We really are a unique species and oh my how we like to shout about it...as if there were anyone listening. We slice and dice time and space into regions and epochs, we cut and paste our world, define and refine, categorize and annotate. It is of no surprise that our endeavors continue to have serious effects on geography across the globe. That is so when we are tearing apart the earth for chunks of carbon, coal or diamond, and countless other materials. Those materials we ultimately render into functionalized or fully oxidized pollutants in the form of plastic particulates and carbon dioxide. We are defining the times of our lives as The Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene, man's epoch, has not yet been set in stone. The term was used at least as early as the 1960s by Russian scientists but as of the summer of this truly obnoxious annus horribilis, 2016, scientific bodies had yet to officially recognize humanity's impact on the world as defining an actual geological epoch. Give it a few more years of even more pollution and global warming and maybe their hand will be forced. Indeed, a recent paper hinted at just how (literally) massive our impact is on the planet.
A team at the University of Leicester, UK, and their international collaborators have worked out how much all the products of technology weigh if we take into account buildings and bridges, factories and phones, mines and landfills and everything in between. It comes to a staggering 30 million million tonnes. That is about 50 kilograms of technological matter for every square meter of the Earth's surface. Rather whimsically, the team also suggests that technofossil "species" now far outnumber the number of living species on our pale blue dot. "The technosphere is a major new phenomenon of this planet - and one that is evolving extraordinarily rapidly," says Leicester's Mark Williams.
Team member Jan Zalasiewicz explains that, "The technosphere is the brainchild of the USA scientist Peter Haff - also one of the co-authors of this paper. It is all of the structures that humans have constructed to keep them alive, in very large numbers now, on the planet: houses, factories, farms, mines, roads, airports and shipping ports, computer systems, together with its discarded waste." The technosphere is itself a dynamic system with its own energy flows and humanity is essentially a slave to this system. Once we talked of the Earth being analogous to a living organism, the concept taken to its logical conclusion in the Gaia hypothesis developed by chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s. If the Earth is a living organism in that sense then the technosphere is perhaps worryingly analogous to the science fiction notion of a cyborg as made famous by the Borg of Star Trek fame and the Cybermen of Doctor Who, as well as countless other sci-fi plots. They were not the "goodies", I hasten to add.
Moreover, Williams suggests that, "The technosphere can be said to have budded off the biosphere and arguably is now at least partly parasitic on it." Of course, the big difference between a dynamic, living system, an ecosystem, whether one conceptualizes that as a meta organism, is that the system we have created cannot with current technology recycle or even cope with its own waste products. "Compared with the biosphere, it is remarkably poor at recycling its own materials, as our burgeoning landfill sites show," Williams adds. "This might be a barrier to its further success - or halt it altogether."
Ultimately, we may have no control of the technosphere. The system is too big, too diverse, too complicated. Maybe by the time the scientists officially accept a definition of The Anthropocene, the epoch will already be over. But, if there's nobody out there listening to our shouting right now, then in the post-Anthropocene we may well not be around to hear ourselves and Gaia can get on with the job of recycling all our waste and burying those technofossils.
All that said, I ought to end my final "comment" of 2016 on a reasonably positive note and suggest that insights such as the technosphere not only throw our position on the planet into stark relief and thus give us an opportunity if not to take back control then at least to define and refine, categorize and annotate. Then, perhaps in so doing the concept could teach us a lesson before it is too late so that we might find a way to sustain the Anthropocene and all the wonders and delight that come with it, the art, the science, the creativity, the discovery, the responsibility, the humanity.
"Scale and diversity of the physical technosphere: A geological perspective' is published in The Anthropocene Review DOI: 10.1177/2053019616677743
David Bradley blogs at Sciencebase Science Blog and tweets @sciencebase, he is author of the popular science book "Deceived Wisdom".