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Q&A: The Anthropocene, and the tech that might save humans

Q&A: The Anthropocene, and the tech that might save humans

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Humans are now considered to be the greatest force on the geology of Earth. Can we use the same technological innovation that got us to a population of 7 billion to save us from dying out?

Humans are now considered to be the greatest force impacting the geology of Earth. And as such the Athropocene—the age of humans—is the proposed term for our current geological time scale, marking the end of the Holocene about 200 years ago.

If technological innovation brought humans to a population of 7 billion can it also make the future planet livable? Can we innovate our way out of climate and geologic problems? As the American writer Stewart Brand wrote in his 1969 Whole Earth Catalogue: “We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.”

Ultimately our planet will survive no matter what we throw at it. It's more powerful and robust than us. It's the fragile humans, and our fellow animals and plants, who are at risk of dying out. Are we worried enough about saving human civilization to make this time scale, the Anthropocene, more than a mere speck in the geologic time scale?

To understand the role of innovation and technology in saving ourselves, SmartPlanet turned to David Biello who has been writing about the environment and energy for nearly 15 years, most recently for Scientific American. David has traveled from China to South Africa to witness first hand humanity's impact on the globe, and has become an Anthropocene expert.

SmartPlanet: What is the Anthropocene?

David Biello: The Anthropocene is a potential new geologic era in the Earth’s history. It’s been proposed by some scientists because the most recent era, the Holocene, may have come to a close, and we humans [where the “anthro” part of the name comes from] may be largely responsible for the shift. The Holocene got its start when the last ice age ended and we shifted from a glacial ice covering much of the northern hemisphere, which was the end of the Pleistocene. The Holocene may have ended when James Watt invented his steam engine. And we started pumping out CO2 by burning coal.

So in addition to the climate change we have raised greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere by about 100 parts per million (ppm) which is much more significant than the rise during past climate changes.

SP: Beyond climate change, how have we humans affected the Earth to such a degree that we warrant our own geologic era?

DB: We also do a lot of things that are geologic in scope. We move more earth and stone than all the world’s rivers. We have left a fine layer of plutonium and other radioactive elements not commonly found in nature thanks to our nuclear weapons testing.

And we have created some new compounds that will be in the geologic record for a long time to come, the most ubiquitous of which are plastics. So there will be a nice record for those who come after us to say, “Hey that is where the Anthropocene started and where it finishes,” if it does finish.

SP: You’ve mentioned we have transformed 43% of the Earth’s surface, not including the oceans. Can you unpack this stat?

DB: Essentially 43% of the seven continents is now devoted to feeding humanity. That is the primary way we have changed things. We have also covered a little bit with our cities and infrastructure, but primarily it is our agriculture. All the corn, rice and wheat we grow to feed ourselves. That is a huge change compared to only a third of the Earth’s surface was covered by ice at the end of the Pleistocene and the shift into the Holocene, so you see we are having a bigger impact than that last shift.

SP: You’ve also talked about changes in Earth’s cycles. For instance what has happened with our nitrogen cycle.

DB: We have taken over many of the elemental cycles.

Today 50% of everyone on the planet are made of synthetic nitrogen. Nitrogen is the most important element in most of the proteins that make up our bodies. As well as in the food that we eat. Roughly half the people on the planet would not be around if Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch hadn’t invented a chemical way of ripping inert nitrogen from the atmosphere and turning it into something that we can then put into the soil to help plants grow. And that has enabled us to get to 7 billion people. So yes we are changing the nitrogen cycle in profound ways.

The carbon cycle is the most obvious change. We are putting carbon that was locked away during the Cretaceous period 300 million years ago, back into the atmosphere as CO2. That makes it available for plants to photosynthesize but it’s also available to trap more heat and cause global warming.

We are also changing the phosphorus cycle which is an important plant fertilizer. And we are making a lot more of that available by digging up massive dung deposits and using them to fertilize our fields.

We have also changed the water cycle. We are taking what is known as fossil water. This is found in underground aquifers that have been around for maybe millions of years – we are pumping that water to the surface, using it to irrigate our crops and then letting it run off into the ocean. And then it goes into the cycle but it never goes back to those aquifers. When that water is gone where does that leave our present agricultural system?

SP: So we have essentially done all this which has helped fuel our exploding population and our overwhelming population is now causing even more problems. A vicious cycle.

DB: That’s true. Increasing populations increase the pressures. But maybe more people could also mean more ideas for how we might deal with some of these problems, like finding way to desalinate sea water cheaply and easily. If we did that we would not have to worry about depleting aquifers because it would take us a very long time to deplete all the water in the oceans.

SP: So what can we do with technology and innovation to save ourselves?

DB: The good news is that we’ve been dealing with sea level rise and weird weather for most of human history. Some countries are rich and can build sea walls or shift populations. The majority of people driving climate change—those are the rich—will adapt fine, no problem. The real problem is the 2 billion people who are desperately poor and vulnerable to climate disruption. So you have a bad harvest in certain parts of the world and that almost instantly translates into famine. There is no resilience in that system, there is no way for them to adapt.

On the technology side, the most disconcerting proposals are these so-called geoengineering schemes. This is where we would actively manage planetary scale systems, particularly the climate.

SP: Such as?

DB: Artificial volcanoes. Where we mimic the cooling effect of a massive volcanic eruption by putting a lot of sulfur dioxide particles into the atmosphere to block sunlight. It definitely works, as the eruption of Mount Pinatubo 20 years ago illustrated. It did cool the planet for a while.

The problem is that the instant those particles go away you get a re-doubled warming and it has all kinds of unintended consequences. Like slowing the monsoon which has a significant impact on agriculture.

SP: Are there any such schemes that hold some promise?

DB: The ones that make the most sense are the CO2 removal schemes. This is a way to filter the air to try and pull some of the CO2 that we’ve put out there, back. But these are expensive.

SP: Is there money involved in developing such schemes?

DB: There is money involved. Mostly in the form of prizes. Richard Branson has offered the Branson prize of $25 mil the first technology that can suck CO2 out of the air. Thus far no one has come up with a technology that economically and successfully sucks the CO2 from the air.

SP: Are there any innovative tries?

DB: There are projects testing out the possibility of seeding the ocean with iron; this is a fertilization scheme. Ocean plankton are one of the biggest CO2 sucks on the planet, and if you fertilize them there might be more blooms.

SP: What about some of the more crazy schemes?

DB: There are the really “out there” schemes like launching a fleet of mirrors into space and using those to block sunlight to regulate the temperature. But that costs oodles of money and is unlikely to be feasible.

SP: What about smaller scale business opportunities that are realistic today?

DB: Yes, if we could find better ways to deal with fertilizer to address the nitrogen issues or there are simple things like painting roofs white.

SP: Painting roofs?

DB: Yes, it can have a significant impact on things like city heat. And if we had enough roofs painted white or silver it might have an impact on the global climate.

SP: Really?

DB: Yes, there has been research modeling on that. It’s cheap and easy to do. If we do enough, it could have an impact on the rate of temperature change.

Then there are easier tactics. Like stopping leaks from natural gas pipelines. Not only does this make economic sense this makes climate sense. No one wants to lose their natural gas, it’s a product. And methane is worse than CO2 on the list of greenhouse gasses. Patching those holes is a no-brainer.

SP: What else?

DB: Extending modern energy to the billion or so people who are still burning wood or dung. Not only are these people creating emissions of greenhouse gasses but are also literally killing themselves from inhaling the toxic soot.

These are things we should be doing right away to buy us some time to solve the harder problem of how to stop burning fossil fuels. Eighty percent or more of our energy is still coming from fossil fuels. Eventually we need to go to zero or negative with our CO2 emissions. And we are a long way away from that.

SP: But unless there is an economic incentive for companies and the government to stop, it’s just not going to happen.

DB: Yes, changing this is not going to happen overnight. But we need to remember the energy transitions in the past. Going from wood to coal took 200 years. And we still are not completely there! As I mentioned earlier, there are still parts of the world where wood is the primary fuel source.

We need to get started on our transition from fossil fuel burning so that we can complete the transition in time to save human civilization. That is if we want the Anthropocene to be more than a blip in the geologic record.

SP: Meaning that we care enough to keep us as human beings alive?

DB: Right. Because the planet will be fine. No matter what we do, even if we burn all the fossil fuels, the planet as a rock will survive and so will a lot of the life on the planet, like the microbes. What won’t survive are many of the animals we care about, and our civilization. And that is what we are talking about when we talk about climate change. We are not saving the planet, we are saving ourselves.

SP: What about the government agency Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E)?  Are they working on useful solutions?

DB: They are trying to get us off fossil fuels.

SP: Are they as “out there” as their brother, DARPA, the mad-science arm of the U.S. defense department?

DB: They are not as crazy as DARPA. I wish they were. DARPA has unlimited funds. The military doesn’t care what it spends on an application. ARPA-E has a different customer, us. And what we require is cheap energy.

They are working on things like better batteries to replace oil used in transportation. And they are doing natural gas research. And better biofuels research, like re-engineering plants, so they do a better job of turning sunlight into fuels than current plants do. Or bypassing plants altogether, by taking sunlight and somehow turning it into a fuel that you can burn. We are going to need every little bit of innovation to displace the burning of fossil fuels.

SP: What does success look like to you?

DB: Success has three parts. One is a resilient and robust human civilization. We need human success. But secondly, we would like to bring a lot of our fellow travelers on the planet along with us. It would be sad if we lost the diversity of life, the monkeys, jaguars, whales for instance. They are all in trouble too. And they are in trouble largely because of us.

The third thing is that we need to come back into balance with respect to these big planetary systems and cycles.  Because those systems, like the nitrogen or carbon cycles, cannot work for us unless they work for the planet.

SP: Otherwise we might have to live in vats.

DB: Or on Mars. There are a lot of folks who view private space flight as an escape plan for humanity, “Oh we’ll trash Earth but we can set something up on Mars.” I don’t think that is a good Plan B. I think we should get this planet healthy, happy and whole.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure