How it took just one generation to stuff the planet

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In just a single life-time, unchecked human activity has put life on Earth in peril, according to two new research papers. Four of nine critical planetary processes have been crossed since the detonation of the first atomic bomb signalled the start of the Anthropocene, when human activity took over from natural variability.

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Mark down this date: Monday, July 16, 1945 – the day that the first atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert.

It is also the geological marker of the start of the “Great Acceleration” – when mad-made activities began to take over from natural variability with such force that it has taken the human race just one generation to pretty much “stuff the planet.”

Welcome to the Anthropocene. Such geological epochs are normally measured in the thousands of years, but scientists have been able to narrow it down the switch from the Holocene to the Anthropocene to a single day because the radioactive isotopes emitted to the atmosphere and spread worldwide by that detonation have entered the sedimentary record. That has provided a unique signal.

Since then, humanity has altered the planet to such a degree (well, nearly 0.85C in fact) that Earth’s natural systems have been pushed beyond natural variability and now risk being destabilized – all in a single lifetime.

As James Dyke, lecturer in Complex Systems Simulation at University of Southampton, writes for The Conversation: “We are sowing the seeds of havoc on the Earth, it suggests, and the time is fast approaching when we will reap this harvest.”

Already, the damage done by economic growth unchecked by environmental considerations over the past six and seven decades could potentially force a complete change in the state of the planet, which may render it a whole lot less hospitable for future generations.

International scientists have released two papers on Friday, published in the magazine Scientist, that suggests that the planet has already been disrupted.

The first paper identifies nine planetary processes that are indicators of the health of Earth, and regulate the stability and resilience of the planet.

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In four of these, the boundaries have already been crossed – the loss of biodiversity through an unprecedented rate of species extinction, and the overuse of fertilizers such as phosphorus and nitrogen already put those markets in the “red zone”.

Climate change and deforestation are not far behind. It means the risk of sliding into a “much less hospitable” world becomes high for current and future generations.

Australian scientist Will Steffen has also led research in the creation of a “dashboard” that document the  “Great Acceleration” in human activity since the 1950s. And it concludes that the main driver is the global economic system.

The first of these (in blue) are environmental indicators, the second (in orange) is in social and economic indicators. The rate of change since 1950 has accelerated dramatically in nearly all of them.

steff environ indicator steffen socio indicators

Given this, can we maintain our current standards of living and avoid calamity? Steffen says yes. “I am optimistic about this,” he says. He notes there was doom and gloom about abolition of slavery, which some said would ruin global economies even though slavery was clearly morally and ethically wrong. It didn’t.

But economies did not fall into a heap, and neither will they if the use of fossil fuels is wound down.

Steffen says there is growing confidence that things can be done differently, and rampant economic growth can be disconnected from rises in greenhouse gases – this will happen with the growing adoption of clean energy, and the electrification of transport. And scientists know that more people can be fed with less phosphorous and nitrogen.

Steffen says the climate talks in Paris this year will be crucial to address how many of these issues are addressed, particularly in relating to climate. And he says his graphs point to the issue of equity – the developed nations with just 18 per cent of the population account for 70 per cent of the economic growth most of the changes documented in his dashboard.

China is now the biggest emitter and other emerging countries are catching up first. This has prompted some Australian fossil fuel companies such as Origin Energy, to suggest that responsibility should be redefined along lines of emissions per unit of GDP – a measure that favours developed countries such as Australia, and penalizes developing countries.

“What it does say is that we cannot solve these issues without dealing with the equity issue,” Steffen says. We cannot sweep it under the carpet.”

And Steffen says that despite talk of “geo-engineering” as a way of reversing rises in average global warming, the ocean acidification means that levels of CO2 need to be addressed and cannot be ducked. Acidification increases as levels of carbon.

“Have we stuffed the planet yet? Not entirely,” Steffen says. “But there is a very high risk we will in coming decades if we don’t change direction.”

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11 Comments
  1. Nick Sharp 4 years ago

    “the “Great Acceleration” – when mad-made activities began to take over from natural variability”

    Typo? Perhaps not.

    Mind you, if it should have read man-made then that is probably at least 98% accurate. I think by and large it’s us blokes wot dunnit.

    Here’s my call on how taxation should change, but it’s under the “Pigs will take off vertically and fly in squadron formation at Mach2” heading (at least under this so-called government of adults):

    Tax all new non-renewables, not just fossil fuels. Do so at the mine, the refiner, the ports etc. Not too hard, so it meets one of two big criteria for tax: efficient to collect.

    The other criteria I most like (though there are many) is “inhibits something we should not do” (eg booze and fags taxes fit both criteria well)

    Putting (a possibly raised rate) GST on food, education, and health is lunacy. And represents a significant devaluation of savings.

    Results of a new non renewable resource tax (NNRRT): lot less NRs used up (that WILL stop) and much more recycling.

    Far too sensible. Never happen.

    • Pedro 4 years ago

      I like your idea of taxing non renewables at the source. Definitely should be part of a global tax debate. You could possibly greatly reduce and simplify income, & company tax. The NNRRT would be a bit like a goods tax. It could also benefit resource rich, poor countries where the mining companies can get away with extracting resources and not paying adequately to do so.

  2. Phil Gorman 4 years ago

    Just keep on giving us the facts Giles. That’s all any of us can do: keep presenting the evidence until the sheer weight of it crushes the liars and deniers. Sooner or later reality is going to bite the corporate bums who wilfully ignore it. What a tragedy that it’s already too late for so many species.

    First we destroyed the mega fauna
    but that was ok
    there was plenty more game

    Then we herded prey animals
    but that was ok
    and we became nomads

    Then we planted and sewed
    but that was ok
    and we founded cities

    Then we created deserts
    but that was ok
    and empires rose and fell

    Then we destroyed species by thousands
    but that was ok
    they had no economic value

    Then we killed millions of our own
    but that was ok
    and our numbers exploded

    Then we logged out the forests
    but that was ok
    and great profits were made

    Then we depleted the oceans
    but that was ok
    and we farmed fish instead

    Then we polluted the atmosphere
    but that was ok
    and the money rolled in

    Then we reaped what we had sewn
    but it wasn’t ok
    and it was too late

    • JFSmith99 4 years ago

      Well summarised.

      And Ben Elton’s prophetic movie “Stark” is more and more likely to play out in real life if we hold to our present suicidal course.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXpctkdCcz4

  3. Maurice Oldis 4 years ago

    Think the American Way of Life!!!

  4. Rob G 4 years ago

    It’s time to put these graphs into reverse. First and foremost we need to stop the fossil fuels. That already address some of these graphs, a biggie is what we are doing to our water supply. Then rebuilding and repairing can happen. I have seen first hand of the work that some organisations are doing to depart arid land with trees and while it has it’s challenges the outcome equals improvements. I’m eager to see the plans in South America unfold, that is a joint effort to rebuild forrest equal to the area of Uruguay! Some parts of the ocean are being cleaned up and fishermen are fishing for plastic rubbish!! A long way to go there though. Parts of the reef namely near the whitsundays is improving – the rest is in trouble. The Thames has seen fish returning as it becomes clearer. I want to be optimistic as I can see some action happening, but really we need a far bigger scale approach. We made the mess and now we owe nature to clean it up and that is going to take 200-300 years to fix…

  5. Miles Harding 4 years ago

    Welcome back Giles.

    That telescope diagram has me a bit concerned. It indicates that there is currently no problem with ocean acidification, but this is at odds with my knowledge of the issues.

    To date, the pH is 0.1 lower than the approximate 8.1 in pre-industrial times. It would seem that many organisms have a limit of tolerance of only 0.2 to 0.4 lower than 8.1, making their extinction likely, given the amount of carbon currently being emitted and absorbed by the oceans.

    I would think that it warrants a yellow or red.

  6. Ray Del Colle 4 years ago

    Switching to renewable, sustainable energy will stimulate the economy, create jobs, save money and clean up the environment. “Ask the majority of climate scientists: Carbon pollution from dirty energy is the main cause of global warming.” http://clmtr.lt/c/Syt0cd0cMJ

  7. disqus_3PLIicDhUu 4 years ago

    Thinking like elites, they would have a much simpler and cost effective solution for man made problems.
    They have a totally different view point derived from information they disseminate and more about power structures, than we only get snippets of from alternate media, think a son of Rinehart and Murdoch and go from there, so be careful with what you wish for.

  8. rosshas 4 years ago

    When studying economics in 1978 I was introduced to the concept of “internally substantiated benign neglect” as a rational for abandoning the pegged US dollar gold price as the basis for the international currency exchange.
    The same rationale now seems to explain the lack of serious action on climate change and all countries and companies are guilty.
    The availability of credit has exploded, government debt to GDP ratios have skyrocketed and there seems no end in sight.
    It has already resulted in tears over biodiversity loss and erratic climate variations and will inevitably result in irreparable damage to the planets eco-systems.
    Greed and ignorance, not denial of the science, are the real obstacles to addressing climate change. These human failings are driving rampant consumerism and the plundering of the earths resources.
    The UN, the WTO, the IMF appear impotent and governments the world over are resistant to putting environmental capital depreciation on the balance sheet.
    Whilst I agree that it is possible to improve global well being and address climate change there will need to be a complete overhaul of the economic system if we are to achieve this unlikely outcome. I personally do not see this happening any time soon.

  9. Supermastitis 4 years ago

    Very enjoyable read – I also found the original Steffen article
    “The trajectory of the Anthropocene: the Great Acceleration” free to
    access here:
    http://anr.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/01/08/2053019614564785.full.pdf+html

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