What does Anthropocene mean?

What does Anthropocene mean?

Photo credit: IGBP
Photo credit: IGBP

Andreas Carlgren

Have human beings permanently changed the planet? It seems to be a simple question but it has enormous implications as we look into today’s realities. If so, what does it mean? How could it be described? And what to do?

Issues like these where recently discussed at a seminar  in Stockholm, Sweden hosted by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Stockholm Environment Institute in cooperation with the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP)  and where the value of the concept of Anthropocene was explored within the natural and social sciences as Earth enters a “no analogue state.”

Dr Sibyl Seitzinger, IGBP Executive Director and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, gave an open lecture on the origins of Earth system science leading to the concept of Anthropocene. She was joined by a panel of different experts and researchers that included, among others: Dr Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Center and Dr Richard JT Klein of the Stockholm Environment Institute. Dr Klein is also a member of the UN International Panel on Climate Change.

The term Anthropocene – from anthropo, for “man” and cene for “new” – wants to describe a new geological epoch in which humanity itself constitutes the largest driving force of change on Earth. Anthropocene has become an environmental key concept integrating different scientific disciplines and findings. The atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen first formulated Anthropocene  at a seminar with scientists in 2000.

The word was seemingly coined by coincidence. In his lecture, Paul Crutzen was describing how humanity during the past 10,000 years – the geological epoch known as Holocene – enjoyed near-perfect living conditions and now have become such a driving force of global environmental change that we constitute a major, possibly even the largest, geological force on the planet. And he concluded that “We are not in Holocene any more – we are …” and here he stopped, obviously searching for the word, and then continued: “…we are in the Anthropocene.”

The word is gaining more acceptance among elite science circles, appearing on the front page of three natural scientific magazines, as well as the cover story of The Economist in May 2011.

The International Union of Geological Sciences, the professional organization in charge of defining Earth’s time scale, convened a group of scholars to decide by 2016 whether to officially declare that the Holocene is over and that Anthropocene has begun.

The Holocene was the perfect planetary state for human evolution. The remarkable journey of humans from a few million hunters and gatherers to seven billion people populating the entire globe was made possible by this warm and extraordinary stable interglacial era.

Thresholds and boundaries. Photo credits: anthropocene.info
Thresholds and boundaries. Photo credit: anthropocene.info

Almost as soon as we entered the Holocene around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, groups of human beings independently invented agriculture more or less simultaneously in different parts of the world. It was at this point in history that we saw the rise of the earliest advanced human cultures: the Mesopotamian culture along Tigris and Euphrates, the Maya civilization, the ancient Egyptian great power along the Nile, the Longshan Neolithic cultures in the Yellow River valley in China, and the Inca empire in South America.

At the seminar in Stockholm, it was reminded that the ecosystems available to us today, which form the basis of our social and economic development, all established themselves during the Holocene. The conditions of this period provided us with the fresh water we receive, the temperatures we enjoy, the forests we maintain, the marine systems and the biodiversity we benefit from, as well as coral reefs, grasslands, fish, mammals, bacteria, and air quality.

As Johan Rockström summarized: “Holocene was the Garden of Eden for planet Earth.”

The Holocene is the only global environment that we know for sure to be a “safe operation space” within which our species can develop and thrive.

The planet Earth is a wonderful creation, astonishing and amazing, a living system with its own capacity to regulate and react to different changes. When the planet is warming, the oceans serve as the brake, absorbing greenhouse gases and heat. The ice sheets do the same by melting, absorbing energy in the process. The biosphere appropriates carbon through increased biomass growth. This is Earth resilience at its best.

The astonishing fact is that half of our CO2 emissions are absorbed by the biosphere, about 25 per cent by Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems, and roughly another 25 per cent by Earth’s oceans.

And the remarkable fact is that the world’s carbon sink – the cooling feedback of the planet in response to human-induced disturbance of the Earth’s energy balance – almost doubled over the past 50 years, as global CO2 increased from around 4 to around 9 units. Nature is picking up an even larger share of our emissions from around 2 units in 1960 to around 4 today.

What should we do?

Still our best friend, the planet is doing all it can to remain in the stable equilibrium of the Holocene. And we should support it.

This means using our capacity as humans in Anthropocene. We are now in the driver’s seat. We can drive us into a good Anthropocene – an era where we use our growing educational, scientific, and technological capacity to stay in Holocene-like conditions. It means we should start to drive in that direction. In all aspects of life, society, and economy, we need to cooperate and co-act with nature. For example, technology needs to learn from nature itself and the economy needs to integrate into the circular way of nature.

Creation is “good” as God saw already in the first chapter of Genesis. We humans should trust that.

2014_03_15_Editorial_Photo3Andreas Carlgren served as the Minister for the Environment of Sweden from 2006 to 2011. He now works at the Newman Institute, the first Jesuit University College in Sweden, developing an educational program in social science, with focus on environment and justice.

For further information on Anthropocene, readers may wish to visit Welcome to the Anthropocene, the educational website and the film, which is a three-minute journey through the last 250 years of our history from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the Rio+20 Summit on Sustainable Development in June 2012, charting the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes.


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