The Scale of the Anthropocene

15 minute read (3132 words)

We now live in a geological era known as the Anthropocene, an epoch defined by anthropogenic, or human-caused, changes to major earth systems processes.

Let me say that again.

We now live in the Anthropocene. Humans have fundamentally altered the atmospheric, hydrologic, geologic, and biospheric process of Planet Earth to such an extent that this disruption merits its own geological time period.

Once more for the people in the back.

We live in the Anthropocene. Our collective planetary legacy is one defined by domination and destruction. Human subjugation of the planetary system is irrevocably damaging the Earth’s ability to maintain a stable climate and sustain complex life long-term. We have met the enemy, and they are us.

One human footprint. For full impact, multiply by 7+ billion.
And that’s only if we all hopped everywhere.

As biological beings that inherently exist in the here and now, the true scale of our planetary impact is hard to conceptualize. Every now and again, we may hear statistics about the extent of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest, or the quantity of plastic in the ocean, but it’s difficult to grasp what these gigantic numbers actually mean. How big is a hectare, anyway? What does a ton of plastic even look like? To a certain extent, it seems like we’ve been hearing these daunting statistics our whole lives, so what does it matter if commercial shipping releases a million more tons of CO2 to the atmosphere today? Or tomorrow?

When all that we’ve known is constantly-accelerating destruction, our entire understanding of life on Earth is defined by this ever-increasing scale of human impact. Paradoxically, this unprecedented scale of domination, rather than being continually overwhelming, becomes, well, normal. When we hear that potentially hundreds of species are going extinct each day, we don’t bat an eye. It’s just, more. When we read that atmospheric CO2 has reached over 400 parts per million, we hardly even process the information. More. When the news blares on about the amount of waste channeled to landfills each year, it makes perfect sense. More. Although we might care, perhaps even shed a tear, these ideas fit snugly into our established mental framework: more. They may be horrible, but they’re understandable, and therefore acceptable. More is normal. More makes sense. More. And more. And more.

In this article, I’ll attempt to provide some context for these massive anthropogenic changes, sharing a number of graphic visualizations that ground our current activity in long-term trends. We’ll talk about population, energy, land use, pollution, and more… And more. And more. Through this discussion, I hope to make these huge numbers more understandable, providing a historical framework through which we can better comprehend the true scale of our planetary impact.

Enough talking. Bring on the graphs.

Visualizing the Anthropocene

Betcha weren’t expecting that many graphs! Boom!

The above image synthesizes much of what we’ll discuss in this article. As you can see from many graphs, one of the defining trends of the Anthropocene, more specifically than just “more,” is the exponential function. Exponentially more. 

This trend is deeply problematic for a number of reasons, but beyond its planetary impact, this sort of growth is especially concerning because exponential functions are notoriously hard to understand. What does it mean in the long run if the economy exhibits, say, 3% growth? Or if violent crimes increase at 7% per year? An easy way to make these figures more understandable is through the concept of a doubling time, or the amount of time it takes for a value to double. One can easily calculate an estimate for any doubling time by dividing the number 70 (which approximates 100 multiplied by the natural logarithm of two) by the growth rate. For example, the current growth rate of the global population is 1.1%. At first glance, this figure may seem relatively innocuous. However, when translated into doubling time, this means that, at the current rate, global population will double in under 70 years. And if you think that’s a long time, just talk to any septuagenarian.

Another important aspect of doubling is that the growth that occurs in one doubling time is greater than all preceding growth. To reconnect this to our example, if population growth continues at its current rate, there will be more humans born (and surviving) in the next 70 years than there have been in all of preceding human history. That’s mind-boggling.

Consider this your warning of the extreme, if often misunderstood, power of the exponential function. As we continue to explore this sort of growth, or in your own life whenever you hear a news story that provides an exponential figure, know you are now equipped to quickly approximate the doubling time for that trend. Hopefully, this tool will serve to help put any trend you may hear into perspective, and ground esoteric percentage points in reality.

And now, truly, bring on the graphs.

Population

Behold: exponential growth.

For much of humanity’s history, the total human population remained relatively low. Anatomically modern humans first arose around 300,000 years ago and even as recently as 100,000 years ago (a time period that spans two thirds of our total existence), scientists estimate that the aggregate human population was less than one million. However, around this time, humans began to branch out from Africa, allowing our population to steadily, yet slowly, increase. By the year 0 CE, there were close to 190 million people alive. 1,803 years later, our population reached its first billion, a significant milestone that took hundreds of thousands of years to achieve. After that, our population increased by another billion in just 124 years, reaching 2 billion by 1928. And if you think that was fast, in the following 72 years, the human population would go on to increase threefold, reaching 6 billion people by the year 2000. Today, in 2020, the human population is over 7.8 billion.

Below is a visualization of human population growth and expansion over time from the American Museum of Natural History to help ground the scale of these numbers in time and space.

As you can see in the video, things really start to get crazy around 1950, the proposed start date of the Anthropocene. Blink and you’ll miss it. Another way to visualize the staggering speed of this growth is in the following graph, which presents the intervals of time it took for the world population to increase by one billion.

Born: 1926. Population: 2 billion. Died: 2011. Population: 7 billion. Age: 85.

As you may have noticed, many of these visualizations also include projections predicting that future population growth will slow down and, eventually, level off. This gradual decrease is primarily driven by the so-called demographic transition (a trend in which residents of rich countries have fewer kids and live longer). However, this model makes business-as-usual assumptions about future economic scenarios and global development. As such, future energetic scarcities are a major blindspot in these predictions. Given the extent to which industrialized processes are dependent on fossil carbons (including contemporary food systems for much of the world’s population), the unforeseen simplification of these systems could have major repercussions for populations around the world not represented in the above graphs. But I’m digressing from the main point of this article. Back to our regularly scheduled programming: Wow! Look at all those humans!

Regardless of future trends and potentially unexpected population recalibration, one thing that remains blatantly clear from these statistics is that one species, our species, has expanded at an unprecedented scale and speed. Unsurprisingly, various repercussions result from this expansion, as well as from the activity that has supported such dizzying growth.

Land Use

The true planetary overlords: cows, Cows, COWS!

As you might expect, land use has increased hand-in-hand with human population over time. After all, an ever-increasing amount of food is needed to feed an ever-increasing number of mouths. That being said, it may come as a surprise to see that humanity’s built-up area is relatively tiny compared to cropland, which is itself a small amount compared to land devoted to grazing. However, this merely affirms that humanity’s impact is far greater than just human bodies. Over human history, we have progressively replaced diverse organisms and ecosystems with the select few plants and animals that feed us, or that feed the animals that feed us. This has naturally resulted in a staggering degree of domination of the habitable land on this planet by grotesquely engorged monoculture systems. This is represented in the following graph.

There is no snappy caption for this image. This is tragic and insane.

Even after staring at this graph for who-knows-how-long it’s hard for me to wrap my head around this. Out of so many species, and so much diversity, one single animal has come to divert half of all the habitable land on this planet to support its own growth. All of that energy that was formerly channeled into ecosystems that produced and sustained biodiversity, is now co-opted to nourish the human machine. One of the bizarre consequences of this behavior is that humans and our various livestock have come to outweigh “wild” species to an extraordinary extent. This is shown below in a handful of figures from the Guardian which cite their data from a comprehensive study on global biomass from 2018.

Poultry outweighs wild birds more than two-to-one.

But here’s the real shocker: humans and our livestock account for 96% of the biomass of all mammals on Earth, while wild mammals account for only 4%.

I wasn’t kidding about the cows.

This isn’t something we often think about because we don’t see the billions of hectares of cattle – only meat, milk, and eggs on supermarket shelves – but this requires our attention. Every day, we funnel a disproportionate amount of resources to feed the human, bovine, and fowl masses, churning out calves, dairy, chicks, eggs, and babies in an unchecked orgy of self-serving creation. And in our momentary glee, we give no consideration to the other species who are being crowded out by this single-minded expansion. We’re drowning the biosphere in milk. Trampling species underfoot and underhoof. And any desperate pleas for help that might have surfaced from our wild kin cannot be heard over the indomitable jet engine of mooing that reverberates throughout our world.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, this domination has resulted in a dramatic decrease in wild biomass. This is represented in the figure below, which shows the amount of biomass that has been lost from major species groups since the rise of human civilization

Welcome to the Anthropocene indeed.

Energy and Emissions

But of course this is negligible. The real driver of societal growth is human ingenuity!

…Yeah right. As with any biophysical system, when you put more energy in, you get more output. And with that we have arrived at the crucial element of our story that made all of this staggering growth possible in the first place: fossil carbon.

For most of human existence, we lived primarily as hunter-gatherers, subsisting on natural energy flows of the biosphere. Even with the widespread adoption of agriculture around 10,000 years ago, the energy throughput of societies remained seriously constrained compared to the scale with which we are familiar today. While there is not space in this article for an in-depth discussion of fossil carbons, check out our Library section on energy for more information about their properties, history, and effects. For now, suffice to say that this compressed organic magic is the backbone of contemporary civilization…and we burn a lot of it. As of 2018, more than 140,000 terawatt hours worth of it per year. For context, if you were to drive a Prius far enough to use just one terawatt-hour of energy, you’d be able traverse the distance between the sun and Earth 14 times over and still have enough energy to spare to circle the equator over 4,600 times. Now multiply that by 140,000, and you get our annual energy usage.

Of course, not all humans are enjoying the benefits of this energy bonanza. Far from it. Rather, the majority of these resources go only to benefit the few (rich and oppressors) who merely perpetuate this exploitation of the planet, as well as of the many institutionally disadvantaged humans who have been coerced into participating in the destructive capitalist machine. In this article, when I have spoken of our collective activity with the pronoun “we,” please keep in mind that I mean this only in the broadest species-level sense. It is an integral part of our story that the benefits of this mass burning are enjoyed predominantly by the oppressors, who remain proportionally culpable for its deleterious ecological and social effects. Speaking of which…

Naturally, burning through this astounding amount of energy results in one of the most well-known environmental consequences of our modern civilization: greenhouse gasses. And where greenhouse gases are on the rise, temperature increase is just around the corner. This is mostly common knowledge at this point, but go ahead and check out the following graphs anyway for a refresher of just how much we’re screwing up the climate.

Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posy…
…ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Not to be overly dramatic… In truth, this is far from the most apt nursery rhyme for our present collective predicament. The full effects of our climatic meddling have yet to be realized and won’t be for many millennia. While we will most likely escape the destiny of becoming ash, our deep-time descendants and nonhuman relatives will not be so lucky. At the moment, perhaps a more fitting rhyme for our situation would be Jack and Jill, which aptly beholds both unexpected descents, and broken crowns in turn.

Waste

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVh15aUt8-c

Beyond our ethereal gaseous excretions, humans have created vast amounts of tangible waste products. If you need a refresher, just close your eyes and picture a landfill: mountains of plastic bags pile on top of one another, suffocating under the oppressive weight of the devastated landscape that surrounds them. Scrap metal, styrofoam, and plastic bottles lie in heaps among various other discarded and forgotten debris of industrial society. From junk as innocuous as a paper clip, to the tens of thousands of tons of nuclear waste idling in pools across the globe, garbage envelops our world.

At this point, it is impossible to quantify the full extent of our collective waste. Nonetheless, we can still gain some idea of the scale of these ventures by analyzing one key waste product, and there is perhaps no garbage more emblematic of our 21st century predicament than plastic.

That’s a lot of happy meals.

Unsurprisingly, plastic production has grown exponentially alongside most of our societal endeavors (barring a brief dip after the 2008 financial crisis). By 2015, humans had produced over 7 billion tons of plastic, or the weight of 19,178 Empire State Buildings. And this figure only accounts for one waste product! It doesn’t factor in our excess plaster or metal or pharmaceuticals or concrete or styrofoam or fabrics or electronics or rubbers or chemicals or anything else. Altogether, according to the United Nations we dump 2.12 billion tons of waste a year. This is represented below, where you can see an ongoing count of the amount of waste we’ve dumped globally this year alone.

As an added warning, this massive figure is cited from a report published in 2009. While this might not seem like that long ago, when we consider the multiplying effects of exponential growth, 11 years can mean quite a lot. How much more waste have we dumped each year since? What’s more, this number doesn’t even factor in our many other forms of pollution. Our chemical plants and tar sands mines and radioactive fuel rods and microplastics, our pentachlorophenol (PCP) and other pesticidal pollutions, our estrogen pollution from wastewater turning Mississippi fish hermaphroditic, the list goes on and on. There’s not enough space in this article to cover them all, but, seeing as this article is about scale, it’s important to consider the full breadth of our activity. At the following link, you can explore a list of waste types from Wikipedia, or visit The World Counts for a relatively comprehensive overview of our detrimental environmental impacts.

The Shortcomings of Numbers

To end, I’d like to acknowledge that the framing of this article is inherently flawed. Numbers can be incredibly useful tools for understanding the scale of certain phenomena, but there is much that they simply cannot describe. How does one quantify the extent of cultural homogenization around the globe? Is there a number that can hold the grief felt by Indigenous communities as they have seen their lands pillaged, their families slaughtered, and their cultures destroyed? What figure can transmit the wonder of a wholly unique living species, and the tragedy of its loss? The obvious answer is that: there isn’t one. Numbers are an imperfect agent for communicating the urgency, devastation, and overwhelming grief contained in these unfeeling statistics.

However, despite all their drawbacks, numbers can do what words cannot. As you may have seen in this article, they can help us to visualize the extent of an issue. They can shock us. Appall us. And, if nothing else, help make apparent the crushing scale of our current endeavors. But alone they fall short. Scale without meaning results in hordes of scientists and statisticians who document the destruction of the biosphere without doing anything to stop it; while meaning without scale gives us movies like Free Willy, where viewers feel deeply about the plight of one individual whale, but nonetheless disregard their collective predicament. It’s up to us to exist at the nexus of these two worlds: understand the scale, and add the meaning. Make these numbers a part of our story. Ground them and embody them in our lives and base our daily actions on the understanding that these things are happening. Right now. To an unbelievable extent. And hey, that matters. You decide how much.

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For a final end-note, I’d like to offer a reminder that the statistics that were provided here are far from comprehensive. Just to mention a handful of trends we didn’t have the space to discuss: deforestation, resource extraction of various minerals, ocean acidification, internet bandwidth, language loss, electricity use, poaching and illegal animal trade, desertification, nuclear activity, number of AC units, the list goes on and on. But at this point, I think you get the gist: more, and more, and more…