Are we blundering to the end of the Anthropocene epoch?

Changes have continued at an accelerating pace, leading to ever-higher levels of production and consumption


Daud Khan September 17, 2021
Daud Khan is a retired UN staff member based in Rome. He has degrees in economics from LSE and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes scholar

The Anthropocene Epoch refers to the period during which humans have had a significant impact on the earth and its ecosystems. Starting about 10,000 years ago, hunter gatherer societies were replaced by settled farmers who cultivated the land and raised animals. This ushered in a massive increase in human population, as well as dramatic changes. Forests were cleared; waterways were diverted and controlled; and weather patterns changed. The domestication of several animal species also led to an increase in waste and effluents in and around where humans lived; while the close proximity with animals led to exchange of viruses and bacteria, including those causing disease.

Changes have since continued at an accelerating pace, leading to ever higher levels of production and consumption, the continuous growth of cities, and a constant push into new ecological niches. This human activity has had a dramatic impact on land, seas and air, as well as the habitats of other species. But have we gone too far? Are we destroying essential planetary systems that sustain us?

The latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out in August this year. It is a massive document — the work of over 200 authors — but its messages are simple and clear. Temperatures are higher than there have ever been over the last 2,000 years; and human influence, particularly emission of Green House Gases (GHGs), has contributed to this. Moreover, global surface temperature will continue to increase until at least mid-century under all emissions scenarios considered. As a result there will be a greater frequency of extreme heat and heavy precipitation events; more droughts and intense tropical cyclones; and a reduction in Arctic sea ice, snow cover and permafrost which may raise sea levels.

Various governments and inter-governmental bodies, civil society and NGOs, as well as many private companies, have put reduction of GHGs among their key objectives. The largest cuts are to come from the richer countries. The EU, for example, has set ambitious plans to cut GHGs by 2030 to 55% below their 1990 levels. Many other developed countries are making similar commitments and there is much progress. We are able to produce greener energy; greener goods and services; greener storage and transportation systems; and greener spaces for our daily working and living spaces. Projections show we will be able to produce more with proportionately lower emissions of CO2 and other GHGs per unit of output.

But it is unlikely that greener technology would solve the problem without simultaneous changes in consumption patterns. Present projections suggest that over the next three decades, global GDP will more than double. A substantial portion of this will come from developing countries whose reliance on fossil fuels, including coal, is higher than developed countries and is likely to continue. Moreover, as incomes in the poorer countries rise, so will their appetite for consumption patterns in developed countries. And this means more cars, more consumer goods and greater consumption of foods such as meat and milk that are resource intensive to produce and result in high emission of GHGs. Even now, as the world economy recovers from the Covid-induced recession, consumption of fossil fuels and GHG emissions are rising rapidly.

Humans seem to be hardwired with an insatiable appetite for more. More energy to move around more, more raw materials to produce more goods and services, and more land and water to produce more crops and livestock products. If growth remains the primary objective of people in both developed and developing countries, better technology will not solve the problem. So the challenge is how to stop seeing wellbeing and progress in terms of how much we can produce and consume.

Furthermore, GHGs, global warming and turbulent weather patterns are not the only consequence of our relentless drive for more of everything. Over the last year we have also learnt that our thoughtless pursuit of “more of everything” is disturbing deeper planetary equilibria. The Covid-19 virus has brought home to us the speed and lethality of what could escape from Pandora’s box if we carry on invading new environmental niches or experimenting with deadly viruses and bacteria.

Most worrying however is our increasing inability to live as one species with certain shared values. The most glaring symptom of this inability to live together is the massive growth in inequalities — not only in financial wealth and incomes but also in access to the resources; and to essential goods and services such as food, clean drinking water and healthcare.

Climate change, disease and social injustice are not new phenomena. They have happened in the past, have created disruptive change, and have led to the downfall of civilisations and empires. But overall humans as a species have shown a remarkable ability to adjust, adapt and improve. Will we continue to do so?

There are three major differences with the past. The first is the number of humans on the earth today — almost eight billion. The profligate manner in which some live, and others wish to emulate, creates unprecedented pressures on cultivable land, on fresh water resources, on marine ecosystems, on air quality, on waste and effluent.

The second is that humans on the planet are very tightly linked to each other — physically, economically and politically. In today’s globalised world, diseases can spread at an alarming rate; booms and busts in the ‘global economy’ can cause waves that impact the wellbeing of garment workers in Bangladesh, of miners in Democratic Republic of Congo, and of soybean farmers in Brazil; while political events even in the small poor countries — such as Afghanistan — can create a political tsunami.

The third factor is that in the developed countries, which are the largest producer of GHGs and other pollutants, large sections of the populations seem to not care, or even deny, that there is anything wrong. Moreover, there are plenty of politicians ready to vie for the support of those who see climate change as a myth. And these are not some loony fringe groups but mainstream political parties who have held power and have a good chance to come to power.

Will humans be able to change course? Or will we go the way of the dinosaurs and dodo birds?

Published in The Express Tribune, September 17th, 2021.

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