My long time colleague,
Leon Kolankiewicz, senior writing fellow at Californians for Population
Stabilization, www.capsweb.org , asks a penetrating question for
humanity to ask itself in the 21st century. Are we a species that
will survive our own cleverness? Can we sustain 7, 8, 9 and 10
billion of us by the mid century? Can we feed ourselves as oil
depletes and vanishes? How will we provide more fresh water for
crops, animals and ourselves? Will we survive the ravages that
we inflict on this finite planet?
Thus far, we avoid any discussion in America and around the world about
human overpopulation. Why? Ancient religions enjoy a stranglehold
on the population discussion. Cultures promote unending and limitless
population growth. Economic systems encourage growth at all costs.
In a brilliant essay, The “Age of Man” or a Flash in the Pan?—Leon Kolankiewicz
asks the questions that are not being asked in the 21st century.
“Has Planet Earth been profoundly altered by 7 billion human beings
and our ever more potent tools and technology?” said Kolankiewicz.
“Could evidence of our presence be discerned by a hypothetical
geologist probing and poking rock strata 100 million years from now?
“Or, in the vast fullness of geologic time, will most if not all
traces of our civilization both its products and byproducts, its
stunning achievements and its prodigious excesses prove as
fleeting as sand castles on the beach, washed away forever by the
tides of time?
“This is the debate now playing out among geologists, biologists,
and other scientists, and reported on recently in the journal
Science in its 7 October 2011 edition.
“Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement
of Science (AAAS), is the most prestigious general scientific periodical
in the United States. Along with the U.K’s Nature, it is one of
the two most influential scientific journals in the world.”
Humans outgrow the carrying capacity of the planet at their peril
As Science puts it: “There’s no dispute that humans are
leaving their mark on the planet, but geologists and other
scientists are debating whether this imprint is distinctive and
enduring enough to designate a new epoch: the Anthropocene.”
Or the “Age of Man.”
“When the Ordovician Period gave way to the Silurian some 445
million years ago, widespread, rapid glaciation and associated
changes precipitated Earth’s first mass extinction event,
exterminating 60% of marine and terrestrial life,” said
Kolankiewicz. “This sharp boundary in the earth’s history is
etched in the rocks and fossil record and is clearly visible today
to geologists at sites across the world.
“Some scientists now believe that humanity’s collective impact is so
profound and so pervasive that it can be considered in essence a
geophysical force comparable to erupting supervolcanoes, asteroid
strikes, and massive, continent-shifting tectonic upheaval. In
an article for Nature in 2002, chemist and Nobel Prize winner Paul
Crutzen first coined the term “Anthropocene.”
“Crutzen argued that we humans have nudged the planet out of the
Holocene Epoch, which began with the end of the Pleistocene Epoch
the fabled Ice Age and into a much less stable period dominated by
human agency. As Crutzen and environmental journalist Christian
Schwägerl write in Yale University’s online publication
It’s a pity we’re still officially living in an age called the
Holocene. The Anthropocene — human dominance of biological,
chemical and geological processes on Earth — is already an
undeniable reality. Evidence is mounting that the name change
suggested by one of us more than ten years ago is overdue.
“Other scientists remain skeptical that human impact is really that
long-lasting. Changes that seem enormous to us, tethered as we
are to one point in time, might actually prove inconsequential or
virtually invisible in the far future,” said Kolankiewicz.
“The vast reaches of the geologic time scale, after all, stretch for
millions, even billions, of years.
“And as Science emphasizes, debates over whether to formally
designate a new geologic epoch, era, or period can take decades
even centuries to resolve. This determination of the
International Commission on Stratigraphy (stratigraphy = study of
rock strata) to avoid too hasty a decision when deliberating
geologic nomenclature and classification reminds one of the
tree-like Ents and their ponderous “entmoot” in JRR Tolkien’s
classic The Lord of the Rings.
“Yet the arguments for such a re-designation are compelling. One
member of the Anthropocene Working Group estimates that humans have
already modified 80% of Earth’s land surface. Deforestation
and conversion to cropland change pollen deposition. Pollen,
which remains embedded in sediments for eons, can be studied with
great precision by palynologists, that is, practitioners of pollen
“Human impacts on biodiversity will also greatly change the types
and distribution of fossil remains. As a result of habitat
loss, invasive species, overhunting, climate change, and pollution,
Earth is on the verge of its sixth mass extinction event in its 4.5
billion year history.
“Incredibly, at present more than 90% of total vertebrate biomass on
earth (that is, the total weight of all living organisms) is
comprised of humans and a handful of domesticated animal species.
Ten thousand years ago this figure was a mere 0.1%. We are
selfishly replacing and displacing all other life forms that aren’t
us or that don’t feed our insatiable needs and wants.”
Other examples of the unmistakable human signature include:
· Mining and
other excavations remove four times as much sediment as the world’s
glaciers and rivers move each year.
Human-induced erosion is more than 10 times the background natural
cities, and urban rubble will leave behind distinctive signatures in
· As a result
of burning fossil fuels and emitting gigatons of light-isotope
carbon (C-12) annually, the carbon composition of sea shells, coral,
and the shells of plankton foraminifera is shifting away from
heavy-isotope carbon (C-13); this will be permanently preserved in
· Then there
are man-made synthetic chemicals, new to nature, such as PCBs and
plastics, and radioactive isotopes like cesium from atomic tests.
“Whether or not the International Commission on Stratigraphy
eventually adopts Crutzen’s suggestion, human beings will continue
to exert a powerful influence on the Earth,” said
Kolankiewicz. “As Crutzen and Schwägerl observe:
For millennia, humans have behaved as rebels against a superpower we
call “Nature.” In the 20th century, however, new technologies,
fossil fuels, and a fast-growing population resulted in a “Great
Acceleration” of our own powers. Albeit clumsily, we are
taking control of Nature’s realm, from climate to DNA. We
humans are becoming the dominant force for change on Earth. A
long-held religious and philosophical idea — humans as the masters
of planet Earth — has turned into a stark reality.
“Like it or not,” said Kolankiewicz.
If this compelling essay brings questions to mind or you would like
to help change the course of human history by your actions, please
join hundreds of thousands of Californians attempting to bring about
a “consciousness shift” that leads to a “critical mass shift” that
ultimately moves this nation toward a stable and sustainable
Frosty Wooldridge is a former Senior Writing Fellow for CapsWeb.org.