Saturday, 27 March 2010

Earth Hour (2): The Anthropocene

For millennia man managed to live on this planet and affecting it in just a few ways. Man hunted a few species out of existence locally or globally at various times. Deforestation of some regions caused soil erosion, choking of valleys with alluvium. The archaeological record shows we have done a lot of damage in many regions. Today however - whatever one's position on global warming and turning lights out etc. - there is no denying that Man has changed the face of the planet irrevocably. Over almost the entire face of the planet. Something which we've been working at for millennia, but the effects are cumulating in our own times. The legacy of past "couldn't-care-less" is now our problem and more particularly the problem of our children.

The term "Anthropocene" is now being bandied about to describe the period of the planet's history when Man has been a major source of geological change. The term was coined in 2000 by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, and has gained currency in recent years (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000; Zalasiewicz 2008). The concept is interesting for an archaeologist whose working life is often focussed on information contained in anthropogenic deposits and relating them to earlier deposits.
I think we might have problems defining when the anthropocene began, when widespread soil erosion for example started (for example here in central Europe) with the first farmers. Probably it will vary from region to region if we take indicators such as alluvium formation in valleys as the marker. Certainly by the nineteenth century we were capable of producing vast changes in the environment by agencies such as altering ground water levels (drainage), affecting soil development (deep ploughing, artificial fertilisers), changing the flow of rivers (Stalin's great projects in the Russian North), not to mention pumping large amounts of sulphur compounds into the air (erosion of historic stonework by acid rain) and carbon dioxide. We are seeing the endangerment and extinction of species on an alarming scale, and a lot of it is our fault. A fault in many cases of not thinking through the consequences of our actions - even when the knowledge to do so was already in existence - and a lack of concern about the longterm effects, followed by a lack of political will to do anything effective about it in the face of other interests (indeed, the antiquity looting problem is a microcosm of this general problem).
Some of my archaeological colleagues subscribe to a rather naive view that "understanding the past" will in some way benefit us all as it will "help us plan for the future". Frankly, I do not believe that one bit. Neither though do I follow the extremes of post-Processualism that our "past" is entirely a back-projection of our present. What I do think however is that archaeology and good archaeology in conjunction with the various Earth Sciences can at least help us (us meaning not just archaeologists but the people wo read their books and watch them on TV) to be aware what changes are occurring. To be aware of how long we have been severely stressing the system, and to make us aware also of the extreme fragility of the ecosystems on which our cultural systems are constructed (some alarmist tales of this in the annals of archaeology too - some more based in science and logic than others). I do not think archaeology can "save the world", but the investigation of the past is a necessary element of understanding the world and our place in it.

And, here's the punchline inevitable from the point of view of this blog, obviously we cannot do that if all the accessible sites have been dug over so some selfish, indiscriminately artefact-hungry, resource-gobbling dunderheads can have a few ancient geegaws to fondle and sell.

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