The Debate | Opinion

Is It Time to Embrace the Anthropocene?

The Anthropocene requires that humanity take responsibility for preserving the earth and its species.

By Ganesh Chakravarthi for
Is It Time to Embrace the Anthropocene?
Credit: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos just wrapped up last month. Speeches were delivered, promises were made, and yet, the world is burning: fires in the Australian desert, embers billowing still in the Amazon, propaganda against climate change everywhere, and simultaneous opposition undermining the fears, leaving much of the world dry.

Closer to home, a study reports over 2,000 deaths in India in just one year because of floods, heat waves, and climate-induced catastrophes. Despite many attempts at repairing the damage from climate change, scalable solutions are far and few in between. Their reasons vary from economic viability to risking irreversible change. Our approach may be flawed and thus the Anthropocene could be the necessary paradigm shift to address the world’s problems.

The idea of the Anthropocene is not new. It is a proposed geological epoch, similar to the ice ages of the yore, but in this case human beings and their actions impact the earth in far greater magnitudes than all of nature combined. The term Anthropocene was coined by Paul Crutzen, a Nobel prize-winning scientist, who said “This name change stresses the enormity of humanity’s responsibility as stewards of the Earth.”

Earth has gone through massive changes over the last millennia. Over thousands of years, nature held sway over natural evolution extricating the best of the species in the maelstrom of physical and chemical chaos. The earth is currently going through the Holocene, a geological epoch that gave us 12 millennia of relatively stable climate. Since the 20th century, the acceleration of deforestation, increased carbon emissions, and the rise in global temperature levels have put human beings at the helm of earth’s natural trajectory and given them the power to steer the future of our world in another direction.

“The significance of the Anthropocene is that it sets a different trajectory for the Earth system, of which we of course are part,” says Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester and chair of the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA), which started work in 2009.

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There is some criticism concerning the proposed geological epoch, one being that it takes several centuries of change for geological shifts, and the other being the necessity for common signals across the world that showcase the shifting mechanisms. Currently, studies are underway for finding proof that a new geological epoch has really arrived.

But what sets the Anthropocene apart is not its timeline or its signals. The Anthropocene is a paradigm shift in the human mindset. It is a school of thought that rips apart the delusion of privilege human beings enjoy being at the top of the food chain. It is a shift comparable to the scale of Copernican thought, which put the earth as just one component in a vast, incomprehensible universe.

There are enough parameters that highlight humanity’s actions that resulted in massive climate change. Radioactivity from nuclear tests, the immeasurable amount of plastics in our ecosystem, soil nitrogenation that has increased manifold over natural cycles are examples of phenomena where we have irreversibly altered the natural evolutionary cycle. Crutzen also pointed out the “great acceleration” of human impact on the earth from the 20th century.

William Gibson, the renowned author, once said that “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” True to these words, there are regions where the air has reached hazardous levels of contamination, namely in countries like India, China, and much of Asia, while there are large swathes of land encompassing many countries that have cleaner air. Same is the case with water: countries where you can drink water out of a tap and countries where bottled water is a must.

The capability of these individual nations are not enough to deal with the change. There are economic differences, dependence on livelihoods, and a lack of consensus between the multiple stakeholders vying for dominance.

Whether the future is one that reeks of a dystopia or a future that envisions a positive health benefit to all species is something humanity needs to reflect upon now. The debate on climate change is dominated by the facts of temperature increases and the melting of polar ice caps. But the world needs to move beyond climate change.

Thousands of species have gone extinct, are under severe threat, or are on the verge of being saved artificially. Continuation of the status quo may result in more than 70 percent of species going extinct. These are measurable, quantifiable, and actionable figures. What is needed is an urgent cognizance of our planet and its limited resources, and the responsibility we have to preserve this planet we call home. And the Anthropocene is a viable answer.

Martin Rees, the astronomer royal and former president of the Royal Society, said, “The darkest prognosis for the next millennium is that bio, cyber or environmental catastrophes could foreclose humanity’s immense potential, leaving a depleted biosphere.”

There will be no middle ground when it comes to our planet. And though the Anthropocene may or may not have officially begun, it is a necessary shift in our approach to deal with the issues on our planet. Unless we resolve to preserve the many species, processes, and biodiversity that make up our earth, we may not live to see a safe future for generations yet to come.

Ganesh Chakravarthi is the Editor and Programme Manager with The Takshashila Institution.