Humanity taking the reins

Humanity taking the reins

In light of the current COP21 negotiations, this week’s article focuses on how significant our impacts on the planet really are. One of our Facebook followers posted an interesting infographic recently that puts these impacts into alarming context:

Scale

The “Earth System” – the sum of the land, water and air, the climate system and atmosphere has always changed – with each period of stability known as a “geological epoch”. There are many elements which affect the Earth System:

  • The Sun and its output
  • Earth’s rotation rate
  • Sun-Earth geometry and the changing orbit
  • Earth’s physical makeup (i.e. land mass, ice caps etc)

However over recent times it has become clear that there is a new driver to add to the list. It is us: Humans. We are having such a huge effect on the earth that we are changing the entire climate system, the composition of the atmosphere, even the earth’s physical makeup. Our impacts are now so great that many scientists believe we have entered a new geological era, the Anthropocene or Human Age.

Why does that matter? If Earth has survived so many different epochs why should we now worry about “saving the planet”? This is a very valid argument. In fact we don’t need to worry about the planet at all. It will carry on orbiting the sun, unphased by the increase in global temperatures, sea level rise, severe storms, mass extinction of species and whatever other outcomes there may be. What we need to worry about is whether civilisation as we know it will be able to continue.

Humankind has existed through many geological epochs, through ice ages and periods of warmth. We have adapted to dramatic changes and extreme conditions with amazing resilience. We may well survive 2C of warming or even more. However, it wasn’t until when we entered the “Holocene”, the geological epoch that we have been living in for the last 10,000 years, that we stopped simply surviving and started to thrive!  After living as hunter gatherers for 160,000 years, the beginning the Holocene with it’s mild climate, saw the simultaneous discovery of agriculture in four separate locations across the globe. The start of agriculture brought about the development of settlements which grew to towns and then cities. In a climate where we did not have to focus all our energies on survival we were suddenly able to develop into civilisation as we know it.

The Earth System has always and will continue to change naturally and the Holocene epoch will likely come to an end with or without human interference. However, the mild Holocene epoch has seen rise to geat rainforests, in particular the Amazon, thermal currents in the ocean driven by the polar ice caps which moderate global temperatures, and immense biodiversity. These elements all work together to form a great resilience that have stabalised the climate, maintaining the Holocene far longer than typical geological eras.

While it is terrifying that the state of the planet is in our hands, it does not need to mean the end of civilisation. With the knowledge that we are in the driving seat, comes the opportunity to steer the Anthropocene back onto a trajectory that mimics the Holocene continuing this nurturing environment and allowing us to continue to enjoy the planet as it is.