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Creating a Sustainable Anthropocene Future

Some scientists think humanity is a geological force. If so, can we guide this force to reverse negative Earth System trends?

Image: NASA Earth Observatory

Due to human activity, the land, air and ocean have been altered to such an extent that many scientists agree that we have initiated a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene.

The start of the Anthropocene epoch is still unsettled. Some posit that it's a 20th-century phenomenon that started with the detonation of the Trinity atomic device or the Industrial Revolution; others think its start can be traced back deep in time to the dawn of agriculture at the beginning of the Holocene or Homo erectus' control over fire

Although the Anthropocene was brought to the public's awareness by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, the concept may have been anticipated in 1873 when geologist Antonio Stoppani described humans' effect on planet Earth as the "Anthropozoic period." Others take exception to this view, noting that the Anthropocene is unlike anything experienced during Stoppani's time.

We Are Living in the Great Acceleration

Humanity's impact on the Earth system over the last 200 years has been depicted by 24 indicators divided into socio-economic and Earth system trends. But it has been since the mid-twentieth century that these trends have been accelerating, a time referred to as the Great Acceleration.

One of these trends is urbanization. By the middle of this century, almost 70% of humanity will live in urban environments (See UNICEF's 'An Urban World' interactive visualization). As Thomas Elmqvist, professor in natural resource management at the Stockholm Resilience Centre of Stockholm University, states: we are "living in an urban planet." 

Urban Planet Pavilion at Expo 2010, Shanghai

Because of their demands for raw materials, waste handling, water, energy, food and other resources brought in from around the world, urban environments "are driving potentially disastrous changes" in climate and biogeochemical cycles, in addition to mass extinctions.

Owen Gaffney, an analyst for Future Earth and Will Steffen, a senior research fellow at Stockholm Resilience Centre and Fenner School of Environment and Society at the Australian National University, have devised a simple mathematical equation to describe the impact of human activities on the Earth System. They've concluded that during the time of the Great Acceleration, humanity has become a force of similar or greater magnitude to the astronomical forces of our solar system or the geological processes of our planet. 

How did humans attain such power over planet Earth?

Ultrasociality and the Emergence of the Technosphere

Erle Ellis is a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland and a member of the Anthropocene Working Group, and he wants to know:  

Why did humans, and no other single multicellular species in the history of the Earth, gain the capacity to transform an entire planet?

To address this question, he has spent the last several years developing a new theory, the core idea being that the ecological niche of humans is not only constructed, but social and cultural. 

Human societies have transformed Earth because their social capacities to construct the human ecological niche have scaled up and intensified through long-term processes of evolution by natural selection.

As "Earth's first ultrasocial species", we've been able to vertically and horizontally pass on our cultural traits, cumulative scientific and technological knowledge, and patterns of human behavior through our capacity for social learning. From language, domestication, and farming to trade, synthetics, and computation, inheritance of cultural traits through social learning has propelled most human societies from that of hunter-gatherers to post-Industrial, information age societies resulting in the emergence of the technosphere. "Manifest since at least the mid-twentieth century with the onset of the Great Acceleration,” the technosphere's mass is approaching 30 trillion tons and:

...is comprised of all of the structures that humans have constructed to keep them alive on the planet – from houses, factories and farms to computer systems, smartphones and CDs, to the waste in landfills and spoil heaps.

Professor Colin Waters of the University of Leicester Department of Geology has observed that, if many of the material objects of the technosphere were entombed in the strata of Earth, they could "be preserved into the distant geological future as 'technofossils'."

Future 'technofossils'?

The technosphere not only inundates the surface and subsurface of Earth but also extends into orbit and envelops the planet as space junk:

Space debris since the dawn of the space age

Our ultrasociality combined with our technological prowess has resulted in our ability to engineer environments at an unprecedented scale and engage in complex social relationships for acquiring food, energy, and other resources for our survival. It is in this way that we have gained the ability to transform our entire planet, accelerating the negative trends adversely effecting the Earth system. 

But is it too late to reverse these trends? Can we tap into our ability as an ultrasocial species to create a more sustainable Anthropocene future for both humans and non-humans? 

According to Ellis, this may already be occurring. Not only are we "using land more efficiently to produce food" and taking advantage of renewable sources of energy, but also: 

...global communications have led to an acceleration in social learning, knowledge sharing and other interactions, potentially generating new solutions for global problems.

Others have suggested that, in order to affect positive social change, humanity needs to see Earth from space as motivation to save the planet. Known as 'the Overview Effect', the experience astronauts have of viewing Earth beyond the atmosphere has evoked intense emotions, awe, and produced a cognitive shift in awareness. Although the 'Earthrise' photograph taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders has been viewed by many people around the globe, all of humanity should get to actually experience the Overview Effect. But since human spaceflight is currently cost prohibitive, companies such as SpaceVR are bringing the Overview Effect to more people through the use of virtual reality.

'Earthrise' influenced a society's cultural awareness.

Image: NASA

Unlike the fossils of the past, our future is not yet written in stone. Whether through technology, a cognitive shift in awareness, or a combination of sociocutural strategies as suggested by Ellis, we must learn to guide the new geological force - humanity - to reverse the damage we have done to the only home we have ever known.

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