Will the Anthropocene Be Apocalyptic?

Before the introduction of agriculture our hunter gatherer ancestors had the habit of burning large tracts of open plain to drive animals before them, hopefully off a cliff where they could be skinned and butchered.

That burning probably marked the true beginning of the Anthropocene, an era, if not an epoch, characterized by the changes we’ve introduced to the geology and more recently even the geography of the planet.

Burning the fields changed the behavior of animals and the growing patterns of plants and trees. It changed the albedo of the Earth itself and the movement of the winds above it.

Beavers dam trees and ruminants paw through the snow to get at the grasses underneath. But when we began farming our treatment of land and rivers was an organized and systemic change to the environment. Now we have 800,000 dams built and 33% of habitable land is under the plough. The reservoirs behind the dams have a different albedo than the land they covered and the humidity also changes the wind patterns around it. And the land ploughed under every spring is dark and heat absorbing while the crops at summer’s end are usually lighter in color and are certainly absorbing CO2.

So I don’t think there’s any question that we have changed the climate throughout pre-history and history. I would put the beginning of the Anthropocene at somewhere between 50,000 and 13,000 BCE. And of course it continues today and has grown stronger, with roads, pollutions and emissions of CO2, with jet contrails, canals, megacities and deforestation.

The question is, will our impacts on the environment (including the climate) end in tears?

As regular readers probably already suspect, I’m more optimistic than many others who have looked at this topic. (I studied anthropology during my brief sojourn at the university and have retained a very real interest in it since. I’m not an expert but I have followed closely their explanations.)

It is my conviction that in some areas we are already past the period of our peak influence on the environment and in others that we are approaching that peak.

Specifically, we seem to have reached a peak of how much land we are using for agriculture–the worthy world organizations don’t predict that we will be taking more land for farming.

Also, residential use of land is being concentrated in the large cities of the world, with greater percentages of the population living in urban environments and smaller percentages in rural–and both trends and human desire for advancement make it look as though that will continue.

As we make progress in the developing world, deforestation should slacken–especially if we realize that biofuels are not really a force for good–because those living in the developing world will gain access to electricity and fuels with higher caloric density than dung or branches.

As for climate–well, that is the topic of the millenium to date, and it receives a lot of attention. I’m a Lukewarmer. I think atmospheric sensitivity is lower than many activists and a majority of scientists (although the tide seems to be turning and low sensitivity is becoming more acceptable as a forecast).

But I’m still concerned. Even a low sensitivity of our atmosphere to concentrations of CO2 leave us vulnerable to what will happen in the next fifty years.

I’ve spent a year detailing why on the other blog I maintain, where I forecast (and show my work) that human consumption of energy will be six times as great as in 2010 by the year 2075. That’s why the blog is names 3,000 quads–that’s how much energy I think the world will burn in 2075, compared to the 523 we used in 2010.

Even a very low sensitivity of the atmosphere will not allow us to ignore the effects of that amount of energy. Worse, because other forecasts are much lower (the DOE thinks it will be less than a thousand, although they didn’t update their forecast last year…) we are not putting the infrastructure in place to allow the energy to be provided by anything other than mountains of coal. And that’s the real threat to us.

But the scope of the threat is not at a planet-busting level. As I’ve written before, it may produce a wetter and wilder world–but it will still be recognizable and both life and civilization will go on. So will development, and when population peaks right before the end of the century, no less an august body than the IPCC also predicts that our emissions will begin to decline. We are definitely not talking the end of the world here.

And that’s when this conversation will get interesting. When population has not only stabilized but achieved a decent level of income and access to technology–when 80% of the population lives in cities and much of the planet has returned to nature–what then will we decide to do with our planet?


17 responses to “Will the Anthropocene Be Apocalyptic?

  1. I’m not as confident as you when it comes to deforestation, biodiversity, etc. Ecosystems are fragile and once they are gone, they are gone for good. On the other hand, I’m not so concerned as you about human challenges. The human species is flexible, adaptable and over the time spans we are discussing, mobile. We are talking about multiple infrastructure cycles here. Where farms are no longer viable, they will move. Others will adapt by changing their mix of crops. Assuming rate of change will be slow, there is little I can see that we should be concerned about.

    • “Ecosystems are fragile and once they are gone, they are gone for good.”

      I think it helps to take the “system” out of ecology. A “system” is something designed to accomplish a particular end. Ecological relationships are not designed, nor is the resulting chaos focused on any particular product. There is no intentional outcome. I like to think of the relationships that we call ecology as “econetworks”. That gets us away from the idea that there is a particular way they are “supposed” to be – there isn’t.

      As far as I can see, econetworks are stupendously resillient, though not always on the timescale we’d like. One of the things I find most interesting about the environmental movement is that they spend as much time altering the environment as developers in their effort to hurriedly return ecosystems to their “unaltered” or “healthy” state. Thus far, these efforts have yielded a wide variety of results, mostly in the “so-so” category, with some humiliating failures and some brochure-cover successes. From the perspective of the ecosystem inhabitants, however, I suspect these efforts amount to nothing more than another rapid change that’s difficult to adapt to. Recently, one of my favorite wildlife refuges underwent a massive “renovation”, I’m sure much to the chagrin of many of the inhabitants. I can’t help but wonder if similar or better results might come about with a few modest changes.

      • They may or may be resilient subject to the external pressures put on them. But if you’re wrong about what those impacts will be, there is no second chance to try again.

    • Hi Will

      I’m not as pessimistic about the ability of ecosystems to recover, although it seems clear that they don’t recover the past–when and if they do recover they recover enough strength and resilience to try something new. My concerns about biodiversity at this point are focused on the oceans rather than land–more of an opportunity as we don’t seem to show much inclination to move underwater in force any time soon.

    • Will,
      The “fragility of nature” is one of the assumptions that it is long since past actually testing.
      History demonstrates, if we look at the evidence, that nature is not only resilient, it is dangerous and highly adaptable.

  2. Tom,
    I presume you’re familiar with Bill Ruddimen’s research on the earliest atmospheric signature of the anthropocene?

    It will be interesting to see how we manage our long term impacts. I wonder, though. Perhaps our overall impact on the environment has stablized, we are still driving dramatic changes.

    Of course, cities are growing. But there’s a huge space between urban and rural. In America we call it suburbia. Suburbs represent virtually complete environmental destruction, just like cities, but house far fewer people per unit of land.

    OTOH, rural areas have shrinking populations. In some regions, that translates into “rewilding” the countryside. In other areas, it translates into full scale agricultural development, every bit as destructive as cities. In effect, cities have two footprints: the land the sit on top of, and the land that produces the resources that they draw from.

    Technology increases the efficiency of agricultural production, for sure. But growing cities and shrinkage in some rural areas is still driving massive land use changes.

    It’s interesting, too, that much of what is now slipping under the pavement of “urbia” and suburbia is some of the most productive farmland – land that required little in the way of technological support to be productive. Interestingly too, some land that was once very productive is being reclaimed by environmental projects.

    a jumble of thoughts, I agree.

    • but a good jumble.

      In effect, cities have two footprints: the land the sit on top of, and the land that produces the resources that they draw from.

      A very succinct summary of a concept I’ve understood for a while.

      To follow up on the suburbia thing – So what happens when everyone is rich enough to move out of the city if they want to?

      • Suburbia seems to lose its charm fairly quickly–evidently people prefer cities, if they are safe and have decent infrastructure. (Certainly worked that way for me, but demographic trends seem to be moving in that direction as well.)

        As for the double footprint, that’s actually true of cities, suburbs and even rural areas that are not completely self-sufficient. It might be more accurate to assign a footprint to each person, if you could get the details fine enough.

    • A good jumble–keep it coming.

      • thx

        But it’s kind of wierd how suburbia keeps growing despite it’s lack of charm. I can think of a couple of areas with nearly endless suburbia for hundreds of miles: the Puget Sound – Willamette Valley basin (Basically Seattle to Portland), and the Rocky Mountain front, Ft Collins to Colorado Springs. In both stretches, there are mid-sized breaks (say, 10-15 miles), but the breaks are closing fast.

    • In Norway we have an abundance of wilderness, but the areas where the number of species is highest are the suburbian areas Surrounding Oslo, the capital. Gardens with lawns, ponds, hedges, a variety of trees and flowers coexisting with areas of semi-wild vegetation is absolutely perfect for a huge number of smaller species. More so than the actual “wild” itself. And if you venture only a few hundred meters from the nearest residential area, you can get lucky and find deer, moose, even breeding wolves these days. It shows how adaptable nature is.

      So calling suburbia “complete environmental destruction” is plain wrong.

  3. I like the new blog. Interesting that you mark hunting techniques using fire as the beginning of the anthropocene. Why? Was this the point where man became more than “natural” part of the environment or the beginning of pollution? Fires are also natural.
    A friend bought 1,000 acres of tree farm in a rural area outside of Richmond Virginia about 6 years ago. It’s been fun hiking the property. There is evidence that parts were tilled long ago and parts were pasture. There were at least three houses on the property (there are none now) with the newest being easily 100 years old. My friends bought it right after it was clear cut, and now it’s quickly turning into a forest again. They will sell the timber again in a decade or two. Deer, coyote, bear, turkey, and thousands of other native species thrive here. Most interesting discovery- there are several adjacent properties with no known owners (no taxes paid for decades). This is not mountain land or flood plain and it’s a two-hour drive from DC. The price was obscenely low. There are fewer people on this land and less intensive use today in the 21st century than there was in the 19th and 18th centuries. That’s one of the reason’s I’m an optimist.

    • Buy it all and parcel it out. I’ll take a few acres.

      • Marty,

        You might want to spend some time away from the major urban corridors.

        There is plenty of land to be had for next to nothing once you get off the major urban corridors. Unfortunately, you have to bring your own job/ money.

  4. Unless I’m reading the charts backwards, the earth only needs to cool down about 1.5°C and we will be back in a little ice age.

    Given that improved technology would save humanity from many of the travails of a cold climate, would heating or cooling be the greater disaster?

    Nathan Myhrvold of Intellectual Ventures claims that he can dial back the Earth’s temperature to anything you want:


  5. Tom,
    Exactly! The so-called Anthropocene goes back at least to exploiting fire to enhance hunting (burn out competitor clans?) Consider the extensive irrigation systems that were built thousands of years ago in the Afghan/Iranian region. Or early Nile and other river valley irrigation systems. You are really on to something here.

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