Saturday, August 28, 2004

A New Era

FT science editor Clive Cookson reports in yesterday's paper that scientists argue that we have now entered a new geological era - the Anthropocene - characterised by the dominant influence of mankind on the Earth's systems. That may be overblown - early humans' indiscriminate hunting or slash and burn agriculture did little to save the wooly mammoth or Australia's giant dodo-like birds or to preserve the primordial forests.

With modern computing power and improved models, scientists now seem to be spooked at realising exactly how unstable and complex all these planetary processes are and the fear of catastrophe. One says
"The Anthropocene is a very different era from the relatively stable and nurturing environment in which humans and our societies have evolved. We should expect more instability in the future."
One scary illustration was the fairly comprehensive failure of the attempt to create a stable ecosystem within the sealed environment of the Biosphere 2 domes, which sought to discover how to create and manage a small scale environment to support human life. Several times, they needed huge injections of oxygen from outside to avoid suffocating the testing staff. Insects ran amok. Most plants died off. Carbon dioxide and nitrogen went haywire.

Perhaps the panicked tone reflects a degree of scientific vertigo. Like a man on a mountain peak, once the mist of misunderstanding clears, we're feeling a bit nervous now we see what might go wrong.