Anthop-obscene

OOOOH!  OOOOOOOOOOOH!!!!  Look at ME!! Call on ME!!!!! Pick ME!!!!

The collective bastion of anthropocentrism has pooled its brain power into a tiny puddle of an idea – and not a particularly good idea. In fact, a perfectly foul idea. This is it: We will commemorate humanity, in all our self-loathed glory, by establishing an official Geologic Epoch of the human endeavor –

The Anthropocene.

I’ve already had occasion to comment on the validity of even the Holocene Epoch in an earlier post here in The Terrane. But this..,.,.

 For those who don’t know about such esoterica,  there is an international commission within the geologic community which is charged with establishing official stratigraphic designations, including the naming and demarcation of the various subdivisions of geologic time, beginning with the longest chunks of time – the aeons – and working down successively through the eras, periods, epochs, ages, stages, all segmented into ever-thinner little slices of past time.

Well, a number of years ago, we who live and work in the here and now were slotted into a new little quantum packet of time: a nano-sliver known as The Holocene – translated literally as the “entirely recent” epoch. The miniscule little tick and tock of the Holocene encompasses the most recent 11,500 years of Earth history (as of the year 2000). Without too much cross-stepping into my earlier post, the beginning of the Holocene marks the ending of the Pleistocene (meaning “most recent”), which is also known as the epoch of the Ice Ages, of which there were four – in the most recent pulse of ice ages in the heartbeat of Earth history. The end of the Pleistocene also corresponds with the end of what paleoanthropologists refer to as the Paleolithic Age – and, consequently, the beginning of civilization as we know it.

Each of the four recent glacial maxima (the depths of the ice ages) has been punctuated by an intervening inter-glacial stage during which continenetal glaciers have retreted to Greenland and Antarctica, and to the alpine (mountain) glaciers in our highest peaks and ranges. So presumably,  the condition which  prompted the establishment to call an ex-post-facto end to the Pleistocene at 11,500 yrs ago was the end of the ice ages and the intervening interglacial stages.

So – are the conditions of the Holocene different than they were in the Pleistocene?  What we have now are continental glaciers which have retreated to cover only Greenland and Antarctica and alpine glaciers on our highest peaks and ranges.  Hmmmm… I would say that, from an entirely geologic perspective, there is not a little doubt about the need for the assignation of an “entirely recent” age (Holocene), when it is no different, geologically, from the “most recent” age (Pleistocene).

But now, at an asylum near you, enter this new spot of arcane nomenclatural chicanery – the Anthropocene in which we will continue to have continental glaciers STILL on Greenland and Antarctica and alpine glaciers on our highest peaks and ranges. (Note: For those who want to argue that the continental glaciers are melting and that the Himalaya will be ice free in 35 years I will simple say: “Do try to keep up!”).

So why is this even an issue you might ask, with more than a little justification? Because some resume-building wanna-bes think that we humans have made a mark so indelible on Earth’s epidermis that it will have a lasting geologic signature. The would-be Anthropocene is a self aggrandizing proposal to elevate humanity to the scale of a geologic agent. You know the kind of stuff I mean: continental erosion by running water and glaciers, the stick-slip movement of entire land masses along faults across vast continents, mountain building (aka orogenies), the movement of continents around the globe.

Let’s air this out so we can all think about it fairly. Has the creation of our modern civilization resulted in a geologically indelible difference to the Earth?

The first thing to consider are the bases for the demarcations of time which have been applied for all the previous geologic time intervals.  All previous designations of time slots of the Epoch level and above were based on:

  •  the presence of geologic formations deposited or emplaced on such a large scale that the need for a global correlation warrants a unique time-stratigraphic designation;
  • the evolutionary inception and/or extinction of a taxonomically significant group (e.g., the Devonian Period is the time of the very first amphibians – not a single toad species, but all amphibians). The evolution of a new genera is not even significant enough.  New epochs/periods are defined on complete ecological shifts, which are caused by complete geological shifts – globally.

Although it is doubtless true that there are sedimentary rocks being deposited as I write this, there is no way to predict that they will be of such unique characteristics that future geologists (and I am talking a million years from now – give or take a hundred thousand) could distinguish them from rocks of the Holocene – or for that matter, the Pleistocene. But in this case it must be even more than that. In order to qualify as Anthropocene, the supposedly unique rocks which might some day be recognizable as having been deposited in the past 200 years must be possessed of characteristics which result from OUR activities.

For example, the distinction between the Pliocene and Pleistocene is based on the inception of a series of four glacial epochs punctuated by interglacial stages which lasted for more than two million years.

The continental glaciers during those times not only eroded the picturesque alpine montane views we all love, but they also deposited all the eroded sediment from those vast sculptural episodes in huge geologic deposits which are unique, readily identifiable and traceable on a global scale; e.g., the entire coastal plain of the eastern U.S. from Massachusetts to Texas, inland as far as St Louis and extending well over a hundred kilometers under the Atlantic Ocean, is veneered with Pleistocene glacial outwash derived from the millions of years of glacial bulldozing followed by rinsing the sedimentary residues out of the mountains during each of the interglacials. THAT, is a geologic event of global proportion – and that is just the eastern U.S.

As far as I can discern, we are not causing the deposition of new geologic formations. Nor is increased erosion as a result of poor agricultural practices resulting in the deposition of sediments of a unique enough character and a large enough scale that they could be distinguished by future geologists.  So we are not really the root cause of the deposition of geologically unique, or even distinct, formations. The Anthropocene fails on count 1.

What about new species. Well – about 50% of the Anthros who inhabit the would-be Anthropocene will almost kill you if you so much as suggest that evolution occurs at all – even on the species level. But a whole new taxonomic group?  OK. Let’s ignore that fringe group (can 50% be considered a fringe group?).

Contrary to the teachings and preachings of your 8th grade science teacher, new species actually have evolved within the nano-time snapshot proposed as the Anthropocene. The newly identified, recently evolved Spanish Sparrow for instance, or the LLanos A strain of the Orinocan Fruit Fly of the Drosophila paulistorum complex, among many others.

But not a whole new order, which is usually required for a new geologic time designation. Consider, for example, the change in fauna from the Oligocene to the Miocene (only epochs – not entire periods of time). HUGE changes occurred across entire orders of marine taxa – globally. Today we find petroleum by exploring and tracking the fossilized evolutionary changes from Oligocene to Miocene plantonic foraminferra – the ecological/evolutionary shift was THAT pronounced across the entire class of organisms and around the world that it is a recognizable marker horizon.

So, nothing new recently on the faunal succession front. What about extinction??? Ahhhhhh!!!!! Haven’t we been exhorted incessantly that we (humans) are causing a mass extinction of truly geologic proportion?  That will qualify won’t it?

Well, there are two key ecological shifts in mass extinction instances of a magnitude sufficient to warrant the end of one period (or era) and the inception of another:

  • the extinction needs to eliminate an entire lineage of organisms – not just individual species, but entire orders of taxa;
  • the succeeding geologic period is distinguished from the former by the inception of new lineages on a taxonomically significant scale.

A  “mass” extinction is not simply the loss of  many individual organisms and/or a few species – even many species.The average geologic duration of any species is about four million years – most epochs are longer than that, so there are MANY extinctions within the time boundaries of virtually all epochs. In order to count as a mass extinction of geologic time scale caliber, It must also be possible to look back from a future time to determine whether there was, indeed, a succession into a new ecological norm. So, for example, the end-Permian extinction was followed by new adaptive radiations and the ascendency of entire new taxa into the roles of ecological dominants. At the least there must have been a shift in the global distribution of life.

Another example would be the demise of the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic Era after which mammals became the ecologically dominant taxa in the Cenozoic Era. That is significant even though mammals had been around for a long time already. But that was the extinction of an entire Sub-Order with many hundreds of Super-Families, Families, Genera and species – all related – and all disappearing at around the same time and opening new niches for other taxa to occupy and radiate; http://www.palaeos.org/Dinosauria_taxonomy

The magnitude of the geological shift is related to the magnitude of the ecological response.  The larger the change, the greater the ecological shift; greater ecological shifts have warranted more significant sub-divisions of the geologic time scale. So, the evolution of land insects, or the first reptiles were events significant enough to be awarded a new geologic period. The complete loss of dinosaurian lineages, along with about 70% of other taxa and the replacement with new taxa heralded the change from one Era to another. More recent changes in continental positions which resulted in changes in global circulation which led to adaptations of existing taxa into new forms to adapt to changed, but somewhat similar conditions, warrant a new epoch.

The important point is that it has only been possible to recognize and identify a different geologic time by a change from one set of dominant conditions to another set. The loss of even 1,000 species does not mark the end of a geologic age and the beginning of another unless by losing those 1,000 species the entire balance of the global ecology is upset to the point that there is a new and recognizable ecosystem based on the successor populations.

The salient point in that conclusion is that any such shift must be global because the only reason for demarcating the different packets of past geologic time is so that geologists the world around will be able to identify a definitive change in the GEOLOGY, which can be recognizable as changes in fauna – it is not a uniquely identifiable geologic stage, age, epoch, or period unless the change occurred on a large enough scale that it is recognizable everywhere around the world.

The extinctions we see now are nowhere near so extensive and do not occur across entire taxonomic groups and are certainly not global. In fact, what we see is the loss of a relatively few species in disparte groups. Of those, most of the macro-species live exclusively on a single island or within an isolated archipeligo. The astounding numbers of species which are touted as being proof that we are causing a mass extinction are estimates based on some questionable extrapolation.

For example, in some trees in tropical rain forests there are entire communities of beetles which, in some instances, are unique to an individual tree. It is estimated that there are some large trees in which up to a thousand unique species of beetles live – and do not live anywhere else. And each of those beetle species can have a unique suite of species-specific parasites, which makes for many species which could become extinct if that tree were to be cut down for logging purposes. Cut down 100 trees and the possible number of species which might have lost their habitat and become extinct is potentially large.

Somewhere in this spectrum of loss, from a few island species to thousands of beetles and germs, lies the number of species which we are told we are causing to become extinct.

Along this line, we are also told that the Anthropocene designation is justifiable because of the loss of forests and the changes we are inducing to the atmosphere. What?????  Forests?

Forests became significant geologically when the collective remains of millions of years worth of dead trees in forests in a tropical, near-coastal environment were caught up in a mountain building event in which they were buried DEEPLY and heated up to drive off impurities and leave the carbon behind as a residue. That very specific set of circumstances was SO prevalent around the world in the geologic past that the aggregate carbon from the boles of those trees has been powering our world for the past two centuries with decades and decades to go. That is geologically significant and warranted the designation of the Carboniferrous Period. Carboniferrous coal is found everywhere around the world in vast quantities.

 So, in terms of changes in evolution/extinction, we are not causing the loss of a cosmopolitan community of fauna on a global scale, and we are not seeing human-induced spurts in new taxa. The Anthropocene fails on Count 2.

So, what IS the basis of this proposal which has spawned entire symposia and cost millions of dollars?  Some make the claim that the land use changes which we cause via urbanization will be visible in the rock record. In other words, if a future geologist goes exploring and discovers a concrete roadway buried beneath 8 meters of sediment, then she will be able to state definitively that that horizon is positively identifiable as Anthropocene and deposits below and above can be dated as before and after, respectively.

Although the above logic is true as a general concept, it is not true that the materials of our civilization will last through geologic ages. Just look at those concrete bridge rails which date from the WPA in the 1930s

They are crumbling and decomposing back into the sand, limestone and aggregate from which they were derived. A mere 80 years. Asphalt degrades and ultimately will be consumed by soil bacteria. Steel and iron rust to scale and are leached away in no time. Geologic time is soooo mind-mangelingly vast that our materials don’t stand a chance.

Look, the Pleistocene is the briefest epoch of the Neogene Period (click pic for a larger view), which is the briefest period of the Cenozoic Era, which is the briefest era of the Phanerozoic Aeon, which is the briefest of the aeons. The scant 2,500,000 years of the Pleistocene would be enough time to render almost invisible that scourge of materials of our devising, radioactive nuclear power plant waste. With a radioactive half life of 50,000 years, during the short time of the Pleistocene, ONE MILLION kilograms of radioactive waste would be reduced to a mass of 0.0000008 gram.  (I know that is a simplification and there is more to this little exercise than that particular reaction, but the point is still valid).

Someone who is a specialist in the future might be able to discern the subtle geochemical clues to identify iron concentration residues as being “Anthropocene” but it’s a real stretcher to designate a time period on the assumption that you know what future conditions will be like. Moreover, such minute changes would need to be prevalent around the world in order to warrant a unique geologic time slot.  Even if such a future specialist could identify the signature, the problem is that, within the limits of already-designated epochs there are literally thousands of similar markers which positively and uniquely identify when in time a geologist is looking when inspecting a formation. Those unique conditions are used to designate ages or stages which are smaller subdivisions within the scheme – not entire epochs.

This silly exercise in academic abstraction reminds me of the ongoing wars over the term “Renaissance”.

That epithet is now considered invalid by many post-modern scholars for the simple reason that it was coined by the people who were alive at the time. It is looked on as arrogant and self-aggrandizing., Many modern scholars prefer the term “early modern period” to Renaissance to distinguish the difference between Medieval times and now.

A group of modern geologists is attempting to elevate our own time interval to a geologically significant status. What I find really offensive is that by selecting the name they have, they denigrate all previous generations of our lineage. What they are proposing is that anyone who lived before about 1800 is excluded from the “epoch of the human”.   Everything in our past has aggregated over time to result in what we are and what we are doing now. If one wants to designate a geologic time which is based on human endeavor and impact to the planet, it should begin with civilization -about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Oh… wait a minute. That’s already been done. It’s the

HOLOCENE

2 thoughts on “Anthop-obscene

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  2. Tom G (eologist)–excellent summary. I’ve thought ever since the Anthropocene was first proposed that it was a reflection on human hubris and arrogance. I suspect that there will be some record of our existence in the fossil record (shoot–there already is), but it will only be a slight blip in what will still be known as the Pleistocene, after the next advance of the ice. Thank you for linking to your blog on whwt.
    a once and always geologist also
    JVC

    Like

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