The recognition that humanity is now a force of change at the planetary scale, the evidence that we’re putting exponential and never seen before levels of pressure on the planet is probably the most important message from science to humanity.
So of course it raises the question whether in fact we’re standing on solid scientific grounds when we, based on this evidence, conclude from science that we’ve entered a whole new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.
The reason why this is important is far away from only being a question of semantics, of whether we in school teach our children that we are in the Anthropocene rather than the Holocene. It is of profound importance because if we recognize that we are in the Anthropocene, if we recognize that we are in the driving seat of changing, and defining the conditions for world development, it also profoundly shifts our attention in terms of economic growth, in terms of social well-being, in terms of development.
So, it is important to look into, a bit deeper, what are the different discussions? What’s the case behind the onset and our thinking on the Anthropocene?
But I would argue, that there’s no doubt whatsoever that this citation holds. That in this current era, whether or not we have an onset of the Anthropocene, over the last hundred years or the last fifty years, the 21st century is in no doubt a situation for humanity where we are defining what nature is. There’s no untouched, virgin system or piece of nature anywhere left in the world. Everything is influenced by and interconnected between humans. That’s why we never anymore talk about environmental systems and social systems. We talk of social-ecological systems.
But it should also be recognized that the notion of the Anthropocene has really taken off. It is a notion that has gone way beyond just the scientific domain. It is true it originates from science, and has been articulated very eloquently, and based on the latest evidence from science, but is also increasingly recognized outside of science, in both popular literature and in movies and media, and in different debates around development in the future. So, it’s truly something that is increasingly recognized as a core part of our development paradigm. It, for example, opened the entire Earth Summit in 2012 where the United Nations gathered world leaders in the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. The “Welcome to the Anthropocene” film was the starting point of that summit. One major question is, ‘So when in fact did we enter the Anthropocene?
And this graph, which looks quite detailed, and is worth really looking into a bit more profoundly, shows that humanity has of course had an enormous influence on the Earth system for millennia, particularly over the last ten thousand years. Since we entered the Holocene, we invented agriculture eight thousand years back which was the starting point of a transformation at very large scale based on plowing land, cutting forests, starting to take out fresh water from our rivers, and starting to anthropogenically manage the Earth system. We’ve transformed 40% of land areas into agriculture. That has occurred over thousands of years. So many scientists argue that the Anthropocene in fact starts, and as the onset, with the invention of agriculture eight thousand years back.
But then we have the very important evidence that up until very recently all these changes that have occurred for thousands of years had very little impact on the Earth system as a whole. And this graph summarizes all those pressures and shows that it’s not until we enter the last hundred years, from the 1900s onwards, fifty years into the larger, let’s say going to scale with our Industrial Revolution, that we start seeing the curves bending upwards.
This to me is an argument, which many scientists share, that the onset of Anthropocene in fact is more recent. Even though we have managed large tracts of land and water over millennia, it’s not until just the last fifty, sixty years that the exponential pressures start rising, from the point of the great acceleration in the mid-1950s.
Now the reason why this is important to recognize is again taking one step back to just remind ourselves that the Holocene, portrayed here in terms of ice core data in both the Arctic and Antarctica, has been so extraordinarily stable. So we have this, this sleeping, stable Earth system, which for ten thousand years has remained very stable and also in a predictable way providing a good support for human development. And it’s only then in the last fifty, sixty years that the curve starts moving away from this stable condition. Now to set the exact onset date is not easy, of course. And just let me share with you a few propositions, which are shown in this very nice summary of the different suggestions.
One is a very exact point, namely the 16th of July 1945. This was the moment of the so-called Trinity experimental detonation of the first nuclear weapon. This US experiment of the nuclear detonation is according to geologists a potential onset point for the Anthropocene because the stratigraphic conditions for geological epoch is in fact that it does leave a layer, a traceable layer, in the sediments that geologists in the future could trace back. And in fact a nuclear detonation would provide such stratigraphic evidence to the future.
So that would be 1945. I would argue that the strongest candidate though is 1955, which is the point when we start the acceleration of human pressures, which shown – which manifest themselves in the exponential curves of pressures. But this is just to give you a few examples of the debates going on within science with regards to the onset of the Anthropocene.
But the conclusion is actually not subject to very large uncertainty, I would argue. Whether it started eight thousand years back, or 16th of July 1945, or in the mid-1950s, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that we as humanity today constitute the overriding force of change on planet Earth superseding the pace and magnitude of the natural changes, which have occurred over the past millions and billions of years, but today the change is in pace and magnitude unprecedented. And this is the Anthropocene. And whether we like it or not we now have the opportunity to take responsibility in Anthropocene, and attempt to navigate this into what we could call a good Anthropocene, allowing ourselves for sustainable development within a safe operating space.