24 Jan 2011: Opinion

Living in the Anthropocene:
Toward a New Global Ethos

A decade ago, Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen first suggested we were living in the “Anthropocene,” a new geological epoch in which humans had altered the planet. Now, in an article for Yale Environment 360, Crutzen and a coauthor explain why adopting this term could help transform the perception of our role as stewards of the Earth.

by paul j. crutzen and christian schwägerl

It’s a pity we’re still officially living in an age called the Holocene. The Anthropocene — human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth — is already an undeniable reality. Evidence is mounting that the name change suggested by one of us more than ten years ago is overdue. It may still take some time for the scientific body in charge of naming big stretches of time in Earth’s history, the International Commission on Stratigraphy, to make up its mind about this name change. But that shouldn’t stop us from seeing and learning what it means to live in this new Anthropocene epoch, on a planet that is being anthroposized at high speed.

For millennia, humans have behaved as rebels against a superpower we call “Nature.” In the 20th century, however, new technologies, fossil fuels, and a fast-growing population resulted in a “Great Acceleration” of our own powers. Albeit clumsily, we are taking control of Nature’s realm, from climate to DNA. We humans are becoming the dominant force for change on Earth. A long-held religious and philosophical idea — humans as the masters of planet Earth — has turned into a stark reality. What we do now already affects the planet of the year 3000 or even 50,000.

Changing the climate for millennia to come is just one aspect. By cutting down rainforests, moving mountains to access coal deposits and acidifying coral reefs, we fundamentally change the biology and the geology of the planet. While driving uncountable numbers of species to extinction, we create new life forms through gene technology, and, soon, through synthetic biology.

Human population will approach ten billion within the century. We spread our man-made ecosystems, including “mega-regions” with more than 100
It’s no longer us against ‘Nature.’ It’s we who decide what nature is what it will be.
million inhabitants, as landscapes characterized by heavy human use — degraded agricultural lands, industrial wastelands, and recreational landscapes — become characteristic of Earth’s terrestrial surface. We infuse huge quantities of synthetic chemicals and persistent waste into Earth’s metabolism. Where wilderness remains, it’s often only because exploitation is still unprofitable. Conservation management turns wild animals into a new form of pets.

Geographers Erle Ellis and Navin Ramankutty argue we are no longer disturbing natural ecosystems. Instead, we now live in “human systems with natural ecosystems embedded within them.” The long-held barriers between nature and culture are breaking down. It’s no longer us against “Nature.” Instead, it’s we who decide what nature is and what it will be.

To master this huge shift, we must change the way we perceive ourselves and our role in the world. Students in school are still taught that we are living in the Holocence, an era that began roughly 12,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age. But teaching students that we are living in the Anthropocene, the Age of Men, could be of great help. Rather than representing yet another sign of human hubris, this name change would stress the enormity of humanity’s responsibility as stewards of the Earth. It would highlight the immense power of our intellect and our creativity, and the opportunities they offer for shaping the future.

If one looks at how technology and cultures have changed since 1911, it seems that almost anything is possible by the year 2111. We are confident that the young generation of today holds the key to transforming our energy and production systems from wasteful to renewable and to valuing life in its diverse forms. The awareness of living in the Age of Men could inject some desperately needed eco-optimism into our societies.

What then does it mean to live up to the challenges of the Anthropocene? We’d like to suggest three avenues for consideration:

First, we must learn to grow in different ways than with our current hyper-consumption. What we now call economic “growth” amounts too often to a Great Recession for the web of life we depend on. Gandhi pointed out that
To accommodate the Western lifestyle for 9 billion people, we’d need several more planets.
“the Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's needs, but not every man’s greed.” To accommodate the current Western lifestyle for 9 billion people, we’d need several more planets. With countries worldwide striving to attain the “American Way of Life,” citizens of the West should redefine it — and pioneer a modest, renewable, mindful, and less material lifestyle. That includes, first and foremost, cutting the consumption of industrially produced meat and changing from private vehicles to public transport.

Second, we must far surpass our current investments in science and technology. Our troubles will deepen exponentially if we fail to replace the wasteful fossil-fueled infrastructure of today with a system fueled by solar energy in its many forms, from artificial photosynthesis to fusion energy. We need bio-adaptive technologies to render “waste” a thing of the past, among them compostable cars and gadgets. We need innovations tailored to the needs of the poorest, for example new plant varieties that can withstand climate change and robust iPads packed with practical agricultural advice and market information for small-scale farmers. Global agriculture must become high-tech and organic at the same time, allowing farms to benefit from the health of natural habitats. We also need to develop technologies to recycle substances like phosphorus, a key element for fertilizers and therefore for food security.

To prevent conflicts over resources and to progress towards a durable “bio-economy” will require a collaborative mission that dwarfs the Apollo program. Global military expenditure reached 1,531 billion U.S. dollars in 2009, an increase of 49 percent compared to 2000. We must invest at least as much in understanding, managing, and restoring our “green security system” — the intricate network of climate, soil, and biodiversity. To reduce
We must build a culture that grows with Earth’s biological wealth instead of depleting it.
CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere to safe levels, we need to move towards “negative emissions,” e.g. by using plant residues in power plants with carbon capture and storage technology. We also need to develop geoengineering capabilities in order to be prepared for worst-case scenarios. In addition to cutting industrial CO2 emissions and protecting forests, large investments will be needed to maintain the huge carbon stocks in fertile soils, currently depleted by exploitative agricultural practices. For biodiversity, green remnants in a sea of destruction will not be enough — we need to build a “green infrastructure,” where organisms and genes can flow freely over vast areas and maintain biological functions.

Finally, we should adapt our culture to sustaining what can be called the “world organism.” This phrase was not coined by an esoteric Gaia guru, but by eminent German scientist Alexander von Humboldt some 200 years ago. Humboldt wanted us to see how deeply interlinked our lives are with the richness of nature, hoping that we would grow our capacities as a part of this world organism, not at its cost. His message suggests we should shift our mission from crusade to management, so we can steer nature’s course symbiotically instead of enslaving the formerly natural world.

Until now, our behaviors have defied the goals of a functioning and fruitful Anthropocene. But at the end of 2010, two United Nations environmental summits offered some hope for progress. In October, in Nagoya, Japan, 193 governments agreed on a strategic plan for global conservation that includes protecting an unprecedented proportion of Earth’s ecosystems

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and removing ecologically harmful subsidies by 2020. And in December, in Cancún, countries agreed that Earth must not warm more than 2 degrees Celsius above the average temperature level before industrialization. This level is already very risky — it implies higher temperature increases in polar regions and therefore greater chance of thawing in permafrost regions, which could release huge amounts of CO2 and methane. But at least, Cancún and Nagoya turned out not to be cul-de-sacs for environmental policy. After years of stalemate and the infamous Copenhagen collapse, there is now at least a glimmer of hope that humanity can act together. Between now and 2020, however, the commitments on paper must be turned into real action.

Imagine our descendants in the year 2200 or 2500. They might liken us to aliens who have treated the Earth as if it were a mere stopover for refueling, or even worse, characterize us as barbarians who would ransack their own home. Living up to the Anthropocene means building a culture that grows with Earth’s biological wealth instead of depleting it. Remember, in this new era, nature is us.

POSTED ON 24 Jan 2011 IN Climate Energy Policy & Politics Pollution & Health Science & Technology Asia 

COMMENTS


Nice piece here, but I think the attribution of authorship of the "Anthropocene" term might need some clearing up. As I understand it, Eugene Stoermer actually came up with the term and used it at various conferences before it came out in print under Crutzen's name. Is that correct?

Posted by Curt on 24 Jan 2011


Curt,

The term “Anthropocene” was introduced in an article jointly written by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in IGBP Newsletter 41 in 2000. Their article stated: “To assign a more specific date to the onset of the "anthropocene" seems somewhat arbitrary, but we propose the latter part of the 18th century, although we are aware that alternative proposals can be made (some may even want to include the entire holocene). However, we choose this date because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable. This is the period when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several "greenhouse gases", in particular CO2 and CH4. Such a starting date also coincides with James Watt's invention of the steam engine in 1784.”

Roger Cohn

Posted by Roger Cohn on 24 Jan 2011


Hi Roger;

I interviewed Gene Stoermer about this a year or so ago. He said that he created "anthropocene" and was using it for quite a while in public presentations before that paper came out.

As I understood it from my discussions with him, having Crutzen/laureate as first author on the paper has led people to assume (incorrectly, according to Stoermer) that the term was originally created by Crutzen.

Curt

Posted by curt on 24 Jan 2011


I prefer the Catastrophozoic rather than Anthropocene which should rather be termed Anthropobscene. Catastrophozoic much more accurately describes the overwhelming failures of humans. The term, I believe, was introduced by Foremen and Soule'.

Posted by Dr. Lorax on 27 Jan 2011


Sadly, Dr.Lorax is closer to the truth ...

Posted by global caretaker on 28 Jan 2011


I also like "The Plasticene," proposed by blogger Matt Dowling, I believe.

Posted by Curt on 28 Jan 2011


Dr Lorax -- The article acknowledges the failures you reference. As a scientific term, Anthropocene does not imply a value judgement on human impact but rather recognizes that our impact is large enough to be considered a geological process.

Posted by Electric Tuna on 28 Jan 2011


Great article, and good comments also.

The term really captures the magnitude of our responsibility in the things we do. Another insight that comes to me is that naming this era Anthropocene would make us feel more responsible and break this contradiction that held us for so long over the last centuries.

Since the man has been put at the center of the Universe, we have seen ourselves as invincible and gifted with a limitless power, and yet over the last 250years of economic activity and thought we ignored the environmental impacts and the very fact that we depend on these ecosystem services. It was a contradiction that implicitly assumed that a) we are so powerful and can bend everything to our control (even nature) and yet b) we assumed that nature was so big and plentiful that our impacts on the environment were negligible compared to nature's capacity to recover.

Now the same science that allowed us to manipulate and have big impacts on the natural systems must play a role to help us see the magnitude of our impacts -which science is already doing to a good extent. What we do with such awareness will be a matter of values and choices for us as a whole society, or species. Good luck to us all!

Posted by eccemarco on 06 Feb 2011


Humans should live in harmony with nature not to loot and pollute it. As Mahatma Gandhi said,THERE IS ENOUGH FOR EVERYBODY'S NEED BUT NOT FOR ANYBODY'S GREED.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

Posted by Dr.A.Jagadeesh on 06 Feb 2011


Please, authors, "The Age of Men"? Must you persist in closing to view over half of humanity? Let's not, in our advance towards geological terminological revision, carry sexist terminological baggage with us. Women are managing quite well to make their fair share of contributions to humanity's impacts on the planet (as well as spearheading some highly effective actions to repair them). I had thought such language in respectable academic circles had gone the way of the dinosaurs!

Posted by one of humanity on 13 Feb 2011


Dear Dr. Jagadeesh,

"Men" in this context certainly doesn't mean males but members of the human species. As shown daily across the globe, women are often much better stewards of complex systems than males. That's why most developmental micro-credits e.g. in India are granted to women explicitly. We certainly share your point of view, but would like to stress that "Men" is correctly used as a generic term here for all human beings. See also "The Age of Men" in the current issue of National Geographic magazine - written by Elizabeth Kolbert.

Best, Christian

Posted by Christian Schwägerl on 25 Feb 2011


People have used fossil fuels as energy sources for a long time. Unrefined petroleum was already in use around 5000 years ago. You can make a real difference in your own life through what you do and buy everyday. It’s not just a question of doing more, or working in cleaner ways with fossil fuels as energy sources. We seem to be beyond that point.

Posted by Jason Kim on 17 Apr 2011


You say the last Ice Age took place 12,000 years ago. This figure is currently calculated by counting the dark and light layers in the ice. Each layer representing a new year.

However in the 1990's a man decided to hunt down planes which crashed during the war. This man found a huge amount of ice covering these planes. With thousands of different light and dark layers. Obviously this is evidence that the light and dark layers do not represent years but hot a cold periods during each day.

With this being the case that 12,000 figure would be a lot less.

Posted by jeanlamour on 03 Jun 2011


Great stuff. Suggest changing "age of men" to "age of humans" or something else without gender connotation.

Posted by Scott Whittemore on 18 Jun 2011


For a moment let us consider how the deafening silence regarding science of the human population and the willful denial of imagination regarding the nature of human nature might have something significant to do with why so many leaders have sanctimoniously and recklessly induced the global predicament we must confront on our watch? Are we to take seriously the widely shared and consensually validated belief that human beings can actually behave as our friend, Stewart Brand has reported, “We are as gods and have to get good at it"? I trust SB will forgive me for pointing out that he appears to have elucidated at least one of the problems humanity faces now. Generations of movers-and-shakers have chosen time after time not to see themselves as human beings with feet of clay or as members of an evolving species alongside other species. This failure to see our selves in all our wondrous, distinctly human creatureliness is a problem now here. Perhaps pathological arrogance, malignant narcissism, extreme foolhardiness and wanton greed blind us and make possible the hot pursuit of a fool's errand: the endless growth of our overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities that we can now see overspreading and threatening to overwhelm the Earth. Could such a colossal misunderstanding be a consequence of thinking of ourselves as gods? Perhaps the prevailing view of the nature of human nature is somehow not quite right.

Two things appear vital:

1) recognition of the value of science to our understanding of the Creation, and
2) appreciation of the value of imagination to our apprehension of whatsoever is the nature of being a human.

Could we consider that too many deluded experts deny the imagination and to many keepers of the faiths deploy their own brand of delusional thinking when they deny science? Worst of all in our time we are presented with a situation in which professionals with appropriate expertise and leaders of religions are in agreement. All are united in their denial what is already alive in the world in the form of uncontested scientific research regarding the human population.

Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on the Human Population,
established 2001
Chapel Hill, NC
http://www.panearth.org/
Posted by Steven Earl Salmony on 19 Jul 2011


The Anthropocene paradigm with increased materialism and emphasis on technology, has led us
to abstraction. We have become abstractions of Homo Sapiens the animal. We consider ourselves as somehow independent of our vital associations, attributes, and due proportions. Much of society has become alienated from the natural world and invented its own morality. What new ethics,when.

Posted by robert lapsley on 04 Nov 2011


How is the Anthropocene concept substantively different from the Noosphere? Bergson, Vernadsky, and LeRoy made many of these same arguments in the 1940s. Vernadsky in particular argued that we have entered a new stage in the geological evolution of the planet, in which humans are not only able to transcend the constraints of the biosphere but we play a prominent role in determining the trajectory of evolutionary processes. The idea of the Noosphere is meant to highlight the emergence of a global human consciousness. So my question is this: is your idea just old wine in new bottles, or is there something that truly sets the Anthropocene apart?

Posted by Dallas Blaney on 15 May 2012


Comments have been closed on this feature.
paul j. crutzen and christian schwägerlABOUT THE AUTHORS
Paul J. Crutzen (left) is an atmospheric chemist who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry for his research on ozone-depleting chemicals. From 1980 to 2000, he led research at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, and he continues to publish on the interaction between humans and the environment. Christian Schwägerl is an environmental journalist who has reported on science and public policy for two decades and is author of the book The Age of Men, published in German under the title Menschenzeit by Riemann/Random House.

 
 

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