The Anthropocene: the ultimate policy challenge

Is the Anthropocene the wake-up call humanity needs as it sleepwalks its way to climate destabilisation?

Will Steffen

Environment & energy, Science and technology, Food & water | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

19 January 2016

The rapid destabilisation of the climate system is leading to escalating risks for the well-being of humans, Will Steffen writes.

The word “Anthropocene” has an old feel to it – like the Pleistocene, the Eocene and all those other “-cenes” that evoke dusty skeletons of early life forms in old natural history museums. But, to quote historian John McNeill, the Anthropocene is something entirely new under the sun.

The Anthropocene is the proposed new geological epoch for planet Earth, one that is driven by human activities. It is no mere scientific curiosity. The evidence for the Anthropocene demonstrates that human activities, driven primarily by increasing consumption by an expanding, increasingly globalised human population, are now rivaling or exceeding the great forces of nature that have previously driven transitions in the geological time scale of Earth history.

This matters because the Anthropocene is replacing the Holocene, the current 11,700-year long epoch typified by an unusually stable climate compared to the time periods before it, and by a productive and well-functioning biosphere. This has allowed humans to develop agriculture from about 10,000 years ago, villages and cities, and the complex, contemporary, increasingly globalised society that typifies life for most humans today.

In addition, it is important to recognise the concept of the Earth System; that is, the Earth is a single, highly integrated complex system that exists in well-defined states, the Holocene being the most recent of these. Put simply, the Earth System provides the life support system for humanity on this planet, and the Holocene is the only state of the Earth System that we know for certain can support complex human societies.

So what does all this science have to do with policy?

There is increasing evidence that the rapid destabilisation of the climate system, primarily due to the burning of fossil fuels, is leading to observed impacts on and escalating risks for the well-being of humans and other forms of life that we share the planet with. The degradation of the biosphere and the erosion of its functioning by a wide range of human activities is also demonstrably degrading the services that the biosphere provides for human societies.

More on this: Hot ideas for a warming world | Amy King

The climate change challenge is well known now to the policy world, and there are a range of policies that have been proposed, or are already in place in many countries, to address climate change. These include carbon pricing mechanisms, regulation of pollution, promotion of renewable energy through mandatory targets, energy efficiency programs, and so on.

But the Anthropocene brings the policy debate to a whole new level. It suggests that tinkering with the present techno-economic system won’t be enough; we need to examine the entire system to see whether it needs a substantial overhaul. After all, any system that rapidly destabilises one’s own life support system has serious problems!

Actually, much has already been written about this deeper challenge. One of the most widely quoted books is This Changes Everything, by Canadian author Naomi Klein. She argues that the voracious appetite of fossil fuel companies to find ever more resources is now taking exploration and mining into the backyards of the rich countries – coal seam gas and tar sands oil, for example. Popular resistance is growing rapidly. Her journey through this unfolding story takes her to a fundamental reassessment of humanity’s relationship with the rest of the natural world.

French economist Thomas Piketty has generated considerable controversy in the economics community with his book Capital in the Twenty-first Century. He argues that it is an intrinsic system dynamic within a poorly regulated capitalist system to generate increasing levels of inequality in wealth. Furthermore, in their book The Spirit Level British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown through careful observation that increasing inequality in income leads to increasing social problems in society.

So what is the link of all this to the Anthropocene? The proposed start date for the Anthropocene is around 1950, the beginning of the Great Acceleration of the human enterprise that has generated an astoundingly rapid increase in production and consumption, generating rising wealth (although not necessarily increasing well-being) in many parts of the world. But it is this same Great Acceleration that is rapidly destabilising the climate and degrading the biosphere – in effect, eroding own life support system from under our feet.

The Anthropocene is a wake-up call for humanity. We need a fundamental reassessment of what we value in societies and how to get there. However we deal with those questions, there is little doubt that we need a stable state of the Earth System to support us.

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Steffen, Will. 2017. "The Anthropocene: The Ultimate Policy Challenge - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.