By Savannah Troy
Most of the effort put forth by the conservation community is to prevent or undo damage that humans have done to the Earth. This includes attempts to mitigate global climate change, an effect of human activity (fossil fuel burning and large-scale agriculture, primarily). Humans have made such an impact on our planet that geologists are working towards establishing a new official epoch. This epoch will be called the Anthropocene, meaning “the age of man.” An epoch is a division on the geological time scale named for what most profoundly impacted Earth system processes during that time. Epochs usually last for over 3 million years, and we are nearly 12,000 years into the most modern one (currently named the Holocene, though that is likely to change soon). During that time, humans have certainly been the main theme of Earth’s environmental structure.
We live in a world that we have tailored- over a period of thousands of years- to allow humans to thrive. Our early ancestors made great efforts to create more safe and profitable environments in which to live, behavior known as ecosystem engineering. Many species are considered ecosystem engineers: for instance, prairie dogs build burrows underground which influence the soil quality and plant community nearby. Humans took ecosystem engineering to another level, however, primarily with the invention of agriculture and domestication of other organisms. By domesticating crop species and livestock from once wild ancestors, we gained an advantage over other species. Liberated from the burden of foraging, people began constructing societies and cultures, while simultaneously directing the evolutionary destinies of the other organisms around us.
That one species should have so much control over the fates of all others is a unique phenomenon in Earth’s history. Humans learned to control fire, changing landscape dynamics and unlocking the power of cooking to make food more digestible and nutrient rich. Agriculture also changed the face of the Earth, forever altering the way land was used and the way that the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles function. And with these changes came consequences for other organisms; human activity is responsible for the extinctions of hundreds of species from large, prehistoric mammals to the tiniest of modern frogs.
While the Anthropocene is often characterized by negative features such as mass extinction and anthropogenic climate change, the tone of modern conservation efforts must not be pessimistic. Humans must embrace our role as ecosystem engineers and all of the responsibility that entails. In this new epoch, our species can become the stewards of the Earth to protect the richly wonderful biodiversity that surrounds us.