Many still think that Earth is just too big and mighty to be changed permanently by humans. When Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed to introduce a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, they encountered wide-spread disbelief that us little, recently-evolved creatures could act on the longest, deepest time-scale available to describe our planet.
While hiking in the Alps recently, in an area called the Karwendel mountains, I certainly could relate to the feeling of a nature that is far beyond human action. The excavator says it all. Look at how tiny it is compared to those limestone mountains, former sea floors lifted up to the sky by plate tectonics over millions of years, just to crumble, erode and turn into vast plains in the far future.
So is the Anthropocene idea perhaps a symptom of human hubris, a blatant exaggeration of our effects, an object of future derision? Well, think again. The average European now extracts, moves, consumes and disposes of 15 tons of material per year, from smartphone metals to collectively used concrete. So each of us acts like a bio-excavator digging into Earth. Multiply this excavator by 10 billion, as most humans strive to attain a Western lifestyle. To the material turn-over add climate change, the creation of synthetic organisms and the extinction of wild ones, the growth of human settlements to half the size of Australia within this century, massive chemical changes to the oceans...No, we are not small. We are about to move mountains, literally.