The Anthropocene, or the age of man, is a new geological time period defined by humankind’s massive impact on our planet. The common use of the term Anthropocene dates back to 2000 and is attributed to chemist Paul Crutzen and diatom researcher Eugene Stoermer. It now has a book and podcast named after it, both by well-known author John Green.
I’ve been fascinated by the Anthropocene since the first time I heard about it. The idea that one species can so fundamentally change the trajectory of a planet boggles my mind, even as I read evidence quite regularly that we are doing just that.
The techno-optimist in me wants to believe the problems we’ve caused are solvable. It is also the part of me that provides me with the hope to continue working in the field of circular economy. The thought that often creeps in, though, as I think about how humans can clean up the mess we’ve created, is actually quite different: What if humans suddenly disappeared tomorrow? Then what?
"The World Without Us" by journalist and award-winning author Alan Weisman was published in 2007. The book was named best nonfiction book of 2007 by Time Magazine. I read it over a decade ago, but still think about it almost daily and picked it up again recently for another look. The book was described as "one of the grandest thought experiments of our time" by educator, author and environmentalist Bill McKibben. If you ask me, it still reads like that today.
Weisman imagines in great detail what would happen to Earth if humans disappeared completely and almost immediately. You can envision Kang and Kodos (from "The Simpsons") picking everyone up all at once in their spacecraft to take us back to Rigel VII.
The book draws on the real outcomes of places that were once dominated by humans but then abandoned, such as the abandoned nuclear site Chernobyl and the war-stricken and deserted resort town of Varosha. It also asks experts from atmospheric scientists to oil refiners to weigh in on what would happen if humans no longer inhabited the Earth. A few of my favorite examples include anecdotes about Houston, the toxic and unnatural soil signature we’ve left and the downfall of the Mayan people.
Houston and the story of rubber
The story of Houston’s petrochemical legacy in some ways starts, oddly enough, with a natural material. Natural rubber has many practical uses but does suffer from brittleness when too cold and softening when too hot. Charles Goodyear changed all that with his discovery of vulcanization in 1839.
The rest of the story is one that tracks very neatly with our linear economy. The tire industry exploded in the early 1900s, and by the start of World War II, natural rubber demand and the use of vulcanization were both soaring. Most of the U.S. rubber supply at that time came from Southeast Asia, and being locked out of that market during the war led U.S. scientists to develop synthetic rubber.
In other words, like many things in our linear economy, a natural material that could biodegrade was supplanted by a synthetic material that cannot, and it was all fueled by petrochemicals.
"The World Without Us" goes on to describe what would eventually happen to Houston if humans were gone (think fires, explosions, toxic plumes and a very slow recovery), but I won’t go into those gory details here.
Soil health or the lack thereof
The human legacy on the Earth’s soil seems like a good segue from the petrochemical industry to the story of the Mayan civilization. When it comes to soil, let’s just agree that humans have not done it any favors.
We’ve intentionally and unintentionally added synthetic chemicals, and we’ve deteriorated soil quality and quantity through monoculture farming and other human activities. We’ve also done quite a poor job of using the nutrients we’ve pulled from soil and returning them back to where they belong.
The toxic fingerprints of our existence include increases in heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants and acidification. This is, again, in service of an extractive economy that favors short-term gain over long-term sustainability.
The collapse of the Mayan civilization
The story of the Mayan people still astonishes researchers. All evidence points to a society that survived — nay, thrived — in a largely peaceful existence for at least 1,600 years.
At some point, though, that order broke down, and some combination of drought, food shortages, greed and war quickly destroyed everything that had been built. Within only 100 years, the Mayan civilization was gone.
Regardless of the combination of factors that led to the demise, though, extractive practices, greed and growth at any cost were at the core.
Use your imagination
So what do we do about it? I often talk about the need to use creativity and to unlearn our deeply ingrained linear habits and practices to step forward toward a circular future. I think reading a book such as "The World Without Us" and thinking about this new geologic era we’ve created can be instructive in doing just that.
With that, my challenge is to ask your organizations to envision what indelible mark any new product or service might leave on the planet, either positively or negatively, and weigh that against the overall value of putting it out in the world in the first place.
It is intriguing for me to think that because we have altered the planet so quickly and so thoroughly, that maybe we also have a similar ability to fix it? If the planet’s degradation was caused by external forces, it might be difficult to wrap our heads around solving the problem. Being that we have created the problem, though, maybe we can just reverse-engineer our way to better outcomes?