“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.” Bigger and more shocking, the Anthropocene encapsulates the evidence that human pressures became so profound around the middle of the 20th century that we blew a planetary gasket. Hello, new Earth System. Hello, Anthropocene.

The phrase “Earth System” refers to the entirety of our planet’s interacting physical, chemical, biological, and human processes. Enabled by new data-collecting technologies like satellites and ever more powerful computer modeling, Earth System science reframes how we understand our planet. 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. We have always lived in the environment; only very recently, just as Asia began its skyrocketing development, did we begin living in the altered Earth System of the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene Requires a New Way of Thinking

The Anthropocene is a multidimensional challenge. Our future is more unpredictable than ever, with new phenomena like Category 5 megastorms, rapid species extinction, and the loss of polar ice. This change is irreversible. NASA says that levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) are higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years—well before our species evolved—causing the atmosphere to warm.

The climate has certainly changed, but so too have other aspects of the planetary system. Take the lithosphere: 193,000 human-made “inorganic crystalline compounds,” or what you and I might call “rocks,” now vastly outnumber Earth’s ~5,000 natural minerals, while 8.3 billion tons of plastics coat the land, water, and our internal organs. Due to modern agribusiness techniques, so much topsoil is washing away that England has only about 60 more harvests left.

The biosphere is equally altered. Never has the planet been so crowded with human beings. In 1900, there were around 1.5 billion of us; in the 1960s, around 3 billion; today there are upwards of 7.4 billion. Human beings and our domesticated animals comprise an astounding 97% of the total zoomass of terrestrial mammals, meaning that wild creatures make up a miserly 3%. 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. Since World War II, synthetic chemical production has increased more than thirtyfold. Of the more than 80,000 new chemicals, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has tested only about 200 for human health risks.

Alarming as each factor is on its own, the concept of the Anthropocene brings all these factors and others together. This is the only way that we can understand Earth as a single reverberating system with feedback loops and tipping points that we can’t yet predict.

The Anthropocene’s 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. Collaboration among scientists, policymakers, social scientists, humanists, and community leaders is key to contending with the Anthropocene. Technology is important, but the hardest challenges will be about how to alter our political and economic systems. Even the United Nations’ US$24 million Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) concluded that our current systems are not up to the task: we need “significant changes in policies, institutions and practices that are not currently under way.”

The Danger of the One-Dimensional Thinking of Climate Change

So, are the techno-optimists, who believe most world problems can be solved by innovation, wrong? The answer to this question is that they are not so much wrong as misguided, addressing a narrow issue in the narrowest terms. Most begin by gesturing toward the totality of environmental problems, but end by focusing on climate change alone. Sometimes climate change is further reduced to CO2 emissions to the exclusion of all other greenhouse gases, such as methane.

A favorite example of techno-optimists like economist Jeffrey Sachs is substituting wind power for fossil fuels. Like others, he speaks in confident tones about “decoupling” economic growth from natural resources, contending that “growth can continue while pressures on key resources (water, air, land, habitats of other species) and pollution are significantly reduced rather than increased,” by means of new technologies and market pricing. In short, we can provide for the growing human population (expected to hit 8 billion in 2023) without destroying the ecosystem, without impoverishing future generations, and without bothering to transform our political and economic systems. The status quo is fine if we tighten a few nuts and bolts. Let us look at this techno-optimism from the Anthropocene perspective.

Most industrial-scale wind turbines require rare earth metals sourced from China, which supplies about 90% of the world’s demand and has a monopoly on some elements. Not only are the mines of China’s primary production site, the southeastern province of Jiangxi, being rapidly depleted, but such mining entails shocking environmental and social costs. According to investigative journalist Liu Hongqiao, “Research has found that producing one ton of rare earth ore (in terms of rare earth oxides) produces 200 cubic meters of acidic wastewater. The production of the rare earths needed to meet China’s demand for wind turbines up to 2050 … will result in the release of 80 million cubic meters of wastewater.” Once obtained, this ore must be transported and processed to make turbines. These turbines, once positioned, require maintenance, using more resources. Ultimately, though, they will end up as refuse, more trash on our trash-filled planet. There is nothing dematerialized or carbon-free about wind turbines if we look at the total picture.

Reducing our 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.

Slowing climate change is crucial but navigating its challenges is only possible if it is understood as one facet of planetary overshoot. The challenges of our altered, unpredictable Earth System cannot be met by technological tinkering within the very systems that pushed it over the edge in the first place. There’s nothing for it but to roll up our sleeves and begin the hard work of transforming our political and economic systems with the aims of decency and resilience.

Julia Adeney Thomas is an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame, USA. She has written extensively on issues of nature, politics, and the environment.  Currently, with geologists Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams of the Anthropocene Working Group, she is completing “The Anthropocene” for Polity Press.

This piece originally appeared on AsiaGlobal Online

Courtesy – the Economics of Happiness Blog

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  1. Lionel Anet says:

    The reason we are destroying our planets life is it’s what we’ve been educated to do.
    We’re educated to competitively maximize our output and consumption but, unfortunately, we are now very good at it. This means we’re not in control of our future due to intensifying competitive world which being so, is out of control and its outcome must be unknowable, therefore, our life and particularly future generation life is left to chance with odds that are dismal. To have satisfactory outcome in that system there must the possibility of economic growth, but that’s fading away, but it’s that growth that is still regarded as success, nevertheless, its tomorrow’s demise. The real difficulty facing us is to undo our civilized education in general and particularly the competitiveness with its growth ideology. Our education is an indoctrination exercise, where knowing becomes an all important aspect of competitive life, while understanding is an unnecessary burden.

  2. David Kennedy says:

    Humans are a curious animal. They are endowed with feelings, memory, imagination, and reason, with an ability to make new things from materials found in their environment. This makes them a unique life-form. They have the capacity for self-recognition that allows them to understand their difference from the rest of creation, but without understanding the full significance of the countless relationships within nature necessary for the relative stabilty of the entire system. Because of this lack of understanding, and an unawareness of this lack, they are destroying the stability of the system. As the author of the article says, it is NOT just about global warming. This is but one small facet of the problem.
    Our increasing knowledge of the world around, and some of the functioning of nature, enables us to exploit this PARTIAL knowledge to our short-term advantage without knowing what the long-term effects may be. We explore matter and increase radioactivity. We explore life and blindly indulge in genetic manipulations. We burn fossil fuels and reverse the effects of hundreds of millions of years of photosynthesis. We destroy life – of plants, of animals, of micro-organisms – with gay abandon and congratulate ourselves on our wizardry.
    We lack the understanding of the tenancy conditions of our continuing on earth. Tenants? WE ARE OWNERS! Such conceit. Such hubris!

    Metamorphoses – a metaphysical meditation

    (nothing becomes something) The Void ….
    In its perfect order
    Undefiled by substance,
    Convulses and ejects
    A vortex of uncongealed energy,
    Destroying itself and
    Filling the firmament with movement
    Uneven in its spread.

    (something becomes everything) Slowly settling ….
    In awe-inspiring mystery
    And protean variety
    Of land, sea, and sky;
    Each with a myriad forms
    And randomness of motion
    That is forever changing
    Through the eons of time.

    (inorganic becomes organic) The marvel of matter . . .
    Rock, sand, sludge, slime,
    With an unrepeatable chemistry,
    Interfacing then embracing,
    Giving rise to a self-sustaining
    Equilibrium that we call life:
    Two coiled threads – the double helix,
    The basis of all life.

    (the unconscious becomes conscious) By infinitesimal leaps …
    The infinitude of life unfolds
    Into an anarchy of interdependence,
    Eventually emerging into
    The complex, nature-defying
    Power of the human brain that
    Destroys itself with its own hubris.