Good news for glaziers in Belfast

We need more James Hansens

Growing up outside Belfast in the eighties, daily news bulletins brought a relentless barrage of atrocities into our home: bomb blasts, kneecappings, executions, plastic bullets, riots, Molotov cocktails.

A campaign developed to bring more positive news to the screens. The crusade died when one cynical journalist remarked: “Good news for glaziers in Belfast this evening. A 1000-pound car bomb has exploded in the city centre.”

There is a time and a place for news spin and positive messaging, but sometimes we must face the grim reality. Some news stories are too important.

As we approach the Rio+20 Summit (essentially Plan A for Planet Earth), some argue the “urgency” message is not working and should be abandoned. Politicians are numb to doom and gloom, so instead science must put a positive spin on things: less negativity, let’s focus on solutions.

Well great, but this is a mistake. Science has a responsibility to tell the story straight. The message is too important to pull punches. Besides, if you said to Obama he had to deal with three crises: global financial meltdown, Syria, and global sustainability, but the last one is not quite so urgent, what would happen? Go figure.

The sarcastic Belfast journalist’s remarks came back to me this week as TED published NASA scientist James Hansen’s recent talk Why I must speak out about climate change.

Hansen must be applauded for steadfastly refusing to dilute the message. The TED lecture is a great example of focusing relentlessly on hard facts, no matter how unsettling.

Sure, he offers solutions (market based with minimal government intervention! It is an election year after all) but he is unflinching in his message that humanity is sleepwalking towards a colossal global catastrophe: not for life on Earth, but for societies everywhere. We need more like Hansen.

See: Is civilization really at risk of collapse?

2011 Person of the Anthropocene

It is that time of the year again. Who will win the coveted Person of the Anthropocene Award? The award is open to anyone: scientists, politicians, writers, musicians, revolutionaries, all seven billion of us. Except me.

World Trade Organization Director General Pascal Lamy

Ladies and gentlemen. The moment you have all been waiting for. I am proud to announce the winner of the 2011 Person of the Anthropocene Award. He’s a Gallic intellectual…a central figure on the world stage…you guessed it, it’s head honcho of the World Trade Organization, Pascal Lamy!

Wait. Don’t go. I can explain!

2011 really was an incredible year. The Occupy movement and the Arab Spring dominated politics and the media. Both demanded legitimacy and a more open, transparent governance from the powers that be. Curiously, to me at least, throughout 2011, this call for legitimacy was echoed in speeches given by the figurehead of one of those powers that be, WTO Director General, Pascal Lamy.

On 19 February 2011, Lamy spoke at the European University Institute in Florence challenging the dominent theory of global governance. “What does this dominant theory tell us? That the international system is founded on the principle of national sovereignty…. that global governance is the globalization of local governance. This theory of governance, which has not substantially changed for centuries, is based on the transitivity of both coherence and legitimacy: as states are coherent and legitimate, global governance is necessarily coherent and legitimate as well.”

He argued this is not longer tenable: ”Today’s world is confronted with major global challenges. We cannot afford to stay still…Pragmatic solutions need to be found now to enhance global governance and better address the problems that our world is facing.”

In a speech during a UN debate on global governance on 28 June 2011 Lamy made similar called for increased legitimacy.

“Legitimacy at the international level is much weaker than at the national level. This is not surprising as legitimacy is inversely proportional to distance. The specific challenge of legitimacy in global governance is to deal with the perceived too-distant, non-accountable and non-directly challengeable decision-making at the international level.”

“International organizations only provide for what I call “secondary legitimacy” — as opposed to the “primary legitimacy” conferred by the direct participation of citizens. While it might be possible to make up for this lack of legitimacy through a sense of belonging, of community, of solidarity, based on common values, such sense of belonging does not yet exist on a global scale.”

Lamy’s final point is the crux of the matter. Occupy and the Arab Spring indicate the sense of belonging at the global scale has arrived. They hint that the digital revolution and information technology have the potential to forge a sense of community and common values internationally. There is a sense of a new and powerful form of social mobilisation on the scene. Could they even point to new ways of political representation and governance?

The kind of self organization witnessed in the Middle East and Occupy is the kind of behaviour expected in complex interconnected systems. Large well-connected networks allow random small incidents to trigger major events. Thanks to social networking — Facebook only began in 2004 – and mobile phones we now have a global complex interconnected system like never before. We are really just beginning to grasp what this could mean.

It seems possible that in future, the global explosion in social media and mobile networks may facilitate a wholly new type of collective behaviour. With civil society now demanding and achieving a new oversight of governance, the beginnings of mechanism for a major transformation in governance may be emerging.

According to the Earth System Governance project, moving global affairs in a sustainable direction will require nothing short of a constitutional moment akin to events immediately following the Second World War. It was then the global elite created the proto UN, IMF, World Trade Organization and others.

Behind closed doors several senior advisors and experts on international processes mutter that only an environmental catastrophe on an unprecedented scale will spur the kind of action required. But the digital revolution looks set to be the wildcard.

With several bottom up movements testing the boundaries, and leaders at the top like Lamy openly advocating change, something new is stirring. This may augur well for the kind of transformation many scientists argue is essential to reduce risk of destabilizing the Earth system.

For showing this leadership, itself a catalyst for change, I award Pascal Lamy the award, 2011 Person of the Anthropocene. Ok, so Lamy may not be the most popular choice, or arguably even a good choice. A more erudite, fair and learned jury may have picked one of the many scientists who tirelessly promote the concept of the Anthropocene.

Or, maybe such a jury would plump for  Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive who became a hero of the Egyptian revolution. Perhaps a left-field choice would be Chilian student Camila “Don’t call me Che” Vallejo.

But I didn’t choose any of these. I chose Lamy. And I chose him for stating the obvious. He did it with such Gallic charm and charisma, though.

Ok, I hear you. It goes to Paul Crutzen.

Note to WTO PR people: I have absolutely no authority whatsoever to make such an award.

Earth operating in “no analogue” state, say scientists, again

In 2001, over 1000 experts issued the Amsterdam Declaration on Global Change. The declaration gave an unequivocal warning about the risks humanity is taking with the Earth system. But how many people know about this statement?

Google “Amsterdam Declaration” and you will be spoilt for choice of conference statements.

At the top of the list is the 2002 International Humanist and Ethical Union Amsterdam Declaration. The statement outlines the fundamental principles of modern humanists.

This is followed closely by the 2010 World Congress of Information Technology’s Amsterdam Declaration which “calls on stakeholders to deliver the ambitious goals of enhancing economic growth and …consumer confidence”. And who could forget the Amsterdam Declaration on Migrant Friendly Hospitals.

In 2001, over 1000 Earth-system scientists gathered in Amsterdam for the Challenges of a Changing Earth: Global Change Open Science Conference. At the end of the conference the organizers issued, you guessed it, another Amsterdam Declaration.

It is a curious statement. The title gives nothing away.  Bland and bureaucratic at first, it builds to say something quite staggeringly profound and urgent about the risk of destabilizing the Earth system and the need for a planetary management approach the authors call planetary stewardship.

Halfway through we discover the declaration is ultimately for the ”people of the world”.

The declaration peters out towards the end, “Dialogues are increasing between the scientific community and policymakers at a number of levels. Action is required to formalise, consolidate and strengthen the initiatives being developed.”

The 2012 Planet Under Pressure conference is the largest gathering of global change scientists since 2001. As we gear up for it, here is the full text of the 2001 declaration.

The Amsterdam Declaration

The scientific communities of four international global change research programmes – the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change (IHDP), the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and the international biodiversity programme DIVERSITAS – recognise that, in addition to the threat of significant climate change, there is growing concern over the ever-increasing human modification of other aspects of the global environment and the consequent implications for human well-being. Basic goods and services supplied by the planetary life support system, such as food, water, clean air and an environment conducive to human health, are being affected increasingly by global change.

Research carried out over the past decade under the auspices of the four programmes to address these concerns has shown that:

  • The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components. The interactions and feedbacks between the component parts are complex and exhibit multi-scale temporal and spatial variability. The understanding of the natural dynamics of the Earth System has advanced greatly in recent years and provides a sound basis for evaluating the effects and consequences of human-driven change.
  • Human activities are significantly influencing Earth’s environment in many ways in addition to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Anthropogenic changes to Earth’s land surface, oceans, coasts and atmosphere and to biological diversity, the water cycle and biogeochemical cycles are clearly identifiable beyond natural variability. They are equal to some of the great forces of nature in their extent and impact. Many are accelerating. Global change is real and is happening now.
  • Global change cannot be understood in terms of a simple cause-effect paradigm. Human-driven changes cause multiple effects that cascade through the Earth System in complex ways. These effects interact with each other and with local- and regional-scale changes in multidimensional patterns that are difficult to understand and even more difficult to predict. Surprises abound.
  • Earth System dynamics are characterised by critical thresholds and abrupt changes. Human activities could inadvertently trigger such changes with severe consequences for Earth’s environment and inhabitants. The Earth System has operated in different states over the last half million years, with abrupt transitions (a decade or less) sometimes occurring between them. Human activities have the potential to switch the Earth System to alternative modes of operation that may prove irreversible and less hospitable to humans and other life. The probability of a human-driven abrupt change in Earth’s environment has yet to be quantified but is not negligible.
  • In terms of some key environmental parameters, the Earth System has moved well outside the range of the natural variability exhibited over the last half million years at least. The nature of changes now occurring simultaneously in the Earth System, their magnitudes and rates of change are unprecedented. The Earth is currently operating in a no-analogue state.

On this basis the international global change programmes urge governments, public and private institutions and people of the world to agree that:

  • An ethical framework for global stewardship and strategies for Earth System management are urgently needed. The accelerating human transformation of the Earth’s environment is not sustainable. Therefore, the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth System is not an option. It has to be replaced – as soon as possible – by deliberate strategies of good management that sustain the Earth’s environment while meeting social and economic development objectives.
  • A new system of global environmental science is required. This is beginning to evolve from complementary approaches of the international global change research programmes and needs strengthening and further development. It will draw strongly on the existing and expanding disciplinary base of global change science; integrate across disciplines, environment and development issues and the natural and social sciences; collaborate across national boundaries on the basis of shared and secure infrastructure; intensify efforts to enable the full involvement of developing country scientists; and employ the complementary strengths of nations and regions to build an efficient international system of global environmental science.

The global change programmes are committed to working closely with other sectors of society and across all nations and cultures to meet the challenge of a changing Earth. New partnerships are forming among university, industrial and governmental research institutions. Dialogues are increasing between the scientific community and policymakers at a number of levels. Action is required to formalise, consolidate and strengthen the initiatives being developed. The common goal must be to develop the essential knowledge base needed to respond effectively and quickly to the great challenge of global change.

Berrien Moore III     Arild Underdal       Peter Lemke                       Michel Loreau

Chair, IGBP             Chair, IHDP           Chair, WCRP Co-Chair     DIVERSITAS

Amsterdam, The Netherlands 13 July 2001

5 reasons for a UN Chief Scientific Advisor

From global pandemics and Earth-system thresholds to internet terrorism and ocean acidification, the international community faces more and more globally interconnected risks. It may seem surprising then that the UN has yet to appoint a Chief Scientific Advisor to coordinate and provide crucial advice in times of crisis. Here are five reasons why it would be a good idea (and at the end, a few reasons why it wouldn’t):

1. Leadership. A Chief Scientific Advisor answering directly to the UN Secretary General and with direct access to the most senior politicians would provide a much-needed figurehead for the scientific community.

2. A rapid and considered response in a time of crisis minimising knee-jerk reactions and maximising independent, impartial advice.

3. A strengthened and strategic science-policy interface at the international level that many think lies in tatters. Certainly it is fragmented, weak and lacks coherency. A Chief Scientific Advisor could begin building a more coherent structure internationally and develop close links with independent international scientists and with national Chief Scientific Advisors.

4. Financial and ecological crises show how globalisation has driven us into an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. Systemic risk is rising. To minimize systemic risk we need a good understanding of complex systems and how to manage them. A Chief Scientific Advisor will see the bigger picture to support policymakers in dealing with these new types of crises.

5. Long-term thinking. Politicians and policymakers in the UN and in nation states often think in terms of the one-to-four year electoral cycle, occasionally stretching to a decade or longer if they absolutely have to. But many of our actions now will be irreversible with severe consequences for future generations. A Chief Scientific Advisor can provide this long-term independent view and advice.

Some reasons not to

1. From WHO to WMO and UNEP, the UN has plenty of acronyms with plenty of experts to offer advice. (But who has the oversight and long-term view? And this encourages fragmentation.)

2. There is enough bureaucracy at the UN so don’t add to it. (Fair point.)

3. The problem is not the absence of a Chief Scientific Advisor, the problem is the lack of political will to deal with problems. (Yes. This is not a panacea, and admittedly it won’t solve the leadership deficit issue. But it wasn’t designed to.)

Could it happen?

The Rio+20 Summit in June 2012 provides a window of opportunity to create such a new position. If the idea fails this time then it could be several years or decades before such an opportunity comes up again. If such a position were created — and I have made recommendations along these lines to Ban Ki Moon’s High Level Global Sustainability Panel and to the Rio+20 process — then ideally this person would report directly to the Secretary General, head up a small secretariat, and work across the whole UN system and beyond.

Personally, I always liked the idea of creating the position of Planetary Ecologist as a senior role at the United Nations, maybe right there at the top. There is little doubt such a role is needed. But the UN would be unlikely to do something quite so radical so I guess a starting point is the creation of Chief Scientific Advisor, which will essentially amount to the same thing but less exciting title.

The UK example

When it comes to climate-change legislation you can look at the UK and ask why has this country gone further than most. One key reason was a strong Chief Scientific Advisor, Professor Sir David King. King had a direct link to the higher echelons of UK power. He steadily ramped up pressure on a Labour government open to ideas and supportive of science. I think three factors contributed significantly to sealing the deal: the chief scientist’s undoubted charisma, his strategy and his direct links to the Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Mapping 2011′s natural catastrophes

In 2011,  Newsweek published an environmental ranking of the world’s largest companies. Insurance giant Munich Re took the number one position. When it comes to understanding risk and uncertainty, nobody does it better. It is hardly surprising the company takes sustainability so seriously. Here is Munich Re’s 2011 natural catastrophe global map, published 4 January.

Munich Re totalled 820 natural catastrophes in 2011. 90% were weather-related – however, nearly two-thirds of economic losses and about half the insured losses stemmed from geophysical events, principally from the Japanese and other earthquakes. Normally, it’s weather-related natural catastrophes that domiate losses. On average over the last three decades, geophysical events accounted for just under 10% of insured losses. The distribution of regional losses in 2011 was also unusual: around 70% of economic losses occurred in Asia.

Munich Re notes that while its analysis deals with insured losses, the biggest humanitarian catastrophe in 2011 stemmed from the prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa. Coupled with political instability, the drought resulted in countless deaths from starvation.

US research agency NOAA has also published a similar map but focussing on 2011 climate events.

Extreme events in 2011

Rank Event When Occurred
1 East Africa Drought Ongoing
2 Thailand Flooding July–October
3 Eastern Australia Flooding December 2010–February 2011
Austral Summer
4 Consecutive La Niña Events Throughout 2011
5 Brazil Flash Floods January 6th–12th
6 Tropical Storm Washi (Sendong) December 16th–17th
7 Arctic Sea Ice Extent Throughout 2011
8 Colombia Rainfall March–May
9 Mexico Drought Throughout 2011
10 European Drought September–November

Reference: NOAA-NCDC 


The UN Rio+20 outcomes document, “the Future We Want”, has been released. It lacks the urgency necessary to prevent crossing a Rubicon in the Earth system. If this is the “Future We Want” what is the future we will get? And, is 57 the new 42?

“The Future We Want” has landed (10 January). This is the title of the so-called zero-order draft of the Rio+20 outcomes document.

I warn you, if you are feeling a little down or depressed, skip the next bit  and jump straight to the end.

The words “bold”, “ambitious” and “visionary” are not words to describe the document.  ”Weak”, “woolly” and “woefully inadequate” may step closer to the truth. There is no urgency. No feeling we can crack our global challenges this generation or the next. ”The Future We Want” simply reiterates the hopes and dreams of the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio.

But since then, science has demonstrated that this vast human powerhouse is now the prime driver of planet-scale change: we have entered the Anthropocene. Science has shown we are pushing the planet towards tipping points. Earth’s seven billion inhabitants are the equivalent of geological forces lasting tens of thousands of years. In the crows nest of humanity, Earth-system scientists are shouting a clear warning that our actions jeopardize the stability of Earth’s life support system as we know it. Civilization has managed this feat not in ten-thousand years, but in a single lifetime — since 1950.

In the last few years I have attended several meetings where UN experts and advisors have argued that only an unprecedented environmental catastrophe will kick nations out of complacency. In the vein of a blockbusting action movie, these same experts usually finish by saying this generation is risking the future of humanity. At this stage a scientist at the table usually pipes up, gently correcting them: humanity should be fine, it is civilization that is at risk.

OK, so are these people prone to hyperbole that they have lost all touch with reality?

Maybe not. The world needs to take a reality pill. If we take no action our planet will be 2-4 degrees Celsius warmer by the end of the century, 6 or more by the next century, 8 or more a century later. The best evidence is that in this regime the world’s ice will eventually melt, raising sea levels 70 metres plus. With most of the world’s major cities on vulnerable coastlines, civilization as we know it now will be unrecognizable a few centuries on. And of course the problems reach far beyond a rise in sea level. Leaving it for the next generation to solve is not an option. By then we will have crossed the Rubicon. In all likelihood there will be no going back. The corner needs to turn in the next decade. So Rio+20 is timely.

We are a species that knows how to adapt. In the last two hundred years we have pulled a surprising number of rabbits out of the hat, so we will crack this one, right?

Well, the zero-order draft will not save us.

The Future We Want’s scene-setting introduction is ominous. It fails to inject any urgency into proceedings. “We, the Heads of State and Government resolve to work together for a prosperous, secure and sustainable future for our people and our planet.”

At least there is some hope that presidents and prime ministers will turn up to Rio.

“We are also committed to enhancing cooperation and addressing the ongoing and emerging issues in ways which will enhance opportunities for all, be centred on human development while preserving and protecting the life support system of our common home, our shared planet.”

Great. But this was said twenty years ago at the first Rio Earth Summit.

The preamble closes with a soporific: “Taken together our actions should fill the implementation gaps and achieve greater integration among the three pillars of sustainable development – the economic, the social and the environmental.”


The framing is wrong. Rio+20 should not be set in the landscape of the first Rio summit. Things have moved on. Between 1992 and 2012 we have gathered enough evidence to redefine sustainable development. The first Earth Summit adopted the Brundtland commission’s definition of sustainability: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

By now the penny has dropped that politically this is viewed as an aspiration — an ideal to work towards. The reality is global sustainability is not an ideal but a prerequisite for any kind of long-term development of our societies. This is a major omission in the zero-order draft.

So what is useful in the draft? The two big-hitting proposals focus on creating a Sustainable Development Council from the ashes of the Commission on Sustainable, and promoting the United Nations Environment Programme to an organization. This will allow them to wield more weight within the UN, but it is not obvious that this is enough to kickstart fundamental transformation.

Paragraphs 52 and 53 are encouraging on the science front:

52. We stress the need for a regular review of the state of the planet and the Earth’s carrying capacity and request the Secretary-General to coordinate the preparation of such a review in consultation with relevant international organizations and the UN system.

53. We call for the scientific basis for decision making to be strengthened across the UN system and recognise that the interface between science and policy-making should be enhanced.

A regular “State of the Planet” assessment going beyond climate — and the environment — is a necessity. How this can happen and in what form needs much discussion, but an Intergovernmental Panel on Global Sustainability (see previous post) deserves some consideration. This would have the necessary political and scientific legitimacy required for progress. It would make full use of all existing assessments, indeed it would bind them together creating a coherent narrative but focus on interconnected solutions.

Paragraph 57 is also interesting. “We agree to further consider the establishment of an Ombudsperson, or High Commissioner for Future Generations, to promote sustainable development.”

In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the number one position on the planet, the Obama position, was not “US President” but “Planetary Ecologist”. This was someone whose focus was far into the future, linking actions now to impacts generations hence – for planetary stability and predictability. Perhaps paragraph 57 is a realisation that one day Earth may need such a position. Rio+20 may bring us a step closer to that day.

In another famous science fiction book, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy,  Douglas Adams revealed that the ultimate answer to the ultimate question of Life, the Universe and Everything was 42. Leadership is a powerful catalyst for change but there exists a leadership deficit in the world today. Our leaders need to take more responsibility for the future. Perhaps one day the ultimate answer to the ultimate question will be 57.

Time for a global sustainability assessment?

The world needs a regular, comprehensive State of the Planet Assessment. Can Rio+20 deliver?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has set a high standard for international assessments. Since its inception in 1988, it has undoubtedly strengthened the bond between climate science and policy at the international level. This success has led other sectors to look upon the IPCC with envy. In 2010, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) was launched. Now there are strong reasons, and calls, for assessments on the oceans, nitrogen and other pressing global concerns.

But is assessment proliferation useful? It risks further fragmenting the science when many scientists argue for a science-policy approach that captures the interconnected nature of our global challenges. We will never solve climate change unless we solve poverty alleviation. We have little chance of solving this without dealing with food security. Food, water and energy security are inextricably linked. Biodiversity loss is a function of all of the above. Tackling pollution can affect climate and health. And so on.

Nowhere is the fragmentation problem more apparent than at the recent Durban climate talks. Countless special interest groups released endless reports vying with each other for the attention of  negotiators, each shouting that their area of concern was being ignored: food security, poverty, biodiversity, ocean acidification, nitrogen pollution, the list goes on. The reality is our global challenges are tightly interlinked. Interdependence is the norm not the exception. Rapid political progress — and transformation — may well hinge on a fundamental grasp of this fact.

With the United Nations Rio+20 Summit looming large on the horizon it is time to seriously consider joining the dots. There is a window of opportunity to think hard about a global sustainability assessment, that could take the form of an Intergovernmental Panel on Global Sustainability, but would need to be much broader, bringing in many more international institutions, for example WTO, the IMF and the World Bank. Such an assessment or review would not compete or negate existing assessments, and few would disagree with their value. On the contrary it would bind them together completing the picture.

If evidence supports the notion that sustainable development is a necessity rather than an ideal to aim towards, which it appears to, then a regular state of the planet assessment is a must.  At the core of such an assessment, which needs political legitimacy, should be policy-relevant information relating to systemic risk management at the planetary level. But recognising that systemic risk management needs to be undertaken at all levels, from towns and cities, through to national, regional and global levels.

Some may argue the science is not ready to take on this task, or that the charge is simply too difficult and must be broken down into components. This approach is unhelpful and incorrect.

If the motivation can be found for a new panel, then the timing is good. Indeed, we may see history repeat itself. In 1988, the Swedish academic Bert Bolin and colleagues set up IPCC to assess whether the climate was changing, and if so, what was the cause. It followed in the footsteps of two highly influential international research programmes initiated in the seventies and eighties by the far-sighted Bolin: the World Climate Research Programme and the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. Bolin argued a distinction between the science and the science-policy was essential. These programmes were set up to do the science; IPCC assessed it.

Now a consortium of leading international organizations* is pushing for a realignment of the four large international research programmes**. The consortium wants to steer these programmes towards a ten-year focus on Earth-system sustainability, entitled Future Earth. 2012 will see the launch of Future Earth. If this is to be as successful as its predecessors, it will need an international policy focus to bring together the new knowledge generated. Now is the time to start thinking seriously about the high-level policy outcome of this venture.

*The International Council for Science, International Social Science Council, UNESCO, UNEP, United Nations University, and a range of funding agencies.

**WCRP, IGBP, DIVERSITAS, International Human Dimensions Programme on Global Environmental Change

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.