The geology of the planet
Welcome to the Anthropocene
Humans have changed the way the world works. Now they have to change the way they think about it, too
May 26th 2011 | from the print edition
THE Earth is a big thing; if you divided it up evenly among its 7 billion inhabitants, they would get almost 1 trillion tonnes each. To think that the workings of so vast an entity could be lastingly changed by a species that has been scampering across its surface for less than 1% of 1% of its history seems, on the face of it, absurd. But it is not. Humans have become a force of nature reshaping the planet on a geological scale—but at a far-faster-than-geological speed.
A single engineering project, the Syncrude mine in the Athabasca tar sands, involves moving 30 billion tonnes of earth—twice the amount of sediment that flows down all the rivers in the world in a year. That sediment flow itself, meanwhile, is shrinking; almost 50,000 large dams have over the past half- century cut the flow by nearly a fifth. That is one reason why the Earth’s deltas, home to hundreds of millions of people, are eroding away faster than they can be replenished.