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If you want a single poetic sentence that sums up the issues facing humanity and the planet, you could do a lot worse than the opening line of the first Whole Earth Catalog in 1968:

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

A less poetic way to say this is the suggestion that generations of human activity, from cutting forests to planting crops to burning fossil fuels to exploding nuclear bombs to littering the planet with plastic that will last aeons, has altered Earth so much that we have entered an entirely new geologic epoch, the Anthropecene. Not even Zeus, Pachabamba or Indra can claim as much.

This classification idea has been around for a while, but a new paper in Science by 24 geoscientists adds some heft to it, arguing that future societies examining the layers of sediment would notice enough of a change in recent centuries to designate it differently: “Humans have changed the Earth system sufficiently to produce a stratigraphic signature in sediments and ice that is distinct from that of the Holocene epoch. Proposals for marking the start of the Anthropocene include an “early Anthropocene” beginning with the spread of agriculture and deforestation; the Columbian Exchange of Old World and New World species; the Industrial Revolution at ~1800 CE; and the mid-20th century “Great Acceleration” of population growth and industrialization.”

The Washington Post has a good discussion about the issue here, which includes this quote:

“In a way it’s a thought experiment,” said Naomi Oreskes, a geologically trained Harvard historian of science and one of the study’s authors. “We’re imagining what a future geologist will see when he or she looks at the rock record. But it’s not that difficult a thought experiment to do, because so many of these signals are already present.”

Nature also discusses the topic here, noting “For geoscientists, the timescale of Earth’s history rivals the periodic table in terms of scientific importance.”

Incidentally, Stewart Brand says the idea for his wonderful opening line from a book based on a BBC series.

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