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It's Too Soon to Call This the Anthropocene

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tags: science relevant to history, Anthropocene



Vaclav Smil is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. He is the author of 37 books and more than 400 papers on many aspects of energy, environment, food, population, technical advances, including developments in modern Japan. Major recent books include Making the Modern World: Materials and Dematerialization and Prime Movers of Globalization: The History and Impact of Diesel Engines and Gas Turbines.

Many historians and even some scientists argue that we are living in the Anthropocene, a new epoch charac- terized by the human control of the biosphere. Next year the Inter- national Geological Congress will consider recognizing this name as the latest addition to the standard geological time scales. 

My reaction, echoing the Romans: Festina lente. Make haste slowly. 

To be quite clear: There is no doubt about the pervasiveness of our interference in global biogeochemical cycles, the loss of biodiversity attributable to human actions—the mass dumping of our wastes; the large-scale deforestation and accelerated erosion of soils; the global extent of pollution generated by farm- ing, cities, industries, and transportation. In combination, these man-made impacts are unprecedented and of a scale that may well imperil the future of our species. 

But is our control of the planet’s fate really so complete? There is plenty of counterevidence. Fundamental variables that make life on Earth possible—the thermonuclear reactions that power the sun, suffusing the planet with radiation; the planet’s shape, rotation, tilt, the eccentricity of its orbital path (the “pacemaker” of the ice ages), and the circulation of its atmosphere—are all beyond any human interference. Nor can we ever hope to control the enormous terraforming processes, the Earth’s plate tectonics driven by internal heat and resulting in slow but constant creation of new ocean floor, forming, reshaping, and elevating landmasses whose distribu- tions and altitudes are key determinants of climate variability and habitability.  ...

Read entire article at IEEE Spectrum


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