Anthropocene (the geological time period defined by human action)
The Anthropocene is a term that was coined recently (first published in 2000 by Crutzen and Stoermer) to describe the enormity of humanity’s ecological footprint on the planet and our clear shaping of the world around us into something completely new in world history. Research across many fields has shown that human beings are now the primary force in shaping landscapes around the world. It is also estimated that if the world achieves its perceived goal of industrialization and a "standard of living" on par with the United States, we will consume 4.5 Earth's worth of resources. That is to say, we would need 4.5 Earth's worth of resources, natural capital, ecosystem services, and resilience in order to maintain such a destructive and extractive lifestyle. As that is clearly not likely to happen, we must address our unsustainable ways in order to prolong the Anthropocene into the distant future. Otherwise, we are likely to see massive social and environmental collapse of systems and societies.
The title of the Geological Society of America’s 2011 annual meeting was "Archean to Anthropocene: The Past is the Key to the Future." This idea is perhaps best viewed through research into the human appropriation of the net products of photosynthesis (HANPP), which is probably somewhere between 25% and 40% depending on how it is measured. Considering that the world’s human population will grow from 7 billion today to more than 9 and a half billion by mid-century, and that resource consumption is growing even faster than population, it is easy to imagine HANPP perhaps doubling during the next 40 years.
(Image (right) showing human CO2 impacts by Plumbago (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons) (Click to enlarge).
Although human beings have played an important role in landscape ecology for millenniums, this human-dominated time epoch has really just emerged during the past century or so, meaning that for the sliver of time that we have been active in this context, we have really been active. A good illustration of the Anthropocene is seen on this map from Texas A&M University.
In order to not only survive, but thrive, in the Anthropocene we will need to undergo a transition in many areas. Defining sustainability and looking at the three pillars of sustainability are good starting points for this illustration. Economic viability of labor and market forces, ecological sound practices that maintain the integrity of systems over time, and socially just lives for all human beings that adhere to universal ideals rather than religious, political, or cultural dogma's, are three tenets within sustainability that must be recognized in order to achieve success.
While there are many interpretations and views on how that might look (and critiques of sustainability), it is crucial to identify what is not working, why, and to take a long-view into the reasoning behind such issues. Today, it is easy to have a reductionist or simplistic view of why we face certain issues. However, the three tenets of sustainability are massively interconnected and cannot be scrutinized and rationalized to fit one group or political parties agenda in this way.
Again, the Anthropocene is the current time period that is dominated by ubiquitous human activity and ecological footprint around the world and beyond. Dealing with this new reality, an increasing population, and diminishing vital resources, sustainability is key to moving forward. The approach to that process needs new systems of thinking and acting, while taking into account all the scientific and morals teaching's up to this point. Doing so, while adhering to universal human ideals or basic human needs (love, togetherness, need for food, water, shelter, education, energy, health care, etc.), will lay the groundwork for transitioning into a new model for living into the future. As our current model is so clearly flawed in many ways, being open to change, and aware of the issues is a good first step.
(CC Image courtesy of Kevan on Flickr)