The Cosmic Oasis: Leicester environment experts explore Earth’s biosphere in new popular science book

Anne-Sophie Milon's illustration of Gaïa and the Leviathan, which features in The Cosmic Oasis book. © Anne-Sophie Milon 2021

Environment experts from the University of Leicester will explore human impact on our planet’s delicate biosphere in a new book.

The Earth holds a special place in the cosmos with its ancient, complex and diverse biosphere. It is very unlike our closest neighbours, Venus and Mars. But now the wonderful ‘cosmic oasis’ on which we live is threatened by our own activities.

Professor Mark Williams and Emeritus Professor Jan Zalasiewicz are considered among the world’s leading researchers investigating the Anthropocene – a proposed geological epoch defined by human domination of our planet – and have joined forces with artist Anne-Sophie Milon to create a new book exploring the environmental crisis and possible solutions.

The Cosmic Oasis draws on the pair’s long-standing research into the biosphere’s history and evolution to examine some of the main environmental problems created by increased urbanisation, over-consumption of resources by some parts of humanity, and a worldwide reliance on fossil fuels.

Not only do these processes create knock-on effects in land use and climate change, but the researchers describe how such human behaviours have thrown Earth’s biosphere out of a finely-tuned balance achieved over millions of years.

As just one example to illustrate the urgency of the problem, the pair calculated the land area required to satisfy our appetite for beef burgers, now around 50 billion eaten each year.

With 164m2 of land required to produce just 100g of beef protein, a surface area of 4.1 million km2 – equivalent to nearly half the land area of the United States – is needed to provide grazing land for the cattle which provide the world’s burgers.

Food production is just one issue identified in the new book and the built environments of the future, our cities, now need to be redesigned to function more like natural ecologies.

Mark Williams, Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Leicester, said: “No other animal has ever dominated land and sea like humans. We and our farm animals far outweigh the mass of wild land mammals. We have converted half of the habitable land surface to farming.

“Our relationships with the animals and plants around us need to change radically in the coming decades, if we, and this glorious cosmic oasis that we live on, are to thrive long into the future.”

Jan Zalasiewicz, Emeritus Professor of Palaeobiology at the University of Leicester, added: “Earth’s biosphere has slowly built over a span of time that is almost unimaginable – more than three billion years – to shape the face of our planet. It is now changing at lightning speed, for instance to become, as we were writing this book, outweighed by our burgeoning technology.

“We truly are heading for a new kind of planet, on which maintaining life’s richness will be an enormous challenge.”

Independent artist-researcher Anne-Sophie Milon, who provided illustration for the book, added: “What I appreciated most about working with Jan and Mark has been how they trusted me to be part of the whole process of building the book from the beginning, and how they included my images in their process of writing The Cosmic Oasis. They offered me the opportunity to witness how geologists – concerned with fossils, strata, rocks and sedimentology – can experiment in reading the biosphere, a topic generally reserved for biologists.

“The geological hypothesis of the Anthropocene forces us to rethink the way we live but also rethink our assumption, since the 20th Century, that science should be separate from any kind of imaginative art to be objective, credible, serious.

“But, since working with Jan and Mark, I now wonder: how can a scientist think about the effects of their research outside of their community without any such art or imagination? Isn’t the core of the Anthropocene research to describe its profound but invisible effects?”

The Cosmic Oasis is published by Oxford University Press.