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Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Anthropocene - A Pretty Darn Recent Word

Anthropocene is a pretty darn recent word.  That’s because humans haven’t had the impact on the environment that they do now until pretty darn recently.  And it’s pretty darn depressing.  In fact, it’s my most depressing topic of contemplation and conversation next to death and disease. 
The Anthropocene epoch is a term popularized by scientists in the 1980s to represent a new geological epoch based on the huge environmental impact we, the homo sapiens species, have had on this the planet.  Its recognition would put an end to the Holocene epoch, the epoch we normally consider ourselves to be in but scientists argue is fast disappearing.  The level of atmospheric C02 has increased about 40% since the mid-18th century, glaciers and a ready supply or fresh water are disappearing, the disintegration of coral reefs, perilously reduced fish stocks, the extinction of species between 1000 and 10,000 faster than the natural rate, massive deforestation, the destruction of river systems with tens of thousands of dams, the flooding of coastlines and low lying islands, increasing droughts and growing deserts, and unsustainable human population growth.  I get all verklemmpt just thinking about it.
Life on the Mekong Delta - 2014
The previous epoch, the one that some would argue we’re still in is the Holocene.  If we say it’s now over, it lasted only 11,700 years, considerably less than those it preceded.  For example, the Pleistocene epoch lasted two and a half million years, the Pliocene epoch, three million years and the Miocene epoch, 30 million years.  Human activity has had about the same impact as a giant meteor hitting our planet. Not that scientists are completely in agreement about this.  Anthropocene still hasn’t been recognized by the big wigs at the Geological Society of London however they have sent it to committee for further study.   
I was introduced to the word Anthropocene by Gaia Vince in her book Adventures in the Anthropocene.  I received it as a gift from my daughter for Christmas which I mention only because I would not normally read a book about the environment.  As I’ve already mentioned, it’s too depressing.  For Gaia Vince there’s a certain comfort to be gained from accepting our entrance into the Anthropocene Epoch because it means that we no longer have to discuss whether or not its here.  Instead, we can focus on what we are going to do about it.  So, in her book, she talks to people who are acting.  They are trying to make positive contributions by which our impact on the planet can be mitigated or stopped or, best of all, reversed. 
 Glaciers are disappearing around the world and the arid, high altitude communities of the Himalayas and the Andes no longer have the water to support agriculture and provide their citizens with drinking water.  So, Chewang Norphe, a retired engineer from Nepal figured out a way to use barriers, to capture waste water from the village.  When the water in the dam freezes over the winter, it becomes like the glacier that can be used as a ready source of water when it melts in the spring.  
Ladies in Village close to Aycucho
Gaia visits another mountain village in Peru, not far from the mountain city of Ayacucho.  There she watches a couple of Quechua guys paint rocks on the mountain side above their village. The theory is that the now white rocks will reduce temperatures and thereby bring back the glacier that had once existed.  Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened nor is likely ever to so all their hard work was for naught which is just sad.  
She describes a successful campaign in Chile that has at least temporarily stopped the building of a large hydroelectric dam in Patagonia.  Its completion would have ended the existence of a unique and fragile ecosystem.  On the other hand, she provides a detailed account of the impact numerous dams planned and in production in both China and Cambodia that will destroy the fish and water life that the people living along the Mekong river and beyond depend for their livelihood and food. 
Water shortage is a problem everywhere and one that is only going to get worse.  A solution for farmers living in the desert just outside Lima, Peru has been to string massive plastic sheets from wood support to collect water from the mist coming off the ocean. Ingenious irrigation methods are also being used in India to maintain their plants through long periods of drought followed by massive rainfall that just drains off before it can be utilized.  
Deforestation in Madagascar 
            For me deforestation is the most depressing of depressing topics about the environment.   My wife and I saw lots of evidence of this when we visited Madagascar last summer.  Between 1990 and 2010, Madagascar lost 8.3 % of its forest cover or 1,139,000 hectares and we saw plenty of evidence of that, miles and miles of land completely denuded of vegetation.  Much of that forest is home to plants and animals unique to the planet including the famous lemur, now a favourite Disney animated character.  They’re pretty darn cute although the ones in the wild can be very shy.  It makes me sad to see that their habitats disappearing.  The people feel that slash and burn agriculture is part of their culture and the way they breed like rabbits, the situation can only get worse. 
Sifaka Lemu in Isalo National Park in Madagascar
Unfortunately, the plants and animals in Madagascar are not the only ones in danger of eradication.  Ms. Vince reckons what we will lose about 30% of our species over the next four decades.  Scientists argue that we are now in the middle of the sixth mass extinction, the last one being that of the dinosaurs.  She argues that our best course of action is not to try to save all the animals but instead, focus on those that are considered important.  Apparently, the Zoological Society of London has already come up with a list.
            Attempts are being made to save the forests.  One method is to allow developed countries to purchase rainforest to help meet their carbon targets.  Approximately 20% of carbon emitted by humans is caused by deforestation.  However, to gain carbon credits developed countries have to be able to calculate the carbon capture equivalent of a certain area of forest.  Fortunately, there’s a guy who’s figures out just how to do that. Greg Asner has built a “Light Detection and Ranging system that shoots laser beams into the jungle from an altitude of 2000 metres.  From the data he gathers, the entire forest  can be mapped down to resolutions of ten centimetres.  Cool eh? 
            Another way to keep people away from the wilderness is to put them in cities and cities can make  us happier especially if they provide us with easy access to public transportation, cultural activities, libraries, shops, and sports facilities.  For that reason, suburbs don’t cut it.  In fact, the denser the city, the more efficient and productive it is.  If the population of a city doubles, wages go up 10 to 15%. Economic output in a city of 10 million is 10 to 15% higher than two cities of 5 million.  Resource and carbon emissions go down by 15% for every doubling of density.  In hunter gatherer societies, extraction of resources improves by 15% with every doubling of population.  That gives the group 15% more time to devote to other activities. 
            Slums-which make up much of the cities in the developing world-harbour disease and suffering however they are better than the countryside.  Rather than evicting people from their homes, the government is better off legitimizing their ownership so they can devote resources to improving their homes and living conditions.  Waste pickers do an excellent of recycling materials.  Their job should not be taken over by waste management companies.   
            Anthropocene, a pretty darn new word but also a pretty darn good one especially if it can force us to accept the reality of our impact on our world and begin to use the genius and ingenuity we used to begin its destruction to figure out ways to rehabilitate it.