By Jennifer Cole, Royal Holloway, University of London
In recent months, there has been increasing academic and public discourse over the continued damage modern lifestyles are inflicting on our planet. The term ‘planetary health’ has emerged as a catch-all for addressing issues as diverse as climate change, plastic pollution, antibiotic resistance, increasing meat consumption and poorly-planned urban expansion as well as a call to action to address the challenges of the Anthropocene – the ‘Age of Man’ – which recognises that the challenges the Earth currently faces are, largely, inflicted by humans. There has never been a more pressing need to ensure the scientific community has a common platform from which to research, understand and influence action on the environmental damage inflicted by the modern lifestyles enjoyed in the developed countries of the Global North.
For this reason, the recent vote by the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, to formally consider the Anthropocene a distinct time period in the geological record, is a momentous event. Whilst the final decision is yet to be made on exactly when humanity’s manipulation of the planet beyond the forces of nature began, the scientific community is now in agreement that the way in which humanity has reshaped the Earth warrants official recognition. As these changes may now be irreversible, a key feature of future focus must be on how we can adapt to an altered climate.
“The more we have ‘tamed’ ecosystems, the less we have valued them.”
Agriculture is inextricably linked into this history of human manipulation: by accident or design, it happened alongside a stabilisation of Earth’s climate which enabled more permanent settlements. Agricultural innovation preserved these more settled lifestyles when natural climatic fluctuations began to threaten their stability: humans may have been important actors in the ending of the African Humid Period and the desertification of the Sahara, rather than passive observers. For as long as we have sought to cultivate the land, we have damaged not only the fields we have tilled but the wider biosphere of Earth. The more improved farming practices have freed us from subsistence living and allowed us to ‘progress’, the more the food, energy, transport and trading systems we have developed have cost nature. The more we have ‘tamed’ ecosystems, the less we have valued them.
Humankind needs to reverse this trend and to re-evaluate our relationship with the natural world. For this reason, the formal declaration of the Anthropocene could be seen as a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it will have the positive impact of making it more difficult for climate change deniers to argue that there is no need to keep human impact on the planet in check. It may lend weight to national and international policies aimed at curbing carbon emissions and protecting wildlife, and those that seek to reduce the use of plastics and artificial fertilizers. It will support initiatives that encourage healthier diets and lower-impact lifestyles, enabling the ecological and environmental benefits to be promoted alongside – and to be seen as integral to – those to human health.
“Just another manifestation of the anthropocentric self-absorption of a ‘me’ generation that wants to see itself as special?”
However, there is another factor pertinent to the Anthropocene that needs to be considered: is it just another manifestation of the anthropocentric self-absorption of a ‘me’ generation that wants to see itself as special – fundamentally different from the many hundreds of human generations that have come before? The Anthropocene can be seen as an ‘ultrasocial’ phenomenon, defined by the settlement of humans into large, complex societies, rather than by the geophysical characteristics that define other epochs. In this regard, might it separate us further from nature and our conceptualisation of our place in the universe, rather than bring us closer to it? Never before have Earth’s inhabitants, rather than the Earth itself, defined a boundary of geological time.
The Quaternary Period, in which we currently live and within which the Anthropocene will fit, began 2.58 million years ago. The Holocene Epoch that the Anthropocene is set to supersede started just 11,650 years ago with the last glacial retreat. The Pleistocene, the Quaternary epoch, that precedes the Holocene, lasted for more than 2.4 million years; the last pre-Quaternary epoch, the Pliocene, for around 2.7 million. Geologists have typically worked in timelines that span millennia, not decades. The Holocene has been the blink of an eye in the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history. Only last year – 2018 – the International Union of Geological Scientists (IUGS) ratified the division of the Holocene into three separate ages, the Meghalayan, the Northgrippian and the Greenlandian, but already we seem to be calling for more recognition of modern humans’ impact. Is this really scientifically necessary, or just the ultimate planetary selfie? Humanity’s “look at me, look at me!” cry for attention, indicative of an inability to conceptualise time beyond living history? We need to learn to look beyond the Anthropocene – and the Holocene – to understand the natural geobiophysical flows of Earth and thus the implications of our actions. Focusing attention only on recent events is unlikely to humble us into valuing the planet’s natural resources above our consumer greed.
What’s in a date?
The exact date chosen to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene may therefore have profound implications on how impactful the decision to delineate it becomes. The AWG favours the mid-20th century and the clear geological marker of the increased radionuclides released by the atomic bomb tests of the early 1950s but others argue for earlier beginnings and different markers: the first time the levels of atmospheric carbon we released to the atmosphere rose above what nature could remove, for instance, or the earliest domestication of plants and animals.
It may be valuable to consider which other academic and scientific fields have a stake in defining the Anthropocene. Geologists measure the stratigraphic record, and there is plenty for them to work with: radionuclides across the world, plastic in arctic ice, drastically changed sediment composition in arable (and formerly arable) land.
Archaeologists, however, may look instead to the appearance of new materials in the archaeological record, pointing to a ‘plastic age’ that follows on from previous stone, bronze and iron-age delineators of human progress. Historians might focus on a shift from physical artefacts to digital remains – written records, images, maps and accounts of our age exist in cyberspace more than in physical form. All of these however – the increase in plastic, the move from physical to digital records of our civilisations and the change in the traces they leave behind – point to a fundamental change in the mid-20th century at the beginning of the Great Acceleration, and thus favour the date towards which the AWG has gravitated.
“We are living on an Earth that we have fundamentally changed.”
Focussing on this date should help to focus attention on the many issues at hand: global warming, sea-level rise, plastic pollution, land use change. It will emphasise the need for humanity to slow down, pull back from the brink of environmental collapse and learn to live within the boundaries of our planet. It will identify when we began to go too far astray and perhaps indicate precisely which behaviours we need to modify.
One thing however, is clear: while last month’s vote could be seen as scientific minutiae – the general public and most of academia have been using the term quite happily for nearly two decades – the Anthropocene is, officially, really happening. We are living on an Earth that we have fundamentally changed. Considering our somewhat pathological desire to stamp our mark, perhaps we will just as soon be clamouring for another change, to define ‘our’ age as different from that of previous generations. More ecocentric academics are already talking about the need to exit the Anthropocene and to look forward towards a new Symbiocene or Ecocene in which we learn to respect our place in nature and tread lightly on the Earth once again. At least now we’ve officially entered the Anthropocene, we might be better placed to look for the exit.
Planetary Health, by Jennifer Cole, is published by CABI and available from the CABI Bookshop from July 2019.