Welcome to the Anthropocene

Maine has been graced with many famous scientists, particularly in the summer Picture1months when they enjoyed the relaxation of Maine’s coast, mountains, and lakes.  Many people would think first of Rachel Carson when naming a famous Maine scientist, and her summers at Newagen certainly influenced her research and writing.

Less well known but equally important is Edith Patch, entomologist for many years at UMaine.  Retired UMaine entomologist Cassie Gibbs’ wonderful new biography of Patch documents her many contributions to Maine agriculture and to the global community of entomologists.  Patch was the first woman elected President of the Entomological Society of America.  Her 1936 speech to the society, “Without Benefit of Insects,” still rings true today.

Gibbs captures the essence of Patch’s view of the world with this quote:

“The desire to serve old mother earth and to protect natural beauty; so to live, that there may not be fewer pond-lilies and less arbutus in the world because she passed along the path; so to write that bumblebees may not be begrudged their nectar and the eagles may not be shot for sport or egrets slain for fashion.”

In many ways Patch’s view of how humans might relate to nature has now been eclipsed by the perspective of increasing numbers of us that nature is here to serve us.  This is the essence of the idea floated by Paul Crutzen that we have now moved into a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene.  In this epoch, humans have become the great force of nature.

My guess from reading about Edith Patch is that she would be appalled by this idea.  Not that she would think the description is wrong, for she saw in the first half of the 20th Century the growing adverse effects that humans had on insect populations.  Rather, she would question whether we were capable of managing this new world where we, as a species, exercise such power.

I feel connected to Edith Patch in several ways, but foremost through her protégé Geddes W. Simpson.  In 1982 when I first started work at the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station I met Geddes Simpson, who was then “retired.”  While Geddes no longer was engaged in active entomology research, he was serving as the Experiment Station’s editor and editor of the American Potato Journal.  Geddes was an intellectual force of nature, a font of knowledge on Maine agriculture, particularly the potato industry, and a scrupulous editor.  Many an experiment station author was spared from publishing sloppy writing or fuzzy thinking at Geddes’ editorial hand.

Geddes was my direct link to Edith Patch; she hired him to be assistant entomologist at the experiment station in 1931.  Simpson continued and extended Patch’s foundational research on the relationship between aphids and plant viruses, particularly in potatoes.

And so, it is a great honor for me to have been asked to deliver the Geddes W. Simpson Memorial Lecture at UMaine.  Simpson’s family endowed this annual lecture series to explore the intersection of science and history.  It is my pleasure to invite you to join me in this celebration of Geddes Simpson and his passion for better understanding our world.

UMaine’s announcement of the lecture is as follows:

Resource economist to deliver Geddes W. Simpson Lecture

Resource economist Mark W. Anderson will speak about the state of human society in the 21st century during the 14th annual Geddes W. Simpson Lecture.

 The senior instructor emeritus in the University of Maine’s School of Economics will deliver “Open season on chickadees: A field guide to the Anthropocene” at 3:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 5 in the McIntire Room of the Buchanan Alumni House on the UMaine campus. The talk is free and open to the public.

Anderson will draw on lessons from Big History and the science of global change to propose a “field guide” to help humans navigate the new epoch of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene relates to the current geological age and is viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

 In 2001, Simpson’s family established the Geddes W. Simpson Lecture Fund. Simpson was a well-respected faculty member whose 55-year career in the College of Life Sciences and the Maine Agricultural Experiment Station began in 1931. He chaired the Entomology Department from 1954 until his retirement in 1974. The lecture was established to support a series that highlights speakers who have provided significant insight into the area where science and history intersect.

 A reception will follow Anderson’s lecture.


Mark W. Anderson

About Mark W. Anderson

I am proud to be a Mainer, born in Caribou and schooled at Brewer High School, Bowdoin College, and the University of Maine. I am grateful for a 35 year career at UMaine, the last decade in the School of Economics.