The Economist dives into uncharted waters of “The Anthropocene”

Founded in 1843, The Economist, a U.K. based weekly has evolved from its roots as “A Political, Commercial, Agricultural, & Free-Trade Journal” – with an average weekly circulation of 1,969 – to a modern-day “Group” with “brands”. In their own words:

From its beginnings in 1843, when The Economist newspaper was founded by a Scottish hat manufacturer to further the cause of free trade, The Economist Group has evolved into a global media company that develops intelligent brands for a high-end audience.

Its “mission“:

The Economist Group aims to offer insight, analysis and services that are valued by its customers.

Underpinning The Economist Group’s ability to fulfil this objective is a commitment to independence, integrity and delivering high quality in everything it does.

Very noble, n’est-ce pas?! But I must confess that, because I’ve never detected any “independence, integrity [or] high quality” in their coverage of Israel, in the rather selfish interest of maintaining my equanimity (and stable blood pressure), I’ve chosen to opt out of being a member of their “high-end audience”. (But for an amusing antidote – prescribed by long-time family friend, Dr. VZ – do take your mouse to PJTV’s Andrew Klavan’s “One-State Solution“)

Their obeisance to the edicts and mantras of the “must act now” global warming (aka climate change which they sometimes refer to as “climatology“) alarmists is yet another reason I’ve chosen to steer clear of their ‘brand’ of journalism. Well, until a few days ago – when reader MCS (who clearly has more fortitude than I) pointed me in the direction of their May 26 edition – with not one, but two articles on …. drum roll, please … The Anthropocene:

noun a proposed term for the present geological epoch (spanning from the end of the 18th century onwards), during which humanity has begun to have a significant impact on the environment [from anthropo-, indicating man or human, + -cene, denoting a recent geological period. Coined by Paul J Crutzen, a Nobel laureate in chemistry] (emphasis added -hro)

IOW, Crutzen – whose own CV indicates that his “main research interests” are “Atmospheric chemistry and its role in biogeochemical cylces (sic) and climate; climate-engineering; climate and biofuels” – is the godfather/midwife of this particular post-normal neologism.

Does he have a background in geology (the field which customarily determines such “epochs”)? Not as far as I can tell from his “Academic Record”:

Civil Engineering, 1951-1954, Amsterdam, Holland.
Academic Studies and Research Activities 1959-1973 at the University of Stockholm, Sweden.
M.Sc. (Filosofie Kandidat), 1963.
Ph.D. (Filosofie Licentiat), Meteorology, 1968, Title: “Determination of parameters appearing in the ‘dry’ and the ‘wet’ photochemical theories for ozone in the stratosphere”, Examiner: Prof. Dr. Bert Bolin, Stockholm, Sweden.
D.Sc. (Filosofie Doctor), 1973, Stockholm,Sweden, Title: “On the photochemistry of ozone in the stratosphere and troposphere and pollution of the stratosphere by high-flying aircraft”, Promoters: Prof. Dr. John Houghton, FRS, Oxford, and Dr. R.P. Wayne, Oxford.
(Ph.D. and D.Sc. degrees were given with the highest possible distinctions).

But Crutzen’s numerous laurels constitute a list as long as your arm! Not the least of which are:

Awards and Honours:

Recipient of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (with Dr. M. Molina and Dr. F. S. Rowland, U.S.A.);
Recipient of the Global Ozone Award for “Outstanding Contribution for the Protection of the Ozone Layer” by UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme).
Honorary Member of the Swedish Meteorological Society
Member of the Council of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences
Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Green Professionals, Weston, Florida, USA. Entitled to use the identifiere “Hon. FIGP”.


Honorary Doctoral Degrees:

1994: Dr. h. c., University of East Anglia, Norwich, England.

1997, though, was a very good year for Crutzen because he harvested no less than six “Honorary Doctoral Degrees”. All of which, no doubt, make him an “expert” in geological epochs – in much the same way as, oh … I dunno … Michael Mann’s tree-ring circus makes him an “expert” in statistics. But I digress …

I’m not sure I have absolutely no idea what might have precipitated The Economist‘s decision to venture into the realm of the neo-logistical with such certitude. Here are the headlines and taglines for their two “branded” articles:

The geology of the planet

Welcome to the Anthropocene

Humans have changed the way the world works. Now they have to change the way they think about it, too


The Anthropocene

A man-made world

Science is recognising humans as a geological force to be reckoned with

If it’s not one damn scare, it’s another … So how scary can The Economist get, eh?! Not to mention why?!

Perhaps The Economist did not want to fall too far behind the New York Times which had (circa May 19) featured the words and wisdom of nary a geologist, but three ecologists, one “engineer and ethicist”, one “science correspondent” and one “retained correspondent for Nature magazine. But – notwithstanding Andrew Revkin (the NYT’s guru of all things green)’s “embrace” of of this newly pervasive meme – at least (unlike The Economist) the powers that be at NYT chose to hedge their bets by posing a question:

The Age of Anthropocene: Should We Worry?
If humanity’s geologic effect on the planet becomes its own epoch, is that a bad or a good thing? [emphasis added -hro]

Yet, with very little no respect for facts, The Economist would have its readers believe that:

The term [Anthropocene] has slowly picked up steam, both within the sciences (the International Commission on Stratigraphy, ultimate adjudicator of the geological time scale, is taking a formal interest) and beyond. This May statements (sic) on the environment by concerned Nobel laureates and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences both made prominent use of the term, capitalising on the way in which it dramatises the sheer scale of human activity.

Wait a minute … just who are these “concerned Nobel laureates”? Well, evidently there are 17 of ‘em but for some strange reason, they’re not named in “The Stockholm Memorandum Tipping the Scales towards Sustainability 3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium ‘on Global Sustainability, Stockholm, Sweden, 16-19 May 2011′”

Nonetheless these anonymous Nobel Laureates (with unknown fields of expertise) declared (inter alia) that:

Humans are now the most significant driver of global change, propelling the planet into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. We can no longer exclude the possibility that our collective actions will trigger tipping points, risking abrupt and irreversible consequences for human communities and ecological systems. We cannot continue on our current path. The time for procrastination is over. We cannot afford the luxury of denial. We must respond rationally, equipped with scientific evidence.
In an interconnected and constrained world, in which we have a symbiotic relationship with the planet, environmental sustainability is a precondition for poverty eradication, economic development, and social justice. Our call is for fundamental transformation and innovation in all spheres and at all scales in order to stop and reverse global environmental change and move toward fair and lasting prosperity for present and future generations.
We urge governments to agree on global emission reductions guided by science and embedded in ethics and justice. At the same time, the energy needs of the three billion people who lack access to reliable sources of energy need to be fulfilled. Global efforts need to:

• Keep global warming below 2oC, implying a peak in global CO2 emissions no later than 2015 and recognise that even a warming of 2oC carries a very high risk of serious impacts and the need for major adaptation efforts.

• Put a sufficiently high price on carbon and deliver the G-20 commitment to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, using these funds to contribute to the several hundred billion US dollars per year needed to scale up investments in renewable energy [emphases added -hro]

In defense of the anonymous 17, I must say that if I were a Nobel Laureate, I wouldn’t want to put my name to such drivel either! But I digress (again) …

To add insult to this particular injury to their readers’ intelligence, The Economist – on the strength of Gaia only knows what “evidence” (and I suspect that even she may not be too sure) – has declared that:

There are, for instance, more trees on farms than in wild forests.

How could anyone even begin to take seriously anything written by one who would make such a ludicrous assertion?!

Lack of evidence notwithstanding, the source of many of The Economist‘s claims might well be based on the views of (self-declared) ecologist, Erle C. Ellis, an associate professor of geography [not geology] and environmental systems who (by pure coincidence, no doubt) just happened to be one of the three ecologists whose opinions were sought by the New York Times. There Ellis had written:

The Anthropocene is here to stay. It is also clear that we do not yet understand how human systems work and interact with other Earth systems. [emphasis added -hro]

During the course of a tea-for-two with an off-screen Economist interviewer, Ellis can be heard dropping such pearls of wisdom as:

Ecologist Ellis leading The Economist up the garden path

“[humans] are a great causal agent”

“[humans] are a formative agent on the planet”

“nature is something we create”

“we have to nurture nature”

The Economist concluded its paean to the Anthropocene as follows:

Better to embrace the Anthropocene’s potential as a revolution in the way the Earth system works, [University of Exeter's Timothy Leyton and University of East Anglia's Andrew Watson] argue, than to try to retreat onto a low-impact path that runs the risk of global immiseration.

Such a choice is possible because of the most fundamental change in Earth history that the Anthropocene marks
It may seem nonsense to think of the (probably sceptical) intelligence with which you interpret these words as something on a par with plate tectonics or photosynthesis. But dam by dam, mine by mine, farm by farm and city by city it is remaking the Earth before your eyes.

Hmmm … no mention of “wind turbine by wind turbine”. How very strange.

Oh, well … not to worry, Canada’s very own environmental drama queen, David Suzuki, has bestowed his blessing on The Economist.

But I still find it somewhat strange that The Economist should have failed to mention one of the implications that resulted from ozone expert – and Chemist coiner – Crutzon’s February 2010 teaming up with two U.K. University of Leicester geologists and one Australian Director of a Climate Change Institute (at Canberra’s Australian National University):

The concept of the Anthropocene might, therefore, become exploited, to a variety of ends**. Some of these may be beneficial, some less so. The Anthropocene might be used as encouragement to slow carbon emissions and biodiversity loss, for instance; perhaps as evidence in legislation on conservation measures (31); or, in the assessment of compensation claims for environmental damage. It has the capacity to become the most politicized unit, by far, of the Geological Time Scale—and therefore to take formal geological classification into uncharted waters.. [emphasis added -hro]

** To my ear, this echoes Mike Hulme’s views about “plastic” climate change rhetoric. Just what the world needs, eh?! another “politicized unit” of science.

As for me, unlike the un-named 17 Nobel Laureates, I’m not ready to jump on the Anthropocentric bandwagon – nor to dive into such uncharted waters. I think I’m going to continue to steer clear of The Economist and its alarmist prognostications – and stick with the advice of Dr. Robert B. Laughlin, (Nobel co-recipient in Physics, 1998):

“Climate change … is a matter of geologic time, something that the earth routinely does on its own without asking anyone’s permission or explaining itself. [...] The geologic record suggests that climate ought not to concern us too much when we’re gazing into the energy future, not because it’s unimportant, but because it’s beyond our power to control.” [emphasis added -hro]

2 thoughts on “The Economist dives into uncharted waters of “The Anthropocene”

  1. “Stop Trying to Save the Planet” is an interesting op-ed in Wired (May 2009) by Erle Ellis Ph.D., the director of the Laboratory for Anthropogenic Landscape Ecology. He says, “[Nature] was gone before you were born, before your parents were born, before the pilgrims arrived, before the pyramids were built. You are living on a used planet…We now live in the Anthropocene–a geological epoch in which [Earth has been] shaped primarily by human forces.“

    This hand wringing by The Economist and NYT over creating “tipping points” because we’re exploiting resources strikes me as wide of the mark. No doubt we’ve created and passed through dozens of “tipping points” in human history. The earth cares not what we do, only the righteous self-chosen (with their leaden deep-ecology moral judgments) attempting to speak for Gaia do (i.e., human=bad).

  2. It seems anything goes if you believe in AGW – lying to the electorate, social engineering, economic vandalism, statistical creativity, ‘confidentiality’ of data and computer codes after publication, post-normal science and pal review, and now neologism can be added to the list. All in a good cause, “saving the planet” – the end justifies the means. Has anyone noticed that climate predictions are either wrong and ignored (e.g. Tim Flannery) or so far into the future that we won’t be alive to test them? Climate science, with the help of politicians and compliant media, has produced the modern equivalent of taxpayer funded witch doctors.

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