Living in an Anthropocene world

By guest blogger James P M Syvitski, Chair of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme

One example of our planetary impact is the extensive modification of deltas. Pictured here is the Yellow River Delta, with oil rigs laid out on a grid pattern. The thick Gudong Seawall projects the oil fields from innundation.

It seems that hardly a day passes without new research or a new media story demonstrating the human impact on the Earth system. It’s easy to think that we know a lot about our planetary footprint. And we do indeed. But there is much that we know little about. For example, what are the thresholds we need to worry about and how likely is it for one or more of the so-called tipping points to be crossed? What can we do to prevent this from happening? We need to have a cold hard look at the available evidence and continue to collect missing information.

As this is an unfolding story of a change in our Earth system, we must continue to deploy and maintain appropriate observing systems. But we need to do better than repeat the business-as-usual approach that favours observations of the more easily sensed atmosphere and surface oceans. Monitoring the complexities of the terrestrial environment more effectively is just as important.

If addiction is a recurring compulsion to engage in some specific activity despite the knowledge of its harmful consequences, humans are certainly afflicted by one. We continue to extract and consume resources at rates that are clearly unsustainable. Following up on a question raised by a companion blog, can we change our behaviour and embrace a more sustainable way of living, and if so, how? Unfortunately this is proving to be a far tougher question to answer, for the constraints are not merely poor information or less sophisticated models. What if the answer entails a transformation of our societies, political systems, economies and even international power relations?

Clearly, answering the big questions pertaining to sustainability requires diverse expertise and a solutions-based approach. Existing global-change research programmes like IGBP have contributed immensely to our understanding of the Earth system and of its modification by humans. It is now time to build on this foundation and harness this knowledge to explore creative solutions to the planet’s problems. The current research on global change needs to be supplemented by that on societies, policy and economics. Inputs from industry will need to be solicited, for it will need to be part of any solution.

The structures that do this aren’t in place yet, but the planned Future Earth initiative is a step in the right direction. Contours of the initiative are being worked out at the moment by a team reporting to an alliance that includes the International Council of Science, the International Social Science Council, big funders of global-change research and some UN agencies. The Planet Under Pressure conference in London this year might be a good place to find out how an integrated approach to solutions might look like (

We have entered the Anthropocene, without question.  Some of the changes, for example those brought about by large reservoirs and megacities, are here to stay for hundreds if not thousands or even millions of years. We will simply have to get used to and find a way of living with such changes. But there are things we can and should change to keep improving human wellbeing and to avoid crossing potentially dangerous thresholds. Our strength as humans is the capacity to recognise problems, to understand them and to develop solutions. The final chapter of the Anthropocene story is yet to be written: the narrative will depend on our collective self-awareness and the capacity to correct our course, for the relentless pressure on our planet portends unprecedented destabilisation.

James P M Syvitski, the Chair of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, is the Executive Director of the Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System, University of Colorado-Boulder, USA. He is Fellow and Former Director of INSTAAR.

This “guest” blog post is an excerpt from the article “Anthropocene: An epoch of our making”, published in the March 2012 issue of International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme’s Global Change magazine. You can read the online version of the article here.

One response to “Living in an Anthropocene world

  1. Speaking of tipping points, In my 81 years I have lived through about 10,000 of them and none of them have hurt me yet. Of course, being on the downside of all those tipping points I guess I am doomed. Then again, you guys think we are doomed anyway so I might as well enjoy the time I have left. I am going to take a hike in the beautiful Shenandoah National Park tomorrow and contemplate it’s destruction by whatever you guys think of next.

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