Hi, my name is Gary Gomby. Five years ago, I began teaching a class in the Geological Sciences Department at Central Connecticut State University that had a rather catch-all title of “Human Impacts.” The course meets the gen-ed requirement for science at the University, so a typical class will have about 30 students, ranging from freshmen to seniors, the overwhelming majority of whom are non-science majors. In fact, most of them haven’t had a science course since high school.
Understanding Our Impact
What do you teach students who are probably taking the only science class in their entire college career? What should a class on “Human Impacts” housed within geological sciences include? Only material related to the geosciences? In other words, if this is the only science class a student will take, then as an instructor, I only have one opportunity to transmit information students will need to know about global changes in the 21st century. Simply put, only a broad look at anthropogenic change will suffice.
Over these last five years, I have attempted to create a course that is framed around the Anthropocene. The notion of an Anthropocene epoch, whether it receives official designation in the geologic time scale or not, allows me the freedom to discuss topics that range from how geological time and its divisions are determined, to questions regarding fundamental issues of equity in a world of growing population and diminishing resources.
If students are to leave the university having taken only one science course, then one which examines global change is essential. Students must be able to understand that global change entails far more than “climate change” or “global warming.” Anthropogenic changes to the Earth System extend well beyond the accumulation of greenhouse gases. In a telecoupled world, water, energy, goods, services, mineral resources, food and fiber are linked locally, regionally and globally. Transformation of the land surface of our planet is as profound a change as warming sea and air. All of these changes are linked, and a failure to recognize these linkages underlies many of the difficulties facing our civilization.
There is an urgent ethical imperative to communicate the nature of these changes to our students. The rate of global changes is so great–surpassing anything seen in the geological record, with the exception of planetary-wide extinction events in the distant past, that decisions we make today are circumscribing the future of our students and their children. These are profound issues of intergenerational equity, that underlie all discussions regarding the science of global change.
Why, for example, was it “OK” for Americans to convert the Great Plains grasslands, one of the great ecosystems on the planet, from its pre-Industrial era state to an industrialized grassland ecosystem, and it is not “OK” for Brazil to replace intact forest systems with soy and cattle? Many of the challenges of the Anthropocene facing our students turn on such questions. The rest of the world wants what we already have–but our path has brought the planet to a perilous state. If our students are to make prudent choices that may help avert a future fraught with a breakdown of environmental goods and services, an understanding of the Anthropocene is essential.