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2012: the Anthropocene comes of age.

An epoch ago (way back in the Holocene, circa 1999), the Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen realized that he was no longer living in that stable slice of Earth's history that started only 10,000 years ago. Instead, he was living in some new geologic age, one shaped primarily by people, and he gave this new age the name Anthropocene, the Age of Humans. About six months ago, the cover of the Economist announced, "Welcome to the Anthropocene!" Although our new epoch is only 12 years old (and still unrecognized by Microsoft spellcheckers), it already has left the stable Holocene in a cloud of dust. As the Economist noted:
 "A single engineering project, the Syncrude mine in
 the Athabasca tar sands, involves moving 30 billion
 tonnes of earth--twice the amount of sediment that
 flows down all the worlds rivers in a year. Meanwhile ...
 50,000 large dams built over the last half-century cut
 the flow by nearly a fifth ... one reason river deltas are
 eroding faster than they are replenished.

 "The wilderness, for good or ill, is increasingly
 irrelevant. Almost 90% of the world's plant activity,
 by some estimates, is found in ecosystems where
 humans play a significant role. The sheer amount of
 human biomass now walking around the planet in the
 form of humans and livestock handily outweighs that
 of all other large animals."

The Economist also noted that human energy consumption and global warming is what makes our new age "problematic" but suggests that, given human ingenuity, new solar grids and nuclear energy will provide adequate clean power not just for the seven billion of us alive today, but for the ten billion soon to be. "As much as 100 clean terawatts, compared to today's dirty 15tw, is not inconceivable for the 22nd century. That would mean humanity was producing roughly as much useful energy as all the world's photosynthesis combined."

The big question, of course, is what will happen to the earth and to us before we achieve such abundant clean energy, and the answer to that question is what likely will make the Anthropocene truly earn its name. Shortly after "Welcome to the Anthropocene!" hit the newsstands, it was announced that carbon emissions had set a new record high--despite 20 years of growing alarm. Not only that, but climate change now appears to be happening faster than the most dire predictions of only a few years ago, world economies are considered too fragile to reduce emissions, and nuclear power is being curtailed as a result of the disaster in Japan. The net result is that the time has become ripe for solutions to climate change that don't require reducing emissions. The new buzzword is geo-engineering, and--almost unbelievably--one model for our salvation is based on a volcano.

Consider this (from Orrin Pilkey's new book, Global Climate Change: A Primer): the 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed an estimated 17 million tons of ash, 21 miles high, adding such an astounding amount of sulfur dioxide particulates into the stratosphere that the amount of sunlight reaching the earth's surface dropped by about 10 percent. As a result, global temperatures dropped by one degree Fahrenheit in the 12 months after the eruption. In the journal Climate Change, Paul Crutzen proposed the use of balloons or artillery guns for injecting reflective sulfates into the stratosphere. Researchers from UK-based Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering (SPICE) calculate that no more than 20 balloons positioned at 20 kilometers altitude could pump enough particles into the atmosphere to lower temps by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.


Other serious ideas for blocking sunlight include outfitting a fleet of ships with propellers to churn and spray seawater high enough into the air to reach existing clouds, increasing their size so that they block more sunlight. Bill Gates reportedly has funded a similar research project with $4.5 million. Even Steven Chu, the US secretary of energy, has weighed in with a proposal to paint roofs and highways to reflect more sunlight.

Of course, any solar radiation management ideas that include injecting the stratosphere with particulates come with grave concerns--acid rain, for example, or extensive damage to the ozone. Surprisingly, money is not an issue. Most of the ideas on the table are relatively inexpensive. So inexpensive, in fact, that some worry a super-passionate billionaire might go rogue with a haphazard plan that goes awry.

All this is to say that a new age, prophesied or not, has indeed arrived. It's an age of rapid change requiring a global shift in consciousness--an age in which humankind is both the creator and the destroyer. What will become of us is anyone's guess, but one thing does seem clear -and might be the mantra for our truly human age. To quote Gandhi, "Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it."
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Title Annotation:Updates & Observations: Soul+Body+Medicine
Author:Kiesling, Stephen; Sutherland, Matt
Publication:Spirituality & Health Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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