Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Friday, May 17, 2013

History and Politics of the Anthropocene: Jan Zalasiewicz


Dipesh: the way to make this work is not to have discussants and respondents
Now Jan Zalasiewicz will speak, the only non-social science/humanities scholar here
geologist at U of Leicester
The Earth after Us (2008)
he is part of the push to make the Anthropocene acceptable >> International Stratigraphy Association
this is as political as naming something “genocide” or “famine”
he will address us on the history of the term and the current status of the concept

It’s useful to study this phenomenon not simply in terms of rock! 
International Stratigraphic Chart. There is a problem in the study of Earth. We have to deal with 4.5 billion years of complex history. No way to deal without resorting to some means of trickery. 
We take dynasties of time and simply categorize them into successive units that we can handle. To give us labels that we can use. It simply tries to represent the major events and turning points in Earth history. 
Where are we? Currently we are at the top of this mountain of time, divided hierarchically. We are in the phanerozoic eon in which creepy crawlies have been on the planet. There are three eras. We are in the Cenozoic era, in the Quaternary period when ice has been dominant on Earth. 
The very last 11 and a bit thousand years (when the ice last retreated) is now called the Holocene epoch. Vietnam, Louisiana, etc made of Holocene deposits. 
Now on top of this do we put another geological time interval? This idea has been around for quite some time
The first person who specifically developed such an idea was Buffon. Les epochs de la nature. First stratigraphic history of the Earth. 7 epochs. The last of these “Lorsque la puissance de l’homme a seconde celle de la Nature.”
Included ideas of global warming (a good thing, he thought, to postpone deep freeze)
Stoppani, Anthropozoic era; Vernadsky was also getting onto these ideas
But geologists said “nonsense.” Earth is very old and powerful. Colliding continents must be far more powerful than anything humans can introduce. Jokes about the Coke bottle layer in the strata. 
This changed. Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist. 2000: suggested Holocene had finished. Human impact on cryosphere, ocean, land. Anthropocene concept. 
2002 Nature paper. 
>> eventually term used without inverted comments in the literature, as if it were a real geological term
(even though it still isn’t)
we discussed it on the Stratigraphic Commission. We have the privilege of a free lunch with wine! We wrote a position paper on the term. 21 out of 22 serious non radical often commercial geologists said there is merit in the idea and it should be examined further. So evidence for and against is now being gathered
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical and Physical Engineering Sciences 369.1938 

it is now in popular media: National Geographic article on it etc

So what is it?
last 200 years: human population rose above 1 billion then climbed very steeply
energy use climbed even more steeply
climate change: not significant yet...
sea level change: yet to budge...

new minerals: histories of growth of minerals
4500 natural minerals probably doubled by humans
metals like to combine with other things in nature; aluminum is present in micrograms, vanadium and molybdenum not at all
growth of aluminum since 1950: we have produced 0.5 billion tons of aluminum, enough to cover whole USA in kitchen foil!
synthetic minerals; garnets for lasers; tungsten carbide; carbon fiber, graphene
mineraloids: ceramics, glasses
polymers, plastics; there is nothing quite like that in nature; 280 million tons a year, hardly any of which is recycled
it’s everywhere now, land and sea; almost all since 1950
by 2050 you can wrap Earth six times over in plastic wrap
rock: concrete; 2 billion tons a year produced. 
bricks: one trillion bricks each year...

minerals and rocks make strata
new strata: artificial hill in Cracow; holes in the ground (1km in Siberia)
holes filled with sediment
just about every major river has got one dam on it now
that is geology; it can be classified geologically
meters thick strata formed very rapidly, orders of magnitude faster than most geological processes
lithostratigraphy

chemostratigraphy
chemical signals: global warming at the moment is a small part of the Anthropocene yet may become dominant
fossil air in arctic ice: temperature fluctuation has gone up in lockstep with CO2
often metronomically
clearly we are changing that
Transport: since 1950, motor vehicles
it is surprisingly easy to change earth

Adam Nieman: took all earth on earth and made it be a sphere, ditto with earth
>> it is fairly easy to change the composition
>> 400bpm

we are now in the Pleiocene epoch (3 million years ago) and we are waiting for the atmosphere to catch up
the climb is irregular; the Earth has a complicated plumbing system but the climb is for real
Antarctica is clearly losing mass now
5 meter sea level rise is trivial but for humans it would be uncomfortable
strata change: Triassic-Jurassic boundary in UK

chemical signals 2: acid oceans
bigger than climate change
the other CO2 problem: acidification
down 0.1 of a Ph point: 30% more hydrogen ions in the ocean
we don’t yet know
at 500ppm coral will stop growing and start shrinking probably mid-century

phosphate connection
we need lots of it to keep ourselves alive; mid C19 turnips << fertilizers: bone meal; raiding skeletons from battlefields of Europe to grind up and put on fields
mummified cats ground up 1880 ground up and put on fields (wow)
dinosaur bones, feces (coprolites)
and we are still extracting phosphate; this appears to be near peak levels at the moment

nitrogen spike
we can take out of atmosphere; we have doubled the amount at Earth’s surface
1950: input of nitrogen in areas far from civilization
a global nitrogen signal

dead zones growing: everything bigger than a bacterium dies
Cretaceous: sea also died << lack of circulation; gray layer in rock

radionucleide signal
since 1945 and more so 1956 (air bomb tests)

trace fossils
footprints; but also wasps’ nest; equivalent would be the building we are in at the moment! 
we are creating trace fossils made of minerals and rocks, eminently traceable
Shanghai “trace fossil” that goes on and on and on...
we are converting the surface into a rural trace fossil (me: agrilogistics!)

body fossils
diversity of “shelly” marine vertebrates can tell time
zoologists, botanists, ecologists use different numbers than geologists
golden toad of Costa Rica: discovered 1964, extinct by 1990s
do we have an era scale extinction event? not yet--but masses of things critically endangered
we are within a couple of centuries of it! 

invaders
McDonaldization of life, spreading species across world
rabbits, cats, zebra mussel (took over USA)
New Zealand: 1790 native, 1570 invasive species

mass of humanity
wet weight, dry weight, simple bulk
biomass: humans are roughly 32% of vertebrate biomass
other 65% is creatures we keep to eat
vertebrate wildlife <3 font="">

we have bulked up: nitrogen and phosphorus >> increase land vertebrate count by an order of magnitude

and of course we should consider our machines, such as cars

Stockholm Memorandum
Nature: strong case

Q&A
Q: what is the other side?

A: it is simply too soon. Geologists are very conservative, particularly stratigraphers; reluctance, slowness. This term is rushing up there. Also, how do you define it? So many things going on. Where does it begin? Can we recognize the strata above Holocene strata? Yet even the critics would say something is happening. The big idea has gone out before the spadework has been done. 

Q: But what you just said doesn’t sound like controversy it sounds like great care. So where is the controversy?

A: Within stratigraphy, there are humans (!). E.g. debate about shifting the boundary of the Quaternary Period. Words were shouted. Blood pressures were raised. “You are taking part of my timescale.” Reluctance to change. But we must thus deal as diplomatically as we can. Many people who work on Holocene say “Why bother?”

Q: What is at stake in the change and how will it change practice for geologists? 

A: I have always liked the focus on the science. To put the boundaries in you must understand the history very well. Without that driver we probably wouldn’t be here. We can take, name, have, crystallize an idea, a paradigm. Specifically there is eg law of the sea. All of previous laws of the sea have been based on stable sea. Now we have changing sea. Thus we must change our legal framework. (Nature speak of liberatarians who have taken to the ocean.) 

Q: Powerful image of atmosphere and water as small spheres. The great value of artwork. Do we also need artists in this room? 

A: Yes of course. Dipesh and I met at an art exhibition in Berlin. Even scientists need this. To have a visceral understanding. 

Q: I can imagine another case for the defense. “It’s not going to last long enough to count.” Do geologists think along these lines? Can we imagine our disruptive high energy society lasting long enough to count?

A: This has been greatly on our minds. It must last geologically. We are the driver. But let’s say we all get wiped next year. Some effects will be very short lived. Buildings will form a layer. But the CO2 will take 100 000 years. This will probably have knock-on effects. Biology is forever. Once you make something extinct or transplant something, it will influence future as well as current biology. We have already changed the future fossils of the Earth. We are like someone who has taken a hammer and has hit a very complicated machine. We are waiting to see what will happen. 

Q: Do other stratigraphers accept that? 

A: In terms of atmospheric chemical change, there are some who debate (deniers) etc. I can’t see how the biological can be so denied unless we mean to genetically re-engineer the Holocene! I can’t see how one would undo that. 

Q: What does the model do for the discipline? Working downward you make geology a political hotbed in the process. 

A: It’s a label. They are about as fundamental as it gets. The first year students learn. There is always a change in consciousness when a label is changed. Anthropocene doesn’t represent humans on Earth, but simply humans as driver of systemic change. 

Q: I loved the opening on bureaucracy. This period is awkward: has it started yet? We don’t have hindsight. We have a historical problem. But if you think about the bureaucracy issue--you have a case for a heuristic device for non-geologists. This is the best argument yet for cross disciplinary research. If one considered this not a geological category only but a useful heuristic device anyway...surely we can keep using it so that people like historians and museums have something to talk with. It is at any rate a fabulous metaphor. Will this insult geologists?

A: We do have informal time terms in geology: pre-Cambrian. Tertiary is not formal but in widespread use. Let’s simply have the term informally and try and have some formal definition. 

Q: Then you don’t have to worry when it starts. 

A: Yes you do. You have to understand it << you want to find out when it starts. Aliens would recognize big boundaries. To what extent are we looking at a non-arbitrary, “big” boundary? A phenomenon that is real. 

Q: A counterpart, “we have always had the Anthropocene” etc. Does stratigraphy show what is really unique? Not simply a spreading of human impact. But transformation of natural processes that govern Earth systems. It’s only in the last 70 years since WWII that this has truly been happening. 

Q: You seem to be identifying a research program to identify effects of humans on Earth. But the relation to periodization puzzles me. Early epochs have incredibly banal names. What strikes me is that it has a kind of pushiness. It is trying to persuade all geologists to adopt this research program. 

Q: I was most interested in what had happened since 1800. But particularly in Buffon. What was he looking at? 

Q: The narrative. Affect of the talk: charts, compelling and alarming stats. Use of term “extraordinary.” Can you press that a bit? 

A: (To all these) Yes we do need a research program. It’s not a case of trying to subvert the whole of geology. It’s currently a cottage industry with zero funding. We do this almost as a thought experiment. We simply invite people to join us or even throw tomatoes from the side. 

In terms of concepts such as “early Anthropocene” we need to think about human influence on geology, eg 60 000 year burning of forests. There has been a “human effect” since then. But we are looking at how geology has changed. It is incidental that humans have been drivers. In a sense the Holocene has been stabilized by human activity: CO2 kept Earth in balance (!!) then there is a shift in 1800. (So Nature as human product again!)

Buffon was looking at fossils. He saw different types of strata. He plugged human history on to the end of his sense of carbon in swamps. Pre-Anthropocene activity that he described as one seventh of his history. 

The posh word is “unprecedented” rather than “extraordinary.” We have burrowed into Earth’s crust deeper than any animal burrow (usually only 4 meters, deepest). We go down over 5km now. Fifty million miles of bore holes since 1950 (from here to Mars) to drill for oil. Not counting all the gold mines, stuff we put in the ground for fracking etc. That has no precedent. The scale of species invasions. There is nothing like the urban strata. New Orleans will preserve beautifully and will create a strange new geometry in the strata. 

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