One hundred years on: Welcome to the Anthropocene!

June 29, 2008 at 1:48 am | Posted in Climate change, Environment | Leave a comment
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Keble College University of Oxford Centenary of Engineering Science (1908-2008) Garden Party on 28 June 2008

Polychromatic brickwork in Liddon Quad of Keble College

At a Garden Party to celebrate the Centenary of Engineering Science at the University of Oxford, 1908-2008, one of the speakers offered a list of global challenges to be addressed by world-class engineers now (and, I assumed, in the century ahead).  I listened carefully for mention of climate change …

Hmmm …?  Did I miss something?


Are we in dangerous denial?

Addressing climate change effectively is all about setting priorities now and appreciating timescales for urgent mitigative action and adapting to long-term impacts.  (Standing in the gorgeous surroundings of Keble College, I had to wonder what we would be celebrating a century from now … if we altogether fail to get our act together, all together!)

For reasons known only to me, I’ll begin by introducing the Anthropocene.  If you appreciate my sense of uncharted territory and my concern as to why those in power are not treating climate change with the seriousness and urgency it demands, you stand a better chance of following the rest of my thoughts.  The perception of climate change amongst professionals I meet at scientific institutes and garden parties in England is, quite frankly, scary and could be dangerous if we rely on others to decide what’s right for us.

Welcome to the Anthropocene!


I’d like to begin by sharing this excerpt from Living on the Ice Shelf: Humanity’s Melt Down by Mike Davis, (1. Farewell to the Holocene).  It is embedded in this Mother Jones article introduced by Tom Engelhardt:

Welcome to the Anthropocene

The London Society is the world’s oldest association of Earth scientists, founded in 1807, and its Commission acts as a college of cardinals in the adjudication of the geological time-scale.

To the question “Are we now living in the Anthropocene?” the 21 members of the Commission unanimously answer “yes.” They adduce robust evidence that the Holocene epoch—the interglacial span of unusually stable climate that has allowed the rapid evolution of agriculture and urban civilisation—has ended and that the Earth has entered “a stratigraphic interval without close parallel in the last several million years.” In addition to the buildup of greenhouse gases, the stratigraphers cite human landscape transformation which “now exceeds [annual] natural sediment production by an order of magnitude,” the ominous acidification of the oceans, and the relentless destruction of biota.

This new age, they explain, is defined both by the heating trend (whose closest analogue may be the catastrophe known as the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum, 56 million years ago) and by the radical instability expected of future environments. In sombre prose, they warn that “the combination of extinctions, global species migrations and the widespread replacement of natural vegetation with agricultural monocultures is producing a distinctive contemporary biostratigraphic signal. These effects are permanent, as future evolution will take place from surviving (and frequently anthropogenically relocated) stocks.” Evolution itself, in other words, has been forced into a new trajectory.

That we live in pivotal times, and are now in uncharted territory of our own making, seems clear to me.  Jeffrey Sachs, amongst others, is articulate on this topic.

Yet, at a prestigious event yesterday, I was reminded how little awareness there is: the true extent of our manmade impacts on the Earth are still waiting for publicity. The garden party was attended by many who studied Engineering Science—a course of study perhaps best described as a multidisciplinary approach to engineering, noted for its particularly strong scientific basis.

As often happens, one of many gentlemen I conversed with chose to pick up on my interest in climate change. He had to scratch his head and pull his ear to think of something to say about climate change, he admitted, but it became clear he was not going to miss the chance to demonstrate his superior opinion and give me free advice. While I waited patiently, he cleared his throat, then told me that ‘it’ was all based on ice studies—but “the correlation between carbon and temperature is the wrong way round”, and in any case “there have been half a dozen cycles like the one we are experiencing”, so “it’s just a natural phenomenon”.

This is a recurring theme amongst a select group of opinion leaders and influential senior professionals I meet: climate change is natural.

On a lighter note, this older gentleman reminds me, as do others in the fossil fuel industry, that he doesn’t expect to be around long enough to be proved wrong anyway!  [A muffled “Touché!” is heard from the wings ~ Ed.]

Climate change-dismissive senior geologists I meet at various scientific institutes tend to enjoy talking freely and knowledgably about (what I think of as) subsurface component timescales.  Yet they seem to have no idea—nor do they care—how rapidly changes are happening in the oceans, on land and in the atmosphere. Nor do such geologists’ underground reflections include any connection in their own minds to changes in biodiversity in all habitats.  After all, species extinction is for dinosaurs!

Older atomic physicists in casual conversation, by contrast, appear content to accept climate change as ‘a given’ nowadays.  They are jolly pleased to point out that “it is widely accepted that nuclear energy has a major role to play in Britain’s low-carbon future”.  With caveats about renewable energy and timescales, I agree, though nuclear power does not deserve the awe with which its proponents seem to honour their mistaken silver bullet.

Are these simply examples of ‘senior moments’, I wonder?!

Geologists, engineers, physicists and others of similar age to myself are more likely to be accepting of climate change, at least to some degree, with caution … though many opine out loud that the effects will only begin to bite a hundred years from now. They are, If they haven’t already changed the subject quickly, often shocked to reflect on global observations.  As the need for urgent action dawns on them, they may remember that their children have a bleaker future than we did.

For example, achieving the goal of Apollo, NASA engineers were heroes for successfully sending men to the moon.

JULY 1969 A.D.

From the plaque on the Eagle, Apollo 11,
which landed on the moon, July 20, 1969.

Now NASA scientists such as James Hansen are slammed for alerting the public to the truth.  Speaking in his recent testimony on Global Warming Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near, he explains our planet’s natural response to the manmade damage we inflict upon it.  We clearly need a new goal to inspire adults and children alike, if we are to have any measurable success in reducing emissions drastically.

It’s good to listen to the views of people who are about as far from the likes of Plane Stupid and Greenpeace activists as you can imagine … but it does make me wonder how we are going to get action to combat climate change when I attend a centenary of engineering scientists, and find ‘it’ was not uttered by the keynote speakers.  (At least, I would be very happy to be corrected on this point if climate change were stressed and I missed it; I do believe I was paying attention during every speech, despite a good serving of Pimms.)

Now, under normal circumstances, you would not expect speakers at a garden party in England to raise climate change as a concern, but this was a Garden Party to celebrate the Centenary of Engineering Science at Oxford University, 1908-2008, and we were offered a list of global challenges to be addressed by the world’s world-class engineers.  Does the fact that ‘climate change’ was not highlighted at all surprise you? Yes, energy security, water shortages, poverty, and sustainability were all mentioned as pressing global problems, but it strikes me that ‘climate change’ has become, at least in Britain, taboo.  Is it really not safe to mention ‘climate change’ in polite company?  ‘Sustainability’ has so many different interpretations these days, it could even be used by some to mean business-as-usual!

At functions, you can mention ‘climate’, as in business climate, and you can talk about ‘change’ in many contexts … but: put those two words ‘climate change’ side-by-side and you are in danger of stepping over an invisible line that may, or may not, be contentious.  (And I haven’t even broached the population growth angle yet … )  Certainly, if you mention ‘climate change’ at some dinner parties you are unlikely to be invited back.  Mention ‘climate change’ at a garden party, I have found, and some people get a little hot under the collar as they turn the conversation to a lighter topic, and yearn for “something a little less serious” on a warm and pleasant English afternoon.

Perhaps a cheery “Welcome to the Anthropocene!” would make for a less offensive conversation opener.

What do you think?!


P.S.  Note that it was not the Environmental Change Institute but the Department of Engineering Science that hosted this centenary celebration at Oxford University.  Nevertheless, you can tell I thought that climate change may have had a higher profile since it is engineers who are going to have to design technological solutions, and the general public who are going to have to change attitudes and behaviours in order to deal with this threat.


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