Andreas Späth

We’re re-engineering the entire biosphere

2015-07-06 12:00

Andreas Wilson-Späth

An alien geologist visiting earth millions of years from today, after the demise of the human species, will identify among the planet's rock strata distinct layers bearing the petrified evidence of our doings during our brief presence here. That, in a nutshell, is the idea behind the Anthropocene Epoch, the proposed new geological period we're busy living through.

Researchers distinguish between two main phases in the evolution of the earth's biosphere – the complex and interconnected community of life on the planet. The first was dominated by single-celled microorganisms like bacteria and lasted from approximately 3.5 billion to 650 million years ago. The ensuing second stage saw the rise of more complex multi-cellular animals with specialised tissues and organs, typically including nervous and digestive systems of some sort.

Now, there's literally no place on earth that hasn't been changed in some way by humans and in a recent paper, an international group of scientists argue that we've entered into a fundamentally different, third stage in the evolution of the biosphere, one that is defined by the activities of Homo sapiens. The authors outline how we are modifying the biosphere:

1. By spreading biological sameness

In our comparatively short history of ‘conquering’ the world, we have intentionally and accidentally allowed a relatively small number of plant and animal species (from microbes and rodents to potatoes and bunnies) to colonise new regions all over the planet, often to the detriment of indigenous residents and resulting in a growing global homogenisation of life.

2. By hogging nature's productivity

All species rely on the biological production of energy, most fundamentally (and with only a few freakish exceptions) through the photosynthetic harnessing of the power contained in sunlight. A single species – us – now consumes between 25 and 40% of all of the energy that’s continuously being manufactured by living things, as well as vast quantities of energy produced in the past which are now stored in fossil fuels (oil, coal, natural gas).

3. By manipulating evolution

By domesticating and breeding a small variety of plants and animals, genetic engineering, large-scale mono-cultural farming, industrialised overfishing and pushing wild species towards extinction through the destruction of natural habitats, we have increasingly become a main driving force behind the ongoing evolution of life on earth.

4. By launching the 'technosphere'

From the first Palaeolithic stone tool to cloud computing, technology has steadily improved our capacity to influence the natural environment, giving rise to a 'technosphere' [] which is increasingly and “inextricably linked into the biosphere” and which has its own evolution, the speed of which “is now several orders of magnitude more rapid than that of biological change”.

It’s pretty sobering stuff.

The authors of the paper note that our current trajectory “seems unsustainable, not least because the technosphere is much less effective in recycling its component materials than is the biosphere” and that the continued evolution of the biosphere is critically dependent on collective human behaviour.

What will our imaginary alien geologist from the future find on her visit to earth?

The physical evidence of a collapsed technosphere would probably amount to little more than "a short-lived event bed of 'urban strata' and related deposits" along with fossilised signs of "a moderate- to large-scale mass extinction event".

But the researchers also suggest that we have a choice in the outcome. If we manage to solve the problems we've created, we could potentially be "paving the way for a sustainable Anthropocene Earth" in which the technosphere "is stably integrated with the biosphere in a truly commensal relationship, producing a 'techno-biosphere' where the two are virtually inseparable but sustainable and co-evolve, rather than the present situation, in which the technosphere in effect is parasitising the biosphere".

Then, perhaps, our distant ancestors will still be around to welcome the extraterrestrial explorer.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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