We are at the beginning not only of a new year, but of a new geologic epoch as well. Years happen often: 2013 is Earth’s 4.6-billionth. Geologic epochs are much rarer, only seven in the last 66 million years. The one we are entering is the Anthropocene, an elegant word for describing the time when Earth became dominated by humans. How else can you describe a planet on which nearly half the land is devoted to providing food for a single species, Homo sapiens; where the flow of nearly every river has been interrupted by dams; the chemical compositions of the atmosphere and oceans are being changed; and more matter is mined, processed into goods, and distributed around the world than is moved by natural erosion. Never has one species risen to such domination of the planet, nor has done so in such a brief time. Indeed, the future of the global environment is now in our hands.
The changes we humans have inflicted on the planet have consequences: a warming of the entire globe; melting icefields; rising sea levels; more frequent and more severe floods and droughts; extreme heat waves occurring more often and lasting longer; changed precipitation patterns; oceanic dead zones; wildfires scarring more land; diseases in places they have never been before; and dramatic permanent losses of other species. It is not an altogether pleasant legacy to be passing to the future.
Let us ask of ourselves, if everyone in the world lived as we do, would we be creating a better world for all children? More broadly, for all children of all species? Most comprehensively of all, for all children of all species for all time? In short, our very mastery of planetary processes obliges us to take responsibility for their continued life-enabling gifts.
Just as we make resolutions for personal improvement in the year ahead, we must now make resolutions for collective improvement in the Anthropocene epoch just dawning. A few to be included are:
• First, consume only for need, not for greed. An equation that combines exponentially growing populations with exponentially growing per-person demands for the conversion of natural resources into products has no solution on a finite planet.
• Second, protect ecosystem services. Life exists on Earth only because it enjoys services Nature provides, free, all the time. A few examples include pollination, climate moderation, decomposition of wastes, stabilization of soil, protection from harmful solar radiation, provision of food, fiber and medicines, and the intangible gifts of aesthetic beauty and spiritual inspiration.
• Third, wean ourselves from fossil fuels. Fracking has deceived us into thinking that fossil fuels are abundant. But all fracking has done is to compensate for the decline in conventional production. It has also perpetuated the practice of investing more energy to achieve slimmer returns. Clinging to a past in decline instead of creating a future with inexhaustible renewable fuels is a deadend strategy.
• Next, lengthen time horizons. An Industrial Revolution with a 250-year history marks but a blink of an eye on a planetary timescale. The mismatch between our desire for more and more, faster and faster, versus the Earth System’s stately metabolism is glaring, and the Earth System is certain to prevail in the end.
• Finally, accept planetary citizenship. Ninety-seven out of every 100 people born into tomorrow’s world will be in today’s developing countries. Their path to development cannot follow ours, nor can we continue on our current path while preventing others from adopting it. All seven billion of us on today’s planet must together create a future that takes full advantage of our coupled minds.
As we put these resolutions into practice, we will have taken advantage of the traits that distinguish our species. We are both infinitely creative and have a strong sense of moral purpose. As the Anthropocene dawns, our focus must be less on self and immediacy, and more on the health in perpetuity of a global society and the planet whose services sustain it. Every human, every ecosystem, every organism that will live on Earth from now on will be affected by the decisions we make.
Happy New Year and Happy New Geologic Epoch.