Chronicling the Anthropocene: Journalist Dennis Dimick shares stories of food, climate, our future

Dennis Dimick, former National Geographic executive environment editor, talks about his first published photograph featuring two sheep and his younger brother. Dimick delivered a lecture at Kansas State on Oct. 14, 2019 in McCain Auditorium. (Dené Dryden | Collegian Media Group)

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Paul Crutzen as Paul Peterson.

In a packed McCain Auditorium Monday evening, former National Geographic editor Dennis Dimick detailed how his agricultural background influenced his work with National Geographic and how humans make impressionable change on the planet. Dimick spoke as the sixth speaker in the Henry C. Gardiner Global Food Systems Lecture Series.

Ernie Minton, dean of the College of Agriculture and director of K-State Research and Extension, introduced Dimick with university president Richard Myers and Mark Gardiner of the endowing Gardiner family.

“Not only is Dimick here this evening to present the lecture, he spent most of his time today visiting with K-State students across many disciplines,” Myers said.

Dimick began by recounting his childhood in Oregon. Dimick participated in 4-H Club, raising sheep and taking photos. He showed the audience his first published photograph: a ewe and her lamb touching noses in a pasture with Dimick’s younger brother observing.

This forayed into Dimick’s early career as a journalist. One event that explains why he pursued his life’s work, Dimick said, was when a chunk of his family’s farmland was seized under eminent domain for interstate highway construction.

Projected onto the on-stage screen, the audience saw an image of Dimick’s father staring at a stretch of road that used to be pasture.

After college, Dimick worked as a newspaper photographer in the Pacific Northwest.

“It was a great place to put the practice, the knowledge and skills that I’d learned as an ag major and ag journalist covering county fairs or the work of the vaccinating the steers or the calves,” Dimick said.

Eventually, he made his way to National Geographic, often collaborating with photographer Jim Richardson, who was in attendance, on feature stories that sometimes took years to complete.

He mentioned a project about soil health that he proposed in 2000, then was written in late 2008.

“I joke that … sometimes it takes longer to do a National Geographic story on soil than it does to build soil,” Dimick said. “But the idea really was we were going to connect soil to why it matters to people, where food begins.”

Dennis Dimick discusses a National Geographic story about soil, which features two constrasting images by photographer Jim Richardson. On the left, a woman and children in Niger squat above dry soil. On the right, a woman in China poses by rich soil. (Dene Dryden | Collegian Media Group)

After detailing his editorial career with the magazine, working on projects about freshwater, glacial melt and the rising human population, Dimick addressed the idea of living in a human age when energy, food, water and population all rely on one another.

“About the year 2000, there was a Dutch chemist by the name of Paul Crutzen who coined a new word,” Dimick said. “He said that he was begging to talk about the human age, a time when we as individuals will become the dominant force on the planet. There has been an Anthropocene working group studying this issue … the idea being that we perhaps have moved into a new geologic age, past the end of the Holocene.

“Of course the geologists are arguing about it,” Dimick continued. “We did an article on it in the population series. … What it is is a proposed geologic epoch defined by our massive impact on the planet, where the mark of our presence will endure in the geologic records long after we are gone.”

Defining the beginning of the Anthropocene is a debated question, Dimick said. Did it begin thousands of years ago at the advent of agriculture, or at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution? Could the beginning be marked by the detonation of nuclear bombs?

Dimick also addressed climate change and how fossil fuels marked a big change in human civilization, moving from “current sunshine” fuel sources (trees, water wheels and solar warmth) to “ancient sunshine” stored in coal, oil and natural gas. Fossil fuels are more pervasive in our world than just fuel, Dimick reminded the audience, as he showed a photo of a family in a yard filled with toys, appliances and shoes all made of plastic.

Dimick left the audience with a message for moving forward: the Top 11 Solutions to Climate Change from Project Drawdown that can alleviate or stall the daunting human impacts on the Earth. The list: manage refrigerants, onshore wind turbines, reduce food waste, plant-rich diets, save tropical forests, educate girls, family planning, solar farms, silvopasture (integrating forests and food production), rooftop solar and regenerative agriculture.

“I recommend this to you, for those of you who are students in this audience, that this is actually an opportunity for you to contemplate not so much just about how you might live in the world, but what you might choose to do in the world,” Dimick said.

The Henry C. Gardiner Global Food System Lecture Series focuses on science-based education on the world’s food production systems and the impacts of agriculture. Dimick’s lecture was one of the first events during Kansas State’s Science Communication Week, happening from Oct. 12-19.

I'm Dene Dryden, and I graduated in May 2020 with a Bachelor's of Arts in English. Before graduating, I worked at the Collegian for more than three years as a copy chief, managing editor and editor-in-chief. I also served a term on the Collegian Media Group Board of Directors. While at K-State, I also worked at Wildcat 91.1 FM. My cat Robyn is the light of my life, and I take compliments in the form of coffee.