Friday, May 17, 2013

Welcome to the Anthropocene

Cutthroat Castle, Hovenweep
The open skies and sweeping views of the Four Corners lend themselves to wondering and philosophizing.  When I hike out to the ruins of an ancient dwelling built precariously upon the boulders at the head of a forlorn canyon, the remains of a village abandoned 700 years ago, a common reaction is to reflect upon who I am and where my civilization is going.

The Anasazi ruins of Cutthroat Castle are part of Hovenweep, which is a Ute word for deserted canyon.  These days, only a few miles from the Canyons of the Ancients, dryland farming of beans, sunflowers, and winter wheat again reform many acres that were once vast sagebrush scrublands.  All rivers in the southwest are dammed for irrigation, with cattle ranching and sheep grazing occurring on all lands too steep and rocky for cultivation, including even alpine mountains so remote to be designated Wilderness Areas.  The mountains have supported 200 years of mining and logging, and has changed the composition and resiliency of our forests.  Overgrazing in some areas has resulted in desertification and disruption of soils, causing dust storms to transport topsoil vast distances.  The locals here have even adopted a Dust Bowl era cliche' when the strong south winds blow, "I expect Arizona is coming to visit today."  Open pit mines of copper, uranium,  palladium, and molybdenum  near the Four Corners can be seen from space, as well as our brilliant night lights powered by the coal that leaves tell-tale traces of mercury, sulfur and nitrates in sediments.
Tortured Utah Juniper and Cryptobiotic Soil

Some of this man-made geologic epoc, termed the Anthropocene, is really interesting to see in satellite images; particularly time-lapse LANDSAT images, such as urban development, disappearing seas, island building, forest clearing, and a plethora of other signs of human "progress".  Considering most of these images are less than 25 years old, it is stunning to witness the scope, magnitude, and pace of change.  However, these changes have been happening in North America since the Holocene.  In the book, The Call of Distant Mammoths, the extinction of most of our large mammals and their predators are linked to the shockwave of human expansion radiating from the Bering Land Bridge, which is stunning to consider how low the population density that can accomplish such irrevocable loss.  Soon, a new stasis of North American biota was achieved, such as the expansion of great grasslands aided by the frequent fires humans intentionally set.  This would soon change again as the next migrants arrived in North America, the Industrialists, and set in motion the next wave of extinction events that are still in progress.
Mariposa Lily

These new changes to the landscape, such as farming, logging, roads, and concrete do leave a geologic imprint that will be recorded in sedimentary layers for eons.  The predicted moderate sea-level rise is much more notable, but it's not as if Florida hasn't been submerged before just 20 million years ago.  Impressive (frightening?) as these facts are, they pale in comparison to geologic changes such as the Great Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway, Ice Ages, Lake Bonneville Flood, or the Laramide Orogeny.

What is more subtle yet powerful than geographical change is the recent fossil record of the biosphere.  Not only is our biosphere changing in species composition and radical ecosystem shifts, but with the advent of the 21st century technology, we now have the power to shuffle 4 billion years of evolution, opening up an incredible potential and a new Pandora's Box.
Cutthroat Tower

I just finished reading a book called "Frankenstein's Cat", which briefly presents several new bio-technologies that are rapidly developing and, in my opinion, will be the next technological revolution with the potential to change our way of life and the world as we know it.  The book discusses current technologies including cloning, wiring the brains of mammals with micro-circuitry to become remote controlled toys and tools, and the big game changer... genetic engineering.  The author briefly describes a few pros and cons of these technologies, but more importantly, wants us to think hard about how we want to use these new technologies.  Is cloning species to prevent extinction good (especially if the habitat has been lost)?  How about cloning extinct species (particularly if their extinction was directly caused by humans... like Neanderthals)?  How about cloning your dead pet for fun, or a prize steer with robust traits for profit, or your Supreme Leader?  How about tweaking modern elephants to resemble their long-lost cousins and help them stave off the next potential Canfield Ocean cycle?

Scarlet Cup Cactus

And cloning is the least complex of the moral and secular problems.  Pharming goats with genes spliced from bacteria to produce cancer drugs, GMO crops with genes from pigs, jellyfish, or even synthetic genes to resist drought, disease, or trademarked herbicides?  How about corn with human genes?  How about splicing in the FOXP2 gene to dolphins and creating a new evolutionary path for civilized cetaceans?  How about gene therapy to cure diseases, increase longevity, or make your next transhuman child "advanced"?  So much potential and topics that it's easy for someone like me who cannot even clearly define my own ethical standards to animals to wallow in a mire of hypocrisy.  Perhaps the best thing I learned from Frankenstein's Cat is that it is normal to be stuck in the troubled middle, where rational thought and emotions blend together in contradictions.
Anazasi were awesome architects

Every week a new article or radio broadcast makes me ponder this huge quagmire all over.  Clearly, I need a walk in the glow-in-the-dark woods to help me see more clearly.  The home I currently live in is built next door to some long-ago crumbled Anazazi ruins, I wonder who/what will be living here in another thousand years?

So welcome to the Antropocene and the brave, new world that awaits us.  After all, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself (and perhaps mutant-cyborg-sentient-terrestrial-jellyfish Overlords).