Tag Archives: anthropocene

Kim Stanley Robinson on the Anthropocene

Below are an interesting excerpt from an interview of Kim Stanley Robinson, a Californian sustainability oriented science fiction writer, in Boom Magazine.

Boom: But, as you’ve said, all of California in some ways has been terraformed. It’s not natural in the way we usually conceive of natural. Are we as gods, as Steward Brand famously proclaimed, so we better get good at it?

Robinson: California is a terraformed space. I think we have accidentally become terraformers, but of course we are not gods. We don’t actually know enough about ecology, or even about bacteria, to do what we want to do here. We could make environmental changes that could do damage that we can’t recover from, so it’s dangerous. We’re more like the sorcerer’s apprentice. We can do amazing things on this planet, out of hubris, and partial ignorance, and yet we are without the powers to jerk the system back to health if we wreck it. If ocean acidification occurs, we don’t have a chance to shift that back. So we’ve accidentally cast ourselves into this role by our scientific successes, but we don’t have the power to do what we need to do, so we need to negotiate our situation with the environment. The idea that we’re living in the Anthropocene is correct. We are the biggest geological impact now; human beings are doing more to change the planet than any other force, from bedrock up to the top of the troposphere. Of course if you consider twenty million years and plate tectonics, we’re never going to match that kind of movement. It’s only in our own temporal scale that we look like lords of the Earth; when you consider a longer temporality, you suddenly realize we’re more like ants on the back of an elephant. By no means do we have godlike powers on this planet. We have a biological system we can mess up, a thin wrap on the planet’s surface, like cellophane wrapping a basketball. But there is so much we don’t know. You can do cosmology with more certainty than ecology.

Boom: Speaking of terraformed, the Delta, where you live here in Davis, is a great example of a terraformed landscape.

Robinson: It’s kind of great. It’s troubled, but I think it’s still beautiful. I like these human-slash-natural landscapes. I like terraformed landscapes. The Central Valley has been depopulated of its Serengeti’s worth of wild creatures, and that’s a disaster. But you could do amazing agriculture in the Central Valley and add wildlife corridors, where the two could coexist in a palimpsest, big agriculture and the Serengeti of North America, occupying the same space. And then it would be that much more interesting and beautiful. If you went out there to the edge of Davis now, you would see nothing in terms of animals. But if you went out there and it was filled with tule elk and all the rest of the animals and birds of the Central Valley biome, occasionally a bear would come down out of the hills; and, well, you couldn’t run alone out there, because of the predators. You’d have to run in a group. But humans are meant to run in groups. The solo thing is dangerous. So it would all come back to a more natural social existence. This is the angle of utopianism that I’ve been following. It’s a kind of natural-cultural amalgam, whereas utopian literature historically was mostly a social construct, and it was kind of urban. Utopia was thought of as a humanist space, but when you think of humans as part of a much larger set of life forms, then you get to a utopia that includes it all and is a process. I haven’t actually written the novel that would put all of this together, because each of my novels has been a different part of the puzzle and a different attempt at it. So I keep having an idea for the book yet to come. Seems like I might start another one like that sometime soon.

California is a terraformed space.

Bruno Latour thinks about the Anthropocene

Bruno Latour‘s Gifford Lectures Facing Gaia: A new enquiry into Natural Religion, which were given at University of Edinburgh over the last few months are now on the web.

Bruno Latour’s website has the text (pdf) of the lectures and describes them as:

Those six lectures in ‘natural religion’ explore what it could mean to live at the epoch of the Anthropocene when what was until now a mere décor for human history is becoming the principal actor. They confront head on the controversial figure of Gaia, that is, the Earth understood not as system but as what has a history, what mobilizes everything in the same geostory. Gaia is not Nature, nor is it a deity. In order to face a secular Gaia, we need to extract ourselves from the amalgam of Religion and Nature. It is a new form of political power that has to be explored through a renewed attempt at political theology composed of those three concepts: demos, theos and nomos. It is only once the multiplicity of people in conflicts for the new geopolitics of the Anthropocene is recognized, that the ‘planetary boundaries’ might be recognized as political delineations and the question of peace addressed. Neither Nature nor Gods bring unity and peace. ‘The people of Gaia’, the Earthbound might be the ‘artisans of peace’.

The lectures are organized by groups of two, the two first ones deal with the question of Natural Religion per se and show that the notion is confusing because on the one hand ‘nature’ and ‘religion’ share too many attributes and, on the other, the two notions fail to register the originality of scientific practice and the specificity of the religious regime of enunciation.

Once the pleonasm of Natural Religion is pushed aside, it becomes possible to take up, in the next two lectures, the question first of Gaia as it has been conceived by James Lovelock and of the Anthropocene as it has been explored by geologists and climate scientists. It is thus possible to differentiate the figure of the Earth and of the agencies that populate it from the notion of nature and of the globe thus bringing to the fore the geostory to which they all belong.

In the last two lectures, after the notion of Natural Religion has been put aside, and after the complete originality of Gaia and geostory have been foregrounded, it becomes possible to reopen the political question at the heart of what will be life at the Anthropocene. Once the key question of war has been introduced, the search for a peace along the delineations allowed by politically relevant ‘planetary boundaries’ to which Earthbound (the new word for Humans) accept to be bound become again possible.

 As mentioned on Resilience Science previously, Canada’s CBC radio has a great accessible series – How to think about science – on science studies and philosophy of science, which includes an introduction to Latour and his work.

Digging the Anthropocene

Human material use has rapidly and massively increased over the past century.  This is nicely illustrated in a 2009 paper by Krausmann and others at the Institute of Social Ecology in Vienna.

Fig. 1. Materials use by material types in the period 1900 to 2005. (a and b) total materials use in Giga tons (Gt) per yr; (c) metabolic rate (materials use in t/cap/year); (d) share of material types of total materials use.

The use of material has exploded:

  • overall use of material grew 8X
  • construction minerals grew 34X
  • ores/industrial minerals 27X.
  • fossil fuel energy carriers 12.2X
  • biomass extraction 3.6X.

This expansion is due to the growth of the human economy and population. Despite advances in efficiency (i.e. the amount of materials required per unit of GDP has declined), the economy has grown faster so total materials use per capita doubled from 4.6 to 10.3 T/cap/yr.

For most of the 20th century, biomass was the most significant of the four material types in terms of mass and only in the 1990s it was overtaken by construction minerals.

In 2000, the 15% of the world’s population living in rich countries were directly responsible for 1/3 of global resource extraction; however this inequality is more pronounced  for key materials the 15% of the world’s population living in rich countries consume more than 50% of  fossil energy carriers, industrial minerals and metallic ores (a 6X greater rate for the 15% vs. the 85%).

If global economic development continues its current trajectory (with a population growth of 30–40% until 2050) the will be a continuing sharp rise in global material extraction.


Krausmann, F., Gingrich, S., Eisenmenger, N., Erb, K.-H., Haberl, H. & Fischer-Kowalski, M. 2009. Growth in global materials use, GDP and population during the 20th century. Ecological Economics, 68, 2696–2705. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2009.05.007

Seminar on Role of Design in Anthropocene @ Konstfack, Stockholm – updated

For readers near Stockholm. I’ll be speaking Jan 14th at a seminar on design in the Anthropocene at Konstfack, the University College of Arst, Crafts, and Design in Stockholm.

I’ll give a talk “Co-Creating the Anthropocene: What are some possible roles for design?”

The seminar announcement states:

What is the Anthropocene?
Scientists are beginning to call our current geological period “the human age”, in other words, “the Anthropocene”.
Excerpt from http://www.anthropocene.info/: “Every living thing affects its surroundings. But humanity is now influencing every aspect of the Earth on a scale akin to the great forces of nature.

There are now so many of us, using so many resources, that we’re disrupting the grand cycles of biology, chemistry and geology by which elements like carbon and nitrogen circulate between land, sea and atmosphere. We’re changing the way water moves around the globe as never before. Almost all the planet’s ecosystems bear the marks of our presence.
Our species’ whole recorded history has taken place in the geological period called the Holocene – the brief interval stretching back 10,000 years. But our collective actions have brought us into uncharted territory. A growing number of scientists think we’ve entered a new geological epoch that needs a new name – the Anthropocene. (…)”
What roles could design take and what insights arise in relation to this understanding?
Together with guest speakers, we at ID will be discussing this perspective on design during this important symposium.

The event will be recorded – when it is on the web I will post a link here.

Schedule of speakers

Monday, January 14 2013

09:00   Welcome and introduction/ Martin Avila, Bo Westerlund – Konstfack ID

09:20   Anthropocenic citizens need anthroposcenic imaginaries [and designs]/ Jakob von Heland – Filmmaker and consultant on human ecology and resilience.

09:50   Metadesign and Fashion – How can we mobilise design sensibilities for sustainable products, systems and paradigms? / Dr Mathilda Tham, Visiting Professor in Fashion and Sustainability Beckmans College of Design, Stockholm. Metadesign researcher, Goldsmiths University of London.

10:20   Coffee break

10:40   Co-Creating the Anthropocene: What are some possible roles for design?/ Garry Peterson, Professor in Environmental Sciences with key focus on resilience in social-ecological systems at Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University.

11:10   Panel discussion


Videos of the event are now online at Konstfack.

Planet Under Pressure: Understanding the Anthropocene

The above video on the Anthropocene was created for the Planet Under Pressure global change and sustainability conference in London, UK, which starts today, March 26th, and continues to the 29th. The movie is:

A 3-minute journey through the last 250 years of our history, from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the Rio+20 Summit. The film charts the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes.

It presents a contemporary picture of the world in which we live in, and how dynamics of the biosphere and the ways it supports human wellbeing. The shifting anthropocene provides the basis for how people can act to improve their lives in this decade and that provides the background for the conference.

The conference, which is attempting to better integrate the community of researchers working on sustainability and global change (importantly not just climate change), and to focus more on how to solve rather than only document problem. There are lots of resilience researchers at the conference. A partial list of Stockholm Resilience Centre participation is on our website.

The conference website is live streaming on the web, the conference programme is here, the conference has the tag #planet2012 on twitter, and also has a blog.

The conference organizers are also experimenting with a variety of atypical scientific conference activities (e.g. a debategraph, globally distributed events ) to try and improve innovation and connect the conference to the world. And that is helping me watch a bit of the conference while I am on parental leave in Stockholm.

Forty years of Limits to Growth

The first presentation of the influential environmentalist book Limits to Growth was on March 1 in 1972 at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, four decades ago.

The study was both hugely influential and hugely controversial, and the authors were quite strongly attacked, often for analytical flaws that their study never said or did.  However, after two followup books, and renewed discussions of peak oil (etc) & planetary boundaries, there has been an increased appreciation of Limits to Growth.

After 40 years it seems that:

  1. Limits to Growth was a pretty good first stab at a global model (look at the number of models based on it)
  2. That the scenarios in Limits to Growth were fairly reasonable  (see here and here, here)
  3. That humanity has avoided some really bad trajectories, but could have done a lot better
  4. And that today, global civilization is pushing up against all sort of boundaries and we require more and more innovation to keep going and
  5. We probably need to have a major societal transformation to create a good Anthropocene.

For more on this, see Australian corporate environmentalist Paul Gilding‘s book Great Disruption, just is based on a similar assessment of the world – and he just gave a TED talk based on the book.

Various Limits related events have been timed for this 40th anniversary.

First, the Smithsonian is hosting Perspectives on Limits to Growth – which will feature two of the original members of the team that wrote Limits.  They describe the seminar:

The Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Institution’s Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet are hosting a symposium on March 1, 2012 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launching of Limits to Growth, the first report to the Club of Rome published in 1972. This book was one of the earliest scholarly works to recognize that the world was fast approaching its sustainable limits. Forty years later, the planet continues to face many of the same economic, social, and environmental challenges as when the book was first published.

The morning session will start at 9:00 a.m. and will focus on the lessons of Limits to Growth. The afternoon session will begin at 1:45 p.m. and will address the difficult challenges of preserving biodiversity, adjusting to a changing climate, and solving the societal issues now facing the planet. The symposium will end with a thought-provoking panel discussion among the speakers on future steps for building a sustainable planet.

The meeting will be live-streamed and video archived on the internet at Perspectives on Limits to Growth.

Second, coinciding with the with anniversary is the release an interesting report Life beyond Growth 2012.  Alan AtKisson, author of Believing Cassandra and colleague of many limits authors, wrote the report for the Japanese Institute for Studies in Happiness, Economy, and Society.

Life Beyond Growth is the product of a year of research and reflection, during which the world experienced tumultuous changes, ranging from the Arab Spring to the Great East Japan Earthquake to the “Occupy” movement to the near-meltdown of the Eurozone.

Despite all the economic and political turmoil, a revolution in economic thought continued to gain steam. From “Green Economy” to “Gross National Happiness” to the more radical notion of “De-growth,” governments around the world have continued to explore new ways to frame, and measure, the idea of national progress. Most recently, the United Nations has formally joined the dialogue, with its own high-level panel calling for “new ways to measure progress” in advance of the Rio+20 global summit.

And third, one that was not planned to coincide with the anniversary, but is importantly connected Victor Galaz and many other have a new paper Planetary boundaries’ — exploring the challenges for global environmental governance, which is not freely available, in Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability (http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2012.01.006).  The article (from the abstract):

… provides an overview of the global governance challenges that follow from this notion of multiple, interacting and possibly non-linear ‘planetary boundaries’. Here we discuss four interrelated global environmental governance challenges, as well as some possible ways to address them. The four identified challenges are related to, first, the interplay between Earth system science and global policies, and the implications of differences in risk perceptions in defining these boundaries; second, the capacity of international institutions to deal with individual ‘planetary boundaries’, as well as interactions between them; third, the role of international organizations in dealing with ‘planetary boundaries’ interactions; and fourth, the role of global governance in framing social–ecological innovations.

Earth from space

A beautiful video that shows the extent of human activity over the Earth’s surface.

Earth | Time Lapse View from Space | Fly Over | Nasa, ISS from Michael König on Vimeo.

Time lapse sequences of photographs taken with a special low-light 4K-camera
by the crew of expedition 28 & 29 onboard the International Space Station from
August to October, 2011.

HD, refurbished, smoothed, retimed, denoised, deflickered, cut, etc.

Music: Jan Jelinek – Do Dekor (Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records) | ~scape 007 cd
http://www.janjelinek.com | http://www.scape-music.de

Editing: Michael König | http://www.koenigm.com

Image Courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory,
NASA Johnson Space Center, The Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth

Shooting locations in order of appearance:

1. Aurora Borealis Pass over the United States at Night
2. Aurora Borealis and eastern United States at Night
3. Aurora Australis from Madagascar to southwest of Australia
4. Aurora Australis south of Australia
5. Northwest coast of United States to Central South America at Night
6. Aurora Australis from the Southern to the Northern Pacific Ocean
7. Halfway around the World
8. Night Pass over Central Africa and the Middle East
9. Evening Pass over the Sahara Desert and the Middle East
10. Pass over Canada and Central United States at Night
11. Pass over Southern California to Hudson Bay
12. Islands in the Philippine Sea at Night
13. Pass over Eastern Asia to Philippine Sea and Guam
14. Views of the Mideast at Night
15. Night Pass over Mediterranean Sea
16. Aurora Borealis and the United States at Night
17. Aurora Australis over Indian Ocean
18. Eastern Europe to Southeastern Asia at Night

Midwest US in Anthropocene

From the Guardian:

The night skies illuminated with light from many sources. For example, the midwestern United States has a night-time appearance not unlike a patchwork quilt when viewed from orbit. The artificial light from human settlements appears with a characteristic yellow tinge. The green light of the Aurora borealis also shines brightly in this view – even seeming to reflect off Earth’s surface in Canada. A small white patch of light is almost certainly lightning from a storm on the east coast (image top right). This photograph highlights the Chicago metropolitan area as the largest cluster of lights, next to the dark patch of Lake Michigan. The other largest metropolitan areas include St. Louis, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and the Omaha-Council Bluffs region on the Nebraska-Iowa border. The north-eastern seaboard lies just beyond the Appalachian mountains, a dark winding zone without major cities

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber wins 2011 Volvo prize

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber has won this year’s Volvo environmental prize for his contributions to earth system science and policy.  Resilience science has mentioned his work previously, especially his work on tipping points in the earth system.

The prize committee writes:

One of the most exciting, relevant and rapidly growing areas of environmental research is Earth System science. Over the past decade or two, the realisations that the Earth behaves as a single, integrative system and that human activities are now influencing the functioning of this system have revolutionised the framing of environmental problems at the global scale. No longer can human development proceed without consideration of impacts on our own global life support system.

…His outstanding contributions to “Earth System science for sustainability” at the national and international level have solidified Schellnhuber’s position as a world leader in the field. He is a member of the board of the prestigious Dahlem Conferences, which have made major contributions to the Earth System science – sustainability link. Beyond this higher level role, he has also been on the organising committee himself for key Dahlem Conferences. A good example is the 2003 conference on “Earth System Analysis in the Anthropocene”, which contributed important insights into the concept of the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in Earth history, and its connection to the growing sustainability agenda.

…Finally, Schellnhuber has forged exceptionally powerful and effective links between science and policy at the highest levels around the world. The best example of this is his initiation of a series of Nobel Laureate Symposia, which gather Laureates from physics, chemistry, medicine, economics and literature to explore the environmental challenges that humanity faces in the 21st century. The third in this series, held in Stockholm in 2011, produced a set of recommendations for action that was delivered directly to the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability.

if history = people x years

From Two thousand years in one chart | The Economist.

SOME people recite history from above, recording the grand deeds of great men. Others tell history from below, arguing that one person’s life is just as much a part of mankind’s story as another’s. If people do make history, as this democratic view suggests, then two people make twice as much history as one. Since there are almost 7 billion people alive today, it follows that they are making seven times as much history as the 1 billion alive in 1811. The chart below shows a population-weighted history of the past two millennia. By this reckoning, over 28% of all the history made since the birth of Christ was made in the 20th century. Measured in years lived, the present century, which is only ten years old, is already “longer” than the whole of the 17th century. This century has made an even bigger contribution to economic history. Over 23% of all the goods and services made since 1AD were produced from 2001 to 2010, according to an updated version of updated version of Angus Maddison’s figures.

The history of goods and services in some ways can be roughly considered as humanity’s impact on the planet. But that view assumes that economic activity has been consistent in its impacts on the planet.