Tag Archives: anthropocene

The Anthropocene: spread of an idea

The Anthropocene, the idea that the entire planet has become a social-ecological system, is now being discussed in the mass media.  Three recent sightings…

1) The Economist has a feature story A man-made world: Science is recognising humans as a geological force to be reckoned with.  The author writes:

To think of deliberately interfering in the Earth system will undoubtedly be alarming to some. But so will an Anthropocene deprived of such deliberation. A way to try and split the difference has been propounded by a group of Earth-system scientists inspired by (and including) Dr Crutzen under the banner of “planetary boundaries”. The planetary-boundaries group, which published a sort of manifesto in 2009, argues for increased restraint and, where necessary, direct intervention aimed at bringing all sorts of things in the Earth system, from the alkalinity of the oceans to the rate of phosphate run-off from the land, close to the conditions pertaining in the Holocene. Carbon-dioxide levels, the researchers recommend, should be brought back from whatever they peak at to a level a little higher than the Holocene’s and a little lower than today’s.

The Earth’s history shows that the planet can indeed tip from one state to another, amplifying the sometimes modest changes which trigger the transition. The nightmare would be a flip to some permanently altered state much further from the Holocene than things are today: a hotter world with much less productive oceans, for example. Such things cannot be ruled out. On the other hand, the invocation of poorly defined tipping points is a well worn rhetorical trick for stirring the fears of people unperturbed by current, relatively modest, changes.

In general, the goal of staying at or returning close to Holocene conditions seems judicious. It remains to be seen if it is practical. The Holocene never supported a civilisation of 10 billion reasonably rich people, as the Anthropocene must seek to do, and there is no proof that such a population can fit into a planetary pot so circumscribed. So it may be that a “good Anthropocene”, stable and productive for humans and other species they rely on, is one in which some aspects of the Earth system’s behaviour are lastingly changed. For example, the Holocene would, without human intervention, have eventually come to an end in a new ice age. Keeping the Anthropocene free of ice ages will probably strike most people as a good idea.

2) The New York Times has a discussion between a number of thinkers on the Anthropocene – The Age of Anthropocene: Should We Worry? The discussants include Jon Foley, Erle Ellis, Ruth DeFreis, and Brad Allenby.

3) There are also shorter articles in the BBC and Discovery News.

Nobel Symposium in Stockholm

I just argued the human role in the Anthropocene with Will Steffen at the 2011 Nobel Laureate Symposium in Stockholm.  In a mock court, in front of a jury of Nobelists, I successfully argued that:

1) Humanity has pushed the Earth out of the Holocene epoch, but 4) Humanity can prosper, in the Anthropocene

2) Humanity has substantial capacity to cope with tipping points, they do not represent “catastrophic change” (from the perspective of humanity).

3) Humanity needs learn how to cope with a novel, turbulent world requires change – based on learning, experimentation, diversity.

The rest of the symposium is is being broadcast on the web.

The symposium’s website provides a description of the meeting:

This third Nobel Laureate Symposium will focus on the need for integrated approaches that deal with the synergies, conflicts and trade-offs between the individual components of climate change.

Climate change, decreasing biodiversity, deteriorating ecosystems, poverty and a continuously growing population all contribute to reducing the planet’s resilience and may have catastrophic implications for humanity.

Each of these problems has attracted great attention from the international community, but they have invariably been considered in isolation, with little or no regard to the interactions between them.

It is time to change this approach.

The Symposium is organized by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Stockholm Resilience Centre at Stockholm University, Stockholm Environment Institute, Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics and Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research.

The Symposium, organised with the participation and support of HM King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, will provide an informal setting for productive discussions on how we can transform current governance into a more sustainable and adaptive management approach that operates within the boundaries of the planet.

It will take place at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm between 16-19 May and will include a mix of plenary presentations, panel discussions and working group sessions. The Symposium will be concluded with a Royal dinner hosted by HM Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.

Living in the Anthropocene

On Yale360 Paul Crutzen and Christian Schwägerl write that Living in the Anthropocene:

Living up to the Anthropocene means building a culture that grows with Earth’s biological wealth instead of depleting it. Remember, in this new era, nature is us.

In the March 2011 National Geographic, environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert writes Enter the Anthropocene—Age of Man, which describes the idea and the geological changes being produced by humanity.  This article looks at the anthropocene more from the point of view as damage to the biosphere, rather than what we can do to reduce that damage and increase human wellbeing. It is illustrated by photos two of which are shown above.

For more on living in the anthropocene, see our 2009 post resilience as an operating system for the anthropocene on Chris Turner‘s article Age of Breathing Underwater on the anthropocene in the Walrus, as well as our recent article on the Environmentalist’s Paradox.

Ecological Imperialism during the Cold War

During the Cold War there was a a faint reprise of the Columbian Exchange.  Science Now reports on a study by François Chiron and others in Biological Conservation (doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2009.10.021) in Cold War Split Birds, Too in ScienceNOW:

The Cold War divided the people of Europe for nearly half a century, and it turns out humans weren’t the only ones stuck behind the Iron Curtain. Trade blockades led to vastly different numbers and types of invasive birds in Western and Eastern Europe, new research reveals. The findings, say experts, highlight the dramatic impact human activity can have on the success of alien species.

… Western Europe saw the introduction of 96 species of birds during the Cold War, while Eastern Europe only saw 24. The relative freedom of movement and high levels of global trade in the West account for the difference, says co-author Susan Shirley, a wildlife ecologist at Oregon State University, Corvallis. “Trade is an important factor in the movement and establishment of alien species across the world.”

The way the Cold War carved up the globe also impacted the type of birds that were introduced. There was a rise in North American bird species, such as the ruddy duck, intentionally introduced to Western Europe many times between 1945 and 1989, but not much of a rise in the East. At the same time, people from former French and British colonies immigrated to Western Europe, toting along 23 African bird species. “They brought their caged pet birds with them–if not physically, then they brought the demand,” Shirley says.

While connections between Western Europe, the Americas, and Africa boomed, trade across the Iron Curtain withered: Exports from Western Europe to the East represented less than 5% of Western European’s total trade volume. The few invasive species that established themselves in Eastern Europe during the Cold War tended to come from other parts of Eastern Europe, or from Asia.

Since the Cold War ended in 1991, the pace of bird introduction events has picked up. Looking at records from 1989 to 2000, the study’s authors found more than 600 instances of alien species released into the wild in Eastern and Western Europe, versus almost 900 for the roughly 40 years of the Cold War. Trade and movement across the former Iron Curtain and rising prosperity in Eastern Europe has made the problem of invasive species worse, they say. “It’s speeding up exponentially, not just for birds but for many other groups, like plants, mammals, insects and fish,” says team leader Francois Chiron, a researcher at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem when this research was conducted.

Resilience as an operating system for sustainability in the anthropocene

Chris Turner, author of Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, writing in the Walrus about the Anthropocene and the coral reef crisis in his long article Age of Breathing Underwater:

I first heard tell of “resilience” — not as a simple descriptive term but as the cornerstone of an entire ecological philosophy — just a couple of days before I met Charlie Veron on the pages of Melbourne’s most respected newspaper. I was onstage for the opening session of the Alfred Deakin Innovation Lectures in an auditorium at the University of Ballarat at the time. The evening had begun with a literal lament — a grieving folk song performed by an aboriginal musician. I’d then presented a slide show of what I considered to be the rough contours of an Anthropocene map of hope, after which a gentleman I’d just met, a research fellow at Australia’s prestigious Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation named Brian Walker, placed my work in the broader context of resilience theory.

I had to follow Veron all the way to the edge of the abyss his research had uncovered before I could come back around to resilience. The concept, it turns out, emerged from the research of a Canadian-born academic named Buzz Holling at the University of Florida, and has since been expanded by a global research network called the Resilience Alliance. “Ecosystem resilience” — this in the Resilience Alliance website’s definition — “is the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes. A resilient ecosystem can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary.” It’s a concept I encountered repeatedly in my conversations with reef researchers.

…This points to the broader implications of the resilience concept — the stuff Brian Walker likes to talk about. He and his colleagues in the Resilience Alliance often refer to their field of study as “social-ecological resilience,” suggesting that people are as essential to the process as reefs or any other ecosystem, and that real resilience is created in the complex, unpredictable interplay between systems. “With resilience,” Walker told me, “not only do we acknowledge uncertainty, but we kind of embrace uncertainty. And we try to say that the minute you get too certain, as if you know what the answer is, you’re likely to come unstuck. You need slack in the system. You need to have the messiness that enables self-organization in the system in ways that are not predictable. The best goal is to try to build a general resilience. Things like having strong connectivity, but also some modularity in the system so it’s not all highly connected everywhere. And lots of diversity.”

Resilience, then, embraces change as the natural state of being on earth. It values adaptation over stasis, diffuse systems over centralized ones, loosely interconnected webs over strict hierarchies. If the Anthropocene is the ecological base condition of twenty-first-century life and sustainability is the goal, or bottom line, of a human society within that chaotic ecology, then resilience might be best understood as the operating system Paul Hawken was on about — one with an architecture that encourages sustainability in this rapidly changing epoch.

This new operating system will, by necessity, be comfortable with loss. There is, after all, much to be gained from epochal, transformative change. In the midst of chaos and devastation on the scale of a world war, for example, we might discover how to breathe underwater.

Dead Ahead: Similar Early Warning Signals of Change in Climate, Ecosystems, Financial Markets, Human Health

What do abrupt changes in ocean circulation and Earth’s climate, shifts in wildlife populations and ecosystems, the global finance market and its system-wide crashes, and asthma attacks and epileptic seizures have in common?

According to a paper published this week in the journal Nature, all share generic early-warning signals that indicate a critical threshold of change dead ahead. Cheryl Dybas writing for NSF.gov covers a new paper on “Early Warning Signals for Critical Transitions” (Nature, 3 Sept 2009, 461: 53-59).

In the paper, Martin Scheffer of Wageningen University in The Netherlands and co-authors found that similar symptoms occur in many systems as they approach a critical state of transition.

“It’s increasingly clear that many complex systems have critical thresholds–’tipping points’–at which these systems shift abruptly from one state to another,” write the scientists in their paper.

Especially relevant, they discovered, is that “catastrophic bifurcations,” a diverging of the ways, propel a system toward a new state once a certain threshold is exceeded.

Like Robert Frost’s well-known poem about two paths diverging in a wood, a system follows a trail for so long, then often comes to a switchpoint at which it will strike out in a completely new direction.

That system may be as tiny as the alveoli in human lungs or as large as global climate.

“These are compelling insights into the transitions in human and natural systems,” says Henry Gholz, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Environmental Biology, which supported the research along with NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences.

“The information comes at a critical time–a time when Earth’s and, our fragility, have been highlighted by global financial collapses, debates over health care reform, and concern about rapid change in climate and ecological systems.”

It all comes down to what scientists call “squealing,” or “variance amplification near critical points,” when a system moves back and forth between two states.

“A system may shift permanently to an altered state if an underlying slow change in conditions persists, moving it to a new situation,” says Carpenter.

Eutrophication in lakes, shifts in climate, and epileptic seizures all are preceded by squealing.

Squealing, for example, announced the impending abrupt end of Earth’s Younger Dryas cold period some 12,000 years ago, the scientists believe. The later part of this episode alternated between a cold mode and a warm mode. The Younger Dryas eventually ended in a sharp shift to the relatively warm and stable conditions of the Holocene epoch.

The increasing climate variability of recent times, state the paper’s authors, may be interpreted as a signal that the near-term future could bring a transition from glacial and interglacial oscillations to a new state–one with permanent Northern Hemisphere glaciation in Earth’s mid-latitudes.

In ecology, stable states separated by critical thresholds of change occur in ecosystems from rangelands to oceans, says Carpenter.

The way in which plants stop growing during a drought is an example. At a certain point, fields become deserts, and no amount of rain will bring vegetation back to life. Before this transition, plant life peters out, disappearing in patches until nothing but dry-as-bones land is left.

Early-warning signals are also found in exploited fish stocks. Harvesting leads to increased fluctuations in fish populations. Fish are eventually driven toward a transition to a cyclic or chaotic state.

Humans aren’t exempt from abrupt transitions. Epileptic seizures and asthma attacks are cases in point. Our lungs can show a pattern of bronchoconstriction that may be the prelude to dangerous respiratory failure, and which resembles the pattern of collapsing land vegetation during a drought.

Epileptic seizures happen when neighboring neural cells all start firing in synchrony. Minutes before a seizure, a certain variance occurs in the electrical signals recorded in an EEG.

Shifts in financial markets also have early warnings. Stock market events are heralded by increased trading volatility. Correlation among returns to stocks in a falling market and patterns in options prices may serve as early-warning indicators.

“In systems in which we can observe transitions repeatedly,” write the scientists, “such as lakes, ranges or fields, and such as human physiology, we may discover where the thresholds are.

“If we have reason to suspect the possibility of a critical transition, early-warning signals may be a significant step forward in judging whether the probability of an event is increasing.”

Co-authors of the paper are William Brock and Steve Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jordi Bascompte and Egbert van Nes of the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Scientificas, Sevilla, Spain; Victor Brovkin of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany; Vasilis Dakos of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Research in Potsdam, Germany; Max Rietkerk of Utrecht University in The Netherlands; and George Sugihara of Scripps Institution of Oceanography in California.

The research was funded by the Institute Para Limes and the South American Institute for Resilience and Sustainability Studies, as well as the Netherlands Organization of Scientific Research, the European Science Foundation, and the U.S. National Science Foundation, among others.

A Novel for the Long Now

Imagine that we wanted our descendants to persist for 10,000 years. How could we help that to happen? This question motivates most of the research on resilience, as well as initiatives such as Clock of the Long Now < http://www.longnow.org/> and policy-oriented initiatives such as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment <http://www.MAweb.org>. Many insights about resilience have come from research on native cultures, such as an influential volume by Berkes, Colding and Folke on Navigating Social-Ecological Systems, and many other works cited in this blog and in the journal Ecology and Society.

In Girl With Skirt of Stars, Jennifer Kitchell draws a sharp contrast between modern society and a culture that has occupied the southwest of North America for thousands of years.

Lilli Chischilly is a Navajo lawyer with a full brief of problems. Someone arranged mutilated carcasses of sibling coyotes on the hood of her battered Dodge pickup truck – no doubt a message, but of what?. Her old flame has returned to Indian Country, yet somehow he is connected to an inexplicable murder. Then she is assigned to escort a powerful politician through the Grand Canyon for a publicity stunt – obviously a set-up for a hydropower dam in a national landmark that will drown sites sacred to her people. In the shadowy background a mysterious sniper, motivated by a century-old massacre, stalks the politician. This meticulously-crafted debut novel weaves Navajo ethnography, sexual tension, political power, and the beauty of Grand Canyon country into a fast-paced story. Kitchell’s voice is confident, reflecting her deep knowledge of Navajo culture and the physical beauty of the Southwestern US.  The novel’s ending foreshadows more stories to come. I’m eager to read them.

At one moment in the novel, Lilli brings the politician into an ancient cave with petrographs that hold the key to a culture that can last for ten millennia. Will it be drowned by the dam? This encounter with deep-time resilience is the key to the novel, and perhaps the key to human persistence through the current environmental crisis.

This novel is fun to read. It evokes questions that are central to resilience thinking. It will appeal to students who are interested in natural history, ancient cultures, and connections of native people to modern life. Once you open it you will read it all the way through.

Erle Ellis on “Postnatural” Environmentalism

Erle Ellis, whom has mapped the world’s anthromes, writes an provocative editorial in Wired about what environmentalism means in the Anthopocene. In  Stop Trying to Save the Planet he proposes a “postnatural” environmentalism:

Nature is gone. It was gone before you were born, before your parents were born, before the pilgrims arrived, before the pyramids were built. You are living on a used planet.

If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene ― a geological epoch in which Earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces.

Yes, nature is still around ― back-seat driving, annoying us with natural disasters from time to time, and everywhere present in the background ― but definitely in no position to take the wheel. That’s our job now. Don’t blame nature for global warming, sea level rise, invasive species, mass extinctions, crop failures and poverty. That’s our thing.

… Ours is a used planet. Thanks to us, Earth has become warmer, less forested and less biodiverse for millenniums.

So what now? First of all, we’ve got to stop trying to save the planet. For better or for worse, nature has long been what we have made it, and what we will make it.

And it’s time for a “postnatural” environmentalism. Postnaturalism is not about recycling your garbage, it is about making something good out of grandpa’s garbage and leaving the very best garbage for your grandchildren. Postnaturalism means loving and embracing our human nature, the nature we have created to feed ourselves, the nature we live in. What good is environmentalism if it makes you depressed about the future?

This is about recognizing that our farms, and even our backyards and cities, are the most important wildlife refuges in the world and should be managed as such. We can keep people out of places we want to think of as wild, but these places will still be changing because of global warming and the alien species we introduce without even trying.

Evaluating Ruddiman’s long anthropocene hypothesis

From In The Field a report on a symposium on Bill Ruddiman‘s long anthropocene hypothesis -  that the development of agriculture caused significant global warming:

Ruddiman’s basic argument goes like this: Although the climate has cycled through a series of ice ages and warm interglacial periods for more than a million years, none of those warm spells looks like the one we’re in. In all previous cases, carbon dioxide and methane concentrations peaked just after the preceding ice age ended and then levels of those greenhouse gases dropped until the planet slipped again into a new glacial epoch. The planet seemed to be following the same routine since the last ice age ended about 11,000 years ago. But then something funny happened. After falling for a few thousand years, carbon dioxide levels started to rise about 8,000 years ago and methane values swung upward 5,000 years ago.

As an explanation, Ruddiman suggests that carbon dioxide concentrations started to grow when early farmers cleared vast stretches of forest to plant crops, thus reducing the planet’s ability to sop up carbon from the atmosphere. Later, when people learned how to irrigate rice 5,000 years ago, the paddies created for that purpose led to a jump in methane emissions. Those changes prevented the planet from slipping into an ice age, he suggested.

At Wednesday’s session, Ruddiman took the provocative stance of saying that the case is closed.

“I think we are at the point where it is a dead end to claim that natural [processes] explain the Holocene trends,” said Ruddiman, an emeritus professor at the University of Virgiinia. If you look at the previous interglacial periods, none show the rising pattern of carbon dioxide and methane. Q.E.D.

Jean Jouzel, director of the Pierre Simon Laplace Institute in Paris, said “the change in methane is huge. It’s difficult to think it’s not natural.” There were so few people alive 5,000 years ago that it would be hard for humans to account for the methane changes, he said. Jouzel was part of a group that examined the interglacials and made the point that they are each unique in some way. So arguments about the uniqueness of the current interglacial leave some researchers cool.