Tag Archives: great acceleration

Visualizing the great acceleration – part ii

The New Scientist adapted graphs from Will Steffen’s and others 2004 Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure for their feature How our economy is killing the Earth.

The three graphs show

  1. first how various drivers of change have accelerated,
  2. how these human changes have driven change in the Earth system, and finally -
  3. when these graphs are combined the accelerating growth of human civilization’s impact on the planet is clear.

(click on graphs for larger versions)

Visualizing the great acceleration

A visualization of the great acceleration from the Encyclopedia of the Earth article Evolution of the human-environment relationship by Costanza and others.


Figure 1. Selected indicators of environmental and human history.

While this depiction of past events is integrative and suggestive of major patterns and developments in the human-environment interaction, it plots only coincidence, not causation, and must, of course, be supplemented with integrated models and narratives of causation.

In this graph, time is plotted on the vertical axis on a log scale running from 100,000 years before present (BP) until now. Technological events are listed on the right side and cultural/political events are listed on the left.

Biologically modern humans arose at least 100,000 yrs BP and probably more than 200,000 – 250,000 yrs BP, but sedentism (and later agriculture) did not start until after the end of the last ice age and the dramatic warming and stabilization of climate that occurred around 10,000 yrs BP, at the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary.

Northern Hemisphere temperature can be reconstructed for this entire period from ice core data, combined with the instrument record from 1850 until the present.

Human population fluctuated globally at around 1 million until the advent of agriculture, after which it began to increase exponentially (with some declines as during the black death in Europe) to a current population of over 6 Billion.

Gross World Product (GWP) followed with some lag as people tapped new energy sources such as wind and eventually fossil fuels.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) closely track population, GWP and energy use for the last 150 years.

The start of the “Great Acceleration” after WWII can be clearly seen in the GWP, population, and water withdrawal plots.

The plot for “SE Asian Monsoons” shows the long-term variability in this important regional precipitation pattern.

Patterns in land use are shown as the fraction of land in forest, cropland, and in the “three largest polities”. This area in large “polities” or sovereign political entities has increased over time, with significant peaks at the height of the Roman, Islamic Caliphate, Mongol, and British empires. Currently the three largest polities are Russia, Canada, and China, together covering about 32% of the land surface. At the peak of the British empire in 1925, the 3 largest were Britain, Russia, and France, together covering about 53% of the land surface before the independence of British and French colonies.