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Rise and Fall of “The Anthropocene”: Humanity, Geology and AI

Are we living in “The Age of Humans” analogous to “The Age of the Dinosaurs?” The answer to this question may seem blindly affirmative to the casual observer but for geologists defining periods of time for particular species is not a trivial matter. The biologist Eugene Stoermer coined the term “The Anthropocene” in the 1970s to suggest such a geological epoch. The Ukranian systems ecologist and futurist Vladmir Vernadsky’s notion of a “Noosphere” (a planetary system linking human conscious decisions to the biosphere) also resonated with this view, though he had not articulated it in geological terms. The Dutch chemistry Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen (one of the discoverers of the processes involved in ozone depletion) proposed a formal naming of our current epoch as the Anthropocene in 2002.

In March 2024, after fifteen years of protracted processes through the International Union of Geological Sciences, a formal decision was made to NOT to adopt this naming, though the decision could be appealed. Five years earlier, a working group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy had earlier voted in favor of naming our current geological epoch “The Anthropocene,” which had raised hopes of among proponents. Twenty- nine out of 34 members of the Anthropocene Working Group supported the designation and voted in favor of starting the new epoch in the mid- twentieth century, when a rapidly rising human population accelerated the pace of industrial production, the use of agricultural chemicals, and other human activities.

“The Great Acceleration” was further accentuated by the first atomic bomb blasts embedded in sediments and glacial ice, thereby creating new minerals. Crawford Lake in Canada has unique characteristics of sediment accumulation to mark changes in key planetary conditions over the past 1000 years. It was chosen as the site to consider “a golden spike” in the geological record that marked humanity’s impact. Yet this empirical process was not definitive and resulted in the “fall” of the Anthropocene in the annals of geology. Canadian academic Dr. Adrian Ivakhiv, who authored a notable book open-access book on the Anthropocene quickly penned a detailed blog post about the various twists and turns of the process.

The physical impact of humans on the planet is unquestionable. Researchers in the lab of Professor Ron Miro at the Weitzman Institute in Israel did a series of studies to calculate our impact. The results are staggering. For example, the total mass of all human-created material now exceeds all-natural biomass. The same team also calculated that the 95% of the total biomass of mammals on earth was now either human or animals cultivated by humans for their consumption! Thus the failed naming should in no way detract from our impact. It has been suggested by some that we call our impact an “event” rather than an epoch.

Perhaps we should move from geology to other defining fields to mark our impact. The late earth scientist James Lovelock called our time the “Age of Hyper- Intelligence” (as a precursor to Artificial Intelligence) through machine learning and bioinformatics, and he suggested that we had moved to a “Novacene” epoch. Such tools can be used to assist in vastly amplifying the speed and scale of scientific discovery of new enzymes for biopharmaceuticals, electro- materials for infrastructure, and a range of other approaches urgent human uses. There are highly divergent views about what such a Novacene would mean for humanity itself. Lovelock was optimistic that humans would be able to coexist with artificial intelligence and would essentially become like cultivated plants at the behest of cyborgs and other artificial life forms. Others like Elon Musk are less optimistic labeling such developments the greatest threat to our existence as a species.

Ultimately, our impact on the planet is indelible. What matters is now how we craft a more sustainable future. We should thus be moving to what Thomas Barry has called an “Ecozoic” era or perhaps even an epoch that Glenn Albrecht has termed the “Symbiocene.” Both these terms imply a functional view of finding order and harmony between nature and humanity that achieves particular goals of sustainability in the short- to long-term trajectory. There is implicit hybridity in such an approach rather than simplistic allegiance to geological determinism. Regardless of what we call periods in time, there should be no doubt that we must approach our impact on the planet with humility rather than hubris.

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