JUST CLIMATE CHANGE?
The Anthropocene is a widely proposed name for the geological epoch that covers human impact on our planet. But it is not synonymous with climate change, nor can it covered by environmental problems. The Anthropocene encapsulates the evidence of human hyper-dominance that have shifted all existing life forms on Earth in an unforeseen and alternate evolutionary paths caused by indirect or direct anthropogenic pressures. Largely driven by chance, and by constant human-induced modifications. But humans are also one of the main species affected by Anthropocene changes, transforming and simultaneously being transformed. The Earth System refers to the entirety of our planet’s interacting physical, chemical, biological, and human processes. Climate is just one element of this system; if we focus on that alone, we will misunderstand the complexity of the danger. The term environment helps us understand ourselves as part of ecosystems, but fails to capture the newness of our current situation.
THE ANTHROPOCENE REQUIRES A NEW WAY OF THINKING
Human activities are causing permanent changes on Earth, including numerous extinctions and the creation of new ecosystems – known as anthropogenic biomes (e.g., Anthromes). Cultural values and other social structures lead to behavioral choices by individuals and their social groups and induce changes in the environment and also lead to increasing human population pressures on Earth’s ecosystems. Some anthropogenic changes have been enormous, such as habitat suppression and the production of ~30 trillion tons (Tt) of technosphere materials and artifacts. There are, however, numerous less-noticeable environmental impacts, such as the high production of pesticides, fertilizer, acid effluents, radioactive waste, antimicrobial compounds, alien species, GMOs, and many others.
The climate has certainly changed, but so too have other aspects of the planetary system. 8.3 billion tons of plastics coat the land, water, and our internal organs. The biosphere is equally altered. Never has the planet been so crowded with human beings. Humans and our companion species occupy considerably more than half of the planet’s habitable land surface. Concerning the hydrosphere, fresh water renews itself at the rate of about 1% a year, but currently 21 out of 37 of the world’s major aquifers are being drawn down faster—in some cases much faster—than they can be replenished.
The planet’s chemistry has changed too. Warmer oceans interfere with the production of oxygen by phytoplankton, and some scientists predict that with a rise of 6oC—which could happen as soon as 2100—this oxygen production could cease. Our production of fixed nitrogen is five times higher than it was 60 years ago; in fact, Earth has never had so much fixed nitrogen in its entire ~4.5-billion-year history. Synthetic chemical production has increased more than thirtyfold. Those modifications greatly disturb world ecosystems, and the main consequences we are seeing now are the advent of mass extinctions in the Anthropocene defaunation and biotic homogenization. Such processes are observed in many sites where alien and ruderal species become established, especially within cities.
Extinctions and habitat changes are occurring in uncontrollable ways with unexpected trajectories. This trend may be thought as approaching the tipping point, where evolutionary patterns are permanently changed by anthropogenic pressures and biological thresholds are definitely crossed, but since some global characteristics such as functional diversity, novel organisms and atmospheric pollution cannot yet be fully factored in, the results are unpredictable.
Evolution is a modifying, transforming, and changeable force that depends on the interactions of species. It is therefore natural that evolutionary pathways are constantly changing due to human-driven modifications and the creation of new interactions between organisms – eventually leading to a point of no return. Those changes, either driven, or randomly-caused by humans are immediately imprinted on all living organisms through modified habitats, novel or lost functions, and new interactions
A TIME OF DISRUPTIVE PROCESSES ON A PLANET HAS ALREADY BEEN FUNDAMENTALLY ALTERED BY HUMANS.
The Anthropocene incorporates multi-scaled, fractal changes in additive patterns, inevitably altering the direction of evolution and its interrelated systematicity presents not a problem, but a multidimensional predicament. A problem might be solved, often with a single technological tool produced by experts in a single field, but a predicament presents a challenging condition requiring resources and ideas of many kinds. We don’t solve predicaments; instead, we navigate through them.
Since life began, different organisms have come and gone as cataclysms wrought mass extinctions and catalyzed diversification. Some life forms dominate energy flux and modify the biosphere, nudging the trajectory of subsequent taxa through altered availability of oxygen, water, or other raw materials. Dominance is necessarily transitory, changing environmental conditions favouring successive groups of organisms through space and time.
The modern world is constantly (re)shaped through the nexus of capital, through its valuation of nature, its flows of money, its destructive but cost-effective practices of production, and through the exorbitant consumption of commodities by some.
The Anthropocene is commonly understood as the epoch in which the technological activity of industrialized humanity becomes the dominant factor shaping the Earth and its associated life-supporting systems. Supplementing the Holocene, where the relatively warm climate was considered to be the critical geological factor, the Anthropocene places anthropic technological activity in the center, thus marking the time in which natural and human forces [are] intertwined, so that the fate of the one determines the fate of the other.
The concept of the Anthropocene is not isolated to the scientific fields of climate science, geology, and earth-system science, but moves beyond these fields insofar as it more generally represents the ground-breaking attempt to think together earth processes, life, [and] human enterprise (…) into a totalizing framework. This convergence of human enterprise and other earthly processes is philosophically relevant because it renders them symmetric, meaning that both appear in the same register of geoforces whose operation constitutes the earth-system.
Our future is more unpredictable than ever. Human beings have drastically impacted the Earth’s surface and promoted striking ecosystem and biodiversity alterations. Habitat destruction and pollution, species extinction, biotic homogenization, and gene exchange between species are some of the many ways nature is currently changing. Despite apparent biological impoverishment, however, humans could be directly increasing biodiversity. In fact, anthropogenic ecosystems, such as cities, may drive evolution and create new organisms – thus establishing new evolutionary pathways.
While our ancestors were unknowingly contributing to the stability of the Earth’s climate in the Holocene era, it is only over the past 200 years, in the industrial era, that the human impact on the environment has reached such epic proportions that the Earth’s bio-geophysical processes are becoming precariously unbalanced. It is now the scientific consensus that the systems of human civilization will need to come into conscious alignment with the Earth’s planetary life support systems and play an integral part in the Earth’s evolution into the future. Reducing the problem to climate change, then to CO2, and finally to measuring emissions only at the point of energy production is a dramatic misrepresentation of our dilemma. An Anthropocene perspective is needed to keep the totality of the predicament in view.