The view from space reminds us every time: how limited and vulnerable our planet Earth really is. The atmosphere appears as a frighteningly thin, shimmering ribbon. Columns of smoke from slash-and-burn clearcuts, and gaping holes in the deep green canopy of the rain forest, are clearly visible – just like the clouds of explosions in war zones. This unique perspective made a deep impression on astronaut Matthias Maurer. When he returned to Earth in May of this year, after spending six months on the International Space Station, he said: “When one circumnavigates Earth in 90 minutes, one understands that everything is just one single unit, and that humanity must unite to assume responsibility for the planet.”
Almost no intact wilderness
The world that is presenting itself to the astronauts has undergone profound changes within the past three generations. By now, the traces of civilization are impossible to miss. Humanity has left its mark on the blue planet: vast regions have been deforested, mountains stripped, fertile soil degraded, the courses of rivers “corrected”. Earth has been pillaged for raw materials, organisms have been created that had not existed before, and even the climate has changed.Very little unspoiled nature is left. Even in the deepest depths of the oceans, researchers come across plastic waste. According to a current study by a research group at the University of Cambridge, led by Andrew Plumptre, only 20 to 30 percent of the land mass are still considered a natural environment, and only three percent still meet the strict criteria for intact wilderness. American geographer Erle Ellis has arrived at a similar conclusion: Earth, he says, has turned into a “human system with embedded natural ecosystems”. It is therefore not surprising that in the past two decades, an initiative that had almost been forgotten has become the subject of renewed attention: the idea of proclaiming a new geological era: the “Anthropocene” – which roughly translates to “Era of the Human”.
The importance of sustainable management
As early as 1873, Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani suggested the term “Anthropozoic era” as a name for a new geological era. It is, however, only thanks to Dutch meteorologist and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen (1933–2021) that this idea has received broad public attention. In 1995, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his essential and groundbreaking research on the nature of the ozone layer. This influential scientist almost accidentally brought the topic of the Anthropocene to the top of the agenda: at a conference in 2000, he was a indignant as a colleague spoke of the Holocene, the current geological era which had begun at the end of the last ice age, 11,700 years ago: ”Let’s stop talking about the Holocene”, he erupted, “We have long since entered the Anthropocene!” The room went silent. Later, colleagues advised Crutzen to have the term protected. Crutzen found himself forced to act and meticulously compiled his arguments.The most critical changes, found Crutzen, included the enormous rise in the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, the sixteen-fold increase in the use of energy during the 20th century, and the fact that now, agriculture employs more nitrogen in the form of fertilizer than the total nitrogen bound in all natural land ecosystems. His conclusion: “In the absence of a global disaster – a meteorite impact, a world war or a pandemic – humanity will become the dominant force in the environment for millennia. Scientists and engineers thus face the challenge of navigating society towards sustainable actions and management in the era of the Anthropocene.”
The sin of the atomic bomb
Whether “Anthropocene” will indeed enter textbooks as an authoritative technical term will eventually be decided by a small circle of geologists, the “International Commission on Stratigraphy”. After years of discussion, an interdisciplinary working group advised the Commission to decide in favor of the Anthropocene. Humanity has long left indelible marks which will continue to bear witness to the current over-
exploitation thousands of years from now, including chemical, plastic and aluminum residues, massive levels of extinction which had last occurred 65 million years ago, climate change, as well as radioactive substances released by atomic bomb explosions and damaged nuclear power plants. 1945, the year that the first atomic bomb was detonated in a desert in southern New Mexico, would mark the beginning of this new era.Irrespective of the results of this decision, the term “Anthropocene” has already made a significant impact on the scientific discussion. It illustrates the fact that we humans bear the responsibility to ensure the future of our planet.