Tag Archives: anthropocene

A Novel for the Long Now

Imagine that we wanted our descendants to persist for 10,000 years. How could we help that to happen? This question motivates most of the research on resilience, as well as initiatives such as Clock of the Long Now < http://www.longnow.org/> and policy-oriented initiatives such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment <http://www.MAweb.org>. Many insights about resilience have come from research on native cultures, such as an influential volume by Berkes, Colding and Folke on Navigating Social-Ecological Systems, and many other works cited in this blog and in the journal Ecology and Society.

In Girl With Skirt of Stars, Jennifer Kitchell draws a sharp contrast between modern society and a culture that has occupied the southwest of North America for thousands of years.

Lilli Chischilly is a Navajo lawyer with a full brief of problems. Someone arranged mutilated carcasses of sibling coyotes on the hood of her battered Dodge pickup truck – no doubt a message, but of what?. Her old flame has returned to Indian Country, yet somehow he is connected to an inexplicable murder. Then she is assigned to escort a powerful politician through the Grand Canyon for a publicity stunt – obviously a set-up for a hydropower dam in a national landmark that will drown sites sacred to her people. In the shadowy background a mysterious sniper, motivated by a century-old massacre, stalks the politician. This meticulously-crafted debut novel weaves Navajo ethnography, sexual tension, political power, and the beauty of Grand Canyon country into a fast-paced story. Kitchell’s voice is confident, reflecting her deep knowledge of Navajo culture and the physical beauty of the Southwestern US.  The novel’s ending foreshadows more stories to come. I’m eager to read them.

At one moment in the novel, Lilli brings the politician into an ancient cave with petrographs that hold the key to a culture that can last for ten millennia. Will it be drowned by the dam? This encounter with deep-time resilience is the key to the novel, and perhaps the key to human persistence through the current environmental crisis.

This novel is fun to read. It evokes questions that are central to resilience thinking. It will appeal to students who are interested in natural history, ancient cultures, and connections of native people to modern life. Once you open it you will read it all the way through.

Erle Ellis on “Postnatural” Environmentalism

Erle Ellis, whom has mapped the world’s anthromes, writes an provocative editorial in Wired about what environmentalism means in the Anthopocene. In  Stop Trying to Save the Planet he proposes a “postnatural” environmentalism:

Nature is gone. It was gone before you were born, before your parents were born, before the pilgrims arrived, before the pyramids were built. You are living on a used planet.

If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene ― a geological epoch in which Earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces.

Yes, nature is still around ― back-seat driving, annoying us with natural disasters from time to time, and everywhere present in the background ― but definitely in no position to take the wheel. That’s our job now. Don’t blame nature for global warming, sea level rise, invasive species, mass extinctions, crop failures and poverty. That’s our thing.

… Ours is a used planet. Thanks to us, Earth has become warmer, less forested and less biodiverse for millenniums.

So what now? First of all, we’ve got to stop trying to save the planet. For better or for worse, nature has long been what we have made it, and what we will make it.

And it’s time for a “postnatural” environmentalism. Postnaturalism is not about recycling your garbage, it is about making something good out of grandpa’s garbage and leaving the very best garbage for your grandchildren. Postnaturalism means loving and embracing our human nature, the nature we have created to feed ourselves, the nature we live in. What good is environmentalism if it makes you depressed about the future?

This is about recognizing that our farms, and even our backyards and cities, are the most important wildlife refuges in the world and should be managed as such. We can keep people out of places we want to think of as wild, but these places will still be changing because of global warming and the alien species we introduce without even trying.

Evaluating Ruddiman’s long anthropocene hypothesis

From In The Field a report on a symposium on Bill Ruddiman‘s long anthropocene hypothesis -  that the development of agriculture caused significant global warming:

Ruddiman’s basic argument goes like this: Although the climate has cycled through a series of ice ages and warm interglacial periods for more than a million years, none of those warm spells looks like the one we’re in. In all previous cases, carbon dioxide and methane concentrations peaked just after the preceding ice age ended and then levels of those greenhouse gases dropped until the planet slipped again into a new glacial epoch. The planet seemed to be following the same routine since the last ice age ended about 11,000 years ago. But then something funny happened. After falling for a few thousand years, carbon dioxide levels started to rise about 8,000 years ago and methane values swung upward 5,000 years ago.

As an explanation, Ruddiman suggests that carbon dioxide concentrations started to grow when early farmers cleared vast stretches of forest to plant crops, thus reducing the planet’s ability to sop up carbon from the atmosphere. Later, when people learned how to irrigate rice 5,000 years ago, the paddies created for that purpose led to a jump in methane emissions. Those changes prevented the planet from slipping into an ice age, he suggested.

At Wednesday’s session, Ruddiman took the provocative stance of saying that the case is closed.

“I think we are at the point where it is a dead end to claim that natural [processes] explain the Holocene trends,” said Ruddiman, an emeritus professor at the University of Virgiinia. If you look at the previous interglacial periods, none show the rising pattern of carbon dioxide and methane. Q.E.D.

Jean Jouzel, director of the Pierre Simon Laplace Institute in Paris, said “the change in methane is huge. It’s difficult to think it’s not natural.” There were so few people alive 5,000 years ago that it would be hard for humans to account for the methane changes, he said. Jouzel was part of a group that examined the interglacials and made the point that they are each unique in some way. So arguments about the uniqueness of the current interglacial leave some researchers cool.

Visualizing the great acceleration – part ii

The New Scientist adapted graphs from Will Steffen’s and others 2004 Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure for their feature How our economy is killing the Earth.

The three graphs show

  1. first how various drivers of change have accelerated,
  2. how these human changes have driven change in the Earth system, and finally -
  3. when these graphs are combined the accelerating growth of human civilization’s impact on the planet is clear.

(click on graphs for larger versions)

Archetypical landscape of the USA

Jeff Cardille at the University of Montreal has a project METALAND that is eveloping more sophiticated ways of characterizing landscapes.  He presented some of his work on archetypical landscapes of the USA at the current Ecological Society of America meeting.

Jeff Cardille 17 archetypical landscapes of USA

On Nature’s blog Emma Morris report’s on his talk From the bright green soy field to the rolling blacktop…this land was made for you and me:

What is the typical landscape of the United States? Jeffrey Cardille, of the University of Montreal wondered the same thing. He may be in Montreal now, but he’s from the US of A, and a big Woody Guthrie fan. Guthrie, in his alternative national anthem “This Land is Your Land” invoked the “redwood forests,” the “gulf stream waters” and so on. But could it be that the archetypal US landscape these days is rather a cornfield or a brand new subdivision?

To find out, Cardille used an algorithm called “affinity propagation”, made famous in this Science paper by Frey and Dueck. As Cardille explains, the algorithm is “a way to find representative samples in complex datasets.” In the Science paper, it was used to create clusters of faces the same people out of a sea of photographs. Each cluster was organized around a central exemplar photo.

Cardille used the same method on landscape data from the National Land Cover Data Set, and metrics extracted from the dataset with a program called fragstats. He gridded the lower 48 off into 6 km by 6 km squares and then let the algorithm rip on the data—5% at a time due to computing power limitations.

What emerges on any one of the runs are something like 17 exemplar squares, real chunks of the landscape that best represent the totality of the landscape. Predictably, of the 17 in the run he presented, 13 are human dominated—row crops, clear cuts, urbanizing suburban land, and the like. Two are carefully managed national parks. Just two are more or less running themselves. One of these is a square of the vast shrub-lands of Texas.

Mapping the Anthropocene: Anthropegenic Biomes

Humanity is now a geological force reshaping the Earth’s surface, atmosphere, and biogeochemistry. This reality has lead Earth System Scientists to argue that we are living in a new geological era – the Anthropocene.

Recently Navin Ramankutty, a colleague of mine here at McGill, and Erle Ellis, from the University of Maryland, have developed a map of the world the acknowledges that we are in the Anthropocene by identifying the anthropogenic biomes that are currently found in the world.

Anthro biomes in E NA from google maps

anthro biomes legend

They define an anthropogenic biome as:

Anthropogenic biomes describe globally-significant ecological patterns within the terrestrial biosphere caused by sustained direct human interaction with ecosystems, including agriculture, urbanization, forestry and other land uses. Conventional biomes, such as tropical rainforests or grasslands, are based on global vegetation patterns related to climate. Now that humans have fundamentally altered global patterns of ecosystem form, process, and biodiversity, anthropogenic biomes provide a contemporary view of the terrestrial biosphere in its human-altered form. Anthropogenic biomes may also be termed “anthromes” to distinguish them from conventional biome systems, or “human biomes” (a simpler but less precise term).

The maps can be viewed as PDFs, or interactively using Google Maps or Google Earth. Links to these files can be found in the article in their article Anthropogenic biome maps in the Enclyopedia of the Earth.

The McGill website has a a ten-minute interview with Prof. Ramankutty, and both authors wrote a follow up article Conserving Nature in an Anthropogenic Biosphere on Earth Portal, where they write:

If we say that most ecosystems are now anthropogenic, does this devalue the conservation and protection of “Nature”? Have we given those who oppose conservation a new tool to eliminate conservation altogether? Though this was never our intention, it seems to be a potential repercussion of our work.

Here is our defense.

On the one hand, we are convinced, as are many, that it is time to give up on the “protecting fragile nature” approach to conserving a desirable environment. Managing nature in preserves and leaving the rest of the world to its own devices does not and will not achieve our objectives.

It is our hope that in this century we can improve our environmental governance by building a citizen’s “morality of nature” through education and participation, rather than by fear of the consequences. Indeed, there are many indications already that we are getting better at managing the environment, and that the regenerative powers of nature are cleaning our rivers, regrowing our forests, and healing the ozone layer.

We are already in the driver’s seat. If our collective desire leads us to conserve, preserve, and restore “Nature”, we will all be the better off for this. But managing nature as if everything we touch is destroyed just will not get us to where we want to go.

They describe their map in the paper:

Ellis, E. C., and N. Ramankutty. In Press. Putting people in the map: anthropogenic biomes of the world. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6:XXX. doi:10.1890/070062 . (which is available online before publication).