Peering through an Anthropocene Lens

Setting the Stage: The Human Age and Great Acceleration as frameworks for environmental photography.

West Texas Fracking Landscape by Dennis Dimick

West Texas Fracking Landscape by Dennis Dimick

By Dennis Dimick

What is the Anthropocene?

It is an era in history when humanity has become the dominant force on earth. Enduring impacts of our expanding enterprise have become visible and measurable worldwide. Earth’s landscapes, ecosystems, ice, rivers, oceans, and atmosphere have all been affected. As a result, scientists have proposed a new geologic epoch called The Anthropocene to mark this impact.

Our collective activities are changing the chemistry of the earth’s geology. Several indicators serve as evidence: long-term landscape changes from deforestation, agriculture, and urbanization; shifts in river flow, sedimentation, and river delta formation from dam building and land use change; and changes in atmosphere and ocean chemistry from extraction and burning of fossil fuels coal, oil, and gas. Measurable residues from 1940s atomic bomb explosions also serve as indicators of humanity’s enduring impact.

Beyond whether the Anthropocene is a new geologic epoch, the concept of a Human Age or Age of Man is also a useful way to contemplate our relationship to the planet that supports us. We now live in an era when we are changing earth’s natural cycles, and the enduring effects of our activities are being felt and seen nearly everywhere we look.

Great Acceleration: A chart showing a range of recent human impacts on earth. From International Geosphere Biosphere Program.

Great Acceleration: A chart showing a range of recent human impacts on earth. From International Geosphere Biosphere Program.

What is the Great Acceleration?

The Great Acceleration can be seen as a focal point of the Anthropocene, as our collective effects have increased dramatically since the middle of the 20th century. After World War II a sustained period of global economic expansion unfolded marked by rapid rises in fossil fuel use, industrial-scale food production, and population. World population tripled from 2.5 billion people in 1950 to nearly 7.5 billion in 2017, and our dependence on fossil fuel energy, large-scale agriculture, available fresh water, and other natural resources has greatly increased. Because of our expanding population and appetites for more natural resources, we are now changing behavior of large global environmental cycles that support life on earth – the carbon cycle, the water cycle, and the nitrogen cycle and others.

Carbon Cycle: As we power the engines, lights, and factories of the world economy by burning coal, oil, and natural gas we also produce heat-trapping atmospheric gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) that change the carbon cycle. Effects include rising temperatures globally and loss of glaciers, ice caps, and coral reefs. Lakes and oceans are also becoming more acidic – dissolving corals and bony fishes – as excess CO2 from fuel combustion is absorbed.

Water Cycle: A vivid example of water cycle changes can be seen in the disappearance of the Arctic Ocean ice cap at the North Pole, which has lost half of its volume in summer in less than 40 years from rising temperatures. Besides glacier and ice cap melting, water cycle changes from climate change-induced rising temperatures also include the weather: more and deeper droughts, more likelihood of heatwaves that damage crops and human health, and more frequent extreme precipitation events and severe storms. Oceans are also rising – getting deeper – as meltwater from icecaps and glaciers flows into the sea from the land.

Arctic Ice Cap1979-2012

Arctic Ice Cap1979-2012

Nitrogen Cycle: Nitrogen makes up 80 percent of the atmosphere. In the early 20th century two German chemists, Haber and Bosch, invented a process using natural gas to extract nitrogen from the atmosphere and turn it into abundant plant food. The Haber-Bosch process, which relies on fossil fuels to produce synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, served as an ignitor for dramatic increases in food supply and in population. As living standards have risen we also eat more meat from livestock and poultry, which requires more land and irrigation to grow nitrogen-fed crops fed to animals. The world’s nitrogen cycle has been thrown out of balance as surplus nitrogen and phosphate fertilizer runoff from farms and urban landscapes pollutes estuaries and coastal waters, creating “dead zones” worldwide where no aquatic life can survive.  

Frameworks for Environmental Photography

Keeping the Anthropocene and Great Acceleration in mind, it’s hard to imagine world population tripling again –  from 7.5 billion to 21 or so billion – any time soon, or any time at all. This gets to the heart of the key environmental challenge: How many people can the earth sustainably support? In the next 35 years, we must double world food production to nourish a rising population, and forests are falling at record rates to make way for farms that can meet this growing demand. What must be sacrificed to meet this demand?

These questions also highlight looming opportunities for informed and concerned photographers who see value and purpose in visually documenting the collision between human aspiration and the small blue planet we call home.

This posting is a first step in a journey where Jim Richardson and I hope to probe the issues mentioned above, and others, with the goal of providing a basis for fertile environmental story-telling opportunities with a camera.

Here following is a sampling of links to Anthropocene- and Great Acceleration-related articles, books, and papers that can enhance your discovery.

Enter the Anthropocene: Age of Man, by Elizabeth Kolbert. National Geographic, March 2011.

Royal Society Philosophical Transactions: The Anthropocene, a New Epoch of Geological Time?

Anthropocene Working Group (scientist group proposing a new geologic epoch)

The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945, by J.R. McNeill and Peter Engelke. Harvard University Press, 2014

Encyclopedia Britannica: Anthropocene Epoch

The Guardian: Scientists Declare Dawn of Human-Induced Age

Future Earth: Mathematics of the Anthropocene

Dennis Dimick

Dennis Dimick served as executive environment editor at National Geographic magazine and was a picture editor at the National Geographic Society for more than 35 years until his retirement in December 2015. He guided a variety of major magazine projects including a special issue on global freshwater in April 2010, a 2011 series on global population, and the 2014 Future of Food series on global food security. Dimick co-organized the Aspen Environment Forum from 2008-2012, and continues to regularly present slide show lectures on global environmental issues. For 19 years he has been a faculty member of the Missouri Photo Workshop, and in 2013 received the Sprague Memorial Award from the National Press Photographers Association for outstanding service to photojournalism. He currently serves as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists. He grew up on an Oregon farm, and Dimick holds degrees in agriculture and agricultural journalism from Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.