The Economist Offers a Sobering Outlook on the Risks and Challenges of the Anthropocene
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
The Economist last week ran a feature and editorial on the new age of the Anthropocene, a term coined by scientists and now increasingly used by others to refer to the age of humans in Earth's history, a period where we are perhaps the most influential force on the planet. The realization, says the Economist, represents a major shift in thinking for scientists since it means "treating humans not as insignificant observers of the natural world but as central to its workings, elemental in their force."
The risks of the Anthropocene include the many associated with climate change but also with ocean acidification and a gamut of other impacts such as those posed by an excess of nitrogen. The biggest fear is one of presumed "tipping points" that would accelerate and fundamentally alter earth systems into a new unknown state.
A natural reaction to the risks posed by the Anthropocene is to call for a dramatic "fix," and indeed many are likely to be disappointed by the Economist feature and editorial since neither address calls for major social change (a new social movement and worldwide mindset) or non-incremental policy action (such as mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions).
Instead The Economist acknowledges the other reality of the Anthropocene, which is the twin challenge of powering a 22nd century world of 10 billion people existing in a somewhat decent standard of living while also simultaneously making the planet more resilient to a severely distressed carrying capacity. To do so, argues the Economist, means applying wisely human intelligence -- the very force that created the conditions of the Anthropocene -- to a diversity of incremental strategies.
The Economist editorializes that this might mean wisely and cautiously considering forms of geoengineering that remove carbon from the atmosphere, but also innovation strategies that create society-wide electric grids that can take advantage of similarly powerful new solar and/or nuclear energy technologies:
Increasing the planet’s resilience will probably involve a few dramatic changes and a lot of fiddling. An example of the former could be geoengineering. Today the copious carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere is left for nature to pick up, which it cannot do fast enough. Although the technologies are still nascent, the idea that humans might help remove carbon from the skies as well as put it there is a reasonable Anthropocene expectation; it wouldn’t stop climate change any time soon, but it might shorten its lease, and reduce the changes in ocean chemistry that excess carbon brings about.
More often the answer will be fiddling—finding ways to apply human muscle with the grain of nature, rather than against it, and help it in its inbuilt tendency to recycle things....
For humans to be intimately involved in many interconnected processes at a planetary scale carries huge risks. But it is possible to add to the planet’s resilience, often through simple and piecemeal actions, if they are well thought through. And one of the messages of the Anthropocene is that piecemeal actions can quickly add up to planetary change.
The Economist editorial and feature offer a sobering, if not alarmingly pragmatic prognosis for some. If anything, The Economist also underscores the equally daunting challenge of how we define and communicate about the collective choices needed to build human and environmental resilience over the next decades.
Here's the science of black holes, from supermassive monsters to ones the size of ping-pong balls.
- There's more than one way to make a black hole, says NASA's Michelle Thaller. They're not always formed from dead stars. For example, there are teeny tiny black holes all around us, the result of high-energy cosmic rays slamming into our atmosphere with enough force to cram matter together so densely that no light can escape.
- CERN is trying to create artificial black holes right now, but don't worry, it's not dangerous. Scientists there are attempting to smash two particles together with such intensity that it creates a black hole that would live for just a millionth of a second.
- Thaller uses a brilliant analogy involving a rubber sheet, a marble, and an elephant to explain why different black holes have varying densities. Watch and learn!
- Bonus fact: If the Earth became a black hole, it would be crushed to the size of a ping-pong ball.
Protected animals are feared to be headed for the black market.
In a breakthrough for nuclear fusion research, scientists at China's Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) reactor have produced temperatures necessary for nuclear fusion on Earth.
- The EAST reactor was able to heat hydrogen to temperatures exceeding 100 million degrees Celsius.
- Nuclear fusion could someday provide the planet with a virtually limitless supply of clean energy.
- Still, scientists have many other obstacles to pass before fusion technology becomes a viable energy source.
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