Welcome to the Anthropocene

Jan 20, 2018

Words by Aric Hluch | Photos by Sophia Adornetto

Centralia, PA

A recent Census Bureau analysis found that Centralia, Pennsylvania has a population of seven.  In a once booming coal town that was called home by over 1,000 residents, the modest stretch of land is now almost completely abandoned.  The federal government purchased the homes of residents who had decided living on a piece of land that could potentially cave-in was unfavorable…

In 1962, an alleged dumpster fire eventually ignited a nearby coal seam, starting an underground blaze that has raged since.  The fire caused the ground beneath one boy to suddenly disappear beneath him as the flames began unsteadying the land that hundreds of families were living on.  Fortunately, the boy was rescued and suffered no injuries.  

Possible cave-ins were only part of the problem.  Toxic gases and rising heat threatened the health and safety of the town’s residents.  One owner of a gas station found that his gas tanks were over 170 degrees Fahrenheit.  These hazards forced over 1,100 people to leave their hometown.

Today, Centralia is abandoned with the exception of a few houses, giving it the appearance of a ghost town.  A cemetery is somewhat of a tourist destination for curious travelers.  Graffiti lines the highway adjacent to the town, while rising steam can be seen wafting from cracks in the road that were formed by intense pressure from the fire.  The decrepit town is a reflection of the inaugural age, the Anthropocene.

Scientists were fraught with worry at the beginning of the New Millennium.  When discussing the environmental impacts of human activities, many were reluctant to admit that humanity was responsible for the swift changes taking place around the world.  This all changed during a scientific conference hosted by the United Nations in early 2000.

The International Geosphere-Biosphere conference features a myriad of scientists who study the earth’s processes.  During the conference in 2000, environmental stability was the main debate.  When the chairman of the event began to announce the next speakers, he referred to the Holocene, the current geological epoch, multiple times, influencing a disgruntled scientist in the crowd to interject, “Stop using the word Holocene.  We’re not in the Holocene anymore.  We’re in the… the… the… the Anthropocene!”

Everyone in the crowd started to discuss the brazen words of Peter Crutzen before the speakers could resume sharing their studies.  Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, had singlehandedly reshaped the way we view our planet.  There was no longer a debate in the scientific community; humanity was undeniably altering the earth’s oceans, landscapes, wildlife, and natural processes at an alarming rate.

Crutzen’s term, “Anthropocene,” literally translates to “new humans,” or the “new epoch of humans.”  Climate change is only one of many things on a long list of human-caused problems covered by the term.  Human beings are recognized as a dominant force over everything from global warming and sea-level rising to soil depletion and species extinction.

Many scientific experts and academicians dispute the beginnings of the Anthropocene.  Some regard the Industrial Revolution as the transition from the previous epoch, while others view the rapid development and changes that occurred after 1945 as the starting point.  The Anthropocene has not been officially announced as the new epoch, but several scientists are pushing for the change.  While the term has yet to be widely circulated in the public sphere, it is frequently referenced in scientific journals, books, classrooms, and conferences.   

Biodiversity and climate face drastic changes as human activities continue to wreak havoc, but perhaps the most distressing characteristic of this epoch is the stake of our world’s geological structures.  Even the massive underlying processes that shape and define the unique beauty of our world are changing for the worse.  The way the earth works, however, is not the problem – we are the problem.

One does not have to look far to see the reflections of the Anthropocene.  Human activities have modified countless regions around the world – even Kent.  Northeast Ohio and the surrounding land within a few hours’ drive have also suffered…

Fracking in Portage County:

Incidentally, Portage County is the fracking waste disposal capital of our state.  According to the Akron Beacon Journal, millions of barrels of waste are injected in disposal wells throughout Ohio every year.  Nearly 200 injections wells are scattered across our state.  Portage County hosts over 15 active wells, which is more than the amount of wells found in the entire state of Pennsylvania – another state that sits on top of the same shale formation as Ohio.  Many citizens have reacted by forming non-profit organizations and grass-roots movements to protest fracking.

Concerned Citizens Ohio is a non-profit dedicated to educating “our fellow citizens on the dangers of hydrofracking” (concernedcitizensohio.org).  Portage County residents fear that the growing trend of building more injection wells will lead to polluting their drinking water.  Kent State students can help curb our state’s harmful practices by joining the local chapter of Concerned Citizens Ohio.

The summer solstice of 1969 was introduced by a seminal fire in Cleveland.  For twenty minutes, the Cuyahoga River burned and scorched two of the city’s bridges, causing about $100,000 in damages.  A build-up of pollution had been the sole cause.  The event led environmentalists to establish the EPA and Carl Stokes, Cleveland’s first black mayor, called for more government intervention to address environmental concerns.  Stokes’ efforts were instrumental in the writing of the Clean Water Act of 1972.

Strangely enough, the 1969 fire was nothing compared to the conflagrations of 1912 and 1952.  In 1912, five dock workers were killed after oil slicks in the river ignited.  In 1952, about $1.5 million in damages was the result of another fire.  Cleveland’s industry caused even more fires in the past; some estimate the river had caught on fire around a dozen times.  

Today, citizens recreate both near and on the Cuyahoga River.  The city has done a tremendous job cleaning up the debris and pollution that had once tainted the water.  Even the economy surrounding the river has undergone a significant change.  Many small businesses have profited considerably from the new recreational opportunities available to Clevelandians.

A few dozen miles south of the location of the fires is home to a newly reintroduced species that was originally wiped out by humans – river otters.  The Ohio Division of Wildlife recently transported 123 river otters from Arkansas and Louisiana to the Cuyahoga River.  Cuyahoga Valley National Park is now thriving with these aquatic creatures.  Park rangers attest that this is a sign the river is now free from an excess of pollutants, since river otters are sensitive to chemicals in the water.

Further south is another portion of the river in Franklin Mills Riveredge Park.  Just a mile or so away from the Kent State campus lies the winding body of water, where both students and Kent residents may walk along the river’s edge.  The bridge on Main Street overlooks a heavily vandalized railroad track next to buoyed pieces of garbage in the water below.  Franklin Mills Riveredge Park is an example of humanity’s influence over natural features.  

Urban development demonstrates the ways in which natural features are altered by humans.  Railroads and bridges pass over rivers, buildings and concrete surround imported trees and grass, light pollution obscures the stars at night, and the clamor of cars, industry, and people encourages wildlife to stay away.  As cities continue to grow, Crutzen’s claim that we are living in an age dominated by humans is reinforced.  The Anthropocene is echoed throughout alleyways and parking lots, through train horns and jet streams, over skyscrapers and factories.

Kent State students are living in a pivotal age.  What choices we make will undoubtedly affect the world.  It is up to us to uncover the best way to live in a time when any sudden mistakes could be fatal.  Global temperatures are rising along with sea-levels, natural disasters are becoming more frequent, and societies are only expanding.  Will we rise to the occasion, or continue to sleep through a terrible nightmare?       

The Cuyahoga River’s history and the present development around it illustrate an important point: humanity alters natural features, both negatively and positively.  Naomi Morgan, a Denison University graduate, studied geosciences at both her alma mater and Kent State.  “Humans both designated Cuyahoga Valley National Park as an environmental and cultural site worth preserving with federal funds, but humans also caused the degradation of the Cuyahoga River watershed throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Historically, there’s good and bad, but a lot of local communities now are dedicated to improving the quality of the water and the life around it.”

We are capable of changing course and curtailing our impact on the environment and wildlife.  We are even capable of reversing some of the devastation we have caused in the past.  Although the Anthropocene indicates that we are the primary influencers of the planet’s degradation, it also indicates that we can prevent the next environmental catastrophe.  The past is already written, but we have the power to write the future.