The broadest of perspectives can locate the shift underway on planet Earth as the most recent scene in a vast pageant of cosmic emergence. A cosmological panorama takes us beyond the ambit of daily life and beyond even the larger compass of human history, offering a vantage point for pondering the contemporary predicament. About 3.8 billion years ago, life appeared on Earth, opening a new chapter in the story of the universe. Biological evolution has been a wondrous adventure of tenacity and inventiveness through titanic episodes of extinction and proliferation.
One uncommonly dexterous line—the primates—proved particularly consequential, giving rise to hominids, the first bipedal, tool-developing mammals. In three million years, a mere tick of the geological clock, the primitive sentience of early humans evolved into the higher consciousness of our anatomically modern ancestors some 200,000 years ago. A creature was born that carried the awesome power—and heavy burden—of introspection and reason. These brainy, social creatures jumped onto evolution’s fast track and never looked back. The advent of human consciousness marked both a culmination and an inception: the capstone of biological evolution and the cornerstone of social evolution.
This was a luminous and fateful moment in the long saga of cosmic emanation; when it begot a primate able to contemplate the mystery of existence, the universe lit up to itself.
A reminder of where we are in the immensity of space, the eons of time, and the majestic evolution of existence, this wide vista cultivates a sense of awe and humility, stirring resolve to renew the vitality of our precious island of life. Such reflections bring into focus a transcendent challenge: to navigate toward a new order of complexity in our corner of the universe, a flourishing and resilient global society.
After the Pleistocene, which opened the Quaternary 2.5 million years back, and the Holocene, which began 11,500 years ago, the stratigraphic scale had to be supplemented by a new age, to signal that mankind had become a force of telluric amplitude. It seems appropriate to assign the term Anthropocene to the present, in many ways human-dominated, geological epoch. From the ancient Greek words anthropos meaning human being and kainos meaning recent, new, the Anthropocene is then the new epoch of humans, the age of man. The Anthropocene is characterized by the fact that ‘the human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth System.
The Anthropocene is an event, a point of bifurcation in the history of the Earth, life and humans. It overturns our representations of the world. In recognizing the Anthropocene -an era in which humans have been the dominant force on earth- as a new epoch of geologic time, we are confronted with the reality that our societies now directly shape Earth’s functioning. This era can also be characterized by a tightly interconnected world operating at high speeds with hyper-efficiency in several dimensions. It is the most decisive philosophical, religious, anthropological, and political concept. For not so long ago the ‘environment’ was still understood as that which surrounds us, the place where humans went to extract resources, deposit waste, or even that in certain places was to be left virgin. Economists spoke of environmental degradations as externalities. In the forms of natural parks, ecosystems, and environment, subsequently that of ‘sustainable development’, nature was recognized until relatively recently as essential but separate from us. It hardly seemed to present a serious limit to growth, a watchword intoned in chorus by business leaders, orthodox economists and policymakers.
The concept of Anthropocene challenges this separation and the promise to perpetuate our economic system by modifying it at the margin. In place of ‘environment’, there is now the Earth System. While triumphant industrial modernity had promised to pull us away from nature, its cycles and its limits, placing us in a world of boundless progress, the Earth and its limits are today making a comeback. The global and profound biogeochemical and biophysical processes that we have disturbed are forcing their way into the center of the political stage and of our everyday lives.
There can be no more talk of a linear and inexorable progress that used to silence those who challenge the market-based, industrial and consumerist order by accusing them of seeking to return us to a bygone age; from now on, the future of the Earth and all its creatures is at stake. And this uncertain becoming, strewn with tipping points, scarcely resembles the radiant future promised by the ideologists’ progress of the last two centuries, whether liberal, social democratic or Marxist.
As for the word crisis, does it not maintain a deceptive optimism? It leads us to believe, in fact, that we are simply faced with a perilous turning-point of modernity, a brief trial with an imminent outcome, or even an opportunity. The term crisis denotes a transitory state, while the Anthropocene is a point of no return. It indicates a geological bifurcation with no foreseeable return to the normality of the Holocene.
The warning given by the Anthropocene concept, and the recent advances in the sciences of the Earth System, thus go much further than an anthropocentric view of the ‘environmental crisis’, no matter how alarming. The problem is not only that our Earth System is being degraded, nor that resources (another category that postulates an external and static character to the Earth and its beings and processes) are being exhausted, increasing social inequalities and thus threatening the planet with major geopolitical disturbances. The double reality that the Anthropocene presents is that the Earth has seen other epochs in the last 4.5 billion years, and life will continue in one form or another with or without humans. But the new states that we are launching the Earth into will bring with them a disorder, penury and violence that will render it less readily habitable by humans. Even if the human species manages to reduce its ecological footprint drastically and invent a more sober civilization, we will not have settled accounts with Gaia. The Earth would take at least centuries if not hundreds of thousands of years to get back to the climatic and geobiological regime of the Holocene.
The science of the Earth System also gives us a non-linear view of the past and future of our planet. Living in the Anthropocene, therefore, means inhabiting the non-linear and highly unpredictable world of the Earth System’s (or Earth history’s) responses to our disturbances. A non-linear perspective confronts us with the tremendous as well contested impact of human beings on the entire planet and changing human – nature relationships, the political, technological and socio-economic transformations, as well as the increasing and multifaceted inequalities across and within countries and social-economic groups.
The transition is not in the peaceful and infra-political problematic of a reconciliation of humans with nature: the Anthropocene is political inasmuch as it requires arbitrating between various conflicting human forcings on the planet, between the footprints of different human groups, between different technological and industrial options, or between different ways of life and consumption. In the time of the Anthropocene, the entire functioning of the Earth becomes a matter of human political choices.
This new geological epoch dominated by human activity also highlights the planet-shaping power of technologies. Their diverse roles in causing, responding to, and reducing environmental impacts are increasingly evident.
Emerging technologies are fundamentally changing how humans interact with Earth Systems. Although humanity’s impacts on Earth Systems have thus far been largely unintentional, some new technologies would enable us to deliberately alter our environment. Emerging technologies change how we understand and manage Earth Systems. Digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, the internet of things, digital ledgers, and validated information may reshape the development and enforcement of environmental regulation. Large-scale interventions in Earth Systems to remove greenhouse gases are part of mainstream climate scenarios. Scattering sunlight to counteract climate change is increasingly taken seriously. New biotechnologies, such as CRISPR-powered gene drives, could allow the intentional local eradication of invasive species or disease vectors or even the reintroduction of extinct species.
Earth System interventions are intentional large-scale interventions in Earth Systems. Some already exist: land reclamation, reservoirs, irrigation, intentional extinction, nitrogen cycle management, and ecosystem restoration. Emerging technological are distinct in a few keyways, and some appear both feasible and necessary to achieve important sustainability and human welfare objectives. Among these mostly technological methods are carbon dioxide removal, solar geoengineering, genetic modification of in situ populations, gene drive organisms, de-extinction, and high-tech ecosystem restoration.
Technological Earth System interventions and the problems that they would address are characterized by uncertainties regarding risks and potential benefits. Humanity has never intentionally altered the genomes of in situ populations or changed the climate. Understanding Earth System interventions and their governance, needs a contextual framework of socio-technical-ecological systems and their contextual conditions and new decision support models.
Dedicated, informed governance of emerging technological Earth System interventions that takes their interventionist nature into account appears warranted due to their combination of potential effectiveness, increasing chance of use, feasibility, physical risks, social and other challenges, as well as political contestation. Especially the emerging technologies pose several social, political, and ethical challenges and will thus often be contested. Highly leveraged Earth System interventions raise serious ethical issues and complex questions, such as those concerning hubris mastery over nature excessive optimism in technology and implications for human-nature relationships. An ethical framework for global stewardship and strategies for Earth System management are urgently needed as the business-as-usual way of dealing with the Earth System is not an option.
Entering this new era, and its defining feature is that Earth itself is becoming the locus of social evolution and contending forms of consciousness. The conceit of prediction must be abandoned, we still can explore alternative possibilities, not to forecast what will be, but to envision what could be. Rich visions, when they influence consciousness and action, inject a teleological dimension into the dynamics of social change, drawing history toward desirable outcomes.
The vortex of change now swirls around us with unprecedented urgency.