A Strong Case for the Anthropocene: no other species has ever consumed so much of earth’s resources so quickly

Produced energy and the pattern of human population growth from 1750. Utilization of these energy sources, together with the energy used by humans from net primary production, is now approaching the entire energy available to the global ecosystem before human intervention [Barnosky, [1]]. Key to colours: dark blue = coal; dark brown = oil; green = natural gas; purple = nuclear; light blue = hydro; orange brown = biomass (e.g. plants, trees). Data source from http://www.theoildrum.com/node/8936

Figure 1. Produced energy and the pattern of human population growth from 1750. Utilization of these energy sources, together with the energy used by humans from net primary production, is now approaching the entire energy available to the global ecosystem before human intervention [Barnosky, [1]]. Key to colours: dark blue = coal; dark brown = oil; green = natural gas; purple = nuclear; light blue = hydro; orange brown = biomass (e.g. plants, trees). Data source from http://www.theoildrum.com/node/8936 Figure 1. Produced energy and the pattern of human population growth from 1750.

Preface. A few key paragraphs from the article below:

Humans are producing and consuming resources at a geologically unprecedented rate – a rate that needs to be maintained to continue the high level and complexity of the current [fossil-fuel based] civilization.  This high consumption has formed a ‘striking new pattern’ in the planet’s global energy flow.

It is without precedent to have a single species appropriating a quarter of the net primary biological production of the planet and to become effectively the top predator both on land and at sea.

Some of the massive effects humans are having on the planet include mining phosphorus and fixing nitrogen to make fertilizer, burning hundreds of millions of years of fossil fuels, and directing this increased productivity that is well beyond natural levels towards animals re-engineered for our consumption.

Alice Friedemann www.energyskeptic.com  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer, Barriers to Making Algal Biofuels, and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts: Collapse Chronicles,Derrick Jensen, Practical Prepping, KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report

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Williams, M., et al. March 14, 2016. The Anthropocene: a conspicuous stratigraphical signal of anthropogenic changes in production and consumption across the biosphere. Earth’s Future.

Humans are producing and consuming resources at a geologically unprecedented rate – a rate that needs to be maintained to continue the high level and complexity of the current [fossil-fuel based] civilization.  This high consumption has formed a ‘striking new pattern’ in the planet’s global energy flow.

Humans now consume between 25 and 38% of net primary production of the planet. Human modification and appropriation of NPP, and the production of energy over and above NPP, has been developing over thousands of years, but accelerated markedly from the mid-20th century onward (Figure 1)

Professor Zalasiewicz at the University of Lecister said the last times such huge effects were seen happened 2.5 billion years ago when photosynthesis appeared, and again half a billion years ago when the food web grew more complex.  Although the 5 major extinction events were also huge, “ even measured against these events, human-driven changes to production and consumption are distinctly new.”

Co-author Dr Carys Bennett added: “It is without precedent to have a single species appropriating something like one quarter of the net primary biological production of the planet and to become effectively the top predator both on land and at sea.”

Some of the massive effects humans are having on the planet include mining phosphorus and fixing nitrogen to make fertilizer, burning hundreds of millions of years of fossil fuels, and directing this increased productivity that is well beyond natural levels towards animals re-engineered for our consumption.

According to Professor Zalasiewicz: “This refashioning of the relationship between Earth’s production and consumption is leaving signals in strata now forming, and this helps characterize the Anthropocene as a geological time unit.  It also has wider and more fundamental importance in signaling a new biological stage in this planet’s evolution.”

Dr Colin Waters of the British Geological Survey said: “Modern human society is structured around economic production and consumption and our recent perturbation of the balance between the two, notably since the mid-20th century, will leave a signal that will provide a lasting legacy of our existence on this planet.”

Also see ScienceDaily.com’s March 23, 2016 Human impact forms ‘striking new pattern’ in Earth’s global energy flow.

More excerpts:

The human impact on production and consumption in the biosphere is recognizably different from all previous patterns. Humans appropriate a major component of NPP that is augmented by their use of fossil fuels: the combined energy use now approaches that available to the entire terrestrial biosphere prior to human intervention. In addition, humans are poor at recycling compared to the unmodified biosphere, a clear example being the geologically unprecedented rapid increase of carbon in the atmosphere from the consumption of fossil fuels, and concomitant accumulations of plastics—made from hydrocarbons—at the surface.

The influence of humans on mammal populations during the late Pleistocene represents a global, though diachronous, signal of growing human impact. This potentially had an ecosystem engineering effect, as the climax forests of several areas throughout North America may be the result of the removal of megafauna (mammoths and mastodons) in the late Pleistocene, animals that were effective in forest clearance.

However, a key transition in the human remodeling of production and consumption was the origin of farming, moving primary productivity to annual crop plants and shifting primary consumption to domesticated animals. These innovations, which mark the end of the Epi-Paleolithic and the beginning of the Neolithic culture, include the domestication of cattle (pigs, cows, goats, sheep etc.) and development of agriculture from about 10,000 years ago. Once adopted, agriculture sustained a greater population (and standing biomass) of people, and provided the environment in which human specialist activities unrelated to food production could evolve.

The eventual transfer of labor from agriculture to non-agricultural activities is the central component of industrialization, and has led to even greater appropriation of primary production by humans, and to the use of fossil fuels to augment energy supplies to the global ecosystem, with the concomitant rise of humans and their domesticated animals as the principal component of standing terrestrial large-animal biomass. From the 17th- to mid-20th century technological advances in farming, in their initial stages focused on England, the Low Countries and northern Italy, and then spreading globally, helped facilitate increasing appropriation of primary production. These included: improvements in drainage and restoration systems; the development of the Dutch plough in the early 17th century; the mechanization of farming in the early 18th century; developments in breeding and genetic manipulation, scientifically explained by Gregor Mendel in the mid-19th century; and the use of fertilizers, with the discovery that ammonia could be synthesized by a chemical reaction from nitrogen, first demonstrated by Fritz Haber in 1909, representing perhaps the most significant step. This paved the way for overcoming a major natural limiting force on agricultural production—the rate at which plants fix atmospheric nitrogen into soils—in the early 20th century by the German scientists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, who used Haber’s earlier discovery to develop the Haber-Bosch process. Their process took atmospheric nitrogen to make nitrogen fertilizers [some 90 million tons of nitrogen-based fertilizer now being produced each year. Through enhancing food production, this single innovation is estimated to sustain some 40% of global human population today. The process is energy-intensive, and is directly supported by the consumption of fossil fuels (fossil NPP). The widespread use of fossil energy to make processing of land (e.g., ploughing) quicker and more efficient, to support a greater number of humans and their domesticated animals, to enable rapid national/international transfer of produce, and to enable more efficient harvesting of the sea and sea floor has further amplified the impact of humans on both production and consumption in the biosphere.

During the 20th century (between 1910 and 2005) the Human Appropriation of Net Primary Productivity doubled from 13 to 25% of the NPP of potential vegetation. These changes involved a doubling of reactive nitrogen and phosphorus in the environment, and the use of vast amounts of fossil energy focused on agricultural production. In 2014 humans extracted 225 million tons of fossil phosphates, and this is projected to rise to 258 million tons by 2018. Phosphates are a limited resource, but nevertheless annual human addition to the phosphorus cycle exceeds the amount of available phosphorus from natural recycling. Future projections, dependent on land-use, suggest between 27 and 44% of NPP might be appropriated by humans by 2050. While it is likely a geologically unique situation for a single species to co-opt or consume such a large percentage of NPP, perhaps more significant from a biosphere perspective is the technology and landscape modification that humans have used to achieve this. This leads to a complex relationship whereby the ultimate biophysical limit to the amount of NPP that humans might appropriate is dependent on the interplay of many parameters in the landscape, a relationship that needs to evolve rapidly to provide stability between production and consumption in the Anthropocene biosphere.

Viewed from another perspective, the large-scale integration of humans and technology has led to a new terrestrial “sphere,” the technosphere, a novel Earth system of global extent, which is characterized by a total mass approaching that of the biosphere, significant rate of energy dissipation (17 TW), and high average density of infrastructure links such as roads [circa 0.4 km of roadway per km2 of land area, CIA, 2015] and of links between mobile communication devices [circa 50 such devices per km2 of land area, PR Newswire, 2014] that help connect together most humans and most in-use technological artifacts. An emergent system, the technosphere comprises the world’s humans, cultures, and technological components and systems, and maintains itself quasi-autonomously via feedback loops that deliver goods and services desired by humans (e.g., entertainment), or essential for their survival (e.g., food and water), in return for human participation in its continued function. There are no analogs for the technosphere in the geological history of life on Earth. Therefore, its myriad ramifications are truly unprecedented.

Human Impact Measured Against Geological Events

Throughout geological history the coupling between the production of biomass and the consumption of that biomass in the biosphere has typically maintained stability, with periods such as the Ordovician and Cretaceous showing patterns of fauna and flora that indicate persistent stable ecosystems over long time frames. Intervals where this stability may have been temporarily disrupted include the mass extinction events of the Neoproterozoic Era and Phanerozoic Eon [there being six of these following the definition of Benton, 2012, of which five were within the Phanerozoic Eon], with many small-scale extinctions operating at intervals of perhaps hundreds of thousands of year timescales or less. More fundamental changes to the functioning of the biosphere are associated with: its expansion to cover much of the globe (with increasing primary production) during the evolution of photosynthesis at circa 2.7 billion years ago [Nisbet and Fowler, 2014; see Figure 2] linked to the development of an oxygenated atmosphere during the Great Oxygenation Event beginning circa 2.5 billion years ago [Pufahl and Hiatt, 2012]; the construction of complex trophic structures between primary producers (e.g., marine phytoplankton), primary consumers (e.g., herbivorous zooplankton), and secondary consumers (e.g., tertiary and apex arthropod predators) during the Cambrian Period [Butterfield, 2011; Perrier et al., 2015], which led to animals typically forming the largest standing biomass in marine ecosystems; and the construction of complex terrestrial ecosystems with plants forming the largest standing biomass, with an increasing impact on the carbon-cycle and climate during the mid-Paleozoic [Kansou et al., 2013] and later. Measured against these changing geological-scale patterns, is the human impact on the biosphere significant?

Certain characteristics of current production and consumption in the biosphere appear entirely unique from a geological perspective, not least in being driven by a single species (Homo sapiens) within a time frame that is dramatically accelerated (decades versus millions of years) relative to past events. These changes have been characterized as defining a new biosphere state [Behrensmeyer et al., 1992; Williams et al., 2015]. They include the widespread transportation of animals and plants around the planet (the “neobiota”), the human-directed evolution of biology and ecosystems, the extraction of energy and material resources from deep in the Earth’s crust, and the huge appropriation of production by humans, which will leave a fossil record in, for example, both the physical and chemical signatures of biomineralized materials [bones, shells, reefs, etc., see Kidwell, 2015].

A profound example of these changing patterns is the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century. This translation of technologies that originated from technological breakthroughs in developed countries, which were transported and adapted to the developing world, included the transfer of technology for fertilizers (principally nitrogen-, phosphate- and potassium-based), new crop varieties, insecticides, pesticides, herbicides and irrigation. The Green Revolution spread across the world from the 1950s onward, dovetailing with the Great Economic Acceleration in industrialized nations [Steffen et al., 2007, 2015]. It led to the doubling of appropriation of NPP by humans through the 20th century [Krausmann et al., 2013] and a concomitant rise in the consumption of fossil NPP to support that. This redirection of resources along different biological paths has led to humans and their domesticated animals comprising 175 million tons of carbon (estimates based on dry mass of 45% carbon) at the end of the 20th century, whilst wild terrestrial mammals represent just 5 million tons of carbon [Smil, 2011]; the total standing biomass of large terrestrial vertebrates in itself has been increased by about an order of magnitude over a “natural” baseline level by the tightly controlled and directed hyper-fertilization of terrestrial primary production [Barnosky, 2008].

Analyses suggest that human influence on the Earth’s biota is promulgating a contemporary mass extinction event [Barnosky et al., 2011, 2012, 2014; Kolbert, 2014; Pimm et al., 2014; Ceballos et al., 2015] comparable to the five most significant events of the Phanerozoic Eon. This potential Anthropocene mass extinction event, if it continues to unfold, would thus immediately succeed (stratigraphically) a major perturbation of the nitrogen cycle (from the Haber-Bosch process) that is leaving a geochemical signal in sedimentary deposits worldwide, and it would also be associated with changes in carbon isotope ratios in marine carbonates as a result of the anthropogenic CO2 emitted from the burning of hydrocarbons (a characteristically depleted 13C signature). These signatures would resemble in magnitude, though not in environmental forcing, patterns of chemical change in the physico-chemical stratigraphic record, in part suggesting changes in the make-up of primary producer versus consumer organisms, and which are features of earlier extinction events such as in the latest Proterozoic [reduced acritarch phytoplankton diversity as a result of surface ocean eutrophication, Nagy et al., 2009], or at the Precambrian-Cambrian boundary [perhaps reflecting changes to surface-ocean primary production as a result of acritarch extinction, see Zhu et al., 2006 for a summary].

The human impact is not restricted to the land. The scale of appropriation of marine biological production by a single species (Homo sapiens) is almost certainly unique in Earth history, far exceeding the grazing of mainly coastal waters by, for example, seabirds (and, before them, flying reptiles), or pinnipeds. The rates of domestication of marine plants and animals are rising rapidly [Duarte et al., 2007]. Although fish farming dates back over 2000 years [e.g., McCann, 1979], with early examples in Australia, East Asia and Europe, it was quantitatively trivial, except locally, until 1970. Since that time aquaculture has become a significant component of fish consumption [Naylor et al., 2002], and this is sometimes referred to as the “blue revolution”: in 2012 total world fisheries amounted to 158 million tons, of which 42% was aquaculture [FAO, 2014]. Having removed most top predators from the oceans, including by some estimates 90% of the largest predatory fish stocks [Jackson, 2008], humans are steadily fishing down the food chain [Pauly et al., 1998; WBGU, 2013]—in aggregate, 38% of marine fish have been lost, and the decline in certain baleen whales is up to 90% [McCauley et al., 2015]. At the same time, humans are continually harvesting, via a massive extension of bottom trawling powered by fossil fuels, the majority of the continental shelf, ranging now down onto parts of the continental slope [Puig et al., 2012]. Regions of the ocean undergoing fishery collapses are incapable of providing a full complement of ecosystem services, including those necessary to sustaining ever-growing human coastal populations [Worm et al., 2006].

Thus, it can be argued that the scale of human change to the biosphere with its transformation of terrestrial and marine ecologies, its use of fossil fuels to elevate the energy available to the global ecosystem, its impact on the standing biomass of terrestrial vertebrates, and its displacement of apex predators in both terrestrial and marine foodwebs, is of the magnitude of past major changes in the biosphere as shown in Figure 2.

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My comment: Predictably, some of the miracle green revolution plants are evolving into feral weeds that outcompete the specially bred high production varieties. This problem partly springs from hybridizing different varieties with new unexpected and undesirable traits. An unexpected side effect has been a tendency of green revolution crop plants like rice to go feral and become agricultural weeds (Qui, J., et al. 2020. Diverse genetic mechanisms underlie worldwide convergent rice feralization. Genome Biology.)

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11 Responses to A Strong Case for the Anthropocene: no other species has ever consumed so much of earth’s resources so quickly

  1. Fred says:

    You can be sure that none of the most important and critical issues that we face today will be addressed by the media or discussed in political debates or understood by 99% of the population. Denial and ignorance will assure the demise of the human species along with most other species. It’s not a matter of if, but when. I believe the when lies in the not too distant future!
    The limited supply of affordable resources will be the end of industrial society and with it a catastrophic reduction in the human population and the artificial standard of living many enjoy today.

  2. Craig Mead says:

    (Spelling corrected)
    As the class at GretaThunberg.org based on NASA and NOAA graphs explains “All life including humans will be extinct in well under a decade, perhaps just a few years”. Of course many will disagree with this exponentially accelerating schedule, but when questioned on what data they use to form their slower catastrophic event timetables they omit data we already have, or fail to overlay graphs in amplification and feedback relationships we already know. Many scientists agree with this short schedule, which suggests not only is heat and global warming already baked into the system by delayed effects of CO2 and rising GHG such as CH4, also rapidly increasing from melting permafrost, but so are the feedbacks and amplifying processes. Covid showed how fast store shelves can become empty and rationing begins. Syria and drought in Central America showed how fast mass migrations can begin. Phoenix and L.A. are already experiencing heatwaves that are beginning to empty those regions and the poleward shift of humans is well underway, as is the desertification of latitudes from 70N to 70S. As civilization retracts and implodes and parts shortages along with lack of skilled labor affects 1,600 nuclear facilities, including 450 generating stations, they’ll begin to catastrophically fail, spewing radioactive ionizing gas and contaminating groundwater, virtually sterilizing the surface of the planet. Anyone suggesting human population might reach 10B or denying extinction of all life isn’t a clearly trended risk has not overlayed all trends in play. Yes, a wise ape might dodge disaster, but we’re a fractured, tribal, warlike species, far more intent and adept at using genocide to acquire civilization’s homeostasis than using a caring, nurturing hand. One only need review geo-political strife trendlines and falling life expectancies to see where humanity is heading and how well we’re responding to cascading failures in the biosphere, international relations and ability to rapidly respond to abrupt climate change. Once a BOE or ice free arctic reduces albedo and latency heat cooling effects of the poles allowing temperatures to really skyrocket, as is already happening, mortality rates and migrations will skyrocket as well, along with more national and tribal warfare; none of it geared for cooperation among our global village. Of course technology has brought many wonderful solutions, but we often deny the negative impacts, toxins and destruction, and clearly most humans don’t realize the magnitide of these impacts or we’d all try to live as I do; using less tnan 1 gallon of petro per year. I was a nuclear engineer until I saw how dangerous those plants are and the risk they pose to our planet. I then trained under GE Wind and have designed large scale wind, solar, desalination and even zero-emission synfuel factories, but as I begin to calculate what is required to deliver a westernized standard of living to 8B people and the global mining, waste, hazmat, landuse and asphalt that’d require I clearly see what is coming; not in 20 or 50 or 100 years, but happening right now. Do you see what I see?

    • Kevin M. says:

      I don’t know how bad it would be so I’ll ask. What if at some point due to lack of other options we attempted to dump and bury the nuclear waste at sea using a sea trench and some under water explosive? How much radioactivity would leak from that? I know there is already a bunch of nuclear waste that was dumped at sea I think most of it was encased but will probably have to be dealt with again…

      As I have said before maybe it is hopeless but what choice do we have but to try to inform ourselves and others and work to save the world. I personally believe that if it feels hopeless people will give up and tune out then it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      • Craig Mead says:

        I would 100% agree on both issues; long-term storage alternatives and avoiding hopelessness.

        1. Ocean-based storage has problems of leakage due to both embrittlement of containers due to radiation and corrosion due to an ocean environment.

        If the fuel had a short half-life, such thorium, then these are not issues. Unfortunately, tritium can actually bond with seawater, evaporate, come down as rain and enter the food chain, and once it’s inside of you the radiation begins to attack your cells. I don’t think long-term storage at sea, at least not at the bottom of the ocean, is a prudent alternative.

        However storage at sea on vessels until we develop processes which can accelerate the decay, and monitor the containment vessels may be a possibility. This would allow us to develop chemical processes to break down the dangerous materials, while keeping the hazmat far from civilization; especially urban centers and groundwater.

        2. On the subject of hopelessness, I believe in telling the truth, the whole truth and the harsh truth so people know what we are up against, and then following that up with practical solutions using technology that is available today, so people have a reason to be hopeful based on technology they can get their arms around, and then they have a reason to press politicians to act for prudent action in a timely manner. No excuses, right?

        The technology to avoid extinction already exists. The technology to cool our planet already exists. The technology to sequester gigatons of carbon dioxide already exists. The technology to reforest our planet already exists. The technology to make America a zero-emission nation in just two years, and create a zero-emission planet in just 4 years already exists, and we can afford all of these things today.

        In fact, I suggest we cannot afford to ignore it any longer.

        • Fred says:

          I agree we might as well try. however, I’m not very optimistic that we will get the job done. Nobody has demonstrated anything close to that. We can’t even handle a weak pandemic. No tenacity is exhibited and limitations are not accepted in a world that has lived in a fossil fuel fantasy.

          Even if we do make an effort to fix it all. The huge amount of oil and other resources to make the transition might just add to problem.

          • Craig Mead says:

            I believe the challenge is not the tech, tools, manpower or capital, but the coordinated effort of citizens and governments that has bogged down the process, mostly because govts. are too slow to respond and citizens are too slow to unite and make them.

            When citizens do unite the effort seems to always turn into a hippie fest protest; an exercise of getting arrested that MIGHT go somewhere someday, but at that pace we’re doomed.

  3. CoaliiSuv says:

    Since 1900, no unborn baby has asked for a two-tonne SUV capable of driving at 100 mile/h to be waiting at birthplace – Economics has already built the SUV before the baby born

    When people were invited in masses into industrial centers to churn countless steam engines in 1700’s Britain and America, no unborn baby has asked for that – the steam engine running coal mines and trains has required all that man-power.

    It is not unborn babies who have asked for 5+ billion tonnes of coal to be mined yearly today, but rather Economics what has sent the B-52 to secure diesel supplies from the Middle East and elsewhere – or without diesel and other hydrocarbons, mass coal mining and transportation would have stopped since the 1990s and much earlier.

    Coal-powered mass coal mining in Britain has peaked in 1913.

    The theory that unborn babies are who have asked the civilisation to extract fossil fuels to exhaustion – is another flying-carpet EROEI.

    If humans go back in time and restart their Industrial Revolution again, they would manage finite fossil fuels differently.

    Humans learn from their mistakes over time – but fossil fuels are one-off, unfortunately.

    Wail.

    • Craig Mead says:

      I think the new video added at GretaThunberg,org sums it up; whether or not tech helps us dodge extinction a hellscape awaits unless we unite&stay cool.

      • CoaliiSuv says:

        In Iraq, people are subdividing homes, building on whatever vacant lands found between them – to the extent a new home can be built not bigger than 50 square meters in area – like no tomorrow.

        Scared to death from another looming war, which seems now long over due, after the 2014’s destruction of Mosul and other cities where hundreds of thousands have been killed – they behave exactly like wild hogs in Texas;

        Wild hogs are exploding in numbers since hunting them in the US and elsewhere has become an industry by its own.

        Humans know nothing about life and themselves.

        The fossil fuels age has even made that self-awareness poorer and poorer.

        Existential threats encourage humans to reproduce.

        This pandemic has already started a new round of baby-booming – and who blames humans?

        ….unless we unite&stay cool hides an element of Centralisation and Control – the very same forces that have caused the mess we are all in today – since the 1700s’ steam engine – afraid.

        • Craig Mead says:

          I feel for folks in N. Africa/Middle East/Equatorial belt; i.e. Jews, Palestinians, Iraqis, Afghans who will never get a peaceful, thriving homeland and if they finally did in a year or two scorching heat will vaporize any fledgling communities and even mass migrations will be too slow to reduce their mortality much. They’ll all fry pdq.

  4. Fred says:

    At this point we are genetically programmed for economic growth. Abortion economic growth, military spending and health care are a few of the hot buttons that occupy the minds and actions of the politicians. Climate change, for the first time, is on the agenda of the left side of our politics. It is a little too late when half of the country denies the concept. The combined cost of climate disruption and increasing inefficiency of fossil fuel production will eventually lead to the demise of most, if not all of the specie that plagues the planet. Most of the population is uninformed, misinformed, in denial, or don’t have time to think about the issues of real importance that face us today. Our political leaders in general are too cowardly to take a stand.
    So….You tell me, are we going to save ourselves?

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