Cycles, human civilization, and the Anthropocene

Is it the end of the world as we know it? Thoughts for World Environment Day.

We are wired for cycles. It is as obvious as it is fundamental to our physiology. The rhythms of the Earth and the Sun spin inside each of us - indeed, in all worldly things. To each is the gift of creative expression of their own tempo to life, but only when we pay attention to the natural rhythms of the life all around us will we recognize our own.

We may defy the pace instilled in us from the dance of Earth, Moon, and Sun, but will never overcome it, control it, master it. Not for very long. There always comes the day when our delusions are stripped away

One day at a time

The Earth Day is the base of our human concept of time (by which I mean the solar day of just a flitter of a hummingbird’s wings longer than 24 hours, not the sidereal day of 23 hours 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4 seconds). It was long ago embedded in our primordial psyche. Measuring any finer division of time requires human intervention, even if nothing more than a stick shoved into the ground on a sunny day.

A day is also our core unit of titular recognition of importance. We have birthdays, holidays, Mothers Day, Fathers Day, Independence Day, Valentines Day — the list goes on and on. It seems almost insulting to claim only an hour of significance for something we care about: from noon to one, June 5 is Eat Your Brussel Sprouts Hour. It may be appropriate for Brussel Sprouts, but little else (a major flaw of Earth Hour).

It is a testament to the broken cadence of civilization that we should have a specific day -- one 24-hour period set aside on a common yet arbitrary calendar -- to signify the importance of “the environment,” while at the same time lamenting its decline, the slow burn of our home, because we can find no other way to live.

The pace of change

In 1958, the year I was born, climate scientist Charles Keeling of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography began charting seasonal and annual changes in the concentration of atmospheric CO2 from Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. Since then, what has become known as the “Keeling Curve” has measured the natural flow and ebb of seasonal CO2 as well is the precipitous aggregate rise and pace of change in the chemical balance of Earth’s atmosphere.

When my eyes first awakened to the world, CO2 concentrations hovered around 280 parts-per-million (ppm). As of this writing, the current average reading is 414.75 ppm, about 48 percent higher than the year I was born. In 60 years, concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen to a level the Earth hasn’t experienced in perhaps 3 million years, well beyond anything ever experienced human history. Let that sink in for a moment.

Not only does it represent the seventh consecutive year of new records for CO2 concentration, but an accelerating rate of change. In the earliest days of Keeling Curve measurement, changes in CO2 year-over-year averaged around 0.7 ppm. In the 1980s annual changes rose to 1.6 ppm. In the past decade the average rate of change has accelerated to 2.2 ppm. The 2019 peak is 3.5 ppm higher than the 2018 peak, the second highest annual jump on record.

A common trope of “climate denial” is that Earth’s climate has changed in the past, so why worry about any changes now? This is an unfortunate distraction as it ignores the drivers of change and the rate at which those changes happen.

Since life began on this planet, it has impacted Earth’s climate. Natural cycles of change incorporate the intricate web of life and the Earth which sustains it, a simpatico evolution that gave rise to humans and human civilization. But we have overlaid upon these cycles inputs that, left unchecked, will push the Earth into a new normal, a new steady state, that may well portend the end of the world as we know it.

It isn’t often, if ever before, that human civilization is presented, in one tiny fragment of time, a choice of such magnitude. We best consider it before it is too late.