There’s No Place Like Home

Brad Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz explain why Climate Change is so hard to get using the Wizard of OZ. Scientists and climate activists have been forced to communicate complex model-based information as scary simplifications, to be heard. Does the information age necessarily dumb down all messages to "if it bleeds it leads" sound bites?

… in the Anthropocene, everything is more complicated.

We are not in Kansas anymore, where things are simple, the truth is clear, and we know what we know. Everything really is connected to everything else now, ...

The essence of the Anthropocene is not really about humanity’s planetary-scale impact, but about the beginnings of a radical destabilization of the core human ideas and institutions that made this impact possible.

Three powerful Anthropocene trends are remaking the relationship among humans, our knowledge of the world we inhabit, and the relationship between that knowledge and the choices we make about how to try to make the world better:

First: Science ain’t what it used to be.

Now the focus is increasingly on computational models and scenarios aimed at exploring complex phenomena (such as climate change) that unfold on scales from the global to the molecular.

Second: Information, which used to be scarce and closely guarded, is now everywhere, accessible to everyone.

Today no individual or institution can ever have a monopoly on knowledge or expertise.

Third: Therefore, the boundary between authoritative knowledge on one hand, and the subjective worlds of policy, ethics, and even religion on the other, grows increasingly fuzzy and meaningless.

The complexity of the Anthropocene—in which, for example, climate change is an emergent phenomenon of 300 years of industrialism—is not subject to the sort of verifiable and predictive understanding that characterized science of the sort that Copernicus, Newton, or even Einstein practiced.

these changessignal the most profound shift in social and cultural understanding of the role of science since the Scientific Revolution and the early Enlightenment, with its emphasis on formal knowledge as a basis for solving problems.

Both individuals and institutions struggle to adjust to this new, and historically unprecedented, level of information flow. Attention is an increasingly scarce commodity even as claims of authority proliferate. Through the din, climate scientists and activists … find that they simply are not heard given the tsunamis of information that engulf the public. To be heard above this cacophony, to even hope to be relevant beyond a small group of already committed individuals, they grow increasingly loud, scary, and simplistic. [emphasis mine]

But, the remedy proposed by Allenby and Sarewitz sounds unconvincingly simplistic.

What we will need above all to manage complexity in the Anthropocene is humility all around.

... the biggest mistake we can make is to focus too narrowly on one thing or one way of doing things.

Climate change is not a problem of our old way of doing things—it’s a symptom of our new condition.

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Scientists at University College London say the essence of the Anthropocene is about humanity’s planetary-scale impact. Previously, 1964 has been suggested as a start date for the Anthropocene, because a radioactive trace from atomic bombs formed a geologic marker, and CO2 emissions began a rapid rise. 1610 is a competing start date.

Epoch-defining study pinpoints when humans came to dominate planet ...

The human-dominated geological epoch known as the Anthropocene probably began around the year 1610, with an unusual drop in atmospheric carbon dioxide and the irreversible exchange of species between the New and Old Worlds, according to new research.

Previous epochs began and ended due to factors including meteorite strikes, sustained volcanic eruptions and the shifting of the continents.

Defining an epoch requires two main criteria to be met. Long-lasting changes to the Earth must be documented. Scientists must also pinpoint and date a global environmental change that has been captured in natural material, such as rocks, ancient ice or sediment from the ocean floor. Such a marker -- like the chemical signature left by the meteorite strike that wiped out the dinosaurs -- is called a golden spike.

The study authors systematically compared the major environmental impacts of human activity over the past 50,000 years against these two formal requirements. Just two dates met the criteria: 1610, when the collision of the New and Old Worlds a century earlier was first felt globally; and 1964, associated with the fallout from nuclear weapons tests. The researchers conclude that 1610 is the stronger candidate.

The scientists say the 1492 arrival of Europeans in the Americas, and subsequent global trade, moved species to new continents and oceans, resulting in a global re-ordering of life on Earth. This rapid, repeated, cross-ocean exchange of species is without precedent in Earth's history.

The researchers also found a golden spike that can be dated to the same time: a pronounced dip in atmospheric carbon dioxide centered on 1610 and captured in Antarctic ice-core records. The drop occurred as a direct result of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Colonisation of the New World led to the deaths of about 50 million indigenous people, most within a few decades of the 16th century due to smallpox. The abrupt near-cessation of farming across the continent and the subsequent re-growth of Latin American forests and other vegetation removed enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce a drop in CO2.

The authors also considered the merits of dating the Anthropocene to 1964, which saw a peak in radioactive fallout following nuclear weapons testing. This marker is seen in many geological deposits, and by the 1960s human impact on the Earth was large. However, the researchers note that while nuclear war could dramatically alter Earth, so far it has not. While the fallout from nuclear bomb tests is a very good marker, the testing of nuclear weapons has not been -- in geological terms -- an Earth-changing event. [emphasis mine]

image source

So while a profound shift in social and cultural understanding of the role of science does characterize the contemporary Anthropocene Era, geologists need more tangible markers for its start date.

For now, I'll go with the 1610 start date.

There's a deeper connection between the view Allenby and Sarewitz present of the Anthropocene and the criteria for defining its beginning in 1610. Both perspectives deal with the scope of human information processing on a global scale.

Consider the mass of the smallpox virus particles, transported across the Atlantic by Europeans, impacting global CO2 levels. Consider the mass of Antarctic snow bearing witness to the human tragedy and ecological shift caused by that tiny mass. European information systems such as ship building, the sextant and compass, and map making made it possible for that minute amount of viral matter to shift other matter and energy globally.

The edge of chaos is the boundary between order and chaos, where information gets the upper hand over matter and energy. The edge of chaos spawns complex adaptive systems, wherein tiny differences of mass and energy, such as atoms in DNA, can generate orders of magnitude larger changes, such as cell reproduction and organism traits. The deep definition of the Anthropocene is rooted in Complex Systems.

As I see it, the Anthropocene Era is defined by the threshold wherein human information systems allow information encoded ultramicroscopically to change the chemistry of Earth.

This image by Michael Michelitsch and Albert Mürle could represent the Anthropocene.

Michel fractalplanetw022

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Or perhaps this work by Michael Michelitsch.

Red Blue Planet Fractal

image source

Which do you think best captures the power of what's happening in our era?

Here's a chart from Scientific American:

Mass Deaths in Americas Start New CO2 Epoch




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