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.
The trouble is that complexity can be overwhelming, so people often prefer to break down complex systems into individual components. Rather than consider, say, eradicating extreme poverty and averting global warming in tandem — and developing mutually reinforcing strategies to achieve these goals — proposed solutions focus on one or the other, undermining their effectiveness.
Of course, addressing interconnected issues simultaneously carries its share of challenges. For one thing, no single person or group has enough knowledge or experience to solve all of the problems afflicting a complex system at once.
However, a wider community — including governments, businesses, researchers, philosophers, faith communities, and even poets and artists — could devise and implement holistic strategies. Success will depend on participants’ willingness to cooperate and their commitment to put evidence before ideology. Thus, the real challenge lies in marshaling such an inclusive community — something at which global leaders have not proved adept.
A second major challenge is that resources are limited, making it impossible to solve all of the world’s problems at once. In this context, the ability to prioritize effectively is essential. However, rather than emphasizing one problem over another, the top priority should be building resilience into all global systems. Mechanisms aimed at solving a problem in one system should not be allowed to compromise another system’s resilience.
Another challenge will be to devise new metrics to replace GDP as the
leading measure of human well-being. Even Simon Kuznets, the main architect of the concept of GDP, recognized that it does not account for many of the factors affecting human well-being; he argued that it should be used “only with some qualifications.” In the Anthropocene, GDP must be part of an array of metrics for assessing economic, natural, and social capital — that is, the value of the goods and services produced, as well as the dignity of the ecosystems and social structures that underpin this output.
Navigating the Anthropocene effectively and ethically is perhaps the most daunting challenge that modern humans have faced. Overcoming it will require a smarter approach to strategic decision making and a broader understanding of innovation. It is time for us to rise to the challenge.
Kevin Noone is director of the Swedish Secretariat for Environmental Earth System Sciences and professor of meteorology in the applied environmental science department at Stockholm University.
Copyright: Project Syndicate