Blog #2 Phase Three of The Anthropocene

At a conference several years ago I heard Will Steffen give a keynote address on the Anthropocene.  This was a term I had not heard before and that twenty-minute talk changed me!  Suddenly four decades of working on coastlines in the US, in Latin America, in Southeast Asia, in Europe, in Africa, came together like a 500 piece puzzle.  The bigger picture in all its detail snapped into focus.  The years spent piecing together scattered information on trends, the shifts in the condition of the people of a place, how they relate to their resources and environment, the sorting of issues raised by urgent needs for both development and conservation, for mediation, for restructuring institutions, for public education all fitted into a single unifying narrative.  I understood what I had been seeing and what I had been trying to do with a new and wonderful clarity.

The Anthropocene, Will explained, is the latest era in the evolution of our planet and a time when the activity of our species - not bombardment by asteroids or volcanism - has become the dominant force reshaping its ecology.  Human beings flourished and multiplied during the previous era, the Holocene, the ten thousand years of prolonged climatic stability that came after the retreat of the last of the great continental ice sheets.  Thanks to the unprecedented stability of the climate, our species evolved from scattered bands of hunter-gatherers, to agriculturalists and ever more sophisticated societies.  In a solar economy people had to rely upon human muscle power, augmented by the power of some domesticated animals, upon flows of energy in the form of wind and water and the 100 to 200 year storage of energy in trees.  This placed limits on the size of the human population.  The limited scope of activities that people could undertake could only be expanded by an additional source of energy.  In the late 1700s the transition to Phase One of the Anthropocene began as people discovered how to exploit fossilized concentrations of carbon, principally coal and petroleum.  Technologies that harnessed fossil fuels drove the gradual spread of the industrialization.

Phase Two of the Anthropocene, the Great Acceleration, began after World War II when, in a strategy designed to head off further world wars, economic development, measured as sustained economic growth, became the unifying goal of powerful new international institutions, all national governments, and businesses of every size supported by an unquestioningly supportive public.  By many measures the economic growth strategy has been successful.  We have - by the skin of our teeth - avoided engulfing war.  The proportion of the planet’s people living in poverty has been reduced and the standard of living for most of us has increased dramatically even though our numbers have increased from 2.5 billion in 1950 to 7 billion today and on the way to perhaps 10 billion by 2050.  This pulse in human activity, all of it enabled by fossil fuels, inevitably generates wastes.  One of the waste products of burning fossil fuels is CO2, a greenhouse gas.  During the Holocene CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere ranged between 270 and 275 parts per million (ppm).  By the end of Phase One of the Anthropocene, in 1950, CO2 concentrations had risen to 300ppm.  Last year they passed 400ppm.  If we continue on the current path the planet’s average temperature, that had not varied by more than one degree centigrade above or below the median during the Holocene, will rocket up by 2 to 3 degrees centigrade, possibly more.  Our beautiful planet, by the end of this century, will be less friendly to our species. 

I believe that we are entering Phase Three of the Anthropocene.  Phases One and Two can be described by any number of similar looking graphs – a slow and steady increase throughout all human history, followed by an explosive, exponential increase since our transition to a fossil fuel based economy.  Graphs of human population, global GNP, the production of polluting byproducts, deforestation and fisheries depletion, and many more, all follow the same trajectory.  Together, they tell a story of dramatic and expanding ecosystem change at the global scale.  As we enter Phase Three, these graphs will begin level off or head down – one way or another.  Our coastal cities will be threatened by rising sea level, our food supply will be made uncertain by changes in rainfall, our consumption-driven economies can no longer be viable as the bulwark against engulfing violence.  Our governance systems, constructed around the central goal of economic growth, privatization of resources and short-term monetary rewards will have to change.  Retooling our governance system is the heart of what has to change.  And that means changes in goals, changes in values, changes in time frames, and changes in how we govern the commons, not least the atmosphere and the oceans.  Ecosystem governance is concerned with instigating changes in collective human behavior at a range of scales.  How do we gauge the capacity of people and their institutions to change in specific places at a specific spatial scale and in a specific place?  How do we assess progress towards desired outcomes?  How do we promote collective learning?  What incentives can be offered?  The third phase of the Anthropocene makes answering such questions urgent.  As Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse has argued, we will either change because events overtake us and we have no choice, or we will see what is coming and make the adjustments to avoid or mitigate what will otherwise overwhelm us. 

Phase Three of the Anthropocene, requires rethinking our goals as individual societies and as a global community.  We have an abundance of data and the knowledge to interpret it and assemble plausible scenarios of what is to come.  We know in considerable detail what human behaviors need to change.  We also know that the future will be full of surprises.  And it is obvious that we do not have the governance systems that can respond adequately to what is coming.  A central theme of this blog will be to explore how we can analyze governance systems, gauge their ability to respond to ecosystem change and see how they might be strengthened.  At most spatial scales the ability to change is currently modest unless such change quickly generates monetary wealth for someone.  In Phase Three of the Anthropocene the generation of monetary wealth cannot continue to be the principle incentive for changed behavior.