbering - I wonder if anyone will notice?

Scotlyn said...

@JMG well, this post is bringing on the urge to eat, drink and be merry...

@Rudiger (and Richard Green) Perhaps we should keep the T and call it the TechnoAnthropic Event...

Ed-M said...

Hi JMG,

Well I don't have very much to say on this very interesting and educational post -- but once we exhaust our fossil fuel reserves or the physical or financial feasability to get them out, the CO2 content in Earth's Atmosphere should come to a peak and then start to decline. How fast? Well if we don't give it a "boost", the rate of decline I expect would be similar to that in the past. How fast? Well my cursory analysis of the paleoclimate CO2 content data indicates it could take Nature about 250 years to remove 1 ppm of Carbon Dioxide molecules, where the content reduced from 260 ppm to 180 ppm over 20,000 years two or perhaps three interglacials ago. So the End-Pleistocene Anthropic Event may be instead the early of mid-Pleistocene Anthropic Anamoly.

Hubertus Hauger said...

It does us good, to become more humble in us viewing our importance on this world. Similarily said in acid words from carlin here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCYc06bVo0E

American Herstory X said...

Thank you so much for this. I love this post as well as your Next Ten Billion Years post. It isn't easy (for me, I cannot speak for others) to grasp the big picture of geological time. All I can conclude when I try to contemplate the vastnesses of space and time is Jesus doesn't care if we masturbate.

Now I think I have a much greater understanding, thanks to the virtuosic way you've laid it out for us. Question: Does there seem to be an increased variety of species with every era? Meaning, species seem to be condensing and not taking as long to evolve into very odd and complex forms in the more modern eras, such as our current one. Also, if all this is true, I wonder if the next intelligent species brains on Earth will make H. sapiens' brains look primitive in comparison? Will they be as violent as our species? I'm a little sad because I'll never know.

pygmycory said...

Of course, the introductions of assorted species includes diseases, too. I just read that the UN has now admitted it caused the cholera epidemic in Haiti post-2010 earthquake that is still ongoing. Negligence, basically.
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/18/un-public-admission-haiti-cholera-outbreak
Hurricane Matthew is not going to make getting rid of the cholera any easier.

On a brighter note, I can't help wondering what small feline species will evolve from the domestic cat. Or the wide variety of geckos introduced to Florida.

Martin B said...

A short, sharp discontinuity in the geologic record is called an event.

On the old TheOilDrum I suggested the term Hansen Event for the period during which we burn up all the fossil fuel. This to honor James Hansen who really stuck his neck out trying to alert the population to the danger of global warming.

A paleontologist suggested that our modern civilization would be identified in the fossil record by broken toilet shards. He pointed out that the shape, even of tiny pieces, is utterly distinctive, and the porcelain material is virtually indestructible. The only thing is, he said, they would probably be considered some sort of household deity since they were found in every home.

pygmycory said...

Ed-M,
I think that the wave of extinction H. sapiens has been creating wherever it goes will end up being major enough to constitute a change of epoch. A larger extinction event of period or higher scale is also a possibility. The rocks may not change for long, but the fossils in them will.

In particular, it looks very likely that we're going to destroy the coral reef builders, and therefore many of the organisms that depend on them. Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. Take them out, and you have the makings of a major extinction event right there. Shell-building aquatic and marine organisms in general are at high risk due to increased concentration of CO2 in the oceans leading to lowered pH (greater acidity) which tends to dissolve their shells, and the skeletons of hard corals.

This is already causing problems, and its going to get a lot worse. The increases in temperature and changes in ocean circulation, plus nutrient-rich runoff causing dead zones and overfishing, are other factors threatening the coral reefs and other oceanic ecosystems.

On land, it looks likely that much of the Amazon rainforest will not exist in its current state. Another large crop of extinctions comes with that. Then you've got the megafaunal and island faunal extinctions we've already caused, and the large-scale moving-about of species - such as introducing placental mammals to New Zealand and Australia.

Biologically, all this is a BIG deal, and we're not going to see the full consequences play out for a long time yet.

pygmycory said...

It's simultaneously horrifying and fascinating to be a naturalist right now. Interesting times, indeed!

I think someone has cursed us... but it was probably ourselves, through our own choices.

234567 said...

@ Lawfish -

Trust me, you aren't alone. There are many of us out here already busily collapsing consciously, and many more doing it unconsciously, even if they don't want to.

Having a plan and executing it allows you to have peace of mind, avoid over-stressing and to know where your next meal is coming from and that you have a place to sleep. All of these are important for humans who have no pelts...

Take a drive and look at the RV parks near your location. If they are like mine, they are mostly full. The reason for these RV parks being full is that mortgages and suburbia require a certain income level, and that level also means you are going to be paying some very nasty taxes. RV's don't pay property tax, just road tax. RV's pay no homeowners insurance or flood insurance or HOA fees and such. Just the monthly rent which INCLUDES sewage, water, electricity, internet, trash pickup and yard maintenance.

People may want to own a home in the country, but the work is in the cities. Cities know this and so they tax more, home prices rise, and consequently all the other parasitic costs considered 'normal' by the local, state and federal bureaucracies. Many people have become either unable or unwilling to pay the "all-in" price of home ownership due to the wage stagnation and job destruction globalism and the digital revolution have caused.

It's ok though - globalism cannot survive high oil prices. It has a definite shelf life. In our kids time, they should see "fancy french perfume" actually cost a lot of money again, as it did before the advent of cheap oil. And 'cheap chinese crap' will no longer be cheap or crap due to costs being returned to private entities and not foisted on us all here in the commons.

You are in good company Lawfish - more folks joining us each week. Keep the faith and the home fire burning.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Ummm...serious people fiddling, er, arguing about nomenclature, while the earth is burning?

This is not to diss a thought-provoking essay at all, but to express my frustration with all that could be happening to avoid such a rough transition, that is not happening, and that which is happening, is not happening fast enough... Sigh.

As Bill P. pointed out, the whole Holocene betrays human influence, so why switch names? To some extent, it's a distraction, like a bunch of others, large and small, from snapchat to the presidential race (and news thereof) that keep Americans from focusing on what the defining problems of our age actually happen to be--which are so well delineated in this post and many others.

Just today I was an invited speaker for a community group meeting. The topic, in part, was energy efficiency, wherein I mentioned global warming and suggested that we all should become what I term "active energy managers" (that is, take some responsibility for reducing our energy consumption and CO2 production through the same old, same old simple methods known to any novice green wizard). Did not even scratch the surface of a real low-carbon lifestyle. Sure enough there was some pushback from a few diehards who couldn't conceive that anyone should be asked to even slightly moderate their AC use, and opined that this was a subject somehow a best discussed with younger folks, not boomers. Luckily they were a minority.

. josé . said...

I've been using this same formulation ("we're in a transition, not a new *cene") in conversation ever since the "Anthropocene" label started gaining ground. Since I have a more limited knowledge of geology and language skills, I will be pointing to this blogpost the next time the subject comes up.
I haven't yet read all of the comments, but when I bring it up, I often wonder if the Holocene itself might not be really a part of this transition. It's the last of the interglacial periods of the Pleistocene, and since we're in it it's big to us, but 10K years is not really all that long in geologic time. I'm figuring it's the lead up to the snap of the big transition, but the extinction event actually started about that long ago.
On a different note, Gaia is one of the deities in my daily SoP ritual, and I've felt her presence in some of these discussions. My thinking may be too inchoate to verbalize well right now, but I'm thinking about the fact that the Earth has been getting progressively colder for the last 100 million years or so, and with the changes in the Sun's impact on the planet, that's a trend that would likely continue. The complexity of the biosphere may be increasing, but over time its mass is likely to decrease.
In that sense, the Holocene, the development of Homo sapiens, and industrial civilization at the end of the period comes off as intentional. Humans may be a sacrificial species (or not), but by using us Gaia was able to release the carbon that had been locked up hundreds of millions of years ago, raising the Earth's temperature and carbon availability. The biosphere of the late Neocene is now likely to be much richer than our own world, and much richer than it would have been if we had stayed in the Pleistocene.

latheChuck said...

For those of you anywhere near Watkins Glen State Park (New York state, in the "finger lakes" region), you can walk through geological time in a few hours. The K-T boundary is not marked on the trail, but there's a diagram at the edge of the parking lot (at least, there was 20 years ago when I was there) showing that the boundary is present within the rocks exposed in the gorge. As you walk through the gorge, you'll see thousands of layers in the rock, but only one of them really jumped out at me as something special. Whether that was IT, or not, I don't really know, but it was

The following link takes you to a collection of half-hour video programs on New York State geology, which shows the general idea of layered slate rock, but I couldn't find anything specific to the K-T boundary.

http://ithacafingerlakes.com/tag/geology-2/

234567 said...

@ Adrian Ayres Fisher -

selling the entire "low Carbon" thing is difficult at best. I would suggest a better strategy is "one-thing-at-a-time"? For example: bottled water; the waste (walk any beach or riverbank in the world), the insane expense of bottled water, the use of profits to finance other bad or unnecessary things and the stripping of local water resources - all these go away if bottled water is made kaput. It's just one thing, but the tentacles of many things are never fully exposed or made clear in the face of massive marketing onslaughts. Responsibility lies with everyone that uses bottled water, which keeps certain multi-national corporations in huge profits selling us a resource that we already pay for... is just ONE example.

There are many other examples and it doesn't require much thinking to find them at hand. And the best part is that you don't even need to mention global warming (or climate change or whatever we are calling it these days) - just lay out the expense and the insane profits and egregious robbing of water resources and the rest of the story. Carbon footprint and climate do not even need to be on the menu - which means you don't have a divided audience at the outset.

Patricia Mathews said...

@234567 re bottled water: if you live in the desert, you carry it in your car. Sure, there's water at every place you stop, in the city. Out where there may be 100 miles between gas stations? Not to mention when a homeless person or simply a professional beggar approaches me in a parking lot, they appreciate a bottle of water.

jessi thompson said...

Evolution only appears slower now. Genes mutate at the same rate (although higher background radiation might be speeding this up now). I guarantee cheetahs and gazelles are clicking faster speeds than they were a hundred years ago as their evolutionary arms race continues. I recommend following Archdruid Greer's advice in Green Wizardry, read Darwin's On The Origin of Species to get a grasp of how evolution occurs over the course of lifetimes. Species ate always changing, but the changes are more interesting when the selection pressures change, that's when, for example, short giraffes start to out compete tall giraffes (purely a hypothetical situation), which ultimately change the entire direction of the species. Also, species diverge when they were once widespread and travelled far, but then the environment changes so that species can no longer reach each other, causing species to diverge because the populations can't interbreed anymore. In a few thousand years, the Japanese beetles in the US will be noticeably different from the Japanese beetles in Asia. The reason evolution looks so drastic to us now is actually evidence of how much time has passed over the course of evolutionary history. A few examples of evolution happening right before our eyes: antibiotic resistant bacteria, pesticide resistant bugs, herbicide resistant weeds, peppered moths changing color due to levels of air pollution, and of course, every instance of selective breeding from the teacup poodle to the black Angus cow to purple cauliflower.

Scotlyn said...

@Angus Wallace - many, many thanks for the Flinders lecture, which comoliments this post beautifully. Except that visually, the data show such a huge discontinuity at 1950, and that is a date I'd like to see unpacked a good bit more. (Goes off to read)...

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Kevin Warner said...

That is quite an entertaining history of geology and it seems to reflect the evolution of the scientific method of looking at the world over the years. At least the scientists back then took care that their classifications matched what they were seeing in the rock layers. The hubris of wanting to name a geological period all to ourselves only shows that, like the dark ages, we humans still see ourselves at the center of the world. Yeah, right!
I suppose on a geological scale, it will not matter much in the end. When the Corvan race eventually evolves in a hundred million years time, we will probably find that our own fossilized remains will be swirling around the gas tanks of their cars.

In passing, how about a great quote by Douglas Adams: "We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works."

Patricia Mathews said...

P.S. I've been running all discussions geological - here and elsewhere - past a friend who is a caver and has therefore acquired quite a bit of knowledge about geology. He find the idea of "The Anthropocene" as a boundary layer quite plausible (as did I) but thinks the name will remain because it's in widespread use right now. The image of a raccoon archaeologist - or paleontologist - digging up 1/4" of urban rubble, radioactives, and all the other goodies from our now-massive middens, tickled his fancy as it does mine. Did I mention that he is a science fiction fan? And therefore used to wrapping his mind around scenarios like that.

He also liked the idea of "The Neocene" for "after the dust settles" as I phrased it, but pointed out that climate change (full disclosure - he's a small-L libertarian) is a very standard feature of events you learn from digging up rocks and fossils. And on the rise and spread of the opportunistic animals, including a currently very widespread species of intrusive omnivore apes, he noted succinctly "the survivors." And, oh, yes, if the coyotes don't follow us into the Neocene, I'd be very much surprised. As canids go, they give your standard feral Dumpster Dog a run for his money. And as pointed out earlier, not only competition, but mating as well - their pups have one foot on the starting line already. Don't let your cat out at night! Or your lapdog, either.

Just my $0.02, and glad to have someone to run the geology by as well as digging up my memories of Planetary Science 101. (Fairly recent: I took it a few years ago, having that gap in my knowledge and a Greedy Geezer's tuition remission benefit in my university retirement package.)

Anyway, thanks for some refreshing food for thought.

Robert Douglas Castle said...

@SamuraiArtGuy: I've always had trouble "grasping the magnitude of geologic time," so I did some calculations that might make it easier for me (and maybe others) to relate to. If you consider the planet's lifespan of 4.5 billion years to be a day (86,400 seconds), then the time our species has been around (200,000 years) would be about 3.8 seconds. Our individual lifespans of say 70 years would amount to about 1.3 milliseconds. And using JMG's figure, the average length of an epoch (11 million years) would be about 211 seconds or 3-1/2 minutes. From the planet's point of view it seems we're rather insignificant.

@Hubertus Hauger: Thanks for the Carlin link - I always appreciate the gift of laughter.

Doug Castle said...

@Joel Caris: I don't know about technology-wielding species, but in terms of intelligence I'd suggest that some of the Cetacean species are roughly on our level and they've been around a lot longer than we have. Dolphins, for example, are so well adapted to their environment that they have no real need for technology. They fear no natural predators except perhaps humans and they don't need to build houses because the entire ocean is their home. Apparently, all they do is swim, eat, play, sleep and make love, which seems like a pretty good way to live. Of course, because they don't use technology, they are unlikely to create a "delphinic event" that leaves a layer of sediment for future geologists to puzzle over.

rapier said...

Are not all climate and geological eras myth, narratives?

NomadsSoul said...

Mr. Greer,

Thank you kindly for the Geology lesson.

Your article was most informative and appreciated.

Shane W said...

A few questions,
I thought most radioactive nuclear wastes have relatively short half lives, so that that far in the future, they would have completely degraded into something else. Or is JMG already factoring that instability into account by including only the stable nuclear waste elements? Secondly, I'm really praying for the evolution of a plastic eating microbe to eliminate that micron thick layer, but would said microbe depend upon the elements to work properly? Would it be the same difference as landfilling organic waste vs. composting it, in that that microbe would not work on landfilled plastic? I'm also still betting that our descendants will end up digging up and burning all that plastic if the microbe doesn't evolve first.

Shane W said...

@Patricia,
considering, as JMG has said, that default is inevitable, necessary, and beneficial, I think if President Trump went to the Russians and negotiated a write off or write down on the national debt, it would be way better than an uncontrolled default via a failure to pay the bonds or hyperinflation. It would be the way we could hand off the empire in the same manner the British did, only more hastily w/less planning. I say the Russians, though I know the Chinese and perhaps other powers, like possibly India or Brazil might need to be involve, b/c it is most logical for us, as part of the European diaspora, to approach the Russians first, and we have more connections, cultural and otherwise, to the Russians as well as a better relationship w/them. The Russians could then, in turn, go to the Chinese and the other powers. Provided that it is in all parties best interests to avoid an uncontrolled American default, and everyone benefits from the deal, I don't see a problem. The Russians, Chinese, and the other up-and-coming world powers seem way more pragmatic and less idealistic than we are, and for that reason, I think they would accept a deal if it were in their nations' best interests.
This may not be germane to this post, so I've established a separate thread on Green Wizards, but I'm sure that everyone now has heard of Trump's misogynistic footage. I will not begin to justify the reprehensible comments, but I definitely smell a rat. Why now? The gloves are totally off now for the establishment. As creepily misogynistic as Trump is, I fail to believe that Bill Clinton has not made equally disgusting comments (and actions), though he may have had more discretion about whether they were filmed. I simply cannot bring myself to believe that Bill Clinton is less misogynistic than Donald Trump. This may be where this election season totally breaks down into chaos.

peakfuture said...

@234567 -The use of RVs sounds good; sailboats might be even better - Dmitry Orlov's Quidnon (http://quidnon.blogspot.com) might just the ticket going forward. RV's need fuel and roads; sailboats require more attention, but done correctly, they might be an even better option.

I wonder what will happen to the perception and regulation of RVs and boats in the future, if enough people start using them.

Shane W said...

@Adrian,
it really is truly a Faustian bargain we've made, isn't it. Spengler was right on calling us the Faustian culture, and I'm not even sure he was aware of our fossil fuel addiction. In the 70s, conservation was widespread and popular, as JMG has documented. Now that we're in crunch time, it's unmentionable or unacceptable. I get the "they'll think of something, fusion, go to Mars, technofix" shutdown all the time whenever I bring up the topic.

Shane W said...

Sigh, I don't normally get this way, but I'm getting an overwhelming feeling of "flee panic anxiety" lately. I don't know why the urge feels so strong. I wonder if people in 20s-30s Europe felt the same way. I don't think anyone could convince me that this (US) is a safe place to be right now...

234567 said...

@ Patricia Matthews

What did people do about water BEFORE there was plastic? Have you ever considered looking back to move forward in a better way? Part of the discussion was how many people refuse to change the way they do things, in particular boomers (and I is one, btw). Your bottled water comment is a perfect example of this. Multiply your way of thinking by the population of Phoenix every year - then see how great the desert looks. Chances are that water was shipped to you from Arkansas or somewhere, so who is paying the externalized costs?

I am not trying to anger anyone - but just because it is super-convenient does not make it right or logical or forward thinking. It all goes to whether or not people will even consider change. There are more people frightened of change than there are those who consider it normal or good. Perhaps even more who refuse to look back and see if there was/is a simpler, more logical or robust way to do things.

latefall said...

I wonder what disciplines are pushing for the use of the term. I have a hard time imagining it is the ones which are actually mostly concerned with these issues. Of course I might be wrong and that should cause one to reflect on that some.

Being somewhat involved in (a very different corner of) academia I like the term "Anthropic Event" though I would probably want to qualify that more to "Petroleum-Anthropic Event" cause we really couldn't have pulled that up by ourselves.

I must say though, that mapping the age of the earth onto a human arm (like I did last week) makes things a lot easier to grasp and remember for me. The exponentials in prose are for less easy to put into a relationship. It is like listening to french numbers - you first have to convert them if you aren't familiar anyways.

Let me throw in a few stragglers from last week:
@Mallow: Thanks for the follow up, 250 kEUR is really on the punishment side of things. For that money it would probably be cheaper to smuggle them back (or to some other country and pay them to keep em on top).

@JMG, Euro-crowd re Postliberal Era (in Europe)
I just found a pretty good visualization of the complexity of the question. An atlas of values which is fairly fine-grained and has a load of questions being put forward, including "technology will save us" and percentage of people that agree or strongly agree that "humans were meant to rule over the rest of nature":

http://www.atlasofeuropeanvalues.eu/new/europa-regio2.php?c2=society&map[]=&map[]=&map[]=&map[]=&map[]=300&map[]=&map[]=&button=

If you read English language MSM on Europe I would STRONGLY recommend to browse the atlas for a couple of minutes. It will put a lot of things into perspective. A bit sad that Russia and Turkey aren't a bit more detailed, and they don't have a rural vs urban lens, but the visible variations within countries can often tell you a lot.

olivier64 said...

@JMG Since you clearly love that sort of thing you should seek out a copy of Brian F Windley's The Evolving Continents (Wiley & Sons, 3rd ed. 1995). It's a bit dated now but to the best of my knowledge there has never been another book of such ambitious scope. It lingers in my memory as one of the most enjoyable reads of my life.

Violet Cabra said...

@ Stacy and Jessi, RE: Diet and Gardening in times of Climate Chaos:

I've been involved with some local gardening initiatives that put edible plants in unused portions of urban landscape. Along with this my region has experienced rapid shifts in temperature this year as well as producing a lengthy drought. Most of the plants I planted/tended to this project have died but there have certainly been some survivors, those survivors have helped me to begin thinking of garden plants that may be able to be gardened right trough the climatic chaos in front of us. These plant would be able to be grown in poor soils, handle rapid shifts in temperature, be drought tolerant, moisture tolerant, shade tolerant, sun tolerant, and mineral or calorie dense. These plants would also ideally self-propagate, be perennial, and not need bees for pollination.

The big winners I see are then Egyptian walking onions, which are amazingly adaptable and tasty, chives, day-lillies, and nettles. nettles need the most water and nutrients, but they are easy enough to be planted in a little depression in the ground and watered with grey water. They go well right by the compost pile where they keep excess nitrogen in the garden system, and dynamically mine phosphorous, they also do well right by the outhouse. Comfrey, dandelions and elecampane are also readily adaptable, but produce in many ways lower quality food than the first part of the list. Many of the mediterranean herbs also do well in a wide array of circumstances especially thyme, oregano and lemon balm which are also of course valuable in medicinal contexts as well.

For annuals/biennials I see swiss chard as a highly functional plant which is easy to eat, nutritious and able to withstand many extremes. I find great success with butternut squash, it's culture being very, very easy (I imagine that raw human sewage dug into a pit mixed with dry leaves and covered with a mound of compost enriched soil would produce a bumper crop of squash) as well as sunflowers. I see sunflowers frequently turning into weeds, they grow amazingly well in droughts and they yield abundant calories. They need bees, but can be hand pollinated pretty easily. Of course this discussion wouldn't be complete (not that it in any way is with this post!) without mentioning lamb's quarters which is a weed and graces many of my meals. A friend related to me that there are people's who live for several months of the year off of nothing but Chenopodium alba and it is incredibly versatile, widespread and adapted to diverse environments. Amaranth deserves some mention, but I don't find the greens nearly as palatable and only have yielded food from the wild seed of it once (it was delicious!)

It is my approach to focus on these sorts of flexible plants and let them form the backbone of my garden with other, more difficult to grow in varied climatic conditions, grown more as insurance or ornamentation. My thoughts on this are still forming and I'd be delighted to read other people's thoughts on ultra adaptable garden plants

Myriad said...

An elegant presentation of a nuanced point. How we describe deep time propels our postures and postulates of the present. Of course it must, but explaining how and why is a tall order.

On a much smaller (i.e. anthropic) time scale, "antediluvian" seems like a pretty good description of the present day.

Alas, many of our long-term traces won't be confined to that quarter-inch-thick stratum, unless unimagined catastrophes (or eons of diligent ruinmen) manage to grind up all our artifacts and sift them evenly over the entire earth's surface before the earth covers them for good. Short of that, materials that are already nearly as dense as stone don't compress that much thinner, so even a simple concrete slab foundation might leave noticeably thicker deposits at the boundary layer. Highways, dams, mine tailing heaps, and many other massive structures, along with all the other minerals we've displaced up and down through the older strata via mining, drilling, and large scale earth-moving, will leave large obvious puzzles for hypothetical future geologists. (The relative absence of such puzzles in the known geological record is pretty strong evidence that no previous civilization or species, however distant in antiquity, has ever treated the earth's crust as we have.)

jessi thompson said...

It's not a problem when you reuse the bottles. It's the "use once and throw away" mentality of our culture that creates coastlines of trash.

Sylvia Rissell said...

How did we do things (water) before? I recently purchased "Hobo Quilts", by D G Henninger. It contains quilt block instructions for various hobo signs, photos of Depression era hobos, bums, and rail equipment. Also, stories from people who lived the hobo life. One former hobo mentioned that everyone carried a collapsable metal cup!

latheChuck said...

Violet Cabra- Based on your recommendation, I have learned to regard the violets of my garden not as weeds, but as resources. Thanks. I blend the leaves into salads. Regarding sunflowers, amaranth, dandelions, and many, many other food plants that I've tried to grow, the white-tail deer eat them down to nothing in my neighborhood (a Maryland suburb of Washington DC, inside the Beltway), if given the chance. I got so frustrated with them that I asked my father, who grew up during the (first) Great Depression how his family had kept deer out of their garden plot (in mid-Michigan). "Deer?" he said. "There weren't any deer problems at that time. If you ever saw a track of a deer, there would be the tracks of a hunter right behind it."
I've had great results with butternut squash protected from deer with 1/2" plastic nets, and have proven that they remain edible in casual storage (cool, dark basement) until the next year's crop comes in. (I realize, though, that a year's supply of butternut squash as a source of calories would take a lot of space. See "The Resilient Gardner", by Carol Deppe, for a full discussion.)
Consider also that sauerkraut is a storable source of vitamin-C. I've made several batches this summer/fall. One two-pound (small) head of (red) cabbage makes two quart mason jars, 2/3 full. As the acidity develops through fermentation, the cabbage turns from dark purple to rosy red.

John Roth said...

For the collapse groupies out there, I note that there's a new book titled 1177 BC, The Year Civilization Collapsed. That was the year Rameses III (probably but not certainly the "Great Pharoah" of the Moses story) mobilized everything he had and beat a Sea Peoples invasion to a bloody pulp. It didn't stop them from destroying everything else in sight, and Egypt was so weakened it joined the pile a generation or so later anyway.

@Shane

Recent Michael channeling suggests the next three months are going to emphasize what they call the "negative pole of the Chief Feature of Self-Destruction," that is, suicide. This is world-wide, not local to the US. The litany of things that could possibly happen is, in a word, horrifying. You may be picking up a generalized feeling, or something specific to your location. Check which and take appropriate action. Note the emphasis on the "could possibly"; not all of it will necessarily happen. Not everything will be human-caused. A general feeling of lack of significance can trigger natural disasters that are already cued up and waiting to happen.

Steve Morgan said...

@ Violet Cabra

Regarding the climate-shift gardening experience; I have been impressed by parsnips. I garden in Colorado's front range - ~120 day frost free season, usually dry, but sometimes very wet, hot days, cool nights - so take it with a grain of salt. Parsnips have become my favorite garden weed. They self seed if I let them bloom, and I've seen 10 different species of wild bee/fly working on pollinating it (without really trying to study). Calorie dense, biennial, and in my clay soil I easily get roots 16" deep and 3-4" in diameter with no effort but digging them up.

I think that in general root crops are very useful in times of climatic extremes, and they can usually be very calorie dense and store well.

Also, at least around here, garlic grows well, stores well, and requires very little attention (water deeply 2-3 times a year, weed twice and mulch well).

Then of course there's always sunchokes/jerusalem artichokes, but I've never met anyone who genuinely likes eating them. Better than nothing, for sure, and they grow like a weed, but not the easiest to digest.

latheChuck said...

Shane- Regarding the decay of nuclear waste, just because a radioisotope decays, doesn't mean that it decays in one step into a stable isotope. Plutonium-239 has a half-life of 22,400 years and decays into uranium-235, which has a half-life of 700-million years.

John Michael Greer said...

Well, I'm back in Cumberland, and can finally access Blogger again. Remember my earlier comments about upgrades? Blogger upgraded their security software, with the result that it freaks out when I try to log on from anywhere but my home, and when I go through the "prove that you're you" rigmarole, it still refuses to accept it. Just one more user-friendly feature... ;-)

At any rate, thank you all for your patience and for a lively conversation. Let's see...

William, where did you get the idea that I thought otherwise? Every bit of fossil fuel that it's economically viable to extract and burn will be extracted and burnt, not least because those people who talk the loudest about the need to leave it in the ground aren't willing to give up the lifestyles that guarantee that it will all be extracted and burnt. As for a mass extinction, er, haven't you noticed that we're already in the middle of one?

Unknown Tomxyza, of course -- and hubris, of course, is the past tense of nemesis...

Angus, that's a good point, and another reason to ditch the label. Thanks for the link!

Jessi, thank you. The thing I like to point out about climate change is that it only makes sense to describe it as warming if you're just looking at the whole planet; the atmosphere is a heat engine, and when you increase the efficiency with which heat is recirculated through the engine, you get more work -- which in weather terms means more high and low temperatures, more droughts and more torrential downpours, and so on.

Rüdiger, that would also be a workable label. I like "Pleistocene-Neocene transition" because geologists already talk about the Permian-Triassic transition and the Cretaceous-Paleogene transition, and so it reminds us that drastic planetary change has happened before.

Bruce, interesting, but to my mind not very plausible. So far our spikes of sedimentary deposition have been relatively brief, even if intense.

Dwig, yes, I'd probably do more with the ecological dimension if I were writing Star's Reach today. I expect to do more deindustrial SF -- the thought of putting a story or two into Into the Ruins is appealing -- and if that happens, the ecological side will probably be paramount. As for your other questions, those are definitely fodder for the other blog!

Anthony, I'm glad to hear it. Since I'm not a professional geologist, I can only judge by the info that makes it to laypeople.

Siliconguy, no argument there -- and the previous interglacials are part of the Pleistocene, so the so-called Holocene can be put into the same category.

John Michael Greer said...

James, it's liberating indeed. A sense of humanity's unimportance, it seems to me, is one of the basic requirements for sanity these days.

Patricia, you're welcome and thank you!

Ozark, sure, but you notice nobody talks about the Pterodactylocene, say, or the Avicene! If humanity survives the current transition, I'm quite sure it'll go on to have an effect on the biosphere roughly equivalent to that of a keynote species on an ecosystem. Lacking vast amounts of easily accessible, highly concentrated energy, though, that effect will be comparable to that of other dominant species.

Unknown Geology Grad, thank you!

Canon Fodder, a nuclear war will release many orders of magnitude less energy than the comet impact that ended the Cretaceous, so the result will be a "necrocene" only for a few years, until natural systems rebound. (Check out the exclusion zones around Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi for examples.) As for the faith-based claim that our kind of energy-wasting technology will still be around thousands of years from now, I've explained in several books now that that's not an option. The fixation on the two futures you've named -- the apocalyptic future and the progress-uber-alles future -- is the primary reason why so few people are getting ready for the kind of future we're actually facing, the one that begins with decline into a new dark age and ends with the emergence of new, less extravagant civilizations maybe five centuries from now.

SamuraiArtGuy, I won't argue. The inability to think in terms of deep time is a major source of acquired stupidity these days.

Gjh42, exactly. There are often bursts of extinction inside an epoch or period, so the so-called Pleistocene-Holocene transition is anything but unparalleled as a jolt inside an epoch.

Airplaneman, my take, of course, is that we're already in the process of decline and fall -- it's not a matter of "when," but purely a matter of "how bad how soon."

Jay, exactly. I'm perfectly willing to have George Carlin make my point for me! ;-)

Robin, yes, I read both of those when they first came out! I wish he'd left out the science fiction from the second one; it spoiled an otherwise interesting narrative.

Ed, what is this "evolutionary jump" you talk about? Can you show me any example of such a thing in the past?

Drhooves, a hundred million years ago your ancestors and mine looked like small tree-dwelling rats. Of course human beings won't be running around a hundred million years from now; on the off chance we still have descendants at that point -- which is vastly uncommon for megafauna -- they will look about as much like you as you look like a Cretaceous tree shrew, if that.

temporaryreality said...

@VioletCabra and anyone else who eats,
the leaves of the squash (and pumpkin) plants are edible - and tasty when young (no larger than an adult hand). They are hairy but steaming takes care of that - though there'll still be a slightly rough texture. Apparently also edible are the leaves of beans, though I don't report that first hand. Pea sprouts, I've had as sprouted greens, but I'm looking to try them from the plants if I can get some plants to be productive enough. Sweet potato greens are edible, too - so you can cook up some of the sweet potato vine that's currently (theoretically anyway) a houseplant in the kitchen window - before planting it outside in the spring :)!

I just found out, also, that the shoots of fava beans are edible, so some of my cover crop (bell beans but same basic thing) will be sampled. I've had volunteer pumpkins and butternuts so they may do well as time goes on -- and I have a tenacious italian broccoli (multi-heading, sprout-seed type) that's not had water in months (and it looks like it's been through the wringer BUT it went to seed and I'll be interested to see who shows up).

Among the wild ones in the garden, though, I prize the prickly lettuce. Mmmm, those young leaves have just the right amount of bitterness and satisfying-ness.

We could go on and on about what there is to forage and find -- did you know young tumbleweed (the new growth) is also edible - not that I'd know it personally (yet) but I'll get around to it :)

John Michael Greer said...

Mikep, the habit of insisting that evolution has somehow stopped is one of the sillier habits of modern thought. How many people realize, for example, that most of the species of the cat family appeared in the last million years? The sheer pace of environmental disruption in the Ice Ages and interglacials has guaranteed a great deal of selection pressure, and thus accelerated evolution quite a bit.

Brian, understood, but if referring to the current transition as an era feeds human hubris and spreads the false impression that we're going to be able to keep up our current lifestyles into the far future, off with its head!

Thecrowandsheep, funny.

Artorias, thank you! I hope a good basic understanding of geology makes it through the hard years ahead.

Brezelburg, good! Mammals (and almost-mammals such as therapsids) seem to thrive during periods of global cooling and climatic disruption, such as the Permian and the Neogene; archosaurs (dinosaurs and birds) seem to thrive during periods when the planet's warmer and the climate more stable. Thus there have only been a few really big land archosaurs since the end of the Cretaceous, and lots of big land mammals. 250 million years from now, when we get the next round of global cooling, I bet big mammals (or neomammals) show up again on cue.

JacGolf, excellent. I shake my head when I think of the number of people who seem unable to think, "Yes, but what kind of world are we leaving to the future?"

Unknown, yes, I'd read of both those, though I wasn't up on the latest, so thank you.

Sgage, I'm fond of phlogiston, for that matter!

Cherokee, yep. I'm sure that rat paleontologists in some distant age will write, "They were descended from tree-dwelling rats, a circumstance that explains much of their success, but they became overspecialized, first for life in trees, and then for life with technology, and so inevitably died out."

Phil, I'll be talking more about the timeline soon!

Spanish Fly, that's impossible to know in advance. We could have a few centuries of time waiting for our species, or we could last another ten million years.

Cortes, thanks for the recommendation.

John, it's entirely possible -- and of course dinosaur populations had been declining for other reasons for millions of years beforehand. Major extinction crises may usually have multiple causes.

ed boyle said...

A certain mutation which allows only 100,000 humans to survive under the new situation as they are perhaps aspergers so humans will be on average 50 % smarter or perhaps only several telepathics will surrvive or a yogi and yogini with semimagical powers which allows themto hibernate in a cave for a thousand years without air, food or water and who have transformed their mitochondrion to super power houses so that their bodies glow by absorbing prana from the air and they never die or theirchildren either. But those are just guesses.

latheChuck said...

Not to let petty political theater distract us from weightier issues, but the Most Outrageous Statement of the political campaign so far, and the least discussed, was Hillary Clinton claiming that "We are now, for the first time ever, energy independent." This is so incredibly, and importantly, wrong that I can't let it blow by (as it did during the 2nd Presidential debate).

As AP Fact Check says: "For the first time in decades the United States gets more energy domestically than it imports, but it is not yet entirely energy independent."

Even this statement casually compares domestic vs foreign supply as if to equalize them is some sort of milestone, when it's comparing domestic supply vs consumption that determines independence!

As far as AP goes, though, "Not yet entirely energy independent" is an oddly optimistic way to characterize our importing of 2.68 billion barrels of petroleum in 2015. "Not yet"... as if we simply need to wait for it to happen.

Mrs. Clinton also confuses the time span of "in decades" vs. "ever", which is especially comical in the context of the view of time in this week's essay.

Mrs. Clinton's statement is somewhat closer to the truth if she assumes that the term "we" includes not just the USA, but Canada, Mexico, and Venezuela. We "Americans" may come close to energy independence, but I'm sure our Canadian (and Mexican, and Venezuelan readers, if there are any) might bristle at the implication that "all your wells are belong to US."

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@ 2234567

Thanks for your comment. I absolutely agree with you about the difficulties of selling the low-carbon thing, and your example of bottled water is particularly apt.

This talk actually was a "one-thing–at-a-time" kind of occasion, as it focused on simple things to do at home to save energy while saving money: change out light bulbs; adjust the AC or heat temps; especially if leaving the house for awhile; run the dishwasher or washing machine when completely full; hang dry clothes; insulate the house and so forth. Obviously not enough, but you'd be amazed (or maybe not) at how many folks set the AC at 70 or whatever in May and leave it that way until September or October. I'm in the Chicago region; while we do have hot, humid weeks, it's nothing to more southerly areas, and AC gets overused, IMHO. The discussion about light bulbs also got interesting.

As I have been leading these group discussions, it is surprising to observe how many people never really think about energy and energy use, where it comes from or that they have even a smidgeon of control over how much they use. It's almost invisible to them, as are so many other taken-for-granted benefits of fossil fuels that constitute reality for many people. At least the not-impoverished people I am mostly dealing with.

The pushback was polite and only from a couple of people (others very aware and already active), but got me thinking. Perhaps it is that some people equate not thinking about energy use with personal freedom in some way? Personal freedom in this case might mean living comfortably and making decisions with only one’s own personal comfort or desires to be considered—and perhaps one’s family and friends. So if we talk about global warming and societal change in response it could also be seen as an attack on personal freedom.

It seems to me an odd blind spot that some people who talk about the need for taking personal responsibility in life ignore all kinds of areas where they themselves could be exercising this right and power. If only climate change response could be sold as enhancing personal freedom, mobility, etc.!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Violet Cabra and others,
Thinking about you deliberately planting nettles made me smile--where I live they simply appear, often in inconvenient spots. At the moment, I'm harvesting and eating acorn squash from a plant that volunteered in my compost heap. Tomatoes volunteer all around my garden--the offspring of hybrids are chancy, but the offspring of heritage breeds come true, of course. In places with enough sun and water, I'd say they'd be a fairly decent climate change resistant crop--also because annuals, they'd evolve more quickly than perennials. And as others have commented, violets and dandelions are worth foraging.

Also, creeping Charlie: that widely reviled plant is full of Vitamin C and green in the early spring when a nettle and creeping Charlie tea would be useful to people needing extra vitamins and minerals after a fresh-produce-deprived winter.

Then there are the mints, oregano, purslane... To go further afield, we could relearn the old Native American ways with cattails, a remarkably adaptable species, again, as long as there's water. And climate change will not dry every place out.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Shane,

You mentioned our society's Faustian bargain, though I haven't read Spengler, (but am familiar with the story and the opera), yes, in so many ways! And, unfortunately, so many in the society don't even realize the bargain's been made. Present company excluded, I guess. And that has long been a central conundrum for me me: what if one wakes up at some point in life, realizes that this agreement was made long before one was born and one is included in the contract willy-nilly? Dr. Faust at least had a choice. As I think about it, though, we all have individual choices and they are vital, though seemingly small when measured against societal trends.

RetrovationSociety said...

I've started another strand of the future Ireland utopia.This is going to be the religion and asylum bit of the story and I'll do information posts in between for people who don't know what's happening at the moment in Europe. Any comments and feedback welcome because I haven't written much before.

http://retrovationsociety.blogspot.ie/2016/10/khalida-2060.html

Mallow.

John Michael Greer said...

NZ, I ain't arguing. I just want to be a member of the chorus in this tragedy, rather than one of the doomed protagonists!

Howard, there's a subtle truth and a vast falsehood in the old saw "man is the measure of all things." The subtle truth is that we can only measure things by our own standard, so that man is the measure of all things, for man; one could suggest likewise that woman is the measure of all things, for woman; and when we get past abstractions such as "man" and "woman" and talk about, say, Howard Skillington, you are the only measure you've got for all things. The falsehood comes when that admission of the stark limits of human awareness gets turned into the florid psychotic delusion that the objective universe is equal to what we can know about it!

Friction, yep -- I expect to see that also. We are as humans, as someone said in response to Brand's hubris, and we might as well get modest at it.

Steve, excellent! That bit of corvin perspective earns you this morning's gold star. I suppose some radical corvin thinkers will raise the possibility that some fantastically ancient intelligent species extracted all the oil below the PPL (Plutonium-Plastic Layer), and get dismissed as cranks by more mainstream scholars.

Bill, bingo. So the Pleistocene-Neocene transition began, let's say, with the end of the last ice age and will continue until the current ice caps have finished melting a dozen centuries or so form now -- pretty standard for a transition between epochs, I'd say.

.Mallow, by all means! I'll look forward to seeing how it develops.

David, thank you! The human ego badly needs rattling, and deep time's just the thing to do it. ;-)

Weedananda, if things keep going the way they're going, the habitual hubris of the industrial age is going to face very harsh selection pressures in the years ahead, and those who ditch it soonest are the most likely to survive.

Mary, thank you for the sanity break! I don't doubt life will survive the current crisis; Gaia's a tough old broad, and more than able to take care of herself. It's our survival that's in question.

Kristofv, the Deccan traps do seem to have played a role, but the evidence for the Chixculub impactor is pretty solid, and the global consequences of an impact on that scale are hard to evade. It's been suggested that the Deccan Traps eruption may actually have been triggered by the impact -- how's that for a one-two punch?

Joel, that's something I've brooded about quite a bit. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that any species within the last hundred million years or so combined intelligence with the kind of energy-intensive technology that leaves enduring geological traces, but a hundred million years isn't actually that long -- life has been on this planet for 3.7 billion years, after all -- and there could have been any number of other intelligent species whose technology either (a) never had that kind of impact, or (b) was sufficiently different from ours that we don't recognize its traces as evidence of technology. It would make for some good science fiction...

RetrovationSociety said...

Oh and I hope I'm not borrowing too much from your story JMG. I'm not really sure where the line is!

Mallow.

John Michael Greer said...

Shhh, the reason I don't like "anthropocene," even outside its scientific failings, is that it feed the hubris and the conviction of our own importance that's played so large a role in putting us in our present predicament. If you want to talk about the anthropic event or the anthropic transition, mind you, I won't object at all.

Caryn, the Yellowstone caldera will blow eventually, and plenty of other natural disasters will happen, too. From the perspective of deep time, that's business as usual. More on this in an upcoming post!

Chuck, by all means quibble, but I grew up with books that called 'em "glyptodons," and the habit has endured. "Rhinocerontes," on the other hand, is pleasant.

Pygmycory, I suspect we'll just have to wait for the corvins to get around to working out the details!

Renaissance, funny.

Pygmycory, one of the upsides of the current mess is that we've distributed a lot of very adaptable generalist species all over the planet, so that evolution will have a lot of raw material to work with once the transition is over. The Neocene will likely see the emergence of a very lively and complex fauna; I wish I could hang around and see it.

47ronin, thank you! This blog really does try to be an equal opportunity offender, causing outrage across the political and cultural spectrum. ;-)

Harvester, thank you. I'll be considering that as we proceed.

Crow Hill, alternatively, the use of the term may reflect the delusion that since most human beings only interact with other human beings and their artefacts, we've managed to detach ourselves from dependence on the planet that keeps us alive. That delusion is unlikely to survive a collision with reality...

Glenn, I won't argue about the Pleistocene, but I think the scale of the faunal transition is drastic enough to justify a new epoch from here on.

Five8Charlie, excellent. You get it.

Avalterra, I expect coywolf-dog hybrids and domestic cats to be the most important ancestral species for the mighty predators of Neocene North America.

Jessi, and who is this "we" who are going to stop? And how do you propose to make them stop, when the vast majority of them put short-term survival first?

John Michael Greer said...

John, as I noted earlier, Gaia is a tough old broad and can take care of herself. I expect to see far more drastic transformations of the same kind as we proceed.

Lynnet, that seems entirely likely to me! That said, trap-style eruptions do seem to happen for other reasons, too.

234567, I find geology and paleontology comforting for exactly the same reasons. As for the intelligent felids of the far future, if they've inherited any significant amount of cat psychology, they'll probably call it "that thin ill-smelling layer that isn't either good to eat or fun to play with." ;-)

NomadicBeer, where do I get my ideas? That's a very simple question to answer. I don't watch the mass media. The mass media's the source of the groupthink that keeps so many people trapped regurgitating the same thoughts (which they got off the mass media) over and over again. Lacking that, I have time to read lots of different books and articles on lots of different subjects, and that diverse input (which hasn't been homogenized by the media) allows me to keep this blog moving into new territory. Try it -- you'll be pleasantly surprised by how interesting the world is once you can think your own thoughts, rather than the ones that advertisers and sponsors are paying millions of dollars to shove into your mind!

Mountain, that wouldn't explain the survival of birds -- I know of no evidence that late-Cretaceous birds nested in underground burrows!

Ceworthe, thank you. That's seriously cool.

Scotlyn, good. Then think about the next million years or so, and decide what you're going to do today to give those who experience those a better chance to eat, drink and be merry!

Ed-M, I've seen estimates that suggest that it'll take up to five million years for the whole series of impacts set in motion by anthropogenic climate change to finish rattling through the biosphere. Of course the initial shock of CO2 will be gone in a few tens of millennia, but knock-on effects follow after that -- and here again, the shift in fossils between the Pleistocene and the Neocene ought te be drastic enough to justify a change of epochs.

Hubertus, no question, George Carlin is a good cure for human hubris!

American Herstory, I don't know of any reason to think that speciation is proceeding any faster now than it did in the distant past, but it's pretty fast in any case -- were you aware, for example, that the majority of current species in the cat family only evolved in the last million years? So I figure a few million years after the P-N transition is over, there will be plenty of interesting critters inhabiting the world's newly forming ecosystems. You're right, though, that deep time makes it kind of hard to justify the claim that the moral notions of a single culture are somehow hardwired into the cosmos as a whole...

Pygmycory, the ancestors of the lion and the tiger weren't much bigger than house cats, so don't limit your feline imaginations to small things! As for geckos, I'd love to see their distant descendants scampering through the post-global warming jungles of Georgia and the Carolinas!

Michelle said...

To Violet Cabra, re: gardening in unpredictable weather patterns. NB: Violet and I live within a few miles of each other, and our conditions are fairly similar.

I found that I learned at LOT in this drought year. I had no peaches, three apples total off of two trees, but a bumper crop of concord grapes. My tomatoes did amazingly well with no Blight at all. The pumpkins and winter squash I sowed deliberately did adequately, but the volunteer vines that came up in March were amazing. I dismissed them out of hand when I saw them germinate so early, but doggone, they got enough moisture early in their growing season and I had a dozen fruit off of one vine. My take-away from this year is that I need to be MUCH more flexible - to plant many varieties of many crops, and to have multiple sowings over a period of many weeks, starting a lot sooner than I think I should, and continuing after I think I should be finished. Monoculture is in for a very sparse future, I think, with conditions being so unpredictable. Having as many crops as possible in a given space, amending the soil with organic matter (compost, manure, barn litter, etc) to make the soil as healthy as possible, and allowing crops to set seed and self-sow all seem to be good strategies. The pumpkins that self-sowed did great; the pumpkins I planted at the "right" time struggled. The paste tomatoes I planted out according to the calendar did ok, but the Matt's Wild Cherry that comes back year after year is huge and loaded with fruit.

John Michael Greer said...

Martin, thanks for the terminological update! Since climate change is only one aspect of the overall transition, though, I think "anthropic event" is probably more suitable. As for porcelain fragments, how well do they stand up to the kind of heat and pressure that turns sediment into rock?

Adrian, ideas shape behavior, and the names we use for things shape the ways we deal, or fail to deal, with them. I understand the frustration, but it's necessary to start with the world of ideas in order to shape the world of actions.

Jose, I've wondered now and then late at night, when sleep is far away, whether the whole reason for humanity's existence is that Gaia needed a species good at digging to nudge her thermostat up a few degrees.

LatheChuck, I'll keep that in mind!

Cherokee, congrats on the podcast! May it annoy those who richly deserve it... ;-)

Kevin, that Douglas Adams quote is worth its weight in gold. Thank you.

Patricia, of course climate change is a common feature in the geological record. The only difference this time is that we're causing it. As noted earlier, the quarter inch layer separating Pleistocene strata from Neocene strata will differ in detail, not in basic structure, from other layers put down during transitions from one epoch to another. I'm glad your friend enjoyed it, though!

Rapier, good. Since human beings think with narratives as inevitably as they walk with feet and eat with mouths, in turn, it's important to choose narratives that further constructive thought and ditch those that produce gibberish.

NomadsSoul, you're welcome.

Shane, nuclear waste isotopes decay at varying rates of speed. The thing that pro-nuclear propaganda elides is that the decay products are not all stable -- many of them are also radioactive, and decay at varying rates of speed. Some of the decay sequences go through half a dozen different radioactive isotopes before they finally get to a stable one. The end result is that high-level nuclear waste, such as used fuel rods, takes a quarter of a million years or so before it's safe to bring into contact with the biosphere.

Shane, you're not the only one feeling that just now.

Latefall, many thanks for the link -- I'll give it a look as time permits.

Olivier, thank you -- I'll definitely check it out.

Myriad, I expect ruinmen or the equivalent to break up a very large percentage of our concrete to get at the rebar, but yes, there'll be deposits left. I wonder what erosion will do to the remainder over the long term!

Bruno B. L. said...

JMG, I disagree with you when you say that we won't leave identifiable traces of our species as such, and will leave only a few geological marks. For the human race is going to leave a ton of orbital debris, and landmarks on the moon, where time won't ravage them.
It may even be that one intelligent species that comes after ours is long gone end up finding our moon landing site, finding out that they were not the first to land there (and thus might not be the last).
I strongly believe, mind you, that landing on the moon was the most important thing our species has ever done, due to its immortal legacy.

234567 said...

@ Adrian Ayres Fisher -

Having had to 'sell' many times and things in my life, one of the sure-fire ways to grab peoples attention is always money. If you can show them it will save them money, then you can usually close the deal.

The real problem with climate stuff is that there is so much disinfo out there, from media, from politicians and from "talking heads" whose brain resides in a teleprompter or and earbud. Witness the weather girl (OMG, a gender specific noun!) this week who actually said the Haitians were eating tree bark.

And then the science end of things - so many lies and falsifications and outcome designed experiments out there that the only science I trust is my own, in many areas.

If you go for the pocketbook end of an idea, then you have instant commonality with your listeners or readers - we all need money to live in this society. We are all getting the pants taxed and regulated off of us, so saving money is fast becoming a cool thing. Just as re-purposing and recycling and repairing is just now beginning to make headway again after so many decades of oil-enriched affluence.

When you have a recalcitrant horse, you can nearly always get them to do what you want with an apple. Same thing here - use what you need to use to change behavior.

pygmycory said...

Violet cabra: good plants vary in different climates. Here on Vancouver Island, himalayan blackberries grow wild on practically every disturbed patch. Apple trees are everywhere, but a lot of the fruit get codling moth. Pear, walnut and plum can also be found growing wild, along with chickweed, dandelions and nettles. Salal, salmonberry and red huckleberry are more often found growing wild on the mainland than here.

Potatoes are low maintenance when you consider the large amounts of calories they produce.

Because garlic, corn salad, and broad beans are grown starting in the fall, they need little watering round here. Unfortunately, the garlic keeps getting rust.

John Michael Greer said...

John, I'll check out the book as time permits. I'd read extensively about the c.1200 BCE collapse before, not least because its military dimension has plenty of contemporary relevance.

Ed, er, you really need to learn something about evolution. What you've described aren't "evolutionary leaps," they're plot gimmicks out of cheap science fiction. I suggest you start with Darwin's The Origin of Species, and pay close attention to the fact that evolution is adaptation to environment, not another name for the fantasy of perpetual progress.

LatheChuck, oh bright gods. I'm impressed; she actually managed to out-BS Donald Trump, which takes some doing.

Mallow, don't worry about it. The point of my story was to toss some ideas out so that other people would pick them up and run with them. That is to say, go for it!

Bruno, orbital junk has a limited lifespan -- long, especially in the higher orbits, but limited, due to a range of factors that eventually slow it down and send it to its death in Earth's atmosphere -- and as several people pointed out to me with regard to one of my fictional narratives, objects left on the Moon will eventually be battered to dust by the constant bombardment of meteorite fragments, which get burnt up in our atmosphere but fall straight to the surface on the Moon. Nothing we will ever do is immortal.

Ed-M said...

Rüdiger,

Actually that extra T fits - as in Terminal-Anthropic Event, or Techno-Anthropic Event.

Ed-M said...

@ Pygmycory, JMG -

Yeah, I hears youse both, as they used to say in Brooklyn. ;^) I totally missed the Sixth Mass Extinction that's going on right now at the clip of 200 species a day and has been, in fits and starts, ever since most of the megafauna of five continents went down our ancestors' pie holes. So it really is the Terminal Anthropic Event. :'^(

pygmycory said...

With the 'small cats' comment, I was speaking of biological group rather than body size. Technically, the cougar is a small cat, although it is big enough to consider deer and small adult humans tasty. A domestic cat descendant would be in the genus Felis (for the next few thousand years, certainly), even if it were as large as a siberian tiger.

There's already two introduced species of gecko in South Carolina and/or Georgia: the mediterranean gecko and the Indo-pacific gecko, both in the genus Hemidactylus.

Myriad said...

I wonder what erosion will do to the remainder over the long term!

On the larger scales, the ruinmen say, erosion wears away some half (more or less), to help bury the other half (less or more). Locally, the foundation of a mountaintop hotel will probably erode away, and that of a seaside hotel dug into alluvial soil will probably get buried, but it's all up to Mam Gaea.

Peter VE said...

@Lathe_chuck - Are we the only ones who had a spit take when Clinton said: " we are now, for the first time ever, energy independent."? We were energy independent until the early 70s, and we will be some day when we can not afford the last few drops of oil wrung from the earth, and when we have collapsed so far down the curve that energy demand has dropped to match local supply.
Nothing the Village says or does shows me that they have any idea what is coming down the pike. No one challenged her on that statement last night, and the "fact checkers" have given only mealy mouthed responses: viz NPR
"This is not an accurate statement if “energy independent” means the U.S. doesn’t need fuels from other countries. The U.S. has become more energy independent in recent years but the country is still a net importer of crude oil, for example. Energy Information Administration numbers show that the U.S. imports about 9.4 million barrels of petroleum a day. The country responsible for most of those imports is not in the Middle East, though — it’s Canada. " In what world could "energy independent " mean anything OTHER than that the US needs fuels from other countries.

jessi thompson said...

If you would prefer to assume that no one will ever change their behavior, that's fine. Certainly there is a lot of evidence to support your conclusion. However, I will continue to try to sway people's hearts and minds, because that's the only way I know to make a difference. If you have a better idea on how to reduce the impacts of climate change and prevent species (other than humans) from going extinct, I'm all ears.

FiftyNiner said...

@JMG,
Just a quick bit of astounding information: This morning at around 6:30 I was bringing my brother a cup of coffee and there was a commercial on TV from the Alabama Secretary of State. In the commercial he said that just since January of this year there have been almost a half million new voter registrations in the State of Alabama! This has never happened before leading up to an election on this scale.
Since I registered many years ago, I checked the internet to confirm that voter registration in Alabama still shows no party preference. It doesn't. I cannot believe that these people are, more than a tiny fraction, going to vote for Hillary Clinton. Of course, even if every one of the new registrants shows up to vote on election day, I will not change a thing, except possibly the already ridiculous margin of the Trump victory in Alabama.
However, if similar things are happening in other states we may be in uncharted waters as to voter turnout! Could this actually be the election where the loser gets many millions more popular votes than the winner?

Hubertus Hauger said...

The topic of the book "1177 BC, The Year Civilization Collapsed" is that of a collapse of a complex society because of diminishing returns. Just as Joseph Tainter depicts it. Even he originally didn’t include the decline of the bronze age society into his research. But his idea fits just as well with this ancient society. Here some review for a readers digest:
http://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-12-08/the-fall-of-the-mediterranean-society-during-the-bronze-age-why-we-still-don-t-understand-civilization-collapse

ed boyle said...

JMG,

I recall reading that pre Toba humans were much more diverse,, like ape types I suppose. This is the basis of my comment. Climate weirding could allow very limited survival possibilities for those with a mutation which makes them rare and exceptional. Whether that be autistic, spiritual sensitive or a few high level crazy yogis who have purposefully developed advanced rare techniques to survive just such an extinction event is neither here nor there. I am not into sci fi. I have read of yogis who have under controlled conditions survived in caves under such conditions to prove powers. Telepathic type powers, purposeful or accidental are everyday life and autism, a in rainman can seem miraculous. The leap in evolution of the black manchester moth was not very high. We allow everyone to survive nowadays due to advanced medicine. This weakens species. Darwinism would leave fewer here.

Shane W said...

Shouldn't the term be "misanthropic event"?

Justin said...

I think the moment for the history books is when Donald Trump said that if elected, he'll appoint a special prosecutor and jail the Clintons (and hopefully quite a few others).

Lots of the liberati correctly pointed out that the loser of an election being jailed is "third-world" politics, but of course, utterly missed the irony.

Shane W said...

Well, yes, JMG, you've said many times that it takes a quarter million years for nuclear waste to be safe for the biosphere, but aren't Corvin geologists well beyond that period (Not to mention the pressures needed to create stone? So, would the non-radioactive products still be unusual in other ways?

Dan Johnson said...

“Climate change denialism might only be the beginning of a much broader development toward a post-empirical world dominated by pure ideology,” Schwägerl writes. "The continued skepticism about climate change is a repudiation of global and empirical thought." But JMG has also written about how scientists blew their credibility (http://e360.yale.edu/feature/how_the_attack_on_science_is_becoming_global_contagion/3039/) .

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi JMG,

Nice to hear from you! I thought that you were taking a break from blogging.

That is funny about the rat paleontologists, and probably a disturbingly accurate prediction...

And many thanks for writing that. :-)! My take on the matter is that it is a form of pirate radio. What do you reckon about that? I enjoy the podcasts that you are a guest of and total respect for some of the epic discussions that you take part in.

Cheers

Chris

nuku said...

@jessi Thompson,
I applaud your obvious passion for preserving life and dismay at the actions of those who are thoughtlessly trashing the planet, however with regard to your statement

“However, I will continue to try to sway people's hearts and minds, because that's the only way I know to make a difference“

I would say that there is another way of making a difference and that is to start with your own actions. When you are satisfied that you are doing all that you can do to change your own behavior in the direction that you would have others change theirs, you will probably find that others‘ hearts and minds will have been swayed simply by your own personal example.
Just saying....

Scotlyn said...

Yes, of course. Eating, drinking and being merry are pleasures much better shared as widely (including in time) as possible!

---

You said: "I suggest you start with Darwin's The Origin of Species, and pay close attention to the fact that evolution is adaptation to environment, not another name for the fantasy of perpetual progress." (in reply to ED)

And of course, it is worth knowing that our cells have a huge array of evolutionary tools (other than random mutations) with which to adapt using natural genetic engineering. This allows for quick development of novel evolutionary adaptations (when it succeeds) during times when the environment is drastically changing.

http://shapiro.bsd.uchicago.edu/Shapiro.2013.How%20Life%20Changes%20Itself-%20The%20Read-Write%20(RW)%20Genome.Physics%20of%20Life%20Reviews.pdf

David James Peterson said...

latheChuck/Greer:

I'm not sure Clinton was out BSed on the energy independence claim. Trump started with this duesy:
""We have found over the last seven years, we have found tremendous wealth right under our feet. I will bring our energy companies back. ... They'll make money. They'll pay off our national debt. They'll pay off our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous.""

This highly unlikely as the oil/gas companies are not paying back their own debt let alone paying off the entire US debt. Many of the oil companies in North Dakota are going bankrupt because of 'low oil prices'. The big natural gas driller (SWN) in Arkansas stopped drilling and fracking early this year and laid off all their drilling support personnel. "They'll pay off our national debt", unlikely...

Patricia Mathews said...

Re: Clinton and the energy independence claim - I also give you David Brin, whose definition of energy independence seems to be the same as hers. I quote from his second-to-latest blog post:

"In fact:

- Old-dinosaur carbon companies are in trouble because the U.S. has discovered so much oil and gas that we are now energy independent again, for the first time since the 1960s, allowing us to stop catering to petro princes in the Middle East. This plus the vast progress made in solar and sustainables have us in better shape than ever... except for those dinosaurs. "

****If the inhabitant of the basement apartment were to wave around the paycheck from a part time job and say "This is more than my allowance! Whoopee! I'm self-supporting at last!" the logical question from the family would then be "Do you mean you can get along without the allowance?" Well, duh, no.... "Are you smarter than a sophomore, David?"

Pantagruel7 said...

The Kunstler blog made reference to the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" yesterday. I made a point of listening to it on youtube and felt like I was hearing a song I'd heard a thousand times for the very first time! Those lyrics make it a song for today. As the 2016 campaign flounders in drivel...so it goes.

Shane W said...

@FiftyNiner,
I wouldn't be surprised if we aren't in for a big surprise along the lines of the Landon landslide predicted by Literary Digest in '36. Most of these polls today poll "likely voters", if the voter registration surge in Ala. holds true across the nation, particularly in swing states, the polls may be way off, b/c they're not accounting for these "unlikely voters".

latheChuck said...

DJ Peterson- I stand corrected. Both candidates made absurd statements about the abundance of energy. Trump is obviously talking about coal, making a play for the voters of Coal Country. (Clinton, on the other hand, addresses the collapse of the coal industry with vague notions of (re)training those people for other jobs. Just what jobs those might be, I have no idea.)

While discussing Clinton's "independence" claim with a friend, I came up with another plausible misinterpretation of the facts as they are. A couple of years ago, Pres. Obama proudly proclaimed that "the United States now produces more energy than it imports". Some people hear that incorrectly as "produces more energy than it consumes". But others hear it incorrectly as "exports more energy than it imports". And others aren't sure exactly what they heard, but with such triumphant pride, it must be 'independence'.

If they happened to hear that US law was recently changed to allow export of crude oil (other than to Canada, which was already legal), it might seem logical to assume that we would not export a commodity while we are also importing it, but there are also logical reasons to import some types of crude oil, while exporting other types. Exporting half a million barrels per day might seem like a big deal, but we import over 5 million barrels per day (ten times as much).

Cortes said...

Hi JMG:

Your response to Ed-M about the length of time involved in Gaia's "rinse cycle " ((c) me haha) may be revised if time allows you to look at Nield's conclusion. Just saying and no criticism implied.

ganv said...

That is a nicely written statement of the great question: what is humanity's future when viewed over the time scales of the history of the universe and planet earth? Maybe we are blip. Human culture came to dominate earth's fauna only a few thousand years ago. But maybe not also. There is no historical precedent for an organism figuring out the basic principles by which the universe operates, its body functions, and evolution has occurred. It may well be that this knowledge changes everything. Like the biblical metaphor of knowledge of good and evil plucked disobediently by Adam and Eve, it brings great suffering along with enlightenment. I suspect knowing is not easily reversed among mammals as curious as humans. And I suspect this knowledge will have persistent impacts that are clear to anyone studying earth geology 100 million years from now. But that is a guess. Like your guess that we are a blip. Beyond some simple but not rigorous reasons I think this is likely (maybe for another day), I prefer this guess because it focuses humanity on planning for our long term future. It is the possibility that human knowledge and wisdom might significantly modify the brute mechanisms that have dominated the first 4 billion years of earth's history that to me is the most interesting and beautiful idea there is. Maybe there is enough energy flowing from our sun through planet earth to allow intelligence and not entropy to be the most powerful force on the planet for the next few billion years. The complexity that has evolved and some simple calculations prove that this is physically possible. But maybe it is not socially possible. Right now some facts make humans look pretty foolish. Your perspective may be the rational one. But I would prefer to invest my life trying to broaden the impact of far sighted human intelligence. Since this includes also planning for the consequences of human foolishness, I greatly enjoy your blog.

HalFiore said...

"The human ego badly needs rattling, and deep time's just the thing to do it."

Also deep space. I know it's not the point of this week's post, but the season compels me to comment. A few mornings ago, we had our first morning here in the Mississippi Delta cool enough to require a sweatshirt as the dog and I did our rounds. As I often do at least once in the fall, I found myself in a kind of meditative state and turned and stood a while facing the West, away from first rays of the tiny little space heater that so dominated our lives over the last few months, pulled back my hood and allowed myself to feel just a little hint of the vast, cold, empty, rigorous, and utterly unsentimental space that makes up the overwhelming majority of the Universe. Perhaps a reflection of just beginning to get over a mysterious illness over the last 3 or so weeks, no doubt linked to age and the inconvenience of having male plumbing after a "certain" age. So there's your time component in this case, I suppose. The deepening of my so undeep fragment of time.

So for the season's meditation. Should have more properly marked the equinox, I suppose, but it would have been hard to feel when sweating at 6am.

Oh, and thanks for the elegant discussion of the geologic ages. I think I understand them better now than ever before. Though an Earth-sciences major, I was weak in geology.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

JMG,

Regarding the Religion of Progress...

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/oct/12/english-man-spends-11-hours-trying-to-make-cup-of-tea-with-wi-fi-kettle

cheers

Mustard

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Further to my last on the wi fi kettle, one comment links nicely into the current topic...

"It's because of people like this that 17% of the Earth's crust consists of old mobile phones".

But best of all -

"Just do it the old fashioned way, a pan, some water and a galaxy s7. Duh."

cheers

Mustard

Bryan L. Allen said...

An enjoyable and stimulating essay, as always. Kudos!

Links to two articles on subjects you've been writing about or following (the first is particularly relevant):
LEO debris concerns: http://www.thespacereview.com/article/3078/1
Elon Musk and his house of cards: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602487/elon-musks-house-of-gigacards/

All the best!

Nachtgurke said...

Great stuff, nicely written. Interestingly your writings have lead me to Alice Miller again... I believe a main cause why only so few are able to think in the ways described in your essay and to draw conclusions from this, lies at the very beginning of our lives. I find especially the linked book highly recommendable read - maybe even (or especially?) for many of those interested in magic (the same might apply to power, wealth, etc.) - since many people I know who are up to such things could gain a lot of what they are really longing for by understanding their past and emphathize with it ...

Gary K said...

JGM... Recommend to you a chart published by Pan Terra Inc., created by Paul R. Janke. It is called " A Correlated History of Earth". It is an amazing chart, 3 ft. wide, 4 ft. tall, correlating geological periods with impact craters and events as well as biological species. It includes the author's hypothesis that the earth's mass extinctions correlate well with it's travels through the Milky Way Spiral Arms. Interesting fact... The earth has completed 24 laps around the galactic nucleus since it was formed, and is 35% through it's 25th lap. We are approaching the Orion Arm now. Look out!!!

Sub said...

JMG,
Thank you for writing this essay, I think it is one of your most insightful yet. Every week you write something that is worth the read, and that always gets me to rethink my interpretation of the vast cosmos that surrounds us. Your breadth of knowledge is always amazing to read.

Also, I want to echo a poster a couple of weeks ago who mention how inspiring it is to see someone with Asperger's who is so eloquent and adept at communicating their thoughts. As a fellow sufferer, communication has always been a great difficulty to me, but reading your essays gives me hope that someday I will be able to get my thoughts across as well as you do.

Best wishes, please keep informing those who will hear about the big changes coming.

melo said...

Reading the Archdruid and the commenters reminds me of 'taking the waters', intellectually speaking.
Deeply, mysteriously relaxing, and very good for you too!

Hubertus Hauger said...

Yes, where are we going? I agree, that the idea of perpetual progress is wishful thinking, but not a reliable prediction of what may happen in future. So it could well be, that this explosion of human self-importance, through that greatly expanded insight of natural-laws together with our material expansion through that abundance of cheap energy, made phase out and leave scarcely any mark in earth-histories layers.

We don’t know. Might as well be, that after the decay of this wasteful time humans evolve into an enduring society for more than the average 20 million year lifespan of a species on earth. Anyway, momentarily we people have to get through the following decades and centuries first. And with our limited planning ability we are not even able to determine that one, so the long-time is left for the future anyway.

While I am too pessimistic about our ability to fulfil our own moral expectation to ensure longelivety for our human fellows. I am by far more optimistic about our abilities as a living being. Evolution holds plenty of opportunities available for us, to evolve more resilient, enduring and adaptable. In particular by the pressure of chance.

In times of tranquillity we humans, as well as our fellow living beings made our self comfortable and didn’t change much. Nature has all of us made energy saving species, when there is neither need nor opportunity to waste energy. Quite different so, when circumstances changed drastically, so the effort to adapt becomes immense. I remember long-time events, like the oxygen shift, which drove the anaerobal living beings into save corners, but let aerobal ones prosper. Then the snowball earth which brought up multicelular life. In the advent of the Precambrian the explosion of predators made many creatures cover them with amour.

Continuously living beings evolving into new forms. Extinguished species were replaced by others which developed fitting abilities similar to the former placeholder. Life on earth is … quite lively! We as part of the biosphere will stay in the game.

While I see us with lack of funds, to expand into the solar system, that might change in the centuries or millennia’s to come. We are a learning species and ever expanding.

Not all is possible anymore, but still there are a broad variety of possibilities. They may even expand in time.

Esn said...

If I lived in the US (instead of in Canada), I would vote for Trump mostly because he seems much less likely to start wars than Hillary Clinton. War's not great for real estate; Trump has his wealth in real estate all around the world, while Clinton gets a lot of money from the Gulf States and defense contractors. And predictably, Trump has been mostly anti-war (even when the establishment has ridiculed him for it), while Clinton has been threatening Russia with war in Syria and Ukraine. Clinton is heartless; her war in Libya was responsible for many thousands of deaths, and it was based on a lie. I just can't forgive something like that.

The thing that worries me most about Trump is his denial of climate change. However, I've noticed something interesting: at rallies for the past while, Trump's been saying that he would stop sending "billions" to the UN to spend on "bogus" climate change programs, and would instead... use that money in the US to clean up the air and water. Which, I've been thinking for years, is EXACTLY the sort of argument that you would use if you wanted to convince "average people" to support environmentalism. Even people who've been convinced that global warming is some sort of elite scam can see the benefits of local clean air and water (and, incidentally, the solutions for both problems are largely the same). So, maybe Trump is doing that "pacing and leading" thing that Scott Adams suggested he's doing:
http://blog.dilbert.com/post/152734465316/unhypnotizing-a-clinton-supporter
Take up some extreme position to match people's emotional state (ban all Muslim immigration, deport all illegal immigrants, climate change is a hoax), then gradually adopt a more reasonable position once you have those people's trust ("extreme vetting", deport illegal immigrants with criminal records, support clean air and water). He never gets a lot of applause at those rallies for the clean air & water lines (because Republicans mostly seem to not care about those issues), yet he keeps saying it.

If Sanders was in the race I would probably vote for him instead. More consistent and believable as anti-elite crusader.