Take a deep breath. Savor it for a moment. Now consider this: None of our modern human ancestors ever breathed anything like it — and, the way things are going, nor will our descendants.
Since the Industrial Revolution began, human activity has substantially changed the atmosphere’s composition. Carbon dioxide levels are higher today than they have been in at least 800,000 years. The amount of nitrogen and sulfur circulating through the Earth system has doubled. The ocean’s pH is changing at an unprecedented rate, reaching levels of acidity that marine organisms have not experienced in the last 20 million years.
Clearly, humans — who now occupy almost 40 percent of the planet’s ice-free land surface — are shaping many of the planet’s fundamental processes. According to Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, this shift is so profound that it amounts to the beginning of a new epoch: the Anthropocene.
While some scientists believe that the Anthropocene actually began when humans started farming and
domesticating animals, others (including me) consider it to be a more recent development. However, regardless of when the Anthropocene began, it is clear that humanity’s impact on the planet increased substantially after World War II’s end.
Indeed, around 1950, the world seems to have reached a tipping point, with practically every factor that heightens humanity’s impact on the planet — population, GDP, fertilizer use, the proliferation of telephones and paper consumption, to name only a few — beginning to increase rapidly. During this period, which the scientist Will Steffen dubbed the “Great Acceleration,” the human population became sufficiently large and connected, with high enough consumption, to become a major global force.
In a 2009 study, scientists concluded that, by crossing any of nine “planetary boundaries” — climate change, biodiversity loss, disruption of nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, land use, freshwater extraction, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, atmospheric aerosol loading and chemical pollution — humans would increase the risk of fundamentally changing the Earth system. Given that these boundaries are closely interlinked, allowing trends toward any of them to continue, especially at the current rate, would drive the environment into unknown territory, potentially causing serious damage to the systems that underpin human survival.
In order to cope with the unique challenges of the Anthropocene, humans need a new approach to management and strategic decision-making. Developing successful strategies will require abandoning long-held assumptions that worked in the past, but that have become counterproductive myths today.
One such myth is that it is best to tackle one problem at a time with straightforward, targeted solutions. While this approach may be appealing, it is inadequate to address today’s most pressing issues. For example, producing and delivering nutritious food consistently to upwards of 9 billion people by mid-century has implications for water and energy consumption, agricultural development and land use, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, and ocean acidification, not to mention biodiversity loss, such as through overfishing.
Given this, the Green Revolution’s narrow, production-focused approach cannot overcome food insecurity in the future, even though it produced truly impressive output increases in the past. The world needs an innovative, comprehensive strategy aimed at optimizing the entire food system — for example, by improving fertilizer and water use and food transportation and storage; by ensuring that adequate nutrition is accessible and affordable for all; and by changing communities’ eating habits to include less resource-intensive food.