The unprecedented transformation and ecological decline caused by human activities since 1950 has prompted scientists to mark the end of the Holocene geological epoch, and the beginning of the “Anthropocene” – the human era. Never before has a single species of organism so dominated and damaged the biosphere of our home planet.
By connecting the dots between thousands of scientific studies in recent decades, we come to the inescapable conclusion that:
Humanity is at present destroying the biosphere of our home planet, ourselves and our future with it.
This is arguably the most consequential discovery in the history of science.
The ecological footprint of humanity is enormous and beyond Earth’s carrying capacity. Recent human activities have resulted in the loss of half the world’s forests, wetlands, grasslands, and mangroves; loss of 12 million acres of forest each year; annual use of 50% more resources than Earth can sustain; appropriation of ¼ of the planet’s total daily photosynthetic output and ½ the available freshwater; thousands of species extinctions; loss of half of the number of all vertebrates and invertebrates; runaway climate change, with rising seas, acidic oceans, spreading desertification, and melting ice caps; water and air pollution in every corner of the world; and most of the land surface of the Earth converted to human purposes.
In addition, the socioeconomic condition of civilization is in decline, with world population expected to reach 11 billion by the end of the century; severe and growing economic inequality; 800 million people living in extreme poverty and hunger; millions of refugees displaced by environmental disaster; 16,000 children under the age of five dying each day due to preventable causes; a billion people without basic sanitation and clean drinking water; more people enslaved than at any time in human history; many failed and fragile states; thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert; rising mental illness and extremism; and growing global insecurity.
The current trajectory of global decline points toward a catastrophic immediate future for civilization and the biosphere in the Anthropocene. If current environmental trends continue, the planet will be virtually unlivable for humans and perhaps ½ of all other species by 2050, certainly by 2100 – in fact, for many people and species, in many places, it already is.
This then, is the Anthropocene. It is inevitable that the current Anthropocene era will evolve into an ecologically sustainable era – which can be called the “Ecocene.” The current trajectory of environmental and social decline cannot continue much longer. Indeed, the Anthropocene will be gone in the blink of geologic time. The real question is: what will be left of the biosphere at the dawn of the Ecocene, e.g. what species, including H. sapiens, will survive the Anthropocene evolutionary bottleneck?
It is useful to imagine the stratigraphic signature that will be left by the Anthropocene, perhaps to be explored a million years from now by whatever intelligent life forms might remain (or visit). The Anthropocene-Ecocene - “A-E” - stratigraphic boundary will consist of a thin layer of black carbon, ash, and other combustion products from the billions of tons of fossil fuel burned in the short Anthropocene. The A-E boundary may also contain additional sediment from anthropogenic land use changes, remnant metal items, artificial radionuclides such as plutonium 239, plastic litter and debris, concrete, higher levels of nitrogen and phosphorous from excessive fertilizer use, and trace elements like mercury from coal combustion.
The A-E boundary will be as notable as the K-T (Cretaceous-Tertiary) boundary that marks the impact of Chixulub asteroid 65 million years ago. The K-T boundary can be found across the Earth surface, infused with iridium from the vaporized asteroid, and shocked quartz and glass spherules from the impact. As the K-T boundary marks the last pre-human mass extinction event, in which Earth lost most large vertebrates, including the dinosaurs, etc., the A-E boundary will mark the current Anthropocene mass extinction.
If the present trajectory of the Anthropocene continues, the transition to the Ecocene may not occur for centuries. In that scenario, more than half of the 10 million or so species today will be extinct, including H. sapiens. As with other mass extinction events in the history of the biosphere, biodiversity will recover over 5-10 million years, and a new steady ecological state will reestablish. But the descendants of H. sapiens will not be part of that future.
Alternatively, if we get to work now to reverse the several interconnected drivers of global decline – population, resource consumption, economic inequality, etc. - the Ecocene transition could occur this century. In that scenario, our descendants would indeed remain part of Earth’s biosphere.
It is up to us: If we want our species to be part of the future sustainable Ecocene, we need to act now with resolve and urgency to transition to the Ecocene by 2050.
This will involve stabilizing/reducing human population to perhaps 2 billion - 3 billion (by reducing birth rates/unwanted pregnancies); clean, sustainable, no-carbon energy and transportation systems; stabilized climate, with atmospheric CO2 levels declining from 400 ppm to 250 ppm; half of Earth’s ecological habitats (marine and terrestrial) in protected status; species extinction rates back down to pre-human levels; sustainable agriculture; a zero-waste global economy, with closed-loop materials sourcing; peace, prosperity, food, freshwater and health for all; no nuclear weapons; and no failed/fragile states.
We pay for what we value, and we have to value the preservation of life on this lovely little wet blue ball we call Earth. All of the environmental and social goals necessary to achieve sustainability can be achieved if the G20 governments have the political will to provide what they committed decades ago at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, but have yet to fulfill – allocating at least 0.7% of GDP (about $500 billion per year) in additional financing toward the transition to sustainability. The longer we wait to invest in sustainability, the more it will cost, and less possible it will be. We either pay a little now, a lot later, or we will not survive as a species.
A sustainable world is possible, but we have to choose to make it so.