Opinion | Getting the Earth out of the Anthropocene period
As much as nations can do, it is not until organizations and individuals pledge their support that we will make a change
The Earth’s orbit around the sun has, for the last 12,000 years, been more circular than it has been at anytime in the past 400,000 years. As a result, even though it has, for most of its history, been a planet whose surface temperatures varied significantly during the course of a year, the weather for most of the time that mankind has been around has been quite pleasant.
It is due to this period of planetary warmth, a time anthropologists call the Holocene, that homo sapiens were able to develop into a truly planetary species. Thanks to the stability of the weather patterns, we were able to invent agriculture. This is why nearly all the great civilisations of the past—Indus Valley, Ancient Egypt and the Mayans—came into being at roughly the same time, and the reason why we have managed to evolve from hunter-gatherer tribes to agrarian societies and, finally, into the highly evolved planetary species we are today.
Data from the Greenland ice core indicates that over the past 125,000 years, there have been just two interglacial periods when the planet warmed to current levels. Never before has a period of temperate warmth lasted for more than 10,000 years. This current interglacial has already gone on for 12,000 years and shows no signs of cooling down. Instead, thanks to its unusual orbit, temperate conditions are expected to continue for at least another 50,000 years. It seems that humankind has, serendipitously, been born onto the one planet in the solar system that is at the exactly right distance from the sun, at the one time in history when its orbit has stabilised enough to make it capable of supporting a life form as fragile as ourselves. This sort of fortune should not be sneered at.
Unfortunately, we have taken it all for granted. Instead of doing everything we can to preserve the fortuitous balance we were born into, mankind has, through industrialisation and a wanton disregard for the planetary ecosystem, put the many life-giving systems on Earth under immense stress.
In addition to its orbit, the one other thing that has contributed to our salubrious climate is our atmosphere. We have just the right concentration of carbon dioxide in the air to ensure that enough radiated heat remains trapped near the surface to support life. If this balance is tampered with, the atmosphere could either bleed too much heat out to space, thereby freezing the oceans, or trap so much heat near the surface that the oceans boil over. The acceptable upper limit of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere is 350 parts per million. Up to that level, the Earth’s atmosphere will ensure that the temperature at the surface of the Earth is able to support life as we know it. If the percentage of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises beyond those levels, the atmosphere will trap more and more heat, raising the surface temperature uncomfortably, till the polar ice caps melt and the ocean levels rise significantly.
Thanks to unabated industrialisation and the rampant use of fossil fuels, humanity has driven the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to over 400 parts per million. In addition, our use of synthetic fertilizers has artificially doubled the volumes of nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil at the surface of the Earth, resulting in toxic run-offs. This coupled with deforestation has had such a serious impact that the natural biodiversity of the planet has shrunk and species are getting extinct 10 times faster than scientists consider acceptable.
We have passed from the Holocene to the Anthropocene—the first planetary period in the history of the planet named after the one species whose actions have changed the course of its destiny.
If we want to ensure that we don’t squander the remaining 38,000 years of planetary serendipity we’ve been given, we’d do well to take steps to lift the planet out of the Anthropocene and back into the Holocene. It would take extraordinary international commitment in favour of sustainable development to achieve this. Nations around the world need to aggressively reduce carbon emissions and quickly commit to using alternative energy sources.
Last week, diplomats from nearly 200 countries reached a deal that will keep COP24—the Paris Climate Accord—alive. They agreed to adopt uniform standards in measuring emissions and to prepare concrete national plans to cut down on emissions before the next round of talks in 2020.
Even though the current US administration seems to have every intention to pull out of the Paris Accord, also present for the negotiations in Poland was a second delegation from the US—a coalition comprising governors of 10 states, mayors from cities across the US, leaders of large corporations and heads of cultural institutions. This second group was there to reaffirm their personal commitment to sustainability despite the current stance of the US government. If push comes to shove, the commitments made by each of the individual members of this coalition could well be all that is needed to drive the trajectory of US emissions close to its target. It is commitments like these that will get us back on track. As much as nations can do, it is not until organizations and individuals pledge their support that we will make a change.
Ex Machina is a column on technology, law and everything in between.
Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and author of ‘Privacy 3.0: Unlocking Our Data Drive Future’. His Twitter handle is @matthan.
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