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Welcome to the Anthropocene

By Gwynne Dyer

There is no doubt that human beings are the dominant species on Earth. The seven billion of us account for about one-third of the total body mass of large animals on the planet, with our domestic animals accounting for most of the rest. (Wild animals only amount to 3 to 5 percent.) But are we really central to the scheme of things? That is a different question.

Almost all the scientific discoveries of the past few centuries have moved human beings away from the centre of things towards the periphery. In the 16th century we learned that Earth went around the Sun, not the other way round.

Then we realised that the Sun was just one more yellow star among a hundred billion others “far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy,” as Douglas Adams put it. And this is just one galaxy among hundreds of billions.

Then the geologists learned that our planet is four and a half billion years old, whereas we primates have only been around for the past seven million years, and modern human being for a mere 100,000 years. And so on and so forth, until we felt very small and insignificant. But now the story is heading back in the other direction; they’re going to name an entire geological epoch after us. The Anthropocene.

Don’t get too excited: an epoch is not that big a deal in geology. Just as there is an ascending hierarchy of days, weeks, months and years in present time, there is a hierarchy of epochs, periods, eras and aeons in geological time. Until recently, everybody agreed that we live in the Holocene epoch of the Quaternary period, which in turn is part of the 65-million-year old Cenozoic era, the most recent phase of the 540-million-year Phanerozoic aeon.

Holocene means “entirely recent”, and is reckoned to have begun at the end of the last major glaciation less than 12,000 years ago. That’s not a very long time even for a mere epoch – but geologists are now considering the possibility that we have already entered a different epoch, the Anthropocene (from the Greek roots for “man” and “recent”). That is, an epoch defined by the impact of human beings on the entire planetary environment.

Geologists want to see evidence in the rocks before they define an epoch, and it’s early days for that yet, but it’s clear that the fossil records for the present time will show a massive loss of forests, a very high rate of extinctions, and a preponderance of fossils of only a few species: us and our domesticated animals.

The acidification of the oceans is destroying the coral reefs, which will produce a “reef gap” similar to the ones that marked the five great extinctions of the past. The changes in the atmosphere caused by the burning of massive amounts of fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – will show up in the form of rising sea levels due to warming, and in the decline of carbonate rocks like limestone and chalk in the deep-ocean sediments.

If this is really a new epoch, then geologists (human or otherwise) millions of years from now should be able to work out what happened just from the rocks, without any direct knowledge of the past. However, if the current global civilisation collapses as a result of these changes, they will have only a very thin band of rock to work with.

The idea of declaring the Anthropocene as a new epoch is being taken seriously by geologists: the International Union of Geological Sciences has set up a working group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy to report by 2016 on whether the Holocene must give way to the Anthropocene.

They will also have to decide when the Anthropocene began. In 1950, at the start of the “Great Acceleration” that saw the human population and its greenhouse gas emissions both triple in only six decades? At the start of the Industrial Revolution two-and-a-half centuries ago? Or eight thousand years ago, when the first farmers began to clear forests and emit significant amounts of greenhouse gases? Take your pick, because it doesn’t matter.

The real purpose of declaring the Anthropocene period is to focus human attention on the scale of our impacts on the planetary environment. As biologist E.O. Wilson wrote: “The pattern of human population growth in the twentieth century was more bacterial than primate.” He calculated that human biomass is already a hundred times larger than that of any other large animal species present or past except for our own domesticated animals.

That phase of runaway population growth is over now, but the global rise in living standards is having further environmental impacts of the same order. Climate change is the headline threat, but the loss of biodiversity, ozone depletion, ocean acidification and half a dozen other negative trends are also driven by our numbers and our lifestyle.

Being responsible for keeping so many interlocking systems within their permissible limits may be more than our civilisation can manage, but it’s already too late to reject that job. All we can do now is try to stay within the planetary boundaries (which in some cases requires discovering exactly where they are), and restore as many natural systems as we can. The odds are not in our favour.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 5, 6 and 11.  (“Don’t…environment”; and “They…matter”)

The Loss of Centrality

11 November 2012

The Loss of Centrality

By Gwynne Dyer

In this interval of blessed tranquillity between the titanic struggle to choose the next president of the “world’s greatest nation” (same guy as last time), and the world-shaking choice of the next leader of the “Middle Kingdom” (Xi Jinping, but it’s still officially secret for a few more days), a delicious moment of sheer silliness. The British Broadcasting Corporation has banned a science programme because it might trigger an interstellar invasion.

They would not normally ban a programme made by Brian Cox. He is a jewel in the BBC’s crown: a particle physicist with rock-star appeal – he played in two semi-professional bands, and in the right light he looks like a younger Steven Tyler – who can also communicate with ordinary human beings. They just forbade him to make the episode of “Stargazing Live” in which he planned to send a message to the aliens.

Cox wanted to point the Jodrell Bank radio telescope at a recently discovered planet circling another star, in the hope of making contact with an alien civilisation. The BBC executives refused to let him do it, on the grounds that since no one knew what might happen, it could be in breach of “health and safety” guidelines.

Cox, a serious scientist, knew exactly what would happen: nothing. Even if there are hostile aliens out there, space is so vast that light from the nearest star, traveling at 300,000 kilometres per second (186,000 miles/sec.), takes four years to reach us. He was just doing his bit in the centuries-long scientific campaign to convince people that they are not at the centre of everything.

The BBC “suits”, who do think that they are at the centre of everything, weren’t having any of that. If there are aliens out there, and they find out we are here, their first reaction will probably be to come here and eat our children. And then the BBC will get blamed for it. Sorry, Brian. Drop the radio telescope and step away from it slowly.

The suits richly deserve the derision that has come their way, but if there really is life elsewhere, and even perhaps intelligent life, then we aren’t at the centre of anything any more. We are, as Douglas Adams once put it in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy.”

We used to believe that the whole universe literally revolved around us. Then came Copernicus. But we went on believing that we are very special. We look like other animals, but we are so special that we don’t cease to exist when we die. We give the universe meaning just by being alive

A bit at the time, however, science has been destroying all of our traditional ideas about our own centrality. And here comes another blow.

In a universe with trillions of stars, it was always less presumptuous to assume that we are not unique than to insist that we are. But just twenty years ago there was no evidence to show that other stars actually do have planets, let alone that some of those planets harbour life.

We now know of the existence of some 800 “exoplanets”, and the number is doubling every year or so. Most of these planets are gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn, not at all like Earth, simply because the giants are easier to detect. But what we have really been looking for is planets like our own. We KNOW that life thrives here.

The astronomers at the European Southern Observatory in Chile have now found such a planet. It is called HD 40307g, and it orbits a small orange-coloured sun 42 light-years from here. The planet is rocky, like Earth, and it orbits its star at a distance where the temperature allows water to exist as a liquid. It is certainly a candidate for life.

In the past decade we have learned that most stars have planets, and that they typically have lots of them. HD 40307 has six planets orbiting at different distances, at least one of which (HD40307g) is in the “Goldilocks” zone.

There are between 200 billion and 400 billion stars in our home galaxy, the Milky Way, and probably at least as many planets. If only one in a hundred of those planets harbours life, which is likely to be an underestimate, then there are two billion living planets. We are not unique and special. We are as common as dirt.

Douglas Adams also wrote: “If life is going to exist in a Universe of this size, then the one thing it cannot afford to have is a sense of proportion.” But we are gradually acquiring exactly that, and it doesn’t really hurt. It is possible to be aware of your own cosmic insignificance and still love your children. Even though they are without significance too.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 12. (“In a universe…life”; and “We also…zone”)



Enslaved by Taxes

25 July 2012

Enslaved by Taxes? Not Necessarily

By Gwynne Dyer

One of the best tax-avoidance tactics in the late Roman Empire was to sell yourself into slavery. You didn’t really have to work as somebody’s slave, of course – it was more like rock star Hotblack Desiato being “dead for a year for tax reasons” in Douglas Adams’s wondrous confection “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” – but with the legal status of slave, you were exempt from taxation.

Nowadays the legal manipulations used to avoid taxation are less dramatic, but they are spectacularly effective. James Henry, former chief economist at business consultancy McKinsey and a member of the board of directors of Tax Justice Network, has just published a report, “The Price of Offshore Revisited”, that estimates the amount of wealth hidden in tax havens by the super-rich at a minimum of $21 trillion: i.e. $21,000,000,000,000.

It might be as much as $32 trillion, he adds, but greater precision is impossible when the whole point of holding money overseas is to keep it secret. Henry came up with this range of numbers by sifting through data from the Bank for International Settlements, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and private sector analysts – and it does not even include yachts, mansions, art works and other forms of wealth held overseas.

It doesn’t matter. The point is that it’s a very large amount of money: equal to the annual Gross Domestic Product of both the United States and Japan. Some of it is the laundered proceeds of crime, and much of it is money stolen from national budgets by corrupt national elites (an estimated $306 billion from Nigeria, $798 billion from Russia, $1,189 billion from China), but most is deposited by the respectable super-rich of the West.

Henry’s report, published in “The Observer” last weekend, calculates that almost half of the minimum estimate of $21 trillion is owned by just 92,000 people, some of whom pay no tax at all. A number of very small places (Liechtenstein, Cayman Islands, Jersey) and a few larger countries like Switzerland make a good living by providing these secret tax shelters, and work very hard to protect their clients from exposure.

Back home, the “high net-worth individuals” also enjoy the services of “a highly paid, industrious bevy of professional enablers in the private banking, legal, accounting, and investment industries,” said Henry. We always sort of knew about it; now we know the scale.

Information of this sort is dangerous. It annoys those who merely work for a salary or an hourly wage, and whose taxes have to fill the gap created by the defection of the super-rich. It might even destabilise the established social order. But the British government, at least, knows how to deal with that sort of thing.

Less than forty-eight hours after Henry’s revelations, British politician David Gauke, one of the Treasury ministers, went public with the assertion that the lower orders cheat on their taxes just as much as the rich. “Getting a discount with your plumber by paying cash in hand is something that is a big cost to the Revenue and means others must pay more in tax,” he said.

Well, yes. Paying cash to a tradesman to get a discount (knowing that he will then not report this income to the tax authorities) is something that many people reading this article will have done. It is tax avoidance – and since there are a great many more of us than there are of the super-rich, these little private deals do add up to a serious loss of tax revenue. Let him who always insists on a receipt cast the first stone.

David Gauke was almost philosophical about it. “Tax avoidance is not a recent problem,” he said. “In the fourth century AD, the Roman Emperor Valens had to make it illegal for individuals to sell themselves into slavery to avoid tax. And while this particular ruse seems to have fallen out of fashion, there will always be some who seek to shirk their civic duty.”

But it’s clear enough to ordinary people that ultra-rich people who avoid taxes on vast sums of money by employing expensive experts to hide their wealth overseas fall into a different category from the electrician who wants to be paid in cash. And hard-pressed governments, desperate for more revenue, are beginning to go after the tax havens.

Britain has made a deal with the Swiss authorities in which UK residents with undeclared assets in Swiss banks can make a one-off payment to the British Treasury of between 21 and 41 percent on their total assets, clear the slate, and remain anonymous. The Swiss will then levy a withholding tax of 27-48 percent on future money going into those accounts, which will also go to Britain.

Germany has negotiated a similar deal, although it is still awaiting ratification by the Bundestag (parliament). The US government has taken a different tack, demanding that Swiss banks hand over information on thousands of undeclared accounts held by American citizens. The heat is definitely on, and yet….

Yet while all this was going on, the amount of wealth that is managed by the top ten private banks, most of it held overseas in secret accounts, has more than doubled in the past five years.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“Well, yes…duty”)