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The Anthropocene — why does it matter for policymakers?

Submitted by on 24 Apr 2015 – 16:34

Jan Zalasiewicz and Davor Vidas explain what the Anthropocene is and why it is significant for international policy.

Photo: Grand Canyon National Park

Photo: Grand Canyon National Park

Which is the real world that we live in?  Is it that of homes, schools, factories; of economics, politics and sport?  Or is it that of oceans, glaciers, forests, coral reefs; of ecological webs and weather systems?  It is of course both and it is no longer sensible to think of them separately.  One way to consider how these worlds inter-relate is on the largest canvas of all, that of our planet’s 4.6 billion-year history.  Here, the intertwining of the human and natural worlds may be producing a new geological epoch:  the Anthropocene.

The Holocene, comprising the past 11,700 years, has shown the longest relative stability in environmental conditions on Earth since the appearance of Homo sapiens some 200,000 years ago. By contrast, the Anthropocene, now beginning, represents change, uncertainty and a considerable degree of instability in the Earth system.

What is fundamentally new in the Anthropocene concept is its focus on the role of humans in the destabilisation of the Earth system, and not just on ‘human environmental impact’, as in various earlier approaches. The Anthropocene concept offers a broad framework for bridging the perceived divide between nature (the Earth system we find ourselves in) on the one hand, and humans (and the political world we have created), on the other.

Fifteen years on since the term was coined by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen in 2000, the Anthropocene is in increasing use among scientists, humanities scholars, artists and the media. Initially an informal scientific term proposed to indicate that human imprint on the Earth system may already be of geological scale, the Anthropocene hypothesis is now under scrutiny within stratigraphy, a branch of geology which studies rock layers.

 So what is the evidence that we might be living in a new epoch? 

Virtually all of our knowledge of the Earth’s history is derived from the evidence contained within rocks, and so analysis of the Anthropocene boils down to analysing different types of environmental change in terms of changes to rocks forming today.  Although this does not capture all types of environmental change (as soft-bodied animals and sound waves do not fossilize easily for example), there is sufficient evidence to consider human impact as a planetary phenomenon.

For instance, there have been striking physical changes to the landscape caused by human activity. In towns and cities, this is evident in the use of refashioned geological materials such as clay, sand, gravel, limestone reconstituted as the new rock types of concrete and brick, together with new minerals such as steel, glass and plastic which are now made in multi-billion-ton amounts.

Human-made chemical changes caused by carbon and other types of pollution have also left imprints in the earth’s rock layers.

Putting this evidence together has led to some clear conclusions.  Firstly, overall human impact on the Earth is already comparable with some of the great transformations of the past, and we are on the threshold of still greater changes.

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Secondly, although  changes to the climate. oceans and mass extinctions are not new in Earth history, some of these human-produced developments are new departures for this planet.  For instance, the scale of human-driven biological invasions, between every continent and every ocean, is unprecedented in Earth history.

Climate change may be viewed in an Anthropocene perspective.  We currently still enjoy normal interglacial climate and sea levels, despite slight rises of recent years.  However, important climate drivers such as greenhouse gas levels have risen sharply, and we now have, in effect, the atmosphere of the Pliocene epoch of three million years ago:  then, global temperatures and sea levels were, respectively, a few degrees and tens of metres higher.  We are almost certainly in complex, geologically rapid transition to this kind of warmer world, and this will hugely affect all of the other human-driven impacts taking place.

” the Anthropocene contains the potential for tension in relations between states”

Consequences for inter-state relations regulated by international law are profound. Stability is deeply embedded in the fundamentals of international law, where it operates with the conscious objective of stability in international relations, which are in turn prone to frequent political change. The international order will always be in search of stability and solutions to facilitate peace and prevent conflict.

But the onset of the Anthropocene contains the potential for unprecedented tension between states. It could aggravate existing tensions between states over their territorial integrity. Additionally, changes to the Earth’s biodiversity and eco-systems could increase competition for resources.

With fundamental changes to the context in which international law operates – and with the challenges increasingly recognized as the consequences of natural, not only political change – new legal axioms will have to evolve. As human institutions try to come to terms with a rapidly evolving Earth system, the Anthropocene will be a defining factor in 21st century policy.

 Jan Zalasiewicz is Senior Lecturer in the  Department of Geology at the University of Leicester and convenor of the Working Group on the Anthropocene.  Davor Vidas is Director of the Law of the Sea and Marine Affairs Programme at Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI).