An entangled sea turtle struggles for freedom. Credit: Francis Perez



By Jenna Kurtzweil




Standing in the shadows of the Great Pyramids, a man named Herodotus set the Seven Wonders of the World in motion. If he could have predicted the modern calendar, he’d have dated his entry 440 BCE; if he could have predicted his future fame, he might have titled his musings something more grandiose than Histories. But, in that moment, the man now considered “the father of history” simply looked at what he saw before him, raised an astonished eyebrow, and began to write.


This was the pattern of the early Wonders of the World — not to exist as “wonders” at all, but instead as what a recent book on the subject refers to as theamata: “things to be seen.” And this was how Herodotus approached the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and the city of Babylon, and other ancient sites by which he was equally enchanted. With little thought for the clickbait monster he was creating, the father of history initiated one of history’s most captivating canons.


Over the centuries, Herodotus’ observations snowballed into a fully formulated list, the earliest version of which was recorded just over a century prior to the Common Era. However, the “Ancient Wonders” — Giza’s Great Pyramid, the elusive Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Lighthouse at Alexandria, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, and the Colossus of Rhodes — first debuted as a cohesive, published collection in the Renaissance. And while all but the first wondrous sites have since faded into dust and memory, humankind’s desire to drum up and disseminate similar lists has not.


Generations of list-makers — from scientists, scholars, and travel writers to conservation societies and news outlets — have put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and promoted their top seven with gusto to their respective milieus. As such, Seven Wonders lists have gradually become less theamata and more pseudo-cultural commentary that shamelessly showcases what any given group deems worthy of veneration.


With a tsunami of environmental crises unfolding, many of the more serious lists of the late twentieth century centered around conservation and the natural world. Case in point: The 1989 Underwater Wonders were assembled by scuba-diving organization CEDAM (Conservation, Education, Diving, Awareness and Marine Research) International to spotlight at-risk aquatic attractions from the Galapagos Islands to the Great Barrier Reef to Russia’s Lake Baikal. The winning seven were decided upon by marine biologist Eugenie Clark and announced by none other than Sea Hunt’s Lloyd Bridges. A decade later,  CNN’s 1997 Natural Wonders list likewise glorifies the Great Barrier Reef alongside locations like Victoria Falls and Mount Everest.


Now in the 21st century, we are told, the Earth has fully entered the Anthropocene era — a new geological epoch defined by humankind’s destructive planetary impact. So the time has come once again to update Herodotus’ ancient tradition and compile a new list of theamata. But fair warning: the Seven Wonders of the Anthropocene, according to my fresh take on the genre, won’t necessarily be awe-inspiring to behold. From the modern Great Pacific Garbage Patch to the prehistoric Island of Rapa Nui; from ancient civilization’s breadbasket to today’s most revered fast-foodery; from the rapidly disappearing Brazilian Amazon to swaths of new growth in China; these new-age “things to be seen” aren’t classic tourist sites, but rather windows onto a destructive side of human civilization that we either overlook, or might well go out of our way to avoid seeing at all.




1. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch



The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the most iconic, mythologized monument to the human-trash love affair. Comprised of everything that instills our lives with meaning — from toothbrushes and discarded toys to fishing nets and food wrappers — the Patch also symbolizes our avidity for creating waste. So maybe less love affair, more infatuation. Or can 87,000 tons of ocean-soaked trash be considered a form of love?


As its name suggests, the Patch is an accumulation of non-decomposable debris treading water off the California coastline, guarded by the ever-circling North Pacific Gyre (we call it a “Patch,” but in reality it has two nuclei — one closer to Japan, and one off the U.S. west coast). One of five such systems worldwide, the Gyre churns with a current that slowly stirs the Pacific Ocean clockwise. And in the center of the Patch is what the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Dianna Parker tastily calls a “peppery soup.”


Much like love, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is all about the little things — far from the junkyard-esque islands of burning rubber that evoke a classic garbage dump, the oceanic version appears more murky than downright apocalyptic. The Patch is our post-personified trash, when sun, salt, and sea have worn larger artifacts down into bite-sized pieces called microplastics, which saturate the surface or sink to the bottom in an undersea, all-you-can-eat buffet.


The Pacific Patch is the Anthropocene’s Everest — most recognize its name, fewer have been there, and just a scant selection of brave souls know what it looks like up close. But one major difference exists between the two: even if Everest wasn’t identified as a wonder of the natural world, its presence would remain undeniably known. Not so for the Patch, which — courtesy of too-small-to-see, “peppery soup”-y microplastics —  is tough to discern whether you’re waving from a West Coast beach, floating in outer space, or even sailing a boat directly through its center.


Therein lies the Patch’s claim to Anthropocene fame — it’s not only a physical representation of human trash production, but a titanic testament to our “out of sight, out of mind” mentality.  We reduce, reuse, and recycle the much-sensationalized plastic bottle, but some of the Patch’s most notorious pollutants are actually the beads in exfoliating facewash, so microscopically tiny that they slip under even the most avid environmentalist’s radar.


Like any relationship, the first step toward resolution lies in identifying the problem. This Patch — and others like it — will continue to wax on the waves unless drastic actions are taken to cut waste streams and clean up what’s already there (which, as of now, not one country is stepping up to do).


On the plus side, beachgoers, boaters and astronauts alike might be able to check this first wonder off their sightseeing lists much sooner than expected.




2. Henderson Island



Plotting a course dead south from the first Anthropocene wonder will take you straight to the second. If the Pacific Patch is a monument to the magnitude of human wastefulness, Henderson Island is a testament to its far-reaching wingspan. Despite being uninhabited for centuries, this second wonder of the human era boasts the world’s highest debris concentration.


Henderson Island takes up its remote residence in the heart of the South Pacific. It’s a member of the Pitcairn Island Group, of which Pitcairn is the sole inhabited pinprick of land. Henderson ranks largest, however, its northern and southern coastlines stretching a comfortable fun-run length of 5K.


As a raised coral atoll, Henderson’s fortress-like limestone and coral-covered cliffs have historically served two purposes: creating a unique environment to foster endemic species (life forms that do not occur anywhere else), and protecting the island from both human and natural erosion. Indeed, a 1980s Smithsonian report on Henderson Island remarks that “of the 20 or 30 such ‘oceanic’ islands or groups of islands, most have been greatly altered by long-established human occupancy, or phosphate mining, or both. … only Aldabra (an island in the Seychelles) and Henderson remain reasonably unaltered.”


While today’s Henderson does still boast a robust portfolio of flora and fauna, it can no longer be considered “unaltered.” The reason for this relatively rapid shift? It has the bad luck to be situated directly in the path of the South Pacific Garbage Patch. While the North Pacific Gyre herds trash like cattle, its oceanic neighbor to the south slyly disposes of waste onto unwilling island drop-sites like Henderson. Over time, the current’s daily deliveries have accumulated to a staggering 38 million discrete plastic pieces.


Like the Pacific Patch, Henderson’s debris are saturated with microplastics, with other recovered items including toy soldiers, Monopoly pieces, and the ubiquitous fishing nets. These artifacts come from all corners of the globe — if you throw something away in Chile, China, or Japan, there’s a good chance it will end up littering Henderson’s shores. And just in case the scope of damage is still hard to grasp, a recent study chillingly concludes that “the 17.6 tons of anthropogenic debris estimated to be present on Henderson Island account for only 1.98 seconds’ worth of the annual global production of plastic.”


While not as near to the public eye as the Pacific Garbage Patch, Henderson Island is a clear and present reminder that the tendrils of human impact have ensnared even the globe’s remotest locations.




3. Rapa Nui (Easter Island)



The Seven Wonders of the Anthropocene might be a creation of the 21st century, but its contents certainly aren’t. Many of climate change’s effects have been simmering for centuries and are just now becoming visible to the naked eye. As it happens, the Pacific Ocean is a hotspot for Anthropocene wonders big and small, young and — in this case — quite old.


Rapa Nui, the indigenous name for what Dutch travelers christened “Easter Island,” is Henderson Island’s culturally rich counterpart and next-door neighbor 1,000 miles to the west: just as remote, but inhabited since 300 A.D.


The Chilean island’s renown rests with its head-shaped moai statues, scattered impressively over a UNESCO Heritage Site that encompasses nearly half the island. These watchful guardians, composed of volcanic tuff, were dedicated as shrines for tribal leaders from 900 A.D. into the late 1500s, when the Rapa Nui civilization ground to a halt in what National Geographic describes as “an environmental catastrophe of their own making.” Years of palm tree deforestation took their toll, sparking a devastating ecological shift and  “expos(ing) the island’s rich volcanic soils to serious erosion.” When Dutch travelers made landfall in 1722, they bore witness to an island in ecological turmoil.


Three hundred years later, coastal erosion is surfacing as a potentially terminal threat to the island’s cultural legacy. Once again, the source of the ecological turmoil is human-driven: sea-level rise. As is the case for countless Pacific Islands, coastal erosion and rising tides are steadily creeping up on Rapa Nui. UNESCO’s 2016 “World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate” expresses mounting concern for the moai, precariously perched as they are on the island’s edges. These stoic statues are threatened by aggressive rising waves, which are predicted to wear away at their foundations with increasing vigor in coming years.


The moai are not only cultural artifacts, but also anchors for the island’s economy, which relies heavily on its $70 million-per-year tourism industry. In 2017, Rapa Nui hosted 17 times the amount of tourists as there are permanent inhabitants.


Together, the lopsided, Bermuda-triangle geometry of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Henderson Island, and Easter Island signal an alarming reminder that the Anthropocene’s effects consist not only of uncountable plastic bottles and carbon-clogged skies, but are also deeply woven into the global fabrics of tourism, travel, history, economics, and cultural identity.




4. Ephesus



World Heritage Sites are feeling the heat of the Anthropocene from the South Pacific to the Mediterranean: on land, at sea, and especially on coastlines where the two converge. Iconic coastal regions, the cradles of civilizations large and small, are under siege by the same erosive waters that threaten ancient islands like Rapa Nui. One such site is the city of Ephesus, located in present-day Turkey.


This once-vital political and commercial locale — the first city of the Roman Empire in Asia — now teems only with tourists, who pour in from planes, trains, and near-daily cruise ship excursions. They come to marvel at the freestanding ruins of the ancient metropolis, which compete for real estate with cheap restaurants and traffic-snarled roads. One of its largest claims to fame is the Temple of Artemis, an original Wonder of the Ancient World. The destruction of the city at the hands of the Goths preceded a centuries long decline that essentially wiped golden-age Ephesus from the map until its modern rediscovery in 1869.


Now, just 150 years after archeologists uncovered its ruins, Ephesus is at risk of being lost again. In October 2018, Nature Communications published a study of coastal Mediterranean World Heritage Sites under threat from rising tides in the immediate future. Ephesus — on Turkey’s vulnerable western coast — is at the top of the list.


Proximity to the Mediterranean Sea, the quality that makes Ephesus an ideal tourist location, also puts the city in danger of coastal erosion. Even when compared with other Mediterranean Heritage Sites — 47 of which face similar dangers — Ephesus is one of two locations rated a risk index of 9 out of 10.


The Ephesian fate is not isolated. By 2100, two more sites on the list will join the ranks of a level-9 risk index, and the high-end scenario estimates for sea-level rise include all sites within 100 meters of the Mediterranean coast. While the more mobile (think lighthouses and free-standing statues) could potentially hitch up their skirts and shuffle inland, this option isn’t available to Ephesus, a city already in a scattered, half-collapsed state of ruin.


But take heart: If great Ephesus plunges beneath the waves, its ruins will be immortalized in not one, but two collections of world wonders for years to come — ancient and anthropocenic.




5. Your Friendly KFC



Not every location on this list requires rafting the South Pacific or visiting a World Heritage Site. To witness the Anthropocene’s fifth wonder, simply hop into a car and drive to your local KFC.


Our human era might look like stacks of beach-bound garbage and sound like seawater crashing against crumbling moai, but it tastes most decidedly like chicken. Specifically, the broiler chicken, a species whose very name betrays the close nature of its relationship with humankind. A November 2018 study in Royal Society Open Science deems the white-feathered, beady-eyed dinosaur descendant the most profound physical evidence for our entering the Anthropocene. Why? These chickens are everywhere.


Broilers (the colloquial name of chickens bred for soups, salads, and sandwiches) have risen to unparalleled numbers in just a few short decades. In 2016, the Anthropocene’s feathery mascot reached a headcount of 22.7 billion (that’s three chickens per person on Earth).


Chickens were domesticated as early 2500 BCE, but the bird first achieved retail acclaim in the 20th century’s latter half. With thousands of poultry-peddling locations in more than 130 countries, the modern KFC franchise exemplifies the broiler’s post-war ubiquity. As the so-called Great Acceleration upped its relentless, mechanized course, a combination of farming efficiency, selective breeding, and (this isn’t a joke) the 1950s “Chicken-of-Tomorrow” program, ensured that a half-century later, the chickens of today would be monstrous in both size and number. Our chickens are five times larger than their pre-Industrial predecessors. If every other avian species on the planet (including ostriches) piled onto a scale, they still couldn’t top the weight of Earth’s 23 billion broilers.


That said, it is bones, not simple mass, that proves the starkest differentiator between 21st-century flocks and the ghosts of chickens past. Factors like size and osteo-pathologies (bones ill-equipped to carry increased weight) are like neon signs that flash to scientists: These are not your grandma’s chickens.


Bone composition in particular — specifically, collagen concentrations of carbon and nitrogen — is critical to chickens’ role as a sign of anthropocenic times. If chickens died in the wild, their skeletons would decompose naturally. But because broilers exist for our consumption alone, their bones are taken out with the rest of humanity’s trash. Recall the KFC chicken wing, unceremoniously tossed away: that bone will likely end up in a landfill, preserved alongside plastic and polystyrene for centuries to come. With our KFC addiction, we are creating what geologists call a “biostratigraphic marker” that will be the hallmark of our epoch: a buried layer of discarded broiler bones spanning hundreds of countries and composed of billions of birds.


So if you don’t have the free time or funds to visit the Smithsonian, but you’d still like to see a fossil or two … you know where to go.




6. Amazon Rainforest



The Anthropocene isn’t just defined by what humans add to the Earth (pollutants, plastic, poultry), but by what we take away. Most notably, trees. Right now, they are not only the most valuable currency in the fight against climate change, but one of the most threatened as well.


There’s no better stage on which to set the global deforestation epidemic than the planet’s most massive tropical forest. One of Earth’s most biodiverse biomes, the Amazon’s ecosystem of rivers, jaguars and broad-leaved palms (oh my!) was sprawled across northern South America’s landmass long before political borders were invented. But now, Brazil is the Amazon’s primary steward, claiming roughly 60 percent of the 2.1 million-square-mile jungle.


Unfortunately, Brazil’s current government is more exploiter than steward of this vital global resource. Recently elected President Jair Bolsonaro staked his campaign on plans to accelerate agricultural development and cattle ranching in the rainforest. This disastrous policy will only exacerbate Brazil’s current deforestation rate — already “responsible for … a third of all tropical forests lost between 2000 and 2012.”


Industrial destruction of the Amazon is an outrage to both conservation and social justice. Brazil’s indigenous population, who live in heretofore protected rainforest territory, face likely doom. As reported in the New York Times, Bolsonaro’s Amazon policy has been deemed by the Indigenous Missionary Council “a flagrant violation of Brazil’s constitution that defends indigenous rights to their ancestral lands.”


Where does deforestation on this scale fit in our anthropocenic reckoning? As Dr. Seuss’ stump-dwelling Lorax would probably attest, it all comes down to the trees themselves.


Trees, like most plants, are carbon sequesters — they siphon carbon from the atmosphere and offset the emissions that our cattle, Cadillacs, and airplanes cough out each day. Just one tree has the muscle to sequester 48 pounds of carbon per year and up to 1 ton of carbon in 40 years; with all of the Amazon’s 390 billion leafy tenants breathing in unison, it’s no surprise that the area is nicknamed the “lungs of the planet.”


Globally, rainforests like the Amazon sequester 5 billion tons of carbon per year, nearly equivalent to what the U.S. alone produced as recently as 2004. So when it comes to the issue of carbon emissions as a climate change driver, the Amazon emerges as something of an ecological swing vote. The recent fires raging across Amazonia as of summer 2019 serve as a dire reminder that this ecosystem is as vulnerable as it is valuable — and the more we exploit it through deforestation, the more fragile it will become.


Who will win out in the global tussle for a healthy atmosphere: the monetary capital produced by putting one-tenth of the world’s species through the shredder, or the ecological capital and quality of life that trees provide for free?


Maybe it’s a toss-up. Maybe it shouldn’t be. Either way, it’s in everyone’s best interest to keep an eye on the “lungs of the planet.”




7. China’s Three-North Shelterbelt Program



Anthropogenic Wonders 6 and 7 might be considered sister sites — one a biodiverse oasis suffering from mankind’s voracious appetite for development, the other a reactive, reparational attempt for that ongoing horror.


Zooming out from the Amazon to the world at large makes things seem a bit brighter — and a bit greener. A recent Nature Sustainability study concluded that the Earth is currently the “greenest” it’s been since the millennial turn. The greatest contributors? China and India.


Teach people to plant a tree, and they’ll plant 66 billion. That’s what’s happening in China, where prolific forestry projects like the Three-North Shelterbelt Program (TNSP) are contributing to a belated worldwide re-afforestation.


The TNSP’s name is easily decodable. “Three-North” refers to the project’s location, China’s arid northern regions, while “shelterbelt” refers to a strategically placed wall of greenery which serves as a bulwark against climate change’s close comrades, desertification and erosion.


The self-described “World’s Best Ecological Project” was implemented by China’s government in 1978 and is slated for completion in 2050. The project’s 73-year road map involves engineering a $1 billion sylvan rampart to not only sequester carbon dioxide a la the Amazon, but to keep at bay the ever-expanding Gobi desert, which erodes land with each ponderous step it takes to the south. This high-caliber desertification is responsible for poor air quality and harsh winds, but its most problematic impact is agricultural, threatening China’s vital grain output.   


When complete, this “Great Green Wall” will guard against the Gobi over a 2,800-mile span (imagine Route 66 stretching from Chicago to California, then tack on a few hundred miles.) But the TNSP’s impact extends well beyond the limits of the Three-North region and the borders of China itself. In the past two decades — even as the Amazon canopy topples and falls — Earth has regained enough greenery to equal the rainforest’s entire area. And while six continents have observed a year-by-year increase in “green leaf area,” China mostly champions the cause, contributing a quarter of that on its own.


But as always, environmental advances should be assessed with caution. Just as one below-zero day doesn’t invalidate global warming, trees planted in China don’t replace trees uprooted elsewhere. Despite the best of intentions, the Chinese endeavor’s weakness  lies in its attempt to manufacture a natural phenomenon. Many of the (non-native) trees hastily planted since 1978 were either poorly chosen for carbon sequestration, or ill-equipped to survive a plant-it-and-leave it approach. 


For all that, might the 66 billion trees of the TNSP be an indicator of better things to come for the Anthropocene?




Wrapping Up (Like a Chicken Tortilla)


Seven Wonders lists are a testament to humanity’s two true passions: monument-building and list-making. We categorize and we quantify. We carve our ancestors into stone statues and marble mountainsides, and stake flags everywhere from Mount Everest to the moon. And that’s the way it’s always been: The architects that sculpted the Artemiseum, chiseled life into the moai, and coaxed man-made forests from unyielding soil are the same hands that will one day dig up countless remains of the Chickens of Tomorrow. For better or for worse, whether we’re planting a billion trees or razing rainforests, it appears that wherever humanity is concerned, the spectacle will out.


This is not to say that wonders lists are inherently harmful. On the contrary, their goals, more often than not, are noble: to honor, protect, and raise awareness. But, at the risk of resorting to the age-old mantra about actions and words, is documentation in itself really a form of rescue? The Great Barrier Reef would likely shake its coral locks at the suggestion, as would the countless undersea ecosystems already faded out of existence without a eulogy.


So, while the above list is intended to highlight seven discrete case studies of the Anthropocene, it’s equally important to acknowledge that when discussing the planet’s environment, we can’t limit our discussion to lists of locations, no matter how magnificent, at-risk, or visually stunning they might be.


10, 20, 50 years down the road, as new Seven Wonders lists are inevitably churned out via mass media events and worldwide balloting blitzes, perhaps the hope shouldn’t be to merely generate awareness. Maybe the hope shouldn’t be to generate anything, except for a world that still has a vast assortment of wonders to choose from — a world that still has theamata, “things to be seen” that we ourselves didn’t create or uncreate. If we spend more time making lists that quantify the world than we do saving the world, Seven Wonders lists like this one will become ever more common, and tragic.


To quote two notable historians of the Seven Wonders phenomenon, which already spans millennia: “Of one thing we may be sure: today’s masterpieces will tomorrow be the fragmentary relics of the world that we know — the lesson of the Seven Wonders is a lesson for all time.”

About the Author

Jenna Kurtzweil, the Q Magazine editor for Volume 2, Issue 1, is from Inverness, Ill. She received a B.A. in English and earned the CEW in May 2019. In 2018-19, she served as a Communications Intern at the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE). In September 2019, iSEE hired her as a Communications Specialist. This piece was researched and written for ESE 498, the CEW capstone course, in Spring 2019.




St. Paul’s Ephesus by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor:

The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, edited by Peter A. Clayton and Martin J. Price