“If all the plastic in the last few decades was clingfilm, there would be enough to put a layer around the whole Earth,” said paleobiologist Jan Zalasiewicz, quoted in this month’s Economic Times. “We now make almost a billion tons of the stuff every three years.”
Not only have we “shrink-wrapped” the Earth in plastic, we’ve paved and entombed huge portions of it in cement. More than half of all concrete ever made was produced in the last twenty years. Our construction and convenience products are taking over the world, with only 25% of ice-free land left in its natural state. Rates of wildlife extinction are rising.
British geologist Colin Waters, co-author of a Science article on the subject, says, “What this paper does is to say the changes are as big as those that happened at the end of the last ice age. This is a big deal.”
Scientists are discussing whether we are in a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, defined by human activity. Just as the Holocene Epoch can be seen in Earth’s sediment as the end of the last ice age, humans have, in a very short time, created sufficient significant markers to call for the naming of a new epoch. Some say it started with the Industrial Revolution while others mark its beginning with the presence of isotopes, measurable all over the planet, from nuclear weapons testing after WWII. Plastics and concrete are other lasting markers.
Remember looking at layers of sediment in geology class or while visiting someplace like the Grand Canyon? It’s awesome to realize we are looking back in time at evidence of events long past. Future generations, if there are any thousands of years from now, will be able to look back at what we left behind and measure time as well. What will they think of the choices we made?
Basic information about the Anthropocene proposal and terminology are here.