From Anthropocene to Anthropause

Published on 9 July 2020

Anthropocene is a term coined by  the Nobel laureate, Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 to denote the current geological time period, altered irrevocably by man, since the onset of industrialization in the 20th century.

Anthropocene or Age of Man is associated with intensive agriculture, rampant urbanization, global warming, sea level rise, loss of fertile topsoil, ocean acidification, deforestation, livestock boom, rise of invasive species, biodiversity loss, sixth mass extinction, airborne particulate matter pollution, and plastic pollution.

The worldwide lockdown to contain COVID-19 is being referred to as the ‘Great Pause,’ but the scientists have given a precise term for it  and it is ‘Anthropause.’ Anthropause refers to the slowing down of human activities due to COVID-19, social distancing, home quarantine, and strict lockdowns, curbing all forms of travel.

Anthropocene is still considered part of the Holocene epoch where human civilizations flourished for 12,000 years starting from the last ice age.  Although a popular scientific term, Anthropocene is still not formally recognized as a geological time period because it does not possess a distinctive geological signal in the strata – sedimentary rock layers.

According to the scientists, dinosaur fossils define the cretaceous period.  Microplastics, technofossils and poultry bones of Gallus gallus domesticus are strong contenders for defining the Age of Man.  What about Rattus norvegicus, the brown rats, which clearly outnumber the humans? Or the house mouse, ants, mites, cockroaches, springtails or tardigrades?

From the mid-20th century, climate change has accelerated so much that anthropogenic interference is being blamed for the current environmental degradation, according to climate scientists.  Intense fertilizer use has doubled the nitrogen and phosphorus contents of the soil, which can impact the nitrogen cycle.  Fossil-fuel burning has not spared even the polar ice caps, which are melting rapidly.  Clear lakes in remote mountains in protected areas are turning green due to algal bloom, which is normally common in polluted waters with excess agricultural run-off.  Global warming has led to the accumulation of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, which are responsible for the algal abundance.  Freshwater and marine algal blooms block out sunlight, causing a cascading impact on the aquatic organism, wildlife and human health.

COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on the human population since January 2020 with hard lockdowns, financial carnage, looming recessions, and deaths alongside recoveries.  The first person tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.  There is a frantic search for drugs and vaccines to combat the coronavirus.  It is found to be widespread in adults, and compared to women, men account for a high level of ACE2 or angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, with which the virus hooks on to the host cell.  COVID-19 seems to spare children, probably due to the presence of the immunity-boosting thymus gland, which diminishes with advancing age.  It is contemplated that the novel coronavirus may never go away and could become ‘another endemic virus.’

Looks like the Age of Man just hit the pause button due to the  ACE2 of Man!

Even after six months of intense scientific scrutiny, the natural source of how SARS-CoV-2 jumped from animals to humans is yet to be identified.

According to a new study, a swine flu strain discovered in Chinese pig farms could trigger the next pandemic.  The newly discovered G4 strain of Eurasian avian-like (EA) H1N1 virus has all the hallmark of a pandemic virus. It is capable of binding to human receptors and replicating in human airway epithelial cells. There is a clear aerosol transmission in ferrets.  Out of the 338 pig farmers tested, 10.4 percent were positive for the G4 EA H1N1 virus.

As of July, an epidemic outbreak of bubonic plague was detected in Inner Mongolia, China.  It is reported to have spread to humans through eating raw marmot meat.  Bubonic plague is a zoonotic (bacterial) infection of the rodents and their fleas.  Marmots or large ground squirrels are hunted for their meat by the shepherds of Mongolia.  Fleas living on the fur of marmots spread the bacteria,  and for this reason, it is dangerous to humans.

Zoonotic diseases are mainly due to deforestation and industrialized livestock farming, giving opportunity for viruses and bacteria to spillover from wildlife and livestock to humans.  Antibiotics are extensively used as a growth-promoter and against bacterial disease outbreak among farmed animals.  Completely depending on factory farmed and highly processed food for nutrition reduces immunity in humans.

Research shows that it is more efficient to embrace plant proteins (Eg. Peas) than animal proteins (Eg. Beef) for the sake of the environment.  The reasons include high spoilage of fresh animal products, polluting effluents from slaughterhouses, maintaining large swathes of pasture land for domesticated livestock, transport required to take feed to livestock, and methane release from enteric fermentation in ruminant animals.

Avoiding an unsustainable diet of globally-sourced food products and switching to a plant-based diet of locally-sourced food products seems like the best option, if not always, at least during a pandemic.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), from 1990 up until now, 70 percent of all new diseases in humans have emerged from wildlife.  World leaders and experts state that pandemics are due to human encroaching into animal territory, destroying it, and engaging in illegal wildlife trading.  A wildlife refuge helps with carbon sequestration, enriches biodiversity, and prohibits deforestation.  Real estate, infrastructural developments, and extracting minerals and fossil fuels are the reasons why protected areas are diminishing.

In Africa, the novel coronavirus took less than 100 days to infect the first 100,000 people and less than 20 days to infect the next 200,000, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).  As of July 2020, more than 11 million people worldwide have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, with over half a million deaths so far.

Being hyperconnected hubs of commerce, the COVID-19 pandemic has hit the cities the hardest, where the infection spread like wildfire.  Since cities offer better career opportunities, myriad avenues to socialize and a comfortable life, more than half of the world’s population live in the cities.  Most cities in developing nations are also overcrowded and showcase stark inequalities.  It was also projected by experts that in 2030, there will be 43 megacities, each with more than 10 million inhabitants, mostly in developing nations.

But in some places around the world, this trend is reversing as COVID-19 is making people flee from the cities to their hometowns to avoid the pandemic and the exorbitant living expenses, no longer viable without an assured flow of income.  For those who are forced to work from home in their cramped city apartments, working from their hometown seems like an attractive option.

Of note, the global rural and urban populations are close to 3.4 billion and 4.2 billion, respectively.  India has the largest rural population of 893 million followed by China with 578 million.  With the pandemic ranging, it also makes good sense to go local or even hyperlocal and build a self-sufficient community.

It is anticipated that by the spring of 2021, without a workable vaccine, COVID-19 will spread to 600 million people, globally.  Some countries are easing the lockdown, but the coronavirus has no plans to slow down, impacting people who gather close together in places with poor ventilation.

It is well-known that the coronavirus is transmitted via respiratory droplets and fomites.

But is it airborne?  No one knows for sure.

But what is surely needed are powerful filters, efficient use of masks, healthy dietary choices, robust immunity, and a tranquil mind.

Under lockdown, since people are staying indoors, some unexpected visitors are seen outdoors, especially in urban areas.  Due to less noise pollution, pumas, jackals, bears, and deer are visiting urban environments.  Monkeys are found to display some aggression as they are missing their food treats from tourists.  Lack of human presence is also leading to the increased poaching of endangered animals like rhinos.

Scientists are of the opinion that this unprecedented time in human history – Anthropause – where there is reduced human mobility on land, sea, and air, should be utilized to realign human relationship with wildlife.

How long Anthropause is going to last will be determined by the actions of man in the 21st century.  Human health is intricately connected to nature’s health.  This pause, although sudden, chaotic, and traumatic, can be viewed as a blessing in disguise and push the human race to reset its relationship with nature.

The 91-year-old American biologist and the father of sociobiology, E. O. Wilson has this to say:  “I came to think that understanding ecosystems and what threatens their equilibrium is going to be the next big thing in biological science. To save the environment, we have to find out how to save the ecosystems.”

So the question plaguing the mind is….

Can a change of human behaviour towards swiftly embracing technology and sustainability propel the world towards a clean and green post-covid world?

(All images sourced from Unsplash)

Further Reading

Verena – The Viral Emergence Research Initiative: The largest open data ecosystem in viral ecology

Last updated on 7 January 2022

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