We're already planet engineers
“I was at a conference where someone said something about the Holocene. I suddenly thought this was wrong. The world has changed too much. No, we are in the Anthropocene. I just made up the word on the spur of the moment. Everyone was shocked. But it seems to have stuck.” –Nobel Laureate chemist Paul Crutzen
Anyone who thinks humans aren’t impacting the Earth in a massive way hasn’t seen it from space. I can say this because I study satellite imagery as part of my own research and personal interest. Seemingly abstract numbers, such as number of hectares farmed and grazed, don’t mean much to most of us. Even dramatic analogies—such as the fact that we currently farm an area of the planet equal in size to South America, and graze an additional area equal to that of Africa—sometimes don’t leave a lasting impression. But pictures? A picture, as they say, is worth a thousand words.
Pictures like this one:
It’s looks so pretty… until you realize that most of these lights are powered by prehistoric sunlight, dug up in the form of coal, obliterating both mountains and streams in the process. When we burn this coal we release not only ancient energy but also ancient carbon, apparently determined to return the planet to the climate and sea levels present when this ancient energy was first stored.
We’ve already changed the planet so much that scientists are proposing to rename the current geological time period after us. Welcome to the Anthropocene, where humans appropriate 40% of the surface area of the planet and a quarter of its biomass (net primary productivity) causing a species extinction rate of asteroid-sized planet impact. This is at our current population level of 7 billion planet engineers. What will the world look like at a projected peak of 10 billion planet engineers in 2050?
We dream of “terraforming” other planets to make them habitable, even as we are geo-engineering our own to make it uninhabitable.I was asked recently for my definition of sustainability. There are some wordy ones that I particularly like, such as this fact related in the marvelous free textbook "Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation": “Sustainability is derived from two Latin words: sus which means up and tenere which means to hold.” I love that definition – to uphold one another. But I like this picture even better as a definition:
Because remember… we’ve got to fit right here.
“There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” –Marshall McLuhan, 1964
Kyle Crider is Program Chair at Ecotech Institute and Education Corporation of America. He holds a master of public administration degree with a double-emphasis in urban planning and policy analysis. He is also a LEED-Accredited Professional, Neighborhood Development. He is currently in the Interdisciplinary Engineering Ph.D. Program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and not necessarily those of Ecotech Institute or Education Corporation of America. Email Kyle here.