Unprecedented energy use since 1950 transformed our planetary environment and humanity’s geologic footprint

Published in Sustainability
Unprecedented energy use since 1950 transformed our planetary environment and humanity’s geologic footprint

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I felt like a war correspondent while piecing together our analysis and as my colleagues’ data kept rolling in. Few people who read the manuscript should come away without emotions bubbling up— rage, grief and even fear.  Together, my valued colleagues and I have documented humanity’s environmental footprint at the planetary scale.  Our planet is large and at first glance it might seem impossible for humans to have “unwittingly” terraformed Earth. But our paper “makes it extremely difficult for those who have orchestrated a 'campaign of deception' to undermine and sow doubt about the science of global warming and the constellation of issues profoundly influenced by human activities. The science is unequivocal - one can no longer intelligently declare that humans are not responsible for the global warming that has ballooned since 1950” writes coauthor Colin Summerhayes (Cambridge U). The speed and scale of change is staggering: “It seems beyond drastic to have expended more energy in the last 70 years than in the previous 11,700-y.” —coauthor Jan Zalasiewicz (U. Leicester).

 Coauthor Will Steffen (Australian National U.) reminds us that “Earth System modelling suggests that we have already delayed the next ice age for at least 50,000-y and are on track to end the glacial-interglacial cycling of the late Quaternary”. “Even if every human emigrated to another planet tomorrow, our anthropogenic impacts of the last few generations will linger for millennia, in the Earth's crust, in the fossil record, and in its climate” —writes coauthor John McNeill (Georgetown U.). Similarly coauthor Irka Hajdas (ETH Zürich) notes “with nuclear technology, atomic weapons and their tests, the human race has created a unique signal in the Earth’s archives. Some radionuclides are detectable after thousands of years. They are excellent time markers for the point when the technological race took on speed i.e., the Great Acceleration.”

 “In a stratigraphic sense, the Great Acceleration (~1950) is the equivalent of a large meteorite impact, where the Anthropocene is the following chronostratigraphic epoch defined by this starting event” — coauthor Michael Wagreich (U. Vienna).  This reasoning is supported by coauthor Mark Williams (U. Leicester) who notes “the record of a globally reconfigured biosphere, evident from the translocation of thousands of species beyond their native ranges, have left a fossil record in everything from Asian clams in San Francisco Bay, to the shells of invasive cannibal snails in the Hawaiian islands”.

Our paper is not about the consequences of humanity’s growth into the Anthropocene, notes coauthor Agnieszka Gałuszka (Jan Kochanowski U.): “we focused on energy consumption but stayed away from commenting on its consequences the depletion of non-renewable energy resources, the production of vast volumes of solid wastes, acid mine drainage, air pollution and releases of radionuclides.” Behind the scenes, my fellow sustainability travelers do worry about our future. Coauthor John Day (Louisiana State U.) reminds us that climate change and environmental degradation are marching us towards the sixth great extinction “making significant portions of the earth inhospitable to Homo sapiens with wildfires, hurricanes and intense rainfall events”, a sentiment echoed by coauthor John Milliman (College of William and Mary).

 Coauthor Reinhold Leinfelder (Freie U. Berlin) notes “our study shows how everything connects to everything in the Anthropocene, and a brighter future will see humanity with new values, using new technologies, and accepting ourselves as a part of one Earth System that has to remain functional in order to carry us along.” And there are encouraging trends: falling costs of solar and wind energy, hydrogen-driven trains, and potentially aircraft.  We need to work together. The coauthors of this paper are simply physicians diagnosing a very sick patient.

 Jaia Syvitski

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