Fall 2014

Science and Environment

A Change of Cene

Dan Cloer

While there is still debate about how much influence humankind has had on the environment, there’s no denying that we do make an impact; hence, the present Holocene Epoch has been renamed the Anthropocene. Calls to reverse the trend and save the earth are getting louder and more persistent, but have we overestimated human power to control the planet and its systems?

In the world of primates, we comparatively hairless beings are called “the naked ape.” But to be naked also implies exposure, vulnerability and inherent insecurities: one is open to the elements, to examination, to harm. There’s really no place to hide; so naturally, that’s exactly what we try to do—hide.

One place to hide is under a layer of clothing, a second skin that allows us to put on an identity; it forms both a physical and a psychological shelter. In the Garden of Eden we hid from God behind a covering of fig leaves. Today, as in the days of the Tower of Babel, we feel secure under the skin of our structures and cultures. Our second skin even allows us access to regions in which we could not otherwise survive. From the vacuum of space to the crushing deep sea and every place in between, we have built ways to outfit ourselves unlike any other species—to go anywhere and be anything.

This access seems to confirm that we are in many ways unlimited. We have a sense of control unlike any other creature, a sense of a wide-open potential acknowledged early in our history: “Nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6b, English Standard Version). It is no surprise, then, that creating this second skin has allowed us to have an ever-widening influence on the planet itself.

But what will we do as we become increasingly aware of the unintended consequences of this influence?

The Age of Influence

According to geologists, humankind has become dominant in the age they call the Holocene Epoch, which they define as the most recent 11,700 years or so. Translated as the “whole recent time,” the Holocene is nevertheless a very small fragment of earth history. It follows the end of the last ice age, called the Pleistocene Epoch, which they believe began a further 2.5 million years ago.

During the Pleistocene there were perhaps 20 cycles of major cooling and warming. Fluctuations continue today, but overall climate stability during the Holocene is considered a key factor in allowing civilization to blossom. The predictability of a more hospitable and reliable climate has been very important in the establishment of agriculture and a settling down into stable village life. This is one reason why any shifts in global temperatures and climate today are seen as serious threats to societal and ecological stability.

New types of tools, especially metal-based tools, allowed us to carve out new ways to live and thus create an increasingly secure and regular lifestyle. In turn, our population gradually rose; following the advent of scientific research and its application to new technologies in the 1700s, it increased rapidly.

By about 1800 it had grown to 1 billion, and as early as the 1870s some observers were already viewing this surge and its potential impact as serious. Antonio Stoppani, an Italian geologist and one-time cleric, wrote, “We are only at the beginning of the new era; still, how deep is man’s footprint on earth already!” (Corso di Geologia, 1873).

Noted today as an early advocate for renaming the Holocene in recognition of human impact, Stoppani suggested that our influence on the physical was as significant as the birth of Christ on the spiritual: “It is in this sense, precisely, that I do not hesitate in proclaiming the Anthropozoic era. The creation of man constitutes the introduction into nature of a new element with a strength by no means known to ancient worlds.”

Although believing that man was God’s special creation, Stoppani foresaw that by nature we would be destructive due to our lack of godly wisdom: “Nothing, in the end, is safe from this intruder, who exerts his robbery and extends his power over land, air, and water.” Modern scientists have amended Stoppani’s “Anthropozoic” to “Anthropocene”; while not endorsing his creation views, they echo his concern for our long-term influence on the environment. In the words of Will Steffen of the Australian National University Climate Change Institute, “the human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system.”

The designation of an Anthropocene Epoch at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, ad 1950, or any other very recent date may reinforce the faulty premise that pre-industrial humans lived in harmony with nature.”

Todd J. Braje and Jon M. Erlandson, “Looking Forward, Looking Back: Humans, Anthropogenic Change, and the Anthropocene”

Researchers Todd Braje and Jon Erlandson note that “the designation of an Anthropocene” was clearly appropriate: “It is difficult to argue that we are not currently living in an ‘age of humans.’” But they maintain that our impact traces back well before the industrial era: “It has become increasingly apparent that ancient human populations significantly influenced local and regional environments, including impacts to a wide array of plant and animal communities.”

The advent of agriculture, the clearing of land, forestry management, and the hunting of large animals to extinction were our first contributions to planetary change. In the modern age our impact has followed our rising population: 2 billion by 1930, 3 billion by 1960, and today more than 7 billion. The global population growth rate may have begun to drop in recent years, but we still add about 80 million people each year. It is estimated that by 2050 there may be 9.5 billion people on earth.

As population has grown exponentially, so has every factor that contributes to overcoming and clothing our nakedness. The “J-curve” or “hockey stick” graph describes almost all human activities, not just population. This is not surprising in the main; an exponentially growing population will cast a long shadow as its resource requirements also expand. The question is, how far can this expansion be pushed on a finite planet?

“J-curve” or “hockey stick” graph showing rapid increase of human population after Industrial Revolution.

Ecosystem Support Systems

It’s easy to forget, in the buzz of our day-to-day activities, that everything we do has a cost beyond human economics. All the technologies we’ve built to provide for our needs (water, food, shelter) and most of our wants (mobility, entertainment, leisure) remain linked to the actions of the earth itself. As noted in the UN’s “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, 2005,” the broader planetary ecosystems benefit civilization through what are called “ecosystem services.” These include provisioning (food, fiber), regulation (climate, natural water treatment, pest control), support (soil formation, photosynthesis, nutrient cycling), and cultural benefits (recreational, aesthetic, spiritual).

So long as ecosystem interconnections remain healthy, we are secure. As the report reminds us, “the human species, while buffered against environmental changes by culture and technology, is fundamentally dependent on the flow of ecosystem services.” Because people are an integral part of ecosystems, “a dynamic interaction exists between them and other parts of ecosystems, with the changing human condition driving, both directly and indirectly, changes in ecosystems and thereby causing changes in human well-being.” 

How fragile is this web of connections? Can our activities cut so many strings that these services unravel?

These are not new questions. American philologist and early conservationist George Perkins Marsh considered them as he served as ambassador to Italy at about the time Stoppani was immersed in geologic research. Although it is unknown whether they ever met, they certainly would have seen eye-to-eye on the discontinuity between the nature of the earth and our treatment of it. “Man has too long forgotten,” Marsh wrote, “that the earth was given to him for usufruct [nondestructive enjoyment] alone, not for consumption, still less for profligate waste.” He noted that “man is everywhere a disturbing agent. Wherever he plants his foot, the harmonies of nature are turned to discords. The proportions and accommodations which insured the stability of existing arrangements are overthrown.”

Of these manifold blessings the temperature of the air, the distribution of the rains, the relative disposition of land and water, the plenty of the sea, the composition of the soil, and the raw material of the primitive arts, were wholly gratuitous gifts.”

George Perkins Marsh, Earth as Modified by Human Action 

Measuring Impact

Today our warnings concerning this potential overthrow often come from organizations rather than individuals. The Stoppanis and Marshes have given way, for example, to the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Its reports discuss the “anthropogenic” contribution to climate and are generally considered state-of-the-science information.

Just as the Human Genome Project was originally designed to detect a changing mutation rate in the human population (in relation to the accumulation of pollutants, radioisotopes or other mutagens our activities have introduced into the environment), the IPCC was charged with tracking global temperatures. Genetic mutations are important to our individual condition; likewise, climate lies at the core of our collective civilization. Growing season, crop yields and freshwater availability and recharge are, for instance, all tied back to climate and are critical factors that support the human population. If these are changing, we need to know about it and consider ways to respond. Thus the most important way to measure human impact related to climate is to monitor the atmosphere’s composition and the greenhouse effect.

A common formula for quantifying human impact is I=PAT, by which impact (I) is a function of population (P), affluence or resource use (A), and the technology (T) used to provide and consume the resources. Because a growing human population strives for a higher standard of living, the formula anticipates higher energy consumption and therefore an increasing climatic and planetary impact. A 2013 article in the science journal PLOS One is unequivocal regarding our influence: “Humans are now the main cause of changes of Earth’s atmospheric composition and thus the drive for future climate change. . . . It is clear that pushing global climate far outside the Holocene range is inherently dangerous and foolhardy.”

Give me a lever long enough and a place to stand, and I will move the world’ (Archimedes), but where will it roll?”

Mechanics Magazine (1824)

In some ways, then, the story has not changed over the last century or so. We recognize our impact, and then we measure and anticipate it in ever-increasing scientific detail. The primary question also remains constant: “How can we improve the human condition?”—to which we have added the caveat, “without ignorantly compromising the greater system to which we belong?”

As at least one environmental scientist recognizes, these questions are linked to some other hard questions. Using the biblical book of Job as his starting point, H.H. Shugart focuses on what he calls God’s “whirlwind speech” (Job 38–39): “The whirlwind questions, posed to Job by the deity that made and controls the Earth, ask humans if they understand the workings of the planet upon which they live.” But these questions have a meaning beyond the physical logistics of creation. Through God’s interrogation, Job learns that by mistakenly trusting his own presumptions regarding his Creator he has misunderstood Him (Job 40:8; 42:1–6). So while one appreciates, as Shugart points out, that answers to questions about the earth’s physical realities “are critical to our future,” he has overlooked a greater spiritual message of human hubris.

Geoengineering

The question of how to operate within the bounds of a planet and create the best life for the most people is more than just a matter of numbers, physics and biology. There are questions of motivation and problems of control: How much control do we really have? And how do we evaluate and exercise that control? (See “The Heart of the Matter”.)

If anything characterizes our era, it is the dominance of economic values. The quest for equity, justice, compassion, peace, comfort, or grace all tend to take a subsidiary role to the acquisition of wealth and the drive to increase the gross national product.”

Paul and Anne Ehrlich, Extinction

As we move forward as a civilization desiring to secure the growing set of needs and wants of an ever-greater population, our solution seems to be to control ever more aspects of the planet’s functions. Ever since the people of the post-Flood world set out to control their fate through building a tower to prevail against another flood, the precedent of grasping for control has been our hallmark. Rather than trusting God to provide for our vulnerability, our nakedness, we decided to make our own decisions apart from God. We geoengineer, or change the earth, seemingly at will—and, we believe, for the better—but without spiritual insight.

The climate problem is but one example and harks back to the idea of overcoming the next Flood with human ingenuity: rather than waterproofing bricks with tar, we design sensors and computer programs to inform and warn. Along with our constantly improving ability to make pressure, temperature and precipitation measurements around the globe, we have built increasingly skillful algorithms to push out our weather forecasts. But prediction is never enough. The partner to weather prediction has always been weather control, and now, with disruptive climate change seemingly at our collective doorstep, climate control is our next hand to play.

Even James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who raised the banner of global warming and anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions in 1981, and a staunch advocate of reducing carbon emissions through a carbon tax, believes geoengineering might be necessary: “Although first priority should be given to energy efficiency, renewable energies, and nuclear power, it does make sense to carry out geo-engineering research to define options in the event that business-as-usual energy policies create a planetary emergency that demands rapid changes.”

To that end, the National Academy of Sciences offers eight fanciful ways “to combat or counteract the effects of changes in atmospheric chemistry”—from space mirrors to cloud stimulation to aluminized stratospheric bubbles.

Early climatologist Daniel Ruggles suggested in the 1880s that “the Omnipotent” has placed within our reaches “the atmospheric laws of cloud-land,” that we might “direct them, so far as may be practicable, within the sphere of the great industrial interests and energies of man. . . . When we contemplate the triumphs of American genius within the present century, there is abundant reason to anticipate untold advancement.”

But as Shugart emphasizes, and science historian James Fleming chronicles, the dream of control dulls our will to take real action to reduce our influence; we opt instead for the scientifically fantastic. Fleming points out that this has been true for some time. In 1954, navy captain Howard Orville, chair of the Advisory Committee on Weather Control, sought increased funding for cloud seeding. He wrote, “In this age of the H-bomb and supersonic flight, it is quite possible that science will find ways not only to dissipate incipient tornadoes and hurricanes, but to influence all our weather to a degree that staggers the imagination. . . . It is even conceivable that we could use weather as a weapon of warfare, creating storms or dissipating them as the tactical situation demands.” He concluded, “Man may well be on the threshold of a new era in which he will disprove the adage that nothing can be done about the weather.”

Overconfident

Although much of the argument offered here has been framed in the context of climate, our sense of control runs deep and covers the spectrum of human experience: from the sciences (genetic engineering, human longevity) and the humanities (political and economic systems), to religion (pan-, poly- and monotheism), we are beings that self-invent. Individually and collectively, it is our tendency to look at what is, imagine what might be, and move forward, innovating new ways to get from here to there. Because we have the tremendous capacity to invent the “there,” we imagine that we are limited only by the boundaries we impose on ourselves or by the physical restraints of matter itself. Even then we look for a work-around, often beginning with works of science fiction.

We have great faith in human intellect, and why not? Our track record looks good, at least on the surface. But for every good there is an evil, and all of our dreams and promises come with nightmares and disappointments. One problem is compounded by another; new technologies solve one detail but open new troubles. Yet we are slow to admit danger and still slower to change. We exude great confidence in ourselves.

If we are serious about conservation [caring for the land], then we are going to have to quit thinking of our work as a sequence of specialized and temporary responses to a sequence of specialized and temporary emergencies.”

Wendell Berry, “Private Property and the Common Wealth,” in Another Turn of the Crank

According to the Bible, we were meant to “be fruitful and multiply,” to “fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28); we were granted dominion to care for and use the environment, to farm and hunt and fish. Within a right context of use, not abuse, we were created in the image of God to design and build. But we lost track of the mission in our own self-confidence.

Taking from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam and Eve decided not to trust their Creator’s instructions. Lack of clothing was suddenly a problem, so they hid. “Who told you that you were naked?” He asked (Genesis 3:7–11). Rather than allowing God to lead us, we hid and chose a path that would allow us to make our own decisions about right and wrong, use and abuse. So God clothed us and sent us out to make our own way. The tree of life was now off limits. When much later God asked Job, “Who is this that makes my purpose unclear by saying things that are not true?” (Job 38:2, New Century Version), He was merely indicating how far we have all deviated from the original plan. 

Over the ages since, God has offered access to the tree of life sparingly; the vast majority of humankind has lived and died under the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Instruction for how to interact with the earth and fellow man in a loving way remains the missing ingredient in our relationships.

Today the term Anthropocene gives name to our dominant footprint. It gives us pause to reflect on our impact and to ask “What next?” Will we be able to remain secure in the trappings of modern civilization built on formulas that increasingly expose inherent flaws in our thinking and planning? Or will we make a turn and change the “cene” once again?

With all choices, there are obligations and responsibilities. Godly love offers security; it is an antidote to our nakedness that creates no pushback, no fear and no harm. But it is a way of life that requires one to place the spiritual principles of the Ten Commandments at the heart of one’s decision-making. We still have the opportunity to practice that love by modeling our actions after His law of love. What remains in our control is to choose; it is our choice to ignore or to humbly seek out this alternative way of life (see Deuteronomy 30) and discover peace of mind that rises above human imagination.