We’re only here for a short amount of time to do what we’ve been put here to do, which is to look after the country. We’re only a tool in the cycle of things… (we) go out into the world and help keep the balance of nature. It’s a big cycle of living with the land, and then eventually going back into it… Vilma Webb, Noongar People, Australian Aborignes, from “Elders: Wisdom from Australia’s Indigenous Leaders”
“Our definitions of progress may need to change,” says Will Steffen, of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University (ANu), talking about the impacts of human activity on the earth system.
In January Steffen gave the keynote speech at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW – House of Culture and World) in Berlin, to launch The Anthropocene Project, a collaboration between a number of institutes including Steffen’s and the Rachel Carson Centre in Environment and Society, based in Munich.
Steffen is a well-respected climate scientist who has been studying the transformation of major biological systems. While it is the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen who in 2000 coined the term ‘Anthropocene’ to denote the impact humans are having on earth systems, it is Steffen who has laid claim to the idea of the ‘great acceleration’ since 1950 of human impacts upon those systems.
If the Anthropocene itself began in 1784 in Bo’Ness in the central lowlands of Scotland as James Watt perfected his steam engine, Steffen capably explains how it is the production and consumption of goods, aimed at improving our wellbeing, that has catapulted human society into the great acceleration of ‘anthromes’ – impacts upon the earth systems caused by human activity.
It is not just climate. Marine ecosystems, land use, biodiversity loss and mass extinction, nitrogen cycles, water systems—we divert 50% of fresh water from reaching the ocean via our dams—and also climate change (or what the film-maker James Balog, in his documentary of the extreme ice survey, Chasing Ice, more directly calls ‘air change’) are all anthromes causing concern. For each one, 1950 stands out as a clear marker of change. Perhaps the saddest fact Steffen shares is that these problems are driven by 20% of the global population—Europe and North America. But as the developing economies of China, India, Brazil and others reach their ‘great accelerations’ the impacts will only, he suggests, grow worse.
And in each of these global systems (greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, climate, marine ecosystems, coastal zones, nitrogen cycles, tropical rain forests, land systems, biodiversity), human factors are demonstrable in two ways, and it is this research that proves the clearest evidence that the earth system has been pushed out of the Holocene pattern in only the last 50 years… into the Anthropocene.
So are we sailing towards global collapse? The answer, says Steffen, “is in ourselves, not just in the environment” and he calls for investment and collaborations with the humanities as well, not just science, to say what’s going to happen. “We must formulate questions and problems together. Natural and social scientists, throw ideas around together from beginning.”
There is still some hope in maintaining the earth system within limits, or what he and colleagues have identified as planetary boundaries. But some, such as biodiversity loss, are already transgressed by over 1,000-times the natural levels.
“It takes Earth 5,000 years to go from ice age to warm period,” explains Steffen, “but we’re doing it in 100 years. Can contemporary society survive the Anthropocene? I don’t know. No-one does.”
For information on the Anthropocene Project on Facebook, see: https://www.facebook.com/events/449723835088974/
For Rockstom et al (2009) Planetary Boundaries, see: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/