Saturday, March 10, 2012

NATURE IS OVER by Bryan Walsh, TIME MAGAZINE 3/12/12

Photo for TIME by Johannes Mann / Corbis
Below are excerpts from an article in TIME Magazine, 3/12/12, by Bryan Walsh.  It is called NATURE IS OVER.  The message is double edged: either defeat or a call to responsibility and vision.  Choose the latter ...

For a species that has been around for less than 1% of 1% of the earth's 4.5 billion-year history, Homo sapiens has certainly put its stamp on the place. Humans have had a direct impact on more than three-quarters of the ice-free land on earth. Almost 90% of the world's plant activity now takes place in ecosystems where people play a significant role. We've stripped the original forests from much of North America and Europe and helped push tens of thousands of species into extinction. Even in the vast oceans, among the few areas of the planet uninhabited by humans, our presence has been felt thanks to overfishing and marine pollution. Through artificial fertilizers--which have dramatically increased food production and, with it, human population--we've transformed huge amounts of nitrogen from an inert gas in our atmosphere into an active ingredient in our soil, the runoff from which has created massive aquatic dead zones in coastal areas. And all the CO2 that the 7 billion-plus humans on earth emit is rapidly changing the climate--and altering the very nature of the planet.

Human activity now shapes the earth more than any other independent geologic or climatic factor. Our impact on the planet's surface and atmosphere has become so powerful that scientists are considering changing the way we measure geologic time. Right now we're officially living in the Holocene epoch, a particularly pleasant period that started when the last ice age ended 12,000 years ago. But some scientists argue that we've broken into a new epoch that they call the Anthropocene: the age of man. "Human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth is already an undeniable reality," writes Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize--winning atmospheric chemist who first popularized the term Anthropocene. "It's no longer us against 'Nature.' Instead, it's we who decide what nature is and what it will be.”

... Today the total human biomass is a hundred times as great as that of any other large animal species that has ever walked the earth. That growth has been aided by the use of fossil fuels as humans have learned to tap coal, oil and natural gas, which has steadily warmed the atmosphere and further altered the planet.

After World War II we added nuclear power to the mix--making radioactive fallout one more physical mark of our presence--and global population and economic expansion went into overdrive. The change has been so rapid that scientists have dubbed the past half-century the Great Acceleration--and this period shows little sign of slowing as economic growth and improved health care extends the life spans and turbocharges the resource use of billions of people in the developing world.

That's why the Anthropocene demands a dramatic change for environmentalism. Since the days of John Muir--the 19th century Scottish-American naturalist who founded the Sierra Club--the goal of environmentalism has been the preservation of wilderness. Muir fought to create some of the U.S.'s first national parks, in Yosemite and the sequoia forest, with the aim of protecting untrammeled nature from human activity. People were seen as a threat to wilderness and to naturalness, and isolation was regarded as the solution.


The reality is that in the Anthropocene, there may simply be no room for nature, at least not nature as we've known and celebrated it--something separate from human beings--something pristine. There's no getting back to the Garden, assuming it ever existed. For environmentalists, that will mean changing strategies, finding methods of conservation that are more people-friendly and that allow wildlife to coexist with human development. It means, if not embracing the human influence on the planet, at least accepting it.


But managing the Anthropocene will necessitate more than simply banning certain pollutants or activities. It will also mean promoting the sort of technology that environmentalists have often opposed, from nuclear power--still the biggest carbon-free utility-scale energy source, despite the risk of accidents and the problem of radioactive-waste disposal--to genetically modified crops that could allow us to grow more food on less land, saving precious space for wildlife. It will mean privileging cities, because dense urbandevelopments turn out to be the most sustainable and efficient settlements on the planet. And if we prove unable to quickly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, we may be required to consciously fiddle with the climate through geoengineering, using artificial clouds or other planetary-scale technology to reduce the earth's temperature directly.

Of course, humans have been effectively geoengineering the planet for centuries. We were just doing it unconsciously, as a by-product of our relentless expansion. Humans aren't even the first species to create change on a planetary scale. The earth's atmosphere is oxygenated because cyanobacteria helped produce that gas more than 2 billion years ago. But even though cyanobacteria weren't conscious of what they were doing, we are, or at least we should be. Our ability to comprehend the full extent of the human impact on earth puts us in a unique position as planetary gardeners, a responsibility we have no choice but to take on. We have been lucky for much of our species' existence, blessed by the comfortably warm climate of the Holocene, able to spread our growing numbers across a seemingly limitless planet.

A  concept for a human habitat of controlled growth where people decide to live in dense urban areas and give unsustainable suburban sprawl back to Nature.

But that age is over, replaced by the uncertainty of the Anthropocene, whether geologists decide to formally call it that or not. We'll decide whether human beings continue to thrive or flame out, taking the planet down along the way. It may be an unhappy reality, because there's no guarantee that the Anthropocene--crowded with billions of human beings--will be as conducive to life as the past 12,000 years have been. "We are as gods," writes the environmentalist and futurist Stewart Brand. "And we have to get good at it."

A High Place for Chicago - 2006 to Now:  A Concept for Greenroofing the Highways of Chicago


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