It is rare for geologists to grab headlines, but of late the geology discipline has caught the attention of the press the world over. This is because we may be close to entering a new epoch on the Geological Time Scale – the Anthropocene – in recognition that humans have become the decisive influence on the natural world .
This influence is overwhelmingly negative. This year, aggregate global resource use will likely exceed the Earth’s regenerative capacity by around 1.5 times – at a rate that increases each year . Extinction rates are now some 1,000 times above the background rate  and nearly 60% of all vertebral life may have died between 1970 and 2012 . Such a precipitous collapse in global biodiversity lends credence to the conclusion that we are experiencing the sixth mass extinction event of multicellular life on Earth . Species loss is exacerbated by impacts on the biogeochemical systems that facilitate life.
As yet, the focus has been on the carbon cycle, and for good reason. An exponential increase in anthropogenic carbon emissions since the industrial revolution has, as of early 2017, increased atmospheric CO2 above 410 parts per million – greater than at any point since the emergence of the genus Homo from australopithecine hominins around 3 million years ago . It is estimated that that a 66% chance of avoiding a 1.5C rise in the global mean temperature will require the cessation of all global carbon emissions by Easter 2021, with a 5% chance that the 2C temperature limit will be met .
Other biogeochemical cycles include the global nitrogen cycle (Figure 1), which has, in the last forty years, been impacted more than at any point in its 2.7-billion-year history . These changes partly result from the impact of the global food system, which is a major causal factor in the destruction of a third of all arable land since the mid-seventies . The rate of global top soil degradation has led the UN to warn that an average of only sixty global harvests remain .
Environmental collapse makes it harder to understand and manage risk
These developments beget an era of non-linear, compounding risk in which the chance of outlier events is increased as natural system breakdown increasingly feeds into human systems, disrupting economies and societies. Indeed, these events could become catastrophic as changes in one natural system feed into others, increasing the probability of ‘tipping points’, whereby systems cross a threshold and irreversible and abrupt environmental change ensues . Furthermore, the interconnectedness of globalisation is already acting as a transmission mechanism for such outcomes, binding together a range of geopolitical and socioeconomic factors into a multi-stressor risk environment.
A recent, high profile example of this process is the Arab Spring. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region is one of the world’s foremost food importers with nearly all MENA nations, on average, importing more food than they grow. In 2010, droughts and other extreme weather events hit major wheat and grain producing nations, including Russia and China, with a severity unseen in generations. Harvests suffered, contributing to a global wheat shortage and a sharp rise in commodity prices. With between 6-18% of global wheat production being traded across borders, price rises had a severe impact on food availability across the region, including Egypt, which, at the time, was the world’s largest wheat importer and spent 38% of income on food. Elsewhere, Syria was experiencing the worst drought on record at a time when population growth was accelerating. By 2009, the UN was reporting that over 800,000 Syrians had lost their means of economic livelihood and were migrating from the countryside to the cities. Together, food scarcity, migration, political instability and a lack of social infrastructure became key stressors in a complex causal environment that boiled over, leading to the collapse of civil order in many MENA nations.
Scenarios like this have been played out ad infinitum in reports and modelling from academics, multilaterals and military strategists. Specific areas of environmental degradation, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, act as ‘threat multipliers’, increasing the frequency and magnitude of dangerous events and outcomes, as well as being threats in their own right. These multipliers interact with the socioeconomic forces of the day. A future of intractable complexity is not hard to envisage in the UK, for example, where the implications of natural system degradation will feed into already unstable circumstances, including the process and aftermath of leaving the European Union and larger, accelerating waves of economic, social and technological change . We find ourselves at a critical juncture.
Short-term thinking brought us to the Anthropocene
It is likely that the Anthropocene is the ultimate failure of our short-termist approach to intertemporal decision-making. There are three main reasons for this: the scale and pace of environmental collapse; the time scale on which we have known about this; and the entrenchment and intractable nature of the Anthropocene.
Anthropogenic impacts on the environment are apparent at all scales, from local areas to global systems. Little of the planet and its natural systems have been left untouched by human activity. Indeed, it is the scale of human impact that has led geologists to conceive of the Anthropocene as a new epoch in Geological Time; candidates for the stratigraphic marker of a new epoch include irradiation from nuclear weapons, artificial consumer pollutants such as plastics, high levels of nitrogen and phosphates, and the domestic chicken bone . As this article has explored, it is not just the reach of human impacts, but their severity that means the Anthropocene is arguably the greatest crisis ever faced by humanity.
An understanding of the negative consequences of human activity on the environment and its ability to damage or critically impair the preconditions of sustainable development has existed for thousands of years, if not since the emergence of discernible human cultures, many of which taught respect and restrain when it came to the natural world . The increasing scale and severity of anthropogenic impacts on natural systems has been understood for many of hundreds of years, with scholars warning of the potential for a global temperature rise resulting from carbon emissions in the early 1800s . This understanding increased steadily over the following centuries, leading to today’s global systems data and the definition of ‘planetary boundaries’ . Though our current understanding of environmental collapse is more complete than at any time in history, large uncertainties still exist in interpreting its effects of human systems. However, actions to limit human impacts have not increased in step with our understanding; in the case of climate change, the understanding of the problem developed since 1950 has coincided with an exponential rise in emissions. It is now high unlikely that climate change can be kept within ‘safe levels’.
This relative lack of action is deeply entrenched and derives from the behaviour of individuals through to multinational systems stretching across public and private sectors. But while much public awareness campaigning seeks to inspire individuals to move beyond neurological propensities for short-termism, the focus should remain on socioeconomic systems that enable and entrench unsustainable behaviours . What choice does a driver have, for example, when electric vehicles remain too expensive, or an urban environment has no charging infrastructure? The systemic nature of short-termism within socioeconomic systems has been recognised in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which seek to realise the potential of economies and societies to deliver greater prosperity while reducing their impact on the environment. However, much of this work has not yet filtered into mainstream policy thinking throughout the world. Furthermore, powerful vested interests are resisting changes to the status quo, as evidenced by the network of funders and organisations working to discredit the scientific consensus .
Short-termism has no place in the Anthropocene
To make matters worse, governments and businesses can struggle with the assessment and management of risk over time and space, even more so in the case of nonlinear and compounding risk, as will likely become the case in the Anthropocene . The current political climate – typified by the denial of expert knowledge, short-termism, the breakdown of international norms and groups, and the rising influence of multinational corporations whose objectives may not align with the public good – is increasingly limiting the scope for debate around the Anthropocene and the development of appropriate responses.
Time is running out. Thus far, the rate of reduction of and adaptation to environmental breakdown appears to be inadequate . This cannot continue, and neither can the underlying short-termism that led us into the Anthropocene. The development of long-term decision-making procedures fit for the Anthropocene is one of the greatest tasks facing humanity. These changes will have to come with a new politics that can prepare the public and ensure they remain resilient to existing and inevitable destabilisation while protecting and extending democratic values. Our current political climate must be the last of the Holocene and not the first of the Anthropocene.
SL Pimm et al. "The biodiversity of species and their rates of extinction, distribution, and protection" Science 30, Vol. 344, Issue 6187, 2014
WWF "Living Planet Report 2016. Risk and resilience in a new era." WWF International, Gland, Switzerland, 2016