For the past 12,000 years, human beings lived in a geological epoch called the Holocene, known for its relatively stable, temperate climes. It was, you might say, the California of planetary history. But it is coming to an end. Recently, we have begun to alter the Earth so drastically that, according to many scientists, a new epoch is dawning. After the briefest of geological vacations, we seem to be entering a more volatile period. The term Anthropocene, from the Ancient Greek word anthropos, acknowledges that humans are the major cause of the earth’s current transformation. The Anthropocene is not only a period of manmade disruption. It is also a moment of blinking self-awareness, in which the human species is becoming conscious of itself as a planetary force. The term Anthropocene suggests that the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch, the present interglacial state called the Holocene. We are also the only species to have a geological age named after us. (Of course, we are the only species with enough consciousness to actually name geological ages in the first place.) Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of Nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita. No matter the discussion on a formalized Anthropocene -the idea/concept did not arise from geology, there is simply not enough physical evidence for it as strata-. The fact that we know that we are effecting the Earth System is clear and the Anthropocene is based more on the future than on the past, more a part of human history than the immensely long history of the Earth is fine by me.
Humans are part of ‘the system’.
We are not the only species to have shaped the Earth’s environment. The only reason humanity could even arise is because microscopic single-celled proto-photosynthesizers used sunlight to split water and liberate oxygen, providing air for us animals to breathe. But we are the only species to knowingly alter the state of the entire globe, by continuously burning the corpses of earlier photosynthesizers.
The Earth System refers to the suite of interacting physical, chemical and biological global-scale cycles and energy fluxes that provide the life-support system for life at the surface of the planet. The Earth System, is beyond the notion that the geophysical processes encompassing the Earth’s two great fluids—the ocean and the atmosphere—generate the planetary life-support system on their own. Biological/ecological processes are an integral part of the functioning of the Earth System and not merely the recipient of changes in the coupled ocean-atmosphere part of the system. A second critical feature is that forcings and feedbacks within the Earth System are as important as external drivers of change, such as the flux of energy from the sun. Finally, the Earth System includes humans, our societies, and our activities; thus, humans are not an outside force perturbing an otherwise natural system but rather an integral and interacting part of the Earth System itself.
Underlying global change are human-driven alterations of the biological fabric of the Earth, the stocks and flows of major elements in the planetary machinery such as nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, and silicon; and the energy balance at the Earth’s surface.
Global change in this perspective means both the biophysical and the socioeconomic changes that are altering the structure and the functioning of the Earth System. Global change includes alterations in a wide range of global-scale phenomena: land use and land cover, urbanisation, globalisation, coastal ecosystems, atmospheric composition, riverine flow, nitrogen cycle, carbon cycle, physical climate, marine food chains, biological diversity, population, economy, resource use, energy, transport, communication, and so on. Interactions and linkages between the various changes listed above are also part of global change and are just as important as the individual changes themselves. Many components of global change do not occur in linear fashion but rather show strong non linearities.
The phenomenon of global change represents a profound shift in the relationship between humans and the rest of nature.
The Anthropocene biosphere is characterized by four unique physical components: (1) a global signal of marine and terrestrial neobiota that in many cases have displaced indigenous forms, that have often taken advantage of the modified anthromes of humans, and that have reset the structure of many terrestrial ecosystems and that are profoundly modifying the marine realm; (2) a single species, Homo sapiens, dominating the net primary production and energy flow; (3) the human directed evolution of plants and animals; and (4) the increasing interaction of the biosphere with an ever more rapidly evolving technosphere.
The good and the bad: a scary mass extinction of species (its confirmed that the sixth great extinction had already begun) and alarming signs of climate change, a general call to abandon false hope in the toxic, cannibalistic and self-destructive system of carbon-based capitalism, but also a number of promising revolutions in sustainability, manufacturing, biomimicry and nanotechnology. But humanity presently lacks the political institutions to act collectively on a global scale, hope arises that new politics will be democratic in the double sense of thoroughly politicizing nature’s future and recognizing the imperariseative of political equality among the people who will together create that future.
We need to realize that the Anthropocene is changing the co-evolutionary pattern between humans and the environment- from an emphasis on local interaction to a coevolution of humanity and the planet as a whole. Such trends and patterns are the results of underlying drivers and societal dynamics, and require a shift away from deterministic single trajectory of future thinking towards exploring multiple trajectories and futures. Understanding trends and impacts, underlying drivers and societal dynamics, and in particular the interactions, trade-offs and synergies across temporal and spatial scales, is required. In terms of transition and transformation towards desirable and novel futures, a better understanding of multi- and cross-scale inter- actions is critical in bringing about systemic, structural change. While recognizing that there are diverse and competing views of the potential for humanity to engage consciously with purposeful systemic change as well as preferences on the degree and direction of purposeful intervention, renewed attention to the science of social change is required. The future of Anthropocene will be the outcome of today’s collective choices, and science has a strong role to play in guiding such choices. To fulfill this task, science needs to have closer and different relations with practice, where science is co-designed and co-produced with societal stakeholders, and where science not only informs practice but also learns from practice. It is time for the sustainability debate to focus more on new opportunities offered by plausible and novel futures, including societies’ abilities to deal with risk and emergencies, rather than on how to share burdens to ensure the continuity of the present.
The realization of the Anthropocene provides an opportunity not only to reconsider the power and consequences of human actions, but also how to channel the transformative and creative potentials of human society towards desirable and novel futures in the Anthropocene.
‘Anthropocene’ is a powerfully integrative concept. It draws together our thinking about specific aspects of Earth System disruption — like climate change or biodiversity loss or ocean acidification — to focus on their interconnections and their cultural drivers. By directing our attention to whole system dynamics, it encourages us to see the Earth as a single socio-ecological system.
The Anthropocene concept has far-reaching ethical implications. It challenges us to accept an expanded understanding of collective responsibility that reaches beyond conventional human scales measured in multiples of human lifetimes, to consider the consequences of our collective actions on planetary and geological (or deep time) scales.
Today we stand poised on the cusp of a historical transition, most likely extending over multiple generations, in which human societies must find ways to adjust to radically different environmental conditions and accomplish far-reaching social, economic, political and cultural changes.
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.
Human beings are part of nature. Nature is not dependent on human beings to exist.
Human beings, on the other hand, are totally dependent on nature to exist.
The growing number of people on the planet and how we live here is going to determine the future of nature. And the future of us.
Nature will go on, no matter what. It will evolve.
The question is, will it be with us or without us?
There are plenty of troubling things about the Anthropocene. But to my mind, one of its most troubling dimensions is the sheer number of people it fails to trouble.