The Gift of the Holocene

What is the Holocene? And why a gift?

The Holocene was an epoch that began as the last Ice Age came to an end. Officially starting at 11,700 years ago, the transition from the coldest dip of our planet’s latest global freeze 20,000 years ago to the warmth of the Holocene did not flow smoothly. With a warmer interglacial well on its way, the heating trend was interrupted at least once, and abruptly. During the Younger Drydas the great lakes basin flooded the Atlantic with fresh water, cutting off the Holocene warmth for another 1300 years. That the Holocene did turn out climatically as stable as it did, adds weight to the idea of a gift, a time in a Garden that allowed development of our civilization. During the last ten thousand years of stable climate, our atmospheric CO2 concentration has not varied by more than 5% from preindustrial, including during the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period.

What did a stable climate allow?

By this time modern humans had spread around the world to all habitable continents. Agriculture had its rudimentary beginnings about 11,000 years ago and human beings were given the opportunity to settle down as farmers. The farming idea spread, and a transition ensued replacing the hunter gatherer economy with our cities, and our civilization. People living in place could produce more food than they could consume, allowing non-food producing careers for the first time. Specialists. Priests could read oracles, star gazers learned calendared time and later developed math, accountants tracking food sources on clay tablets eventually wrote alphabets, artists and then poets inspired culture. Sports heroes such as gladiators turned later into football players, warriors with spears transitioned into our national militaries, and big men, later kings and emperors were supplanted by today’s presidents and prime ministers. Cities today thrive on food grown by the few farmers necessary in each hinterland.

The process of people becoming farmers itself may have contributed to a stable Holocene one theory suggests. The burning of forest around the world for agriculture just when global temperature was dipping helped keep the gift. William Ruddiman publishes evidence that the Holocene was well on track to another Ice Age, but was interrupted by forest clearing for farming and animal husbandry. Not that the population was as large as today, nor that carbon emission rates were as intensive as today, but over thousands of deforestation years, the influence on atmospheric carbon had an impact. Thus, the Holocene and that version of the Anthropocene beginning with industrialization may overlap significantly. The book entitled 1491 details recent research into extensive influence humans had on North and South American forest cover prior to European contact. Peoples’ activity may have helped keep the gift stable, allowing uninterrupted progress towards the human conditions of today.

Before the Holocene, was there not any other interglacial period when humans could have just as well developed? The Eemian interglacial began 130,000 and ended 114,000 years ago. Modern humans of that time were still restricted to Africa, with some travel out across the Arabian Peninsula. If agriculture made any beginnings on our continent of origin then, those initiatives were possibly snuffed out by a more erratic climate of the Eemian. The global average temperature peaked during that last interglacial at 1 to 2 degrees C warmer than today (about 122,000 years ago) when forests expanded beyond the Arctic Circle. Then, there was enough missing ice and added ocean waters to raise the sea levels perhaps 4 or up to 10 meters higher than those of the Holocene. This allows us a flashcard of a time to compare to our current developing Anthropocene. How humanity developed during the Eemian remains open to speculation, but one thing is clear—interglacial gifts don’t come along all that often.

Humanity has been lucky, perhaps exceptionally fortunate, to have experienced the snuggly climate of these last 10,000 years. Perhaps a helper Guide out there in the universe provided beneficial assistance. Evidence for creation theory has been published, often in support of religious views. Yet the probability statistics associated the version of the Holocene that did play out can be imagined, or estimated, and gift seems an apt descriptor no matter the source. The climate gift could have been much shorter, or more erratic, with a constantly changing climate disrupting the all-important agriculture. How randomly fortuitous, or design fortunate. What we could have had today, what we have been choosing to give up over the last several decades, could readily be seen as a gift. A gift, that we now risk at the climate change gambling table.

Are we now, informed by those star gazers turned scientists, addressing this situation with any wiser outlook than the first agriculturalists? It seems not. Our CO2 now bumping 400 ppm shows an over 40% increase over the 280 ppm preindustrial count. We are pissing all over our gift, like a dog pisses on food it can’t eat. We have chosen the Anthropocene, kicking and screaming out denial as we ignore the evidence of climate change falling into place around us. We have become the Weather Makers, and the weather we make will determine if it turns out possible we can weasel our way back to anything like the Holocene. Our gift.

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