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The Anthropocene Epoch: How Fossil Fuels Have Led Humanity into a New Geological Age

The Anthropocene

As the global population continues to surge, and humanity’s influence on global systems becomes increasingly apparent, natural resource specialists have started to reevaluate traditional conservation efforts to ensure that resource management strategies are efficient and effective in the rapidly changing world. In recent years, there has been a scientific debate between geologists and environmentalists regarding the status of the current geological epoch. Officially, for the past 12,000 years, humans have been living within the Holocene epoch (Purdy, 2016). However, some environmentalists have contended that the rise of humanity and the consumption of fossil fuels have triggered a new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene is said to be the latest geological epoch when humans first transformed into a biological agent that has had a significant impact on global environmental systems. While humanity has existed for only about one one-hundredth of one percent of the Earth’s total history, some scientists say that humans have permanently altered Earth’s planetary processes by prompting mass extinctions of animal and plant species, contaminating the oceans, and changing the composition of the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels (Stromberg, 2013). The notion of mass extinctions, climate change, and global pollution makes it even more imperative to review how fossil fuels have impacted conservation initiatives in the Anthropocene.

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Fossil Fuels as the Driving Agent

Since the notion of the Anthropocene was first coined in 2002 by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, there have been various hypotheses about the timeline when humans physically began to modify multi-scalar material environments and the overall composition of Earth’s atmosphere. Many scientists and academics agree that the Anthropocene essentially began with the Industrial Revolution. The pairing of humans with fossil fuels has fundamentally created the driving agent for the Anthropocene. Separately, these two forces could not produce a new geological epoch. Even though some scientists argue that humans began to alter the environment with the development of agriculture, forest clearing, and slash-and-burn techniques, there was not a significant environmentally-altering effect. The Industrial Revolution brought on the expenditure of millions of years of stored energy (in the form of fossil fuels) for short-term gain, which has already started to have an effect on the climate and global biodiversity.

Media headlines and scientific journals exclaim that humans are waging war on the environment, while the Anthropocene is forcing us face our own collective destructiveness. Moreover, the notion of the Anthropocene is also forcing humans to think about a future that might not be better than the present. In fact, scientists say that the world is already experiencing severe changes related to the climate. Besides the warming due to greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere, evidence shows that stronger storms are becoming more frequent, devastating wildfire seasons are impacting countries around the globe, and extreme droughts are initiating mass migrations. Furthermore, these impacts are being felt on a global scale. Lake Urmia, once Iran’s largest lake, is now almost completely dried-up. Collectively, the extreme weather events and the unprecedented droughts could just be a small preview of what the future might hold.

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Conservation Strategies

In the face of uncertain shifts in the global climate, natural resource management and ecosystem conservation requires new approaches to address dramatic new challenges (Lawler, 2009). Since projections have shown that fossil fuel consumption is likely to continue for decades, the concept of the Anthropocene has altered discussions related to conservation. The dialogue has shifted efforts to focus on how humanity is going to adapt to varying ecological transformations rather than focusing on keeping global greenhouse-gas emissions below significant thresholds, because humanity has already bypassed those key emission thresholds. In her latest book, The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, environmental journalist Emma Marris, contends that it is no longer practicable to focus conservation initiatives on isolated pockets of pristine landscapes. As an alternative, Marris persuasively claims that humanity would be better off focusing efforts on sustaining a balance of diverse ecosystems that are maintained with the help of a human touch. Some environmental advocates and scientists have recommended that we should embrace Marris’ “rambunctious garden” theory instead of continuing to support the notion that humanity should continue to try to preserve as many plants and animals as possible (Purdy, 2016).

The chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy, Peter Kareiva, also advocates for a similar shift in conservation efforts. Rather than being consumed over the idea of protecting of biodiversity for the sake of biodiversity, Kareiva would like to see a science-based methodology to assess ecosystems based on the quality of ecosystem services that they provide (Purdy, 2016). In a time when conservation funding seems to be dwindling, it would be illogical and inefficient to continue to try to overcome the unwinnable war of conserving as many species as possible (Roberts, 2013). The paradigm shift brought up by Kareiva and Marris may be a progressive approach to maintaining an equilibrium between the needs of an exponentially growing human population, increasing fossil fuel consumption, and the health of global plant and animal species.

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Fossil Fuels and Ecosystems

Over the past century, there has been a notable increase in the amount of land and sea that has been formally designated as protected (Watson, et al 2014). However, even with the pronounced expansion of protected areas, humanity has continued to see a decline in global biodiversity and an increase in fossil fuel consumption. At what point in history did humanity start to threaten ecosystems on a global scale? The invention of the steam engine, the Industrial Revolution, and the extraction of petroleum as an energy source were all seen as innovative and exciting victories for the advancement of humanity. During the 18th and 19th centuries, nobody would have thought that the newly industrialized society could possibly alter massive global environmental systems. Using fossil fuels for energy seemed like the ideal situation since there was a much greater energy return compared to the energy invested into extracting the fuels. However, today’s petroleum engineers are no longer seeing spewing fields of oil in places like California and Texas. Instead, oil and gas companies are investing huge amounts of energy to extract oil from tar sands, shale deposits, and from miles beneath the ocean, which is further exacerbating climate change and threatening conserved lands.

As oil companies continue to fight over the right to drill for oil in environmentally sensitive areas of Earth, humans are unknowingly accelerating the impact on global biodiversity. Currently, environmentalists are struggling to protect conserved lands within the United States. President Donald Trump’s recent executive order on energy production may make it easier to drill for oil and gas within conserved lands. There are currently over 500 active oil and gas wells spread throughout 12 national parks (Frostenson, 2017). In 2016, the Obama administration put in measures to require minimally invasive drilling practices and other basic safety and environmental regulations in national parks. However, the Trump administration has vowed to cut those regulations, which would allow 30 additional national parks to be opened up for drilling (Frostenson, 2017). National parks were formed to protect some of America’s most environmentally sensitive ecosystems. New drilling for oil and gas in national parks would threaten much of America’s untouched wilderness.

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Global Biodiversity

As humanity pushes forward into the Anthropocene, human activities will continue to threaten Earth’s natural resources and global biodiversity. The Anthropocene will be a deciding period for humanity. Humans could fight through adversity and find a path toward sustainability, or we could fight over every last drop of extractable oil on the planet and eventually impact all of the world’s protected areas. While the oil-addicted society may be on the brink of environmental catastrophe, scientists and environmentalists emphasize that it’s important not to lose hope.

Plant and animal species have begun to evolve, hybridize, and flourish in some man-made environments (Roberts, 2013). Peter Kareiva has even said that “nature is resilient rather than fragile” (Purdy, 2016). Scientific evidence shows that in recent decades, there has actually been a rise in the number of terrestrial species within developed landscapes (Roberts, 2013). Therefore, instead of focusing conservation efforts entirely on separating humanity from the world’s protected areas, this conveys an opportunity to increase biological diversity within developed areas. Despite the global effort that has been made towards increasing the size and effectiveness of conserved areas, it’s evident that there is declining support for protected areas since governments are cutting back on their commitment to support conservation efforts (Watson et al, 2014).

There isn’t one simple solution to address conservation efforts in the Anthropocene. Instead, policymakers are working on a multi-faceted approach to reduce fossil fuel consumption, cut carbon emissions, develop climate change adaptation strategies, and modernize the protected-area movement. It’s clear that traditional efforts to conserve natural landscapes have been ineffective and inefficient. Moreover, with new threats from the Trump administration, scientists say that it is even more imperative to develop a new approach to conservation and energy production. As signs continue to point toward a global energy transition, fossil fuel companies are starting to become increasingly concerned about their future in the global economy. Between July 2014 and January 2015, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which is a stock market index that measures the stock performance of 30 large companies listed on stock exchanges in the United States, climbed by over 72 percent. Conversely, fossil fuel companies have not had the same level of success. For example, between July 2014 and January 2015, stock in Exxon Mobil has collapsed by over 35 percent.

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Finding Solutions

The Anthropocene will be a pivotal time for humanity. As conservation efforts continue to be hindered by fossil fuel extraction and production, and the impacts from climate change continue to become more apparent, policymakers will have to determine how to balance global energy needs and environmental conservation. As global leaders are starting to make renewable energy portfolio standards become a more common initiative, investors have become increasingly dissuaded from taking a stake in fossil fuel-related developments. Instead, renewably sourced energy installations have started to become more attractive from an economic standpoint, which has made clean energy become more competitive with traditional forms of energy generation. The growing awareness about the environmental and health impacts from fossil fuels has contributed to increasing political precedents related to reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

As technological advancements continue to lead to new fossil fuel discoveries, oil prices have fallen dramatically since 2008. While the discovery of new reserves in countries like Canada, the U.S., and Brazil have eased the uncertainty about future production, environmentalists remain concerned about how these reserves will impact the global energy transition. Moreover, as oil production pressures have begun to shift away from traditional petro-autocracies like Russia, Iran, Venezuela, Iraq, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia, energy analysts predict that the new and emerging Canadian, American, and Brazilian energy leaders will be less susceptible to the financial and political turmoil that was often experienced by the 20th century’s global oil leaders. Overall, it is clear that policymakers, environmentalists, and fossil fuel advocates will have to strike a balance between growth and conservation to prevent political and environmental turmoil in the Anthropocene.

Sources

Cusick, D. (2016). “Fossil Fuels May Not Dwindle Anytime Soon.” Scientific American.

International Energy Agency. (2013). “Resources to Reserves 2013: Oil, Gas and Coal Technologies for the Energy Markets of the Future.” Organization for Economic Cooperation Development/International Energy Agency.

Frostenson, S. (2017). “Trump wants to make it easier to drill in national parks. We mapped the 42 parks at risk.” Vox.

Lawler, J. (2009). “Climate Change Adaptation Strategies for Resource Management and Conservation Planning.” The Year in Ecology and Conservation Biology: Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1162: 79–98.

Meehan, G. (2017). “Thank You Fossil Fuels and Good Night: The 21st Century’s Energy Transition.” The University of Utah Press: Salt Lake City

Myers, N., et al. (2000). “Biodiversity hotspots for conservation priorities.” Nature: 403, 853-858.

Purdy, J. (2016). “Surviving the Anthropocene: What’s Next for Humanity?” Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Roberts, P.  (2013). “The Anthropocene could raise biological diversity.” Nature.

Shafiee, S. (2009). “When will fossil fuel reserves be diminished?” Science Direct.

Stromberg, J. (2013) “What Is the Anthropocene and Are We in It?” Smithsonian.

Watson, J., et al. (2014). “The performance and potential of protected areas.” Nature. 515, 67-73 doi:10.1038/nature13947

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