The Anthropocene – Are We There Yet?

Aug 30th, 2016 | By | Category: Environment/Sustainability

By Suzanne York.

Earth at Night [image credit:]

Earth at Night [image credit:]

It’s official, more or less – we have entered the Anthropocene epoch, a time when humanity’s impact on the planet is so transformational that it’s pushed the world into a new geological period.

“New Age of Man”

An international working group, after seven years of deliberation, voted unanimously (with one abstention) at a conference in Cape Town that humans have changed the Earth so much that the Holocene epoch has been cut short. If the working group’s recommendation is adopted, the Anthropocene, or “new age of man,” could potentially be pinpointed as beginning in the mid-twentieth century. However, the epoch is not a forgone conclusion and must be ratified by three other academic bodies.

The working group’s press statement noted, “Changes to the Earth system that characterize the potential Anthropocene Epoch include marked acceleration to rates of erosion and sedimentation; large-scale chemical perturbations to the cycles of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, and other elements; the inception of significant change to global climate and sea level; and biotic changes such as unprecedented levels of species invasions across the Earth. Many of these changes are geologically long-lasting, and some are effectively irreversible.”

For the average global citizen, this may not mean much, at least on the surface. Yet the human footprint on the planet is undeniable. Consider the following statistics:

  • Humans have cleared an area the size of South America to grow crops, and an area the size of Africa to raise livestock;
  • Of the world’s 33 major river deltas, 24 are sinking due to flood-control efforts and other human-caused changes to the river systems;
  • CO2 emissions totaled between 35 and 40 billion tons in 2015;
  • 53% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, and 32% are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion;
  • Extinctions are about 1,000 times more frequent now than in the 60 million years before people came along – the current extinction rate is more on the order of 100 extinctions per million species per year;
  • The human population is projected to hit nearly 10 billion by 2050.


[image credit:]

[image credit:]


Read more evidence of the Anthropocene from The Guardian.

Shift to a More Lean and Green Anthropocene?

Whether the epoch becomes official or not, it appears that a majority today operate on the basis that humans have dominion over the Earth.

In The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship, a number of leading scientists address the Anthropocene and where the planet is headed.

“Effective planetary stewardship must be achieved quickly, as the momentum of the Anthropocene threatens to tip the complex Earth System out of the cyclic glacial-interglacial pattern during which Homo sapiens has evolved and developed. Without such stewardship, the Anthropocene threatens to become for humanity a one-way trip to an uncertain future in a new, but very different, state of the Earth System.”



It doesn’t all have to be doom and gloom. On the brighter side, the authors also note that “We are the first generation with the knowledge of how our activities influence the Earth System, and thus the first generation with the power and the responsibility to change our relationship with the planet.”

Author Richard Heinberg calls this knowledge the Lean-Green Anthropocene. And therein lies our best hope – that enough of us come to our senses and do the things that can improve our lives and relationship with the planet – reversing our dependence on fossil fuels and turning toward clean energy, reducing our environmental footprints, spending less on military and weapons and more on communities, investing in voluntary family planning programs, supporting education for all, protecting our remaining wild places and creatures, rethinking the structure of the global economy, and of course much, much more.

It comes down to acknowledging that we are part of the web of life and to start acting like it, for our sakes, for nature’s sake, and for the sake of future generations.

Heinberg puts it eloquently:

In the end, the deepest insight of the Anthropocene will probably be a very simple one: we live in a world of millions of interdependent species with which we have co-evolved. We sunder this web of life at our peril. The Earth’s story is fascinating, rich in detail, and continually self-revealing. And it’s not all about us.


Suzanne York is Project Director of Transition Earth.

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