How one organization is visualizing our impact on earth

This is the age of humans.

At least, that's the argument a number of scientists and scholars are making. They say that the impact of humans on the earth since the early 19th century has been so great, and so irreversible, that it has created a new era similar to the Pleistocene or Holocene. Nobel Prize winner Paul J. Crutzen even proposed the name Anthropocene, and it’s begun to catch on.

Communicating this idea to the public is one of the goals of Globaïa, an educational organization that specializes in creating visuals to explain environmental issues. In a recent project, they mapped population centers, transportation routes and energy transmission lines. Founder and director Felix D. Pharand answered a few questions about understanding and visualizing this new epoch.

What makes this era significant enough to be considered a new epoch?

We know that humans have over the centuries become a driving force on our planet. We have been, for the last thousand of years or so, the main geomorphic agent on Earth. It might be hard to believe but, nowadays, human activities shift about ten times as much material on continents’ surface as all geological processes combined. Though our technologies and extensive land-use, we have become a land-shaping force of nature, similar to rivers, rain, wind and glaciers.

Furthermore, over the last 60 years (since the end of WWII), many major human activities have been sharply accelerating in pace and intensity. Not only population trends and atmospheric CO2 but also water use, damming of rivers, deforestation, fertilizer consumption, to name a few. The period is called the “great acceleration” and today’s environmental problems are somehow linked to this rapid global increase of population and consumption and its impacts on the Earth System.

I think the Anthropocene is an important concept because it gives a name and a framework to understand today’s world.

Why do you think it’s important to map the Anthropocene?

For many, the Anthropocene is an idea. We can agree with its validity or not. It is however also a period or era -- this is still discussed by stratigraphy experts -- in our global history. I think it is important to see such trends in space and time. Maps are visual representations of spatial or geographic features. Besides, we live in a world where pictures are increasingly present and influential. The meaning of pictures can be grasp without words. We all know how the Earth as seen by Apollo 17 astronauts on December 17, 1972 affected our worldview.

Thus, mapping the extent of our infrastructures and the energy flows of our activities is, I believe, a good starting point to increase awareness of the peculiarities of the present era. I wish these images, along with other tools created by many scientists and NGOs, could contribute to enhance mutual understanding and create collective solutions. For we all share the same tiny, pale blue dot. 

Anthropocene Mapping from Globaïa on Vimeo.

Your maps include cities, transportation paths and various transmission lines of both power and information. Why do you feel these are valid ways of examining the impact of humans on the earth?

There are many ways to map our impacts on planet Earth. We can map croplands and pasture lands, as well as anthropogenic biomes (the so-called “anthromes”). My goal was to create something new where we could essentially see the main channels through which human exchanges (transport, energy, resources, information) are occurring. Roads and railways are high-impacts human features for obvious reasons. Pipelines and transmission lines are feeding our global civilization, for better or for worse. Submarine cables are physically linking continents together and contributing to this “age of information.” I could have added telephone lines, satellites, smalls road, mines, dams and so on — but the point was not to create map with overly saturated areas either.

In your website’s explanation about mapping the Anthropocene, there is a reference to the “human layer that grows inside the biosphere.” Can you discuss the role of the human in the ecosystem, and its physical footprint on the earth?

I was referring to the Anthroposphere as the human layer of the Earth System. The biosphere is made out of living matter. Together with the atmosphere, the lithosphere (including the asthenosphere) and the hydrosphere (including the cryosphere), this set of concentric spheres is creating the ecosphere -- our world, the Earth. It is quite an old world where many dramatic events took place and where billion of innovations happened through evolution. It is a world fed by our mighty Sun. It is a world where humans appeared only recently. Now, indeed, our species and its 7 billion people is still growing inside it, converting ever more wilderness areas into human-influenced landscapes. This world is however finite, unique and fragile. Now is a good time to start thinking of it this way. I believe we are still, in our heads, living in a pre-Copernician world. It’s time to upgrade our worldview.

Do you think there should be an official recognition of the Anthropocene?

I think it is important to acknowledge what we have collectively become (a dominant and potentially dangerous species for the rest of the biosphere) by naming our moment in time with a novel name. To teach it in schools and discuss it in the media would imply talking about today’s socio-ecological state and trends and to take steps towards solving the current converging crisis.

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