What is the Anthropocene?
The Anthropocene is a term for our current geological epoch, which is defined by the human degradation of Earth as a whole.
Geologists have sectioned time through geological epochs which are determined by a scientific evaluation of Earth. The Anthropocene outlines the Earth’s geological timescale as having entered a point defined by humankind’s treatment of the environment.
In a thorough study of the Anthropocene, Marco Armiero, Robert S. Emmett, and Gregg Mitman question: What does it mean to imagine Homo sapiens as not merely a historical but a geological actor, a force of such magnitude that our impacts are being written into the fossil record?
This rhetoric states the mutilating extent of human-induced degradation of the natural world. We have significantly altered the Earth’s land surface, oceans, rivers, atmosphere, flora, and fauna, as outlined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer when first introducing the term ‘Anthropocene’ in 2000.
Humanity has sacrificed the global atmosphere for our revolutionary movements, including industrialisation, urbanisation, and fossil fuel extraction. As a result, effects, such as greenhouse gasses and deforestation, have entirely altered the planet.
When looking at the term Anthropocene, the prefix is derived from ‘Anthropos’, meaning ‘human’, to place the responsibility of damaging the natural world in the hands of humanity.
With the undeniable impacts of rising sea levels, altered ecosystems, climate patterns, and biodiversity, the term ‘Anthropocene’ encourages society to take an ecological lens. Society is also encouraged to take responsibility for exploiting the natural world - void of ethical treatment and sustainability.
While geologists still officially regard our geological epoch as the ‘Holocene’ (preceding epoch to the Anthropocene), the term is widely used and accepted by scientists and environmentalists in literary use. The term has not been formally adopted by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS).
Geologists disagree over whether humans will have a lasting and meaningful impact on the chemical composition of the rocks and fossils beneath our feet. This is what will need to be proven to declare a new epoch.
The scientific research behind the Anthropocene is thorough and extensive, scientists have found various human-induced implications on the natural world.
From the current global average temperature, the ocean absorbs about 25% of annual carbon emissions and absorbs over 90% of the additional heat generated from those emissions (Gruber et al. 2019). Land-based ecosystems, like forests, wetlands, and grasslands, bind carbon dioxide through growth, and all in all, sequester close to 30% of anthropogenic CO2 emissions (Global Carbon Project 2019).
These statistics highlight the innate link between the biosphere and human action. The biosphere refers to the climate and ecosystem of planet Earth as a whole, which human impact has entirely reshaped.
Scientific studies on the biosphere also found that more than 75% of Earth’s ice-free land is directly altered as a result of human activity, with nearly 90% of terrestrial net primary production and 80% of global tree cover under direct human influence (Ellis and Ramankutty 2008).
From the ocean to the concentration of the atmosphere, studies find that there is no part of the biosphere which hasn’t been affected by human action. This has created an environment which pushes our geological epoch out of the Holocene and into the Anthropocene.
Plastic pollution is a major contributor to the Anthropocene, an estimated 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the ocean every year.
There is already some evidence that plastic is being deposited into the fossil record. A 2019 study of sediments off the Californian coast found that plastic deposits have been rising since the 1940s.
Climate action and switching to sustainable practices to conserve planetary health for future generations is a dynamic and complex challenge.
Transitions in mitigating the effects of climate change include switching to renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal power.
The burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. The transition to renewable energy reduces emissions, promotes energy independence, reduces air pollution, and drives innovation in clean technologies.
Implementing sustainable land use and conservation practices is essential to preserve ecosystems, prevent deforestation, and protect biodiversity. The result of human activity on Earth was the modification of 75% of the planet’s terrestrial surface (Ellis and Ramankutty, 2008).
To successfully tackle the challenges of the Anthropocene, a comprehensive and holistic approach is required on a global scale. This includes international collaboration (from governments and businesses), policy changes, technological advancements, and a shift in societal values to create a more sustainable future.
The weakness of climate policy so far makes it increasingly likely that a runaway climate change occurs, thus giving credence to the “hothouse Earth” scenario that would ultimately render the Earth uninhabitable.
Hothouse Earth is the idea of what the Earth will look like if we fail to meet the demands of climate action in sustaining our planet. It maps the result of climate warming and rising sea levels to the point where Earth can no longer be saved, uninhabitable.
Edited by: Anwen Venn
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