We’re a very young species in geological terms. Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. Homo sapiens didn’t show up until 2 million years ago. But in our short stint so far—and especially since the industrial revolution—humans have changed the planet’s ecosystem in profound ways. We’ve built sprawling megacities and transportation networks to connect them, altered the composition of the atmosphere and the ocean, and even—gulp—changed the climate.
Some scientists think this epoch of human influence deserves its own geologic name, like the Pliestocene or the Pliocene. In 2000, the Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen proposed calling it the Anthropocene. Next summer, the International Commission on Stratigraphy may make that label official.
Meanwhile, Globaïa, an educational organization that aims, among other things, to promote "a better understanding of big history," recently created a series of stunning maps to help us all wrap our heads around what this era looks like. Globaïa calls the project "A Cartography of the Anthropocene."
The maps were created by anthropologist Felix Pharand-Deschenes, using data from a variety of government agencies. They tend to focus on our cities and the transportation and communication networks that serve as civilization’s nerve fibers and arteries. Several of them show roads, shipping lines, and airline routes. Others show the world’s energy infrastructure: the transmission cables and underwater pipelines that keep our lights on. (Note how much sparser they are in Africa.)
In addition to the maps we’ve featured here, the Globaïa site has many more. The project also includes an alarming collection of charts that illustrate the rapid expansion of human influence by many different measures, from the rise of shrimp farming to the proliferation of McDonald’s restaurants.
Looking at civilization this way is both daunting (how can we ever stop climate change?) and a little awe-inspiring. We humans are not just another species. We’re an incredibly disruptive force, for better or worse.