Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It is wonderful, then, to end the first year of the Anthropocene Journal with news that it has already spawned several imitators. In 2013, two publishers plan to launch Anthropocene journals. Academic publishing behemoth Elsevier unleashes the first issue of Anthropocene. Meanwhile, in July 2013 BioOne and several universities launch a new open-access journal, Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene.

I wish both journals well. Except Elsevier’s on principle. Elsevier’s approach to publishing is parasitic opportunism. It exploits well-meaning academics working freely as editors yet adds little value itself then brazenly sells the product back to the academic community. This brilliant business model generates mind-boggling profits. And must end.

New Year’s Resolution: open access of all for all.

The geology of humanity

“Geology” is an attractive word, no doubt about it. Slipping it into the title of a lecture or article – any talk or article – creates a gravitational pull no other scientific discipline can match.

I’d go out of my way to attend a talk entitled, “The Geology of the Human Heart” (Disclaimer: I am not a geologist). But the “the Physics of the Human Heart” leaves me cold. Other substitutes are equally unattractive: “the Economy of the Human Heart”, “the Chemistry of the Human Heart” or the soporific “Geography of the Human Heart.”

Try it for yourself, it works for other lecture titles, too. “The Geology of the Euro-zone Fiscal Crisis.” I’m there.

“Geology” evokes hidden depths. It suggests digging deep and forensic examinations. It hints at peeling back layers and strata, uncovering structures and meaning. Ultimately it offers the intriguing possibility of looking at a subject in a whole new light. And of course it is a search for the truth and, increasingly, clues to the future. Geology is a word rich in meaning. For geologists, the most visible tool of the trade may be the humble pick, but the most important is the mind. Geology may well be the most romantic of scientific disciplines.

The concept that we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, is destined to be picked up and adopted beyond the field of geology. Religious organizations, politicians, pressure groups, artists, writers and other academics are prime candidates to latch on to the term. They will undoubtedly define and redefine the Anthropocene for their own audiences and for their own ends.

New definitions and meanings will evolve that are far removed from global sediment flows. But “evolve” may not be quite the right word. It is more like the word “Anthropocene” is being exposed to the elements. Indeed, it will undergo a process of weathering.

2011: the Anthropocene comes of Age

2011 was a remarkable year. The Anthropocene concept broke out of the scientific community and into the mainstream. It took on a new significance and meaning in the wider world with potentially profound consequences for how we see our place on Earth.

The concept came of age.

The main events:

  1. In January 2011, the UK’s Royal Society’s in-house journal, Philosophical Transactions A, published a special issue, The Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time?
  2. On 11 May 2011, the Geological Society in London ran an open meeting of the same name.
  3. Also on 11 May, the Vatican (Pontifical Academy of Sciences)
    published a report, Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene
  4. A week later in Stockholm (16-19 May), a group of Nobel Laureates gathered at the home of the Nobel prizes, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, for a symposium on global sustainability. The Anthropocene was high on everyone’s lips.
  5. On 28 May the Economist‘s front cover read: Welcome to the Anthropocene. The magazine ran an editorial and feature on the concept’s power to change our view of ourselves and the planet.
  6. A couple of weeks later, also at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and partners held a three-day workshop to look at how we navigate the Anthropocene, Planetary Stewardship: solutions for responsible development.
  7. Throughout May and June the global media discussed the Anthropocene: the Guardian, New York Times, BBC.
  8. In October, the Dalai Larma held a seminar to discuss the Great Acceleration and the Anthropocene.
  9. In November, to mark the arrival of number Seven Billion, Globaia launched the Cartography of the Anthropocene – an amazing suite of data visualizations taking us through the Anthropocene.
  10. December, Hope in the Age of the Man, (New York Times).
  11. End-of-year reviews brim with references to the Anthropocene, Nature 365, 2011 in review: living in the Anthropocene, Bloomberg Don’t Panic: Earth’s nine threats to humanity.

Out of Eden – walking into the Anthropocene

“It’s not just a walk into the past; it’s a walk into the future. It’s … a walk into the Anthropocene.” Paul Salopek

The simplest ideas are often the best. Two-time Pulitzer winner Paul Salopek has come up with a truly astounding idea of breathtaking simplicity. In January 2013, he embarks on a seven-year expedition to walk the Anthropocene, following the path our ancestors took out of Africa.

“It is a walk from nomadism to settled agriculture and all its attendant glories and ills-high art, urbanization, science, climate change, institutional violence, the works,” he told me when I spoke to him earlier this year while he was still at the planning stages of this epic adventure.

Now, all systems are go for the Out of Eden project.

Paul Salopek. Photo: Lynda Lynch

Paul Salopek. Photo: Lynda Lynch

Year one will be a 5,000-kilometre trek out of Africa. He will start in Afar region of Ethiopia in the Great Rift Valley, the cradle of humanity, then journey north with Afar nomads following the human fossil record into the Middle East, finishing in either Jerusalem or Oman. The second year will take him through central Asia with the thorny issue of navigating Iran. His final destination, some 34,000 kilometres later, is Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America, the farthest settlement from our original African home.

Recently, Salopek told an audience at Harvard, “It is a journey our ancestors made. It’s a journey that many scientists tell us was a formative one for our species, because as we moved along across the surface of the planet, we innovated our way…we became a troubleshooting species. We adapted to different environments…and in the process we became truly human.”

The seven-year itch. In 2013, Paul Salopek will embark on a seven-year journey on foot from the cradle of humanity, the African Rift Valley to Tierra del Fuego. (Image: Earth at Night (NASA), adapted by Owen Gaffney.)

The seven-year itch. In 2013, Paul Salopek will embark on a seven-year journey on foot from the cradle of humanity, the African Rift Valley to Tierra del Fuego. (Image: Earth at Night (NASA), adapted by Owen Gaffney.)

According to Salopek, our hunter-gathering forefathers walked on average 16 kilometres a day, our foremothers, 10. “That is what we are designed to do. We are walking machines. That is what I am returning to.” He argues that it is at this pace we were designed to take in the world. For a journalist and storyteller, this is important.

“The other pillar for why I am doing this trip is much more literary. It is about poetry. I am calling it slow journalism.” As a foreign correspondent, Salopek began to wonder what lay between the stories he jetted in to cover. He’d spent decades writing on wars and conflict, science and the environment, resource use and disputes, and climate. As with all journalism, each story was self contained with little effort or space to examine the complex interconnections with the wider world.

He became curious about the stories beneath the plane, or through the windscreen of his car. Eventually, Salopek asked, could these be the more important stories?

“As our world globalises, we are becoming more knitted together…our economies, our lives, our cultures, our languages, are approaching each other. So this walk is about the poetry of connections.”

“I want to go slowly through stories, to imbue them with meaning.” He hopes five kilometres per hour is the right pace.

“I’ll be writing environmental stories…I’ll be talking about economic stories…stories about human displacement, refugee movements…and stories about some of the causes of this displacement…Stories about my business, the media. Who gets to tell stories in the age of the web, which has democratized information?”

Salopek is keen to emphasise this is no history lesson. “It’s not just a walk into the past; it’s a walk into the future. It’s … a walk into the Anthropocene. A walk into our becoming.”

In an email Salopek sent to me today he explained;

His journey coincides with a remarkable period in human history. One third of all people (2.3 billion) are now connected through the internet and mobile devices. By the time his adventure ends, the connectivity will be largely complete. We will have become a truly globally connected species.

Our ancestors’ migration our of Africa linked to climate changes and other environmental factors, developed by Owen Gaffney for the UK’s Environmental Factors in the Chronology of Human Evolution and Dispersal project.

Our ancestors’ migration our of Africa linked to climate changes and other environmental factors, developed by Owen Gaffney for the UK’s Environmental Factors in the Chronology of Human Evolution and Dispersal project.

NASA releases stunning new “Black Marble”

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On Wednesday 5 December 2012, NASA released a composite image of the Earth at Night – the “Black Marble” – showing the extent of human activity in unprecedented detail. The accompanying video (link below) takes the viewer on a remarkable journey through the night – from gas flares in Saudi Arabia to fishing fleets worldwide and bush fires across Australia.

This new global view and animation of Earth’s city lights is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite. The data was acquired over nine days in April 2012 and 13 days in October 2012. It took 312 orbits to get a clear shot of every parcel of Earth’s land surface and islands.

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC

NASA Earth at night