The arrival of the age when human activity has come to dominate and seriously compromise the stability of the Earth System poses fundamental questions for our cultural, social and economic institutions, our communities, and our systems of governance. Three decades of internationally coordinated research on the Earth system has led to the conclusion that Earth has entered a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene.
Humanity will face a turbulent road of rapid and profound changes and uncertainties on route to a politically, socially and ecologically resilient society. The Anthropocene changes our relationship with the planet and the stability and resilience of the Earth system as a whole.
The globally dominant industrial growth economies operate as if reality is about organizing inert matter in efficient ways to satisfy human needs and wants and generate surplus value. This cultural ‘operating system’ couples our everyday taken-for-granted assumptions about the world to an ideology of dead matter, human utility and perpetual growth. The fundamental challenge of the Anthropocene is to restore a commitment to the vitality of life in all its forms on this planet as the basis of our institutions and professions. This is the cultural renaissance the Anthropocene calls forth.
Earth’s entry into an anthropogenic era poses challenging questions for the long-term sustainability of global human civilization. It is, in fact, not clear if a planetary civilization as energy-intensive as ours can be sustained for centuries. While some aspects of this question rest within political science and sociology, a broader perspective is developing on the transition and transformation, that only a new collaboration among the physical, biological, and social sciences can address to illuminate and inform the choices we face.
In addition, the trajectory will almost surely be characterized by the activation of some tipping elements (Tipping Cascades) and by nonlinear dynamics and abrupt shifts at the level of critical biomes that support humanity. Current rates of change of important features of the Earth System already match or exceed those of abrupt geophysical events in the past. With these trends likely to continue for the next several decades at least, the contemporary way of guiding development founded on theories, tools, and beliefs of gradual or incremental change, with a focus on economy efficiency, will likely not be adequate to cope with this trajectory. Thus, in addition to adaptation, increasing resilience and anti-fragility will become a key strategy for navigating the future. There is significant evidence from a number of sources that the risk of a planetary threshold and thus, the need to create a divergent pathway should be taken seriously.
The Earth System may be approaching a planetary threshold that could lock in a continuing rapid pathway toward much warmer conditions. This pathway would be propelled by strong, intrinsic, biogeophysical feedbacks difficult to influence by human actions, a pathway that could not be reversed, steered, or substantially slowed.
The impacts of on human societies would likely be massive, sometimes abrupt, and undoubtedly disruptive. Avoiding this threshold by creating a stabilized pathway can only be achieved and maintained by a coordinated, deliberate effort by human societies to manage our relationship with the rest of the Earth System, recognizing that humanity is an integral, interacting component of the system. Humanity is now facing the need for critical decisions and actions that could influence our future for centuries, if not millennia .
Generic resilience-building and anti-fragility strategies include developing, buffers, redundancy, diversity, and other features of resilience and anti-fragility that are critical for transforming human systems in the face of global ecological and natural systems and possible surprise associated with tipping points. Such a strategy include maintenance of diversity, modularity, and redundancy; management of connectivity, openness, slow variables, and feedbacks; understanding social–ecological systems as complex adaptive systems, especially at the level of the Earth System as a whole.
… the Earth has been pushed out of the pre-industrial Holocene norm by human activities. How will the Anthropocene evolve? Even with a rapid and decisive shift of contemporary human societies toward sustainable development, the Anthropocene will remain a distinctly different epoch from the Holocene.
The current trajectory of human societies would lead to an Anthropocene that is a much warmer and biotically different state of the Earth System, one that is no longer governed by the late Quaternary regime of glacial–interglacial cycles, and with far fewer species. Earth in a much warmer greenhouse state would be nothing new. However, it would be novel for Homo sapiens, which evolved only 200,000 years ago. Under this scenario, the Earth System would be markedly different from the one humans now know, and from the state that supported the development of human civilization. Which trajectory the Anthropocene follows depends on the decisions and actions of global society today, and over the next few decades.