In recognizing the Anthropocene as a new epoch of geologic time, we are confronted with the reality that our societies now directly shape Earth’s functioning. For better and for worse, our planet now changes with us, not apart from us. While for most people times may never have been better, the opposite is true for most other species. There are also strong indications that anthropogenic global changes in climate and biodiversity might derail future prospects for societal development. For example, the costs of climate change adaptation and the loss of wild pollinators might be unbearable burdens for some societies. We shouldn’t forget that evolutionary processes produce both adaptations and extinctions. Even the most successful large-scale societies will not last forever.
The darkest prognosis for the next millennium is that bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes could foreclose humanity’s immense potential, leaving a depleted biosphere.
There is also cause for optimism. Human societies could navigate these threats, achieve a sustainable future, and inaugurate eras of post-human evolution even more marvelous than ever before. The principal cause of the Anthropocene is social, rooted in the exceptional capacities of Earth’s first ultrasocial species: behaviorally modern humans. We must go beyond geophysics, geochemistry and even biology to understand why human societies gained the unprecedented capacity to transform an entire planet and how this relates to the challenges and opportunities of the Anthropocene.
The processes that enable societies to adapt and to thrive in the face of long-term social and environmental challenges are not fully understood — a prime area for greater research investment. However, existing archaeological evidence suggests that societal capacity to anticipate, sense, interpret and respond to both external and internal challenges through adaptive processes of social change is essential to societal resilience.
Behaviorally modern human societies have always engineered ecosystems to sustain themselves. Human societies are not sustained by the balance of nature but by a sociocultural niche constructed through cooperative ecosystem engineering and the social exchange needs and wants. The human ecological niche is thus largely sociocultural, constructed and enacted within, across and by individuals, social groups and societies based on socially learned behaviors. Long-term changes in the structure and functioning of human societies and their transformation of environments is the product of evolution by natural selection acting on these processes of sociocultural niche construction.
The further evolution of the biosphere depends critically on both social behavior and interactions of humans on multiple scales (individuals, families, villages, cities, online communities and social networks, companies, states and supranational institutions) and on the development of technology.
The technosphere is a non-anthropocentric framework which specifies physical constraints on the dynamics of a global system of humans plus technology, but it is mute on the mechanisms of how that system evolves. The technosphere may represent the most fundamentally unique component of the evolving Anthropocene biosphere, a globally emergent system that includes humans, technological artefacts and the associated social and technological networks that support this. It could be viewed as an entity emerging from the Anthropocene biosphere, though at present the biosphere and the technosphere have mutual dependence. It may be that technology will favor more or less continued growth and development of a distinctive Anthropocene biosphere, with technology providing a means of solving some of the problems associated with its explosive development. These might include straightforward steps such as agroecological innovations, large-scale ecosystem regeneration and restoration projects; design of cities as bio-diverse ecosystems; full recyclability of materials; expansion of non-carbon-based energy sources; and more effective means of resource allocation and conflict resolution between different communities. Aimed at paving the way for a sustainable Anthropocene Earth, some combination of these and other approaches may result in a technosphere that is stably integrated with the biosphere in a truly commensal relationship, producing a techno-biosphere where the two are virtually inseparable but sustainable and co-evolve, rather than the present situation, in which the technosphere in effect is parasitizing the biosphere.
By bringing together technology, the natural and social sciences, the Anthropocene debate challenges to rethink the human’s place and status in a more than human world. Eco-logically, this requires recognizing a shared world in which humans and non-humans, machines, objects and information are mutually constituting and dynamically inter-acting within systems of great complexity.
It is not just a matter of fashionable theory, if we take the logic of relations seriously, our understanding shifts from a world of separate entities to one of interdependent processes with particularly ethical-political implications.