Interview with Mark Williams on the geological record

SONIC ACTS RESEARCH SERIES #18 The cascade effect of humans on the biosphere By Liesbeth Koot and Menno Grootveld Sonic Acts was very happy to welcome Mark Williams to the 2015 festival ‘The Geologcic Imagination’. After his lecture on the fundamental changes in the earth systems, Williams talked to Sonic Acts' Liesbeth Koot and Menno Grootveld, publisher at Leesmagazijn. Mark Williams, Conference at Paradiso, Amsterdam, Photo by Pieter Kers Mark Williams is a professor of palaeobiology at the University of Leicester. Williams’ research focuses on understanding the evolution of life over nearly 4 thousand million years of biosphere evolution on this planet. He is particularly interested in how the biosphere interacts with the rest of the planet. From this his interest in the Anthropocene unfolded, because looking back at the geological record, major changes in the biosphere are visible. These changes have impacted greatly on other parts of the planet. Williams’ research has taken him from the tropics to the Antarctic and from the Cambrian to the recent. With Jan Zalasiewicz he is the author of the popular books 'The Goldilocks Planet’ and ‘Ocean Worlds: The story of seas on Earth and other planets’ (both Oxford University Press). LIESBETH KOOT:Thank you for being here. What is it you are specifically looking for in your work? What is it that you are aiming to find or explain? MARK WILLIAMS:At the Precambrian – Cambrian boundary, about 540 million years ago there is clear evidence for animals evolving that had a head and a tail end, and a clear directionality of movement, and that generated a whole series of processes that cascaded through the biosphere. Organisms started chasing other organisms, and because of this, many organisms started building skeletons to defend themselves. A kind of arm’s race unfolded, with the organisms doing the attacking beginning to make mouthparts to attack the ones with skeletons. At the beginning of this process it might have been quite difficult to see what was going to happen, what was going to unfold. But now, with hindsight we can see how this process happened, and how one event precipitated a change in another part of the system. I am interested in the Anthropocene from the perspective of the cascade effect that humans could potentially produce for the whole biosphere. We humans have been so influential and we have so fundamentally re-mastered the surface of the planet, I want to know what direction we going to go in. The way I can measure that as a palaeontologist is simply to look at past events where there has been fundamental change in the biosphere. There we can see what the cascade effect is. It gives us some way, I think, of measuring our potential impact. We are at the beginning. We cannot yet see where we are going to be in two or three hundred years. Although we have done a huge amount as a species, I still think we are actually probably, quite near the beginning of our technological impact. So I think the geological record helps us to, kind of, evaluate that, and gives us a sense of our place in the bigger picture. LK: In thinking about the anthropocene some theorists point out something that is seemingly a contradiction: we need to see that humans have had such a great impact and at the same time we need to decentre humans in the way we think the anthropocene, and climate; i.e. we are just a minor part of a very large system. MW: As a palaeontologist, I would never see that [kind of decentring ourselves from being the centre of the debate]. Yes, we are part of an evolutionary continuum that has evolved over such a long period of time. And we are clearly not the end of it because the planet is going to carry on for at least another billion years, being able to sustain the biosphere. There is no way the human species will survive that amount of time. No species in history has had that degree of longevity. So, we are just part of the evolution of the planet over a long period of time. But I do wonder where we are going. That is my big interest in this. More broadly, I think it is interesting from the perspective of quantifying the degree of human change and what we have done to the planet. And therefore, it helps us to conceptualise ways that we might be able to mitigate our effect on the planet. That is my broader interest in the Anthropocene. So there is the esoteric, but there is also the societal kind of interest there. LK:I think that when we say ‘decentring humans’, it has to do with the societal part where you need to change your mind set somewhat, as to not think: ‘But we are so important as humans, and we have to do what we have always been doing’. And instead to not think of ourselves as the utmost important in the world but, to put some of our old ways aside and then we can start to think about that maybe we can also do things very differently. We do not have to hold on to what we thought was the important thing. MW:I think, you are right, because well, we often talk of human and natural; we often divorce ourselves from nature. That is, there is the natural biosphere, and then we come along and we dominate it and we change it, but of course, we are also natural – we are part of the biosphere. We need to see ourselves in that sense. And we now need – because we are so influential as a species, we are more influential than any species has been in the history of this planet – we need to realise that we are fundamentally changing the biosphere. And that does sound a bit anthropocentric, but it means that we have to subsume ourselves within it, and actually, perhaps look after it a lot better than we do. We have almost been like a child in a sweetshop: ‘Ooh! We’ll have this, we’ll have that!’ And we do not think about the implications of what we are doing, but we have to. That is where I think the Anthropocene concept is so powerful, because then we realise: ‘Well, actually, our impact is now so huge, it is fundamental. And we are shifting the planet into a different state. And we have to manage that. We have to make sure it is to the benefit of everything on the planet – to humans, but also to nature as well, I think. And indeed we say ‘humans and nature’; we do it almost innately, I think. But instead we are all part of that one whole.

'... we often divorce ourselves from nature. That is, there is the natural biosphere, and then we come along and we dominate it and we change it, but of course, we are also natural – we are part of the biosphere.’
LK:And do we have a small window to mitigate? MW:If we want to preserve the diversity of the biosphere, than yes. I think we do have a small window. For example Tony Barnosky [of the University of California] is very influential in this debate, where many people are looking at the way in which humans have fragmented the global eco-system, and reduced the ranges of species. There have been five, probably six mass extinctions over the past 6 hundred million years on planet Earth, and up to the 75% of the species diversity has been decimated during these events, which is really terrifying from a human perspective. Although we are not yet at the stage where we are causing a mass extinction, we are potentially approaching that in the next hundred years or so, because of the impact we are having on the biosphere. As human population grows, we appropriate more of the primary productivity. We are squeezing those species into ever-smaller places where they can exist. So, yes, I would say we have to sort out our stewardship of the biosphere in the next 5 to 10 decades. Within 100 years, we will be causing a big extinction if we do not do that. And that would be very sad. Because, once it happens, the geological record shows us that where these extinctions have happened in the past, it takes several million years to recover the diversity. Which means our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren will not be impressed with what we did at present. They will be very unimpressed with us ...
‘As human population grows, we appropriate more of the primary productivity. We are squeezing those species into ever-smaller places where they can exist.'
LK: After your lecture today, we listened to Douglas Kahn and Timothy Morton, who are operating in very different fields, but think about the same subject. Do they influence you; do you take something from their lectures, from their way of thinking? How can we think about exchanging scientific knowledge with media theory, with philosophy? MW:That is the great strength of this meeting. It is very eclectic and it has brought together so many people from different disciplines. One thing I picked up very clearly from Tim’s talk is the idea that we can conceptualize the extinction of a polar bear because it is something tangible that we can relate to. It is a big powerful animal, we all know what it is. But we cannot conceptualize the damage that we do to the biosphere, which of course is tens of millions of different species, all interacting in as a much bigger entity than a single species. So, what I really liked about Tim’s work was that he tried to get us to understand the biosphere as a living entity. And if we can perhaps do that, if people can walk around and realise that the biosphere is actually all around us, it is actually on us and within us, because we carry so many bacteria within our bodies as well. Then I think that would be a very, very powerful message that might get people to understand the human impact again. What I see with the subject of climate change is that people switch off from the debate because they look at the collapse of a large ice sheet in the Antarctic and think: ‘What can I do? That’s too big for me, I’ll ignore it’. I can see that happening. But, of course, if you can conceptualize it to the level where in fact you can make an impact on changing the rate of climate change and the things you do can influence this on an everyday basis. Then I think that is really powerful. And I got that very clearly from Tim’s talk, so I very much enjoyed that.
‘What I see with the subject of climate change is that people switch off from the debate because they look at the collapse of a large ice sheet in the Antarctic and think: ‘What can I do? That’s too big for me, I’ll ignore it’.’
LK: Dipesh Chakrabarty, who is a historian very involved in climate change, says we have to somehow try and stop the discussion in terms of blame. We have contributed so much to climate change, and now you can point the finger either way you wish, of course. But we have to move out of that. MW: We do, we have to get away from the blame culture. I am a geologist so I feel that very strongly. Geologists are the ones that go out and find the energy resources that keep the modern human systems going. But, I find it hard to blame my colleagues who do that because, actually, they are responsible for keeping the lights on, for this camera, for the hospitals that look after us, for the complex, diverse cultures that we live in, and the cities that we live in. The geologists are often literally at the ‘coalface’, actually trying to get utilise the available resources. More important now is how we transition from using fossil fuels to using more sustainable forms of energy supply. I think the way we can develop this is to actually engage with the people in the organisations that are involved for example in getting hydrocarbons out of the ground, rather than lambasting them. LK: We actually owe a lot to the use of fossil fuels. MW: We do, we would not be having this discussion about our impact without it. But it is also a problem; it is a major problem. And we have to deal with it. Mark Williams, Conference at Paradiso, Amsterdam, Photo by Pieter Kers MENNO GROOTVELD:You were talking about the geological record and it dates millions and millions of years back, so, in a sense it looks a little bit like an inverted pyramid, if you put the Anthropocene on top. It’s just a very thin layer. When the human race would become extinct, maybe even within a hundred or two hundred years or so, and eventually some space aliens would visit this Earth: what do they see in the geological record if it is such a small layer? MW: It would be a very distinctive layer there because the human impact on the planet is so widespread from the land into the oceans. The kind of things that you would see, or those aliens would see if they arrived here, would be a sedimentary horizon probably with the fossils of bricks, plastics and concrete, and fossilized metal objects that we have produced. There are now 3.6 billion mobile phones on the planet... And there are components of those mobile phones that would be preserved, that will have found their way into landfill sites, rivers, oceans. Plastics have found their way into the deep ocean. We have a signal from the land to the very deep ocean, with plastics – and they are very preservable from the perspective of fossilization into the future. So, it does not so much matter about the short amount of time – and it is short from a geological perspective – but the impact is colossal. The human impact in a very short space of time is absolutely colossal, and it would be preservable. MG: Some people think that we humans are actually on the way out because the technological evolution is going so fast that computers will be much smarter in ten years than they are now. And that combined with advances in robotics means that humans will just become obsolete. How long do you think the Anthropocene would actually last? MW: That is a really interesting question. And as our technology develops and it becomes more elaborate, I guess there is a possibility that in due course, human intelligence could be overtaken by machine-based intelligence. And for all we know, that may have happened on other worlds in the universe. Maybe that is a logical progression that happens on planets that develop sentience, and then the biological sentience gives way to machine based sentience... How would they look at us, well, hopefully, if they have a sense of geology, then they would also see that there is a distinctive geological signal generated by their immediate predecessors in terms of the dominant entity on the planet. In the same way we can look back from the geological record and see the dinosaurs, trilobites, and the earliest life. We have a sense of that and I would assume that they would have a sense of us, and that they would still see the Anthropocene as a distinctive phase in the evolution to whatever the next state is. I think the Anthropocene is there and would be visible to any entity that came that could contemplate the rock succession from an intelligent basis. MG:If we relate this question to the last remark of your talk? What does the future have in store for us, what is your personal idea about this technological advancement and the possible outcome of that? MW:I was being deliberately open in that final statement. I would like to think of a world in a future where technology and humans, and all of the other biological entities on this planet, actually function together for the benefit of all, so that we do not go to a kind of dystopian future where machines are in control. That is a very science-fiction kind of idea, but you could see that potentially develop. What I would really like is for all to develop in tandem to find a solution to the potential damage we are causing to the diversity of the biosphere. I am always an optimist in that sense. And although humans can be very destructive, humans can also be incredibly creative, so hopefully the creative side will come to the fore.

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