Current Biology: The Anthropocene Special Issue

Current Biology. 2019  Vol. 29, No. 19: R942–R1054.
This special issue of Current Biology includes a collection of Features, Reviews, Primers, Essays and Quick guides on a wide range of topics surrounding various detrimental impacts of human activity on the biosphere.

For most biologists, inhabiting the Anthropocene also means working in it. There are very few topics in the life sciences that are not confronted with the impacts of the Anthropocene. The prestigious journal Current Biology has recently published a special volume that shows how many biological disciplines are affected by and respond to the changes that the Anthropocene is bringing. Some of the topics are very close to home for me, but more on that later.

The almost two dozen articles cover many different topics. Some of the papers are editorials by staff scientists working for Current Biology, but most are scholarly articles by experts in the field.  These are a great resource for the public. For example, a short feature by Martin provides an overview of plastics and microplastics in the environment. We have looked at plastic from a number of perspectives in recent posts on this blog. Another feature by Gross is on urbanization, a topic that this blog has covered extensively.

Hunting wooly mammothUnsurprisingly, several papers deal with extinction. This topic has received a lot of attention recently, at least partly to the coverage of the massive decline in insects and birds documented by several studies. The essay by Goulson provides a great discussion of the topic. A more general paper by Turvey and Crees looks at ways humans have caused or facilitated extinctions. This is deeply rooted in human history with early humans starting to modify their environments, but the pace of extinction has accelerated to an unbelievable speed since the beginning of the Anthropocene. As we tear through the fabric of ecological networks, I wonder if and when we will reach a tipping point and enter a death spiral of species extinction. The concept of tipping points and rapid change is covered in another review paper in the volume by Botta and colleagues from a Danish group.

Another article, by Edwards and colleagues, focuses especially on tropical rainforests and what we need to do to conserve them and their amazing biodiversity. They point to the complexity of conservation in the political and socio-economic arena and make it clear that conservation must be done with the local people, not against them.

At the same time, there is an evolutionary response to human-induced change, but we know very little about it. Using a case study of an Australian lizard, Catullo and colleagues discuss mechanisms by which plants and animals might be able to respond to changing temperatures. They also urge more experimental studies on the topic.

Maybe one of the most pressing issues in the Anthropocene is that we will have to change the ways we feed ourselves. This is covered in several articles, in particular, a great essay by Poppy and Baverstock. They reflect on the Food-Water nexus and connect food production and economics. They also urge quick action and point to a few solutions that need to be researched soon, including the role of CRISPR Cas9 in the manipulation of food plants.

Finally, two papers cross over into neighboring fields. One is by Clayton who flips the question and asks not how do humans affect the living world, but how the Anthropocene (and the news about it) affect us humans? The other one is by Lamba, who connects AI and machine learning with conservation in a pretty novel way.

GuppiesThe one paper that is very close to my own work is the one on threats to freshwater biodiversity by Dudgeon. This is what I work on in the Caribbean and one of the many frustrations is that once invasive species are established, they are there to stay. Among other things I work on invasive guppies (yes, the ones you know from the pet store) and how they alter communities in tropical rivers. Guppies are very pretty, lovely pets, but also very successful invaders. In a short primer Mara also draws the line from pet to ecological disaster, but his examples are crasser: he explains the catastrophic role the Burmese python has in Florida. He also discussed what cats do to the local fauna by killing birds, amphibians, reptiles, and other wildlife.

Alexander von HumboldtI want to end with a bow to Alexander von Humboldt, the famous scientist from Prussia. He was born 250 years ago, and warned already in 1819 against the negative impact of deforestation (and, according to his latest biographer, Andrea Wulf, he foresaw the dangers of climate change). His observations from Lake Valencia in Venezuela showed that cutting down the surrounding trees had many bad consequences. Nowadays the lake serves as a reservoir and suffers from massive algae blooms.

Lake Valencia

Maybe we should have listened to these early warnings. But it seems that greed got in the way….

Ingo Schlupp (ORCID: is a Professor of Biology at the University of Oklahoma.

Nature’s Arts: Of People and Bogs

Baronstown West Man, found in County Kildare

Baronstown West Man, found in County Kildare

This past June, I gave a talk at the Art in the Anthropocene conference at Trinity College Dublin and used the always-happy occasion of being in Ireland to visit a few places there that I had not previously visited. Among them were Continue reading

The (civic) republican niche (Part 1)

Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, “Allegory of Good and Bad Government” (1338-39), Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

Let me emphasize something from the start: I mean “small r” republican—this post (and another to follow) will have nothing to do with the “capital r” American political party. I’ll consider some ideas associated with Continue reading

“Archaeological assessment reveals Earth’s early transformation through land use.”


ArchaeoGLOBE Project*. 2019 Science 365(6456):897–902.


Environmentally transformative human use of land accelerated with the emergence of agriculture, but the extent, trajectory, and implications of these early changes are not well understood. An empirical global assessment of land use from 10,000 years before the present (yr B.P.) to 1850 CE reveals a planet largely transformed by Continue reading

Earth Plasticity and Plasticity of Perception

One of my earliest memories as a freshman at UCLA took place in the front row of a cavernous, wood-paneled lecture hall equipped with a black-topped resin demonstration table. The class was Introductory Geology, and the professor a bearded, pony-tailed free spirit giddy with the anticipation of Continue reading

Material of Our Time

I actually prefer plastic as a material because it is a material for our times. It represents the now. Ironically it is also ‘archival’, meaning in terms of its longevity it lasts over 100 years. This means that for art, it is a great material.

Claudia Hart (artist/sculptor), “Resolution, Reification,
and Resistance,”  3d Additivist Cookbook.

Not so long ago I had a conversation with a respected curator and gallery director about my research on Continue reading

Petro Pete, Plastic Mascot for Plausible Denial

Petro Pete's Big Bad Dream

In 2016, the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB) published the fourth volume of its “Petro Pete” series of illustrated children’s books. To promote Petro Pete’s Big Bad Dream, K-2 classes throughout the state were invited Continue reading

The Plastic Arts in the Anthropocene

Joseph Beuys, “7000 Oaks” adapted under CC A-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons

This coming June, I will give a talk at the “Art in the Anthropocene” conference at Trinity College, Dublin about the sculptural theory of the German artist Joseph Beuys. I will discuss the theory’s implications for the politics and ethics of human action in the Anthropocene, implications imbricated with accusations that Beuys, a pilot in the Luftwaffe during World War II, harbored fascist tendencies in his working methods, which often involve the marshaling of large numbers of people in projects that Beuys grouped under the rubric “social sculpture.” Key for this talk, and for this post, will be a remark Beuys made in 1975 about plastic, so I wanted to use the occasion of this post to further some of my thinking about Beuys, particularly where it most intersects with our present focus on plastic.

Continue reading

Plastics and Animal Communication in the Anthropocene

Satin Bowerbird at his bower JCB.jpg

Ubiquitous plastic in the environment is a hallmark of the Anthropocene (Waters et al. 2016). Wildlife routinely ingest, becoming entangled in, and are impaired by plastic pollution, creating a pressing global problem (e.g., Vegter et al. 2014). While undoubtedly an environmental crisis, these acute impacts are not my focus. I am interested in a more subtle phenomenon: Continue reading



Plastiglomerate from Kamilo Beach displayed in the exhibition One Planet in Museon (The Hague, The Netherlands). Photo by Aaikevanoord.

Beginning last summer we started featuring a series of posts on the theme of perceiving the Anthropocene—so far, we have looked at objects or phenomena through which this colossal abstraction could be manifested to our senses. In one of my contributions I argued  that a particularly good avatar of the Anthropocene is plastic. Plastic, I suggested, has an exemplary status in the Anthropocene as one of the most pervasive (and perhaps one of the more insidious) examples of the human transformation of nature. Continue reading

Rethinking the Environment for the Anthropocene

In the spirit of shameless self-promotion I’m delighted to announce the release by Routledge of a new collection of essays, edited by Manuel Arias-Maldonado and myself, entitled Rethinking the Environment for the Anthropocene: Political Theory and Socionatural Relations in the New Geological Epoch. The book grew out of a workshop of environmental political theorists held in 2016. It brings together work by both established and emerging scholars–some of whom contributed initial versions of their ideas to this blog.

Click to download a flyer with the table of contents, and some endorsements. The flyer has a code you can use to purchase Rethinking the Environment Continue reading