Inside Story

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A world of our own making

17 February 2012

Without realising it, we seem to have entered a new geological epoch. Brett Evans looks at how we got there and what it means


Earthrise: The view of the rising Earth that greeted the Apollo 8 astronauts as they came from behind the moon after the lunar orbit “insertion burn.” NASA

Earthrise: The view of the rising Earth that greeted the Apollo 8 astronauts as they came from behind the moon after the lunar orbit “insertion burn.” NASA

IT MAY seem hard to believe, but for the first three orbits they were so busy carrying out their scheduled tasks that none of them bothered to take a peek out the window. Only on their fourth trip around the moon did one of them chance to look up and see what they had all been missing. Commander Frank Borman can be heard exclaiming on the mission’s in-flight recorder: “Oh my God! Look at that picture over there!”

It was Christmas Eve 1968 and NASA’s Apollo 8 was just returning from the far side of the moon and coming back into radio contact with Mission Control in Houston. What Borman saw made him, and his crew – Command Module pilot Jim Lovell and Luna Module pilot Bill Anders – put aside their duties and scramble to find a camera. The creative impulse had trumped astronaut discipline.

First in black and white, and then in colour, they clicked away on a Hasselblad like tourists, and captured one of the most profound images in human history. It was the decisive moment par excellence.

From the cramped confines of their tiny craft – and further from home than anyone had ever been before – the three watched as a blue-and-white jewel, partially in shadow and set in a background of deepest space black, slid majestically from behind the desolate surface of the moon. Rising from the lunar horizon was, of course, the Earth; and no one had ever experienced it like this before.

In the end the Apollo 8 mission took 150 photographs of the Earth, but one picture in particular – NASA image AS8-14-2383 – a colour snap taken by Anders and later dubbed “Earthrise,” quickly asserted itself as the image of the mission.

The men on Apollo 8 were the first humans to slip the bounds of Earth’s pull and give themselves over to the gravitational field of another celestial body. They orbited the moon ten times and were the first of our species to gaze directly upon its far side. The work they did laid the basis for the first moon landing just a few months later in July 1969. There would have been no small step for Neil Armstrong, let alone a “great leap for mankind,” without the bravery of Borman, Lovell and Anders. But for all these achievements, it will be for those rolls of film that the crew of Apollo 8 will be best remembered. They were the first of our kind to see the whole of the Earth – and because of them we all got to see it too.

Before Apollo 8 there had been other pictures taken of the Earth from space, but they were uninspiring, in blurred black and white, captured by remote control from satellites or unmanned rockets, and unavailable to the public. “Earthrise” had been composed and executed by a human eye and a human hand. It was transformative, emotional; it was art.

The year 1968 was a famously tumultuous one in human history. Apollo 8’s crew members had photographed a planet which in the previous twelve months had witnessed the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King; the Battle of Khe Sanh, the Tet Offensive, and the My Lai Massacre; the brief bloom of the Prague Spring and the student riots in Paris; the black power salutes by two American sprinters at the Mexico Olympic Games; the opening on Broadway of the musical Hair; a pitched battle between police and anti-war protesters on the streets of Chicago; and the election of Richard M. Nixon as the thirty-seventh president of the United States.

But also occurring on Earth in 1968 was something far more momentous than any of these events. It might not have been widely recognised at the time, but the planet itself was in the midst of a great change. And an early intimation of this change was about to appear in an obscure publication produced in San Francisco’s Menlo Park.

WHEN “Earthrise” was released by NASA in early 1969 a thirty-year-old counter cultural entrepreneur called Stewart Brand had reason to celebrate. Brand was a Stanford-educated biologist and former paratrooper who had “dropped out” to pursue the Haight-Ashbury dream. He befriended Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, organised light shows for the Grateful Dead, and started surfing the early wave of environmentalism. A few years before Apollo 8 blasted off – in February 1966 – he had been sitting, wrapped in a blanket, on the gravelly rooftop of a three-storey apartment block somewhere in San Francisco’s North Beach. As he gazed at the city skyline he was suddenly gripped by a vision – which was not surprising, really, as he’d just dropped a hundred micrograms of lysergic acid diethylamide.

“The buildings were not parallel – because the earth curved under them, and me, and all of us: it closed on itself,” Brand wrote of this experience decades later. “I remembered that Buckminster Fuller had been harping on this at a recent lecture – that people perceived the earth as flat and infinite, and that was the root of all their misbehaviour. Now from my altitude of three storeys and one hundred miles, I could see that it was curved, think it, and finally feel it.”

But this was no ordinary acid trip; it actually brought forth a useful idea. What humanity needed, Brand decided during his drug-induced epiphany, was a colour picture of the whole of the Earth from space. “There it would be for all to see, the Earth complete, tiny, adrift,” Brand explained, “and no one would ever perceive things the same way.”

But how could he convince NASA to take such a picture? Not surprisingly, Brand chose a typically sixties method to publicise his cause: he produced a button. And on it he posed a question that was quintessentially sixties in its hint at conspiracy: “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?”

Brand sent his buttons off to NASA, to all the members of Congress, to Soviet scientists and diplomats, and to officials at the United Nations. And he also sent one to the man who inspired the whole quixotic enterprise: Bucky Fuller himself, the part-crank, part-seer inventor of the geodesic dome, whose personal motto was “Dare to be Naive.” Brand then took his message to the people.

“I prepared a Day-Glo sandwich board with a little sales shelf on the front, decked myself out in a white jump suit, boots and costume top hat with crystal heart and flower,” he explained later, “and went to make my debut at the Sather Gate of the University of California in Berkeley, selling my buttons for twenty-five cents.”

For this act of street clowning activism Brand got kicked off the campus. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on the incident, and his one-man campaign was off to a flying start.

Whether Brand’s lobbying effort had any great influence on NASA is probably a moot point. Though NASA had not planned for the crew of Apollo 8 to capture an image like “Earthrise,” it was quick to let the world see it. When the image was published in January 1969 it caused a sensation. From his psychedelic vantage point almost three years earlier, Brand had seen more clearly than even the crew of Apollo 8 themselves what such an image would mean. As he expected, from space the Earth looked fragile, alone and breathtakingly beautiful. It looked like something that needed protection.

The timing of Apollo 8’s snap happy trip around the moon couldn’t have been better for Stewart Brand. In late 1968 he was just beginning the project that would make him famous: the Whole Earth Catalog, a sort of DIY handbook for nascent greenies who were into self-sufficiency. It was one of the very first sources of practical information about alternative energy, appropriate technology and organic farming. It was broad-ranging, a little slapdash in execution, but inclusive and fun: if you wanted to build a yurt, the catalogue would tell you how.

The cover of the first Whole Earth Catalog featured a mocked-up picture of the Earth which Brand had originally used on posters in his campaign to persuade NASA that such a photo was worth taking. By the second edition – which came out in the early part of 1969 – Brand was able to use “Earthrise” itself.

In the editorial of the first Catalog, Brand attempted to explain the motivation and function of this strange new publication. It was here that he came up with the striking and now famous line: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” In other words, the stewardship of the Earth is in our hands; we’d better not stuff it up.

It was Brand’s promotional genius to pair this evocative phrase with a picture of our only home seen in all its glory and isolation, as if from the perspective of God in heaven.

FROM space, the Nukuono Atoll in Micronesia looks like an amoeba under a microscope. Munich’s International Airport looks like a computer chip. The Bestibah Estuary in Madagascar looks like the tendrils of a seaweed caught in the tide, the Escondida Copper Mine in Chile’s Atacam Desert like a forensic close-up of a bloodstain on a linen shirt. On a clear night the East Coast of the United States looks like a constellation of stars.

Look up the NASA websites Visible Earth, Earth from Space or The Gateway to Astronaut Photography and you’ll find thousands and thousands of breathtaking images of the surface of the Earth – all of them taken by astronauts. Yet if we imagine a similar collection of pictures taken from space at the time of Copernicus 500 years ago, things would look very different.

When the father of modern astronomy was writing On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres many of the events and features visible from space today did not yet exist. There was no haze of pollution rising over Asia, Greenland was still dazzling in its whiteness, there were no massive human-made lakes, and there was less land under cultivation and vastly more hectares of natural forest. The great city of Rome in the 1500s, even on the clearest of nights, would not have emitted enough light to resemble a faraway star.

The difference between the Earth of Copernicus and the Earth of our time is down to one thing: the fecund creativity and computing power of the human mind. By the twenty-first century, intelligent life had become as powerful a force upon the Earth as photosynthesis, or the movement of tectonic plates. Our species’ huge brain has enabled us to foment an industrial revolution, build and light cities, cultivate enough food to feed billions, and alter our planet’s atmosphere.

If you possess the technology necessary to take a picture of your home planet from thousands of kilometres out in space, the question arises: have you got the place as a time share with all the other species, or do you own the joint outright? Copernicus lived on a planet dominated by nature; we are living on an increasingly artificial world. In fact some scientists now argue that we are living in a completely new geological epoch. They argue that the Holocene – the warm period of the past ten or so millennia – has been superseded by the Anthropocene – literally, a new age of humans.

IN THE east-wing of a Palladian mansion on Piccadilly a series of meetings will be held over the next several years which could redefine the geological epoch we are said to be living in. Burlington House is home to the Geological Society of London and the Geological Society is home to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the little-known committee of scientists which decides when one geological epoch ends and the next one begins. The commission is currently in the process of trying to decide whether the Holocene has run its course. Should the Anthropocene join the Carboniferous, the Jurassic, and the Pleistocene on the geological timescale? It may sound like an abstruse academic argument, but it’s not; as the Economist noted in May 2011: “It is one of those moments where a scientific realisation, like Copernicus grasping that the Earth goes round the sun, could fundamentally change people’s view of things far beyond science.”

The Anthropocene is not a new scientific idea. As early as 1873 the Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani had written of the “anthropozoic,”in which humans represented a “new telluric force which in power and universality may be compared to the greater forces of the earth.” Stoppani expounded this view at the time the Industrial Revolution was just picking up speed. It was from 1763 to 1775, after all, that James Watt had laboured to make the steam engine energy-efficient enough to become economic. But in the modern era the term is most associated with the Dutch Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen – the atmospheric chemist who “discovered” the hole in the ozone layer.

“I was at a conference where someone said something about the Holocene. I suddenly thought this is wrong,” he once explained. “The world has changed too much. No, we are in the Anthropocene. I just made up the word on the spur of the moment. Everyone was shocked, but it seems to have stuck.” He first used the term in print (in an article he co-authored with E.F. Stoermer) in 2000.

The key proponent of the Anthropocene in Australia is Professor Will Steffen, executive director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University. When I spoke to Steffen earlier this summer he explained that defining the Anthropocene requires a thought experiment on the part of today’s geologists. They must ask: what would geologists of the distant future find in the sedimentary record of our time that would convince them that an epoch-making change had occurred sometime around the twentieth century?

Of course, anthropogenic climate change is the most obvious manifestation of the Anthropocene. If the geologists of the future examine ice cores – “assuming there will be some ice left,” Steffen jokes, a little darkly – they will show not just higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but also increased levels of dust particles, evidence of longer drier periods in some parts of the world.

But, as Steffen points out, there would still be a strong case for redefining the geological epoch even if we had not been changing the Earth’s climate by releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Many of our other activities are also altering the Earth in significant ways.

For a start, a lot of plants and animals won’t be turning up in the post-Anthropocene fossil record; many species have become extinct as a result of human predation and habitat change. As humans cut down native forests and increase the amount of the Earth’s surface dedicated to agriculture, many species are dying out for want of a home to live in. At the same time the fossil record will show that domesticated animals, privileged by their usefulness to humans, will have spread across the globe. The bones of cows, pigs, chickens will far outnumber the remains of wild animals.

The human genius for digging and reshaping the surface of the Earth will also be noticeable to the geologists of the future. From the megacities where most of us now live, to the roads and railways that crisscross the continents, we have scarred and transformed the planet. More importantly, humans have intervened in the planet’s water cycle on a hitherto unimaginable scale by constructing tens of thousands of large dams in the last fifty or so years. The huge lakes created by these concrete cathedrals to engineering have all but stopped the flow of sediments to the sea in many cases, leading to the accelerated erosion of the world’s great river deltas. The oceans have also been altered by human hand. They will grow in size as their levels rise owing to ice melt in places such as Greenland. They will suffer from increasing acidification due to climate change. And the marine life that lives within them will be affected by our need for protein; there have already been collapses in some fish stocks because of over-exploitation.

So when did the Anthropocene start? William Ruddiman, a scientist at the University of Virginia, would date it from the beginnings of agriculture eight thousand years ago. Crutzen would date it from the invention of the steam engine. Steffen plumps for a starting point in or around the second world war. Hiroshima, after all, marks the beginning of the nuclear age. In 1945 there will be a “golden spike” of measurable radioactivity discernible to the geologists of the future. The immediate postwar period also marks the beginning of what Steffen calls the Great Acceleration. From the end of the second world war a whole range of human activities grew in intensity. Industrial production, economic growth rates, global population, car ownership, international air travel, for example, all started to climb and just kept on going.

It could be a while before the Anthropocene is officially accepted by science, however; like the processes it studies, geology doesn’t tend to move very fast. It took decades for the discipline to decide on the definition and timescale of the Holocene. The present process could take at least five years of meetings and committees and argument. The Anthropocene Working Group of the Geological Society is currently preparing its case through peer-reviewed papers and conferences. Eventually the working group will have to convince a lot of sceptical geologists.

If the Anthropocene becomes an established scientific fact, what are the implications? Well, for starters it will mean kissing the Holocene goodbye, which is a pity because the Holocene is the period where we got our start as a species. According to Steffen, “We like the Holocene very much; the Holocene is the sweet spot for humanity.” But unfortunately, “there is a cogent argument that the Holocene state of the planet is the only one we know for sure – for sure – that humanity can really thrive in. Now it may be that we can adapt ourselves to others, but we don’t know this for sure.” Like everyone else, Steffen is not sure how benign the Anthropocene will turn out to be.

We have been clever enough to change the planet we live on – and maybe clever enough to recognise that we have done it – but will we be clever enough to understand what this new god-like status means? “Well, we have been clever, yes,” Steffen tells me, “but perhaps not wise.” The term Anthropocene is clearly both a putative scientific category, and a warning.

LATE on the afternoon of 1 November 1941, just outside Hernandez, New Mexico, an old Pontiac station wagon skidded to the side of the highway and an agitated man leapt out yelling to his companions, “Get this! Get that, for God's sake! We don't have much time!” The urgent man was a photographer and he had just seen the image that would shortly become his best-loved work. In the near distance, spread before him in the twilight, was a scene of transitory beauty. A church cemetery – its white crosses starkly lit by the fading light of a low slung Sun – was overhung majestically by a rising moon. Though he raced to set up his tripod and camera, the photographer had time to take just a single frame before the light went and the spell was broken. The resulting photograph was named “Moonrise” and sixty-five years later a print of it would sell at Sotheby’s for over $600,000.

“Moonrise” is the best-known work of the great American landscape photographer and pioneer environmentalist Ansel Adams. There has always been a strong relationship between environmental activism and photography: a beautiful picture is worth a thousand pamphlets printed on recycled paper. Adams, for example, collaborated in the creation of the Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series which helped to generate public opposition to damming the Grand Canyon. Adams believed that people would respond to the natural wonders of the world with awe and understanding if only they could experience it – even if vicariously through his photographs. “I believe in beauty,” he wrote. “I believe in stones and water, air and soil, people and their future and their fate.”

There is an obvious connection between Adams’s “Moonrise” and NASA’s “Earthrise” – both captured something awe-inspiring and transitory. But has beauty alone ever been enough to change how we think about the world?

Like Adams, his fellow American photographer J. Henry Fair is an artist and an environmental activist, but Fair’s political and artistic strategy is very different. Wanting to record what was going on behind the fences keeping him out of America’s factories, Fair took to the air – in light aircraft and helicopters. From this vantage point, he created pictures that looked like beautiful abstracts. But, of course, as the detailed captions of his photographs reveal, Fair’s images are all too real. What looks at first glance like a Photoshopped composition of rust-coloured reds, chemical greens and high voltage blues is in fact an astronaut’s view of industrial America.

Fair’s style has been dubbed “the toxic sublime”; it records the scars and suppurations created by our paper mills, power plants, coal mines and oil fields. Some of Fair’s most beautiful images are of the by-products left over from the manufacture of fertiliser. From the air they look like the surface of some strange ice planet in another galaxy; in reality, of course, they are vast green-and-white slurries called “gyp stacks” chock full of gypsum, phosphorous, and radioactive material. From such local disasters comes the fertiliser that allows us to feed a global population of seven billion.

For most of our history as farmers we relied on good old fashioned faeces to fertilise crops. Then, in the early twentieth century, the German chemist Fritz Haber developed a process that synthesised ammonia from nitrogen. A few decades later another German chemist, Carl Bosch, worked out how to upscale the process to an industrial level. In giving mankind the ability to fix nitrogen in massive quantities at an economic cost, the Haber-Bosch process also gave us the Green Revolution, which feeds a third of the world’s population. And according to Will Steffen, the Haber-Bosch process also altered the Earth’s nitrogen cycle to such an extent that it is yet another marker of the Anthropocene. But where does all this fixed nitrogen go when agriculture is finished with it? Very often, down the world’s rivers and out into the world’s oceans, where it fundamentally changes the nature of the marine environment. The famous Mississippi Delta Dead Zone, for example, is one of just dozens of such zones around the world. Fertiliser and effluent surging down the Mississippi have left thousands of square kilometres of water in the Gulf of Mexico in the permanent grip of an algal bloom-induced hypoxia – there is less oxygen in the water and life struggles to survive there.

The modern fertiliser factory may be the pre-eminent symbol of humanity’s grand bargain with the planet. By helping ourselves to perpetuate the success of our species, we change the planet itself; by bringing our science and culture to bear on a problem, we create unintended consequences that then require an even more impressive technological solution. And repairing the nitrogen cycle might be the sort of technological innovation – also known as geoengineering – that might come to define the Anthropocene era.

NOW in his seventies, Stewart Brand lives on a tugboat called Mirene, which he moors at Sausalito, just across the Bay from San Francisco. “Tugboats,” according to Brand, “are the largest thing in the world described as ‘cute’.” Since lobbying NASA all those years ago he has gone on to create a career as a countercultural maven, internet pioneer and contrarian commentator.

In 2009, at the age of seventy-one, Brand published Whole Earth Discipline: An Eco-pragmatist Manifesto. In this work he makes a small but significant change to the aphorism he coined as a young man back in 1968. “We are as gods and have to get good at it,” he says now. As for many of his fellow environmentalists – such as James Lovelock, George Monbiot and Mark Lynas – the alarming prospect of climate change has forced Brand to reassess some of his most cherished and long-held convictions.

In Whole Earth Discipline Brand utters a number of heresies against mainstream environmental opinion. He argues in favour of nuclear power because it is less carbon polluting. He advocates the use of genetically engineered crops because they will have a smaller impact on the nitrogen cycle. He maintains that megacities enhance sustainability. But Brand’s biggest leap of faith concerns geoengineering. The Anthropocene could be defined as the time when humans began to geoengineer the Earth without fully understanding the consequences of our actions. Intervening in the water cycle, fixing nitrogen far beyond the ability of nature, creating the greenhouse effect – they are all examples of unintentional geo-engineering. But now Brand, and others who think like him, believe it is time to seriously consider the use of intentional geoengineering. According to a paper published by the Royal Society, this type of geoengineering is “the deliberate large scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic climate change.”

Science has known for some time that large volcanic eruptions, which spew enormous amounts of sulphur dioxide into the upper atmosphere, can reduce the amount of solar radiation reaching the surface of the Earth so effectively that it cools the planet. It has been estimated, for example, that the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 cooled the Earth by 0.5 degrees Celsius for over a year.

Some scientists argue we could replicate this naturally occurring effect on the Earth’s albedo – the reflectivity of the planet – by using high-flying aircraft to pump sulphur dioxide gas into the stratosphere. Other even more outlandish schemes propose distributing trillions of reflective discs in space halfway between the sun and the Earth. My favourite involves a fleet of 1500 so-called Albedo Boats sending up huge plumes of water vapour into the sky to create large fluffy white clouds to reflect the sun’s rays away from our warming planet.

Maybe Brand is still under the influence of the technological optimism associated with his early mentor, Buckminster Fuller. But he is not alone in calling for geoengineering to be taken seriously. The man credited with coining the term Anthropocene is also willing to contemplate that such schemes might be necessary in the future. If we can’t lower the emissions of greenhouse gases by changing our behaviour, even a scientist of Paul Crutzen’s standing is willing to contemplate geoengineering as humanity’s Plan B.

Of course, the obvious response to such schemes will be: isn’t this just an example of moral hazard? If polluters think the Earth can be bailed out by a technological fix, won’t they lose any incentive to change their behaviour? And more basically: why should we believe that geoengineering could actually work? Will Steffen, for example, is not convinced. The malignant aspects of the Anthropocene can be overcome, he would argue, but by international cooperation, the development of sustainable energy sources, and teaching new ways of thinking about the Earth and how it works as a system.

At the heart of the debate about geoengineering is an often unacknowledged difference of opinion about human nature itself. One side sees human behaviour as incorrigible; the other believes we will recognise enlightened self-interest when we see it. One side sees a composition of bright colours and calls it abstract art; the other side sees the same picture and sees an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

AT FIRST glance it looks like a mote of dust in a sunbeam. Yet on closer inspection, that tiny blue speck turns out to be the Earth, though the sunbeam actually is the light of the sun.

The image, known as the “Pale Blue Dot,” was captured on 14 February 1990 with a remote-controlled camera on the Voyager 1 space probe as it was leaving our solar system. Because of the way the sun’s light was scattered off the surface of the spacecraft, the Earth looks like it is sitting in its own special column of light. At the time, Voyager 1 was over six billion kilometres from Earth; nothing human-made had ever been so far from home.

Though travelling at the speed of light, it took nearly five-and-a-half hours for each pixel in the image to reach NASA. When all the information needed to assemble the completed grainy image eventually arrived on Earth the cosmologist Carl Sagan had reason to celebrate. Sagan had proposed a decade earlier that Voyager 1 should attempt to take such a photograph. His purpose was not scientific, but philosophical. “I thought that – like the famous frame filling photos of the whole Earth – such a picture might be… useful as a perspective on our place in the cosmos.”

Sagan was famously inspired by the “Pale Blue Dot” to write:

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Sagan was convinced that an image like the “Pale Blue Dot” would put all our Earthly squabbles into perspective. It would help, he hoped, to change the way humanity thinks about itself, and its relationship to the planet it lives on. Even in a geological timeframe, there are decisive moments. As we plunge headlong into the Anthropocene, maybe it’s time to confront the challenges and potential dangers of this new epoch with the same sense of urgency that grips photographers when they reach for their camera. •

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