“Welcome to the Anthropocene”

“The Economist” ran this cover story last week. It’s the most important news item in 10,000 years. Of course it’s not really “news.” In 2000, atmospheric chemists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer first suggested the term, meaning “the recent age of man,” the geological period in which humans change the way the planet works in geochemical terms. Stunning. The Anthropocene brings to a close the 10,000 year Holocene epoch, a climatically stable, yet relatively brief period at the end of the 65 million year Cenozoic Era. This is a significant milestone in the 4 billion year history of planet earth. What is “news” is that the leading mainstream economics periodical places this reality on the cover of its weekly magazine, suggesting an acceptance of this realization, with all of the profound implications that follow. Let us be clear: this is not good news. This is a wake up call of epic proportions that we’d better deal with, despite all of our other pressing short-term challenges. Unfortunately, The Economist’s article falls victim to our human-centric and innate “optimists’ bias” in describing the new era. “The challenge of the Anthropocene,” writes The Economist, “is to use human ingenuity to set things up so that the planet can accomplish its 21st-century task” (i.e., to support the 10 billion humans we are expected to have later this century before the population levels off). This of course is the same “human ingenuity” that has ushered in the Anthropocene in the first place. Most notably our acceleration of the nitrogen cycle with the so-called “green revolution” that has created hundreds of dead zones at the mouth of most major river systems where the fertilizer runoff creates algae blooms that exhaust the oxygen supply and snuff out all life. In the web of life where everything is interconnected, this matters. Not unrelated, extinction rates are running at 1000 times or more of the expected base rate. Then there is the carbon cycle disruption due to accelerating burning of fossil fuels releasing millions of years of carbon sequestered deep inside rocks into the atmosphere. Desertification, largely caused by agriculture mismanagement and by human interference with the natural synergy between large herbivores and the grasslands, further builds carbon in the atmosphere through the destruction of our soils, the second largest natural carbon sink after the oceans. Human ingenuity has proven to be successful in many domains, most notably in our ability to make things. But as Allan Savory likes to say, it has often proven to be disastrous in our ability to manage complex systems, from the agricultural system to the financial system. I see no evidence (or logic) that the planet’s purpose is to “accomplish its 21st-century task” of supporting 10 billion people (particularly at a comfortable western, middle-class lifestyle that we’d all wish for). On the contrary, the evidence seems overwhelming that the odds favor the planet imposing its will, as reflected in the laws of thermodynamics, on the self-important (and ignorant) human race. Recent tornado activity in the US, including most “abnormally” in central Massachusetts, is but the latest reminder of the new normal of the Anthropocene. The core economic system presumption of abundant natural resources (and waste sinks) growing forever is not consistent with plainly observable and scientifically documented facts. Human ingenuity can and will continue to accomplish many things. But remaking and managing the biochemistry of planet earth is a challenge beyond anything we can genuinely comprehend. Our challenge at the beginning of the Anthropocene is to find a suitably humble response, worthy of the responsibility that it implies. Thus far, we are failing in this responsibility, and we in the United States are a particular embarrassment as we consume on average twice the energy to support our lifestyles as even the rest of the developed world, and our financial system is the source of financial contagion that has led to a doubling of the debt load on many nations right at the time when the arrival of the Anthropocene means that the long-term economic growth necessary to service this debt load will be permanently challenged. As the world continues to respond to seemingly endless strife, one truth emerges as an organizing principle for our response to the arrival of the Anthropocene: interdependence. We are all in this together. Our greatest opportunity, and our most urgent responsibility, lies in enabling and accelerating a consciousness shift to an ethos of collaboration in our economic affairs, rather than ever-greater competition. Difficult for sure, but there is no palatable alternative. Competition has its place, like in sports, culture, and innovation. But ultimately our system of commerce in the Anthropocene, with the limits it will imply, must be organized around an ethos of collaboration. Collaboration among communities, and collaboration with the non-human community called Earth we now effect. There is no “winning” against the natural systems of the planet, and there is no civilization in competing to the end for scarce resources. The Anthropocene shifts the meaning and importance of free will. It’s a fantastic challenge. May we all rise to the occasion.