After eight years of study, the International Geological Congress has declared that Earth’s 12,000-year-old geological Era, the Holocene, is officially over.
We are now in the Anthropocene Age, the time when humankind's actions have made irreversible changes in the natural systems we depend on – our soil, our air and our water.
There is still a lot of discussion about exactly when the Anthropocene Age began, but most scientists agree the ‘Great Acceleration’ began around the 1950s. My generation was the first to grow up in a world of seemingly unlimited stuff. It was a heady time when everything was possible and limitless – the heavens, the oceans and our futures.
It was the Age of Aquarius
It was the new world of better living through chemistry where plastics were saving us time and money and bringing us a lot of fun. McDonalds and Barbie Dolls. Hoola Hoops and Frisbees. Gumby and Silly Putty. And, for the first time, disposable everything - from razors to tableware, from diapers to lighters.
Of course, most of us didn’t know or care what geological age it was. We thought it was the Age of Aquarius. And while we sang about peace and understanding, we were busy buying stuff (whee!) that we were encouraged to throw away so we could buy new stuff (double whee!). In spite of warnings about the future impact of our throw away society, our children developed an addiction to new that carried the disposable lifestyle to a new height. And then there were the piles of pesky packaging to get rid of.
So Much Stuff We Have Filled our Oceans with It
So it's not surprising that one of the significant indicators marking the Anthropocene Age is the amount of plastic in our oceans. There is so much plastic that:
# There will soon be more pounds of plastic in the water than fish.
# The broken down pieces of plastic - microplastics - are virtually ubiquitous in our oceans and are now moving up the food chain from plankton to fish to human beings.
# It has created a new ecosystem in the ocean - the Plastisphere - where more than 1,000 species of bacteria and algae have already evolved to live in these human-made plastic environments.
How will the Plastisphere continue to evolve in our sea and shore life? In our own bodies?
I think Martin Reese, president of the Royal Society, master of Trinity College and professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, has provided the best summary of the new age and what it holds for the future.
“Our time horizons, both past and future, now stretch billions of years, not just thousands. The sun will keep shining for about another 6bn years. But ironically we can’t forecast terrestrial trends with as much confidence as our ancestors could. Their lives and environment changed slowly from generation to generation. For us, technological change is so fast that scenarios quickly enter the realm of wild conjecture and science fiction.
The darkest prognosis for the next millennium is that bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes could foreclose humanity’s immense potential, leaving a depleted biosphere. Darwinian selection would resume, perhaps leading, in some far-future geological era, to the re-emergence of intelligent beings. If this happens, or if there are aliens out there who actually visit and study the Earth, then, digging through the geological record (and applying archaeological techniques as well) they would uncover traces of a distinctive transient epoch, and ponder the all-too-brief flourishing of a species that failed in its stewardship of “spaceship Earth”.
But there is an optimistic option.
Human societies could navigate these threats, achieve a sustainable future, and inaugurate eras of post-human evolution even more marvelous than what’s led to us. The dawn of the Anthropocene epoch would then mark a one-off transformation from a natural world to one where humans jumpstart the transition to electronic (and potentially immortal) entities, that transcend our limitations and eventually spread their influence far beyond the Earth."