When I was a little kid I stood with admiration in front of a museum display. It showed the growth of the human population over time. For each additional million people one dot was added in the given location. This was accompanied with deep thumping sound. Starting out in Africa, I watched how my ancestors spread over the different continents. First it took some time from one dot to the next. The accompanying sounds reminded me of a slow heart beat. However, once humans entered the beginning of the industrial revolution, dots started popping up at a rapidly increasing pace, frequently lighting up in Europe, the Americas, Asia and so on. The heartbeat now was no longer at rest, it was racing. From a distance it looked like the growth of bacteria, feeding of an organism. The heartbeat of that organism was operating at an increasingly exhausting pace. At the time I was deeply impressed by that image and it stayed with me.
Yesterday, I came across an interesting lead article in the Economist, entitled “Welcome to the Anthropocene”, which argued that we have left the geologic age of the Holocene and we are witnessing and participating in the dawn of a new age, where humans have become the major driving force behind changes of global proportions. This does not just pertain to climate change, which is largely the result of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels and land-use changes. It goes well beyond that. We are now a major influence on a broad range of physical, chemical and biological processes, where nature has now taken a back-seat. The article cites various examples. There is the example of a tarsands mine, which, according to the article, moves more sediment per year than the sediment that flows through all the rivers of the world combined. Plenty of examples can be found. We are altering the carbon and nitrogen cycles. We are changing the climate. We are moving species across continents. We are emptying the oceans of fish.
Human activities and land-use changes are now altering the face of the earth at a rapid pace and with it the ecosystem goods and services upon which we all depend. In its recent Living Planet report, WWF shows that humans are replenishing natural resources faster than the can be regenerated. Hence, we are heavily discounting the wealth of future generations in favor of our own. If we continue on this path, more people in the future will have less natural resources to provide for their needs. The Economist article, further reminds us that the time is over, where we can claim our actions do not have a global impact. They do and they do so in many and inter-connected ways.
So what to do? We cannot go back, but can only move forward. But how, that is the question? With the realization that some of our actions have an impact of global proportions, there comes also new awareness and responsibility. This is not a case against development, but it is a case for smart development and growth, that recognizes physical boundary conditions within which development processes operate.
It means promoting economic growth in sectors that prepare us for the future. It requires building resilience to climatic changes, particularly in those regions, where livelihoods and economic sectors are most dependent on natural resources. Improved land and natural resource management policies and measures are necessary to reduce environmental degradation and increase agricultural yields per area. It requires a mix of energy technologies that reduce our dependency on fossil fuels, and an up-scaling of energy efficiency practices across all scales, so that economic activities are increasingly becoming decoupled from greenhouse gas emissions and that we avoid climatic changes, that we can no longer manage. It will also mean that destructive practices, such as mining of tarsands, are off limits, as such efforts are ill-suited for a planet that will be home of 9 billion people by mid century.
It also means that we redefine our relationship with natural resources by recognizing the valuable services they provide. This is starting to happen. Norway is one of the leading donors for REDD+, which is shorthand for policies and measures aimed at reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation, plus enhancing carbon stocks and sustainable management. The basic idea behind REDD+ is to create economic incentives for tropical forest countries to reduce deforestation rates and make alternative land-use choices. It is a process in its early beginnings and there are many challenges that need to be resolved, but the thinking is going in the right direction.
Frank Sperling is a Senior Advisor on Climate Risks, Forests and Carbon with WWF Norway
For the Economist Articles on the Anthropocene, please see:
To learn more about WWF Norway’s conservation work:
WWF’s Global Climate Change work:
WWF’s international work on conserving tropical forests for the benefit of climate, people and nature:
REDD+/Tropical Rainforests: http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/climate_carbon_energy/forest_climate/
Other relevant links: