Monday, April 10, 2017

The Anthropocene Equation

This may be a bit difficult to get your head around but a pair of scientists have worked out a new equation to gauge how quickly we - you and I, mankind - are destroying the planet. It's being called the Anthropocene Equation.  It describes the situation where astronomical and physical forcing have come to be eclipsed by man made forcing.

Here's an explanation of the Anthropocene Equation for lay people:

Named the Anthropocene equation, the formula was created by Will Steffen, a climate research professor at the Australian National University, and Owen Gaffney, a science journalist and communications consultant at the sustainability research firm Future Earth. According to their formula, recently published in The Anthropocene Review, human activity is altering the environment 170 times faster than under normal circumstances.

What do the authors mean by normal circumstances? Up until the Anthropocene age—our current geological age, during which human activity has exerted a dominant influence on the planetary ecosystem—Earth’s environment was shaped by three main determinants: astronomical forces (A), which affect insolation and mostly relate to the “gravitational effects of the sun and other planets”; geophysical forces (G), which include “volcanic activity, weathering and tectonic movement”; and internal dynamics (I), which pertain to the natural course of biological activity taking place on the planet.

But within the last century, the authors argue, these forces have largely paled in comparison to the overwhelming effects of human activity (H). Given this fact, Steffen and Gaffney were able to model their equation, which essentially suggests that due to massive population growth, consumption and technology, the (H) factor has become the sole force shaping the trajectory of Earth’s environmental system.  

Gaffney explained to New Scientis that “far from living on a deeply resilient planet, we live on a planet with hair triggers.” The problem is that we have been “lulled into a false sense of security by the deceptive stability of the Holocene”—the previous geological era that spanned the last 11,700 years.

“Remarkably and accidentally,” Gaffney continued, “we have ejected the Earth system from the interglacial envelope and are heading into uncharted waters.”

Humanity has reached a tipping point. How our leaders decide to act now and in the next decade will drastically determine what direction our future takes. The authors themselves described their study as “an unequivocal statement of the risks industrialised societies are taking at a time when action is vital.”

If no drastic changes takes place, it could “trigger societal collapse.”

We face two very distinct possible realities. In one future, thanks to the greed of a small handful of global elites, humans will become extinct.

Enter the second possible future, forged through global unity, instead of division. It’s difficult to picture what form such unity should take, which makes it a challenge. What we do know, as the New Scientist article points out, is that instead of our current “dominant neoliberal economic systems [which] still assume Holocene-like boundary conditions,” what we need is “a ‘biosphere positive’ Anthropocene economics.”

Yuval Noah Harari is a historian and author of the book Sapiens, which provides a sprawling and incisive historical account of our species. His new book, Homo Deus, offers a similar expansive view of our future.

"The old 20th-century political model of left versus right is now largely irrelevant,” Harari said. “The real divide today is between global and national, global or local.” He noted that we now have a global ecology and economy, but a national politics, which makes our “current political system ineffective, because it has no control over the forces that shape our life.”

Like our two possible futures, Harari believes human society has two possible solutions: “Either de-globalize the economy and turn it back into a national economy, or globalize the political system.” The latter suggestion might sound a bit unrealistic at the present moment, but if humanity wants to avoid near-certain doom, it is probably the direction we will need to take.

We remain ensnarled in the neoliberal quagmire that is based on the stable conditions of the now departed Holocene. We're stuck with a political economic model, neoliberalism, that no longer works and yet our leadership, Canada included, is intent on perpetuating it until it is finally pried from our "cold, dead fingers."

There is little, make that zero, prospect of globalizing the political system. That would demand a great leveling that the peoples of the advanced nations would not abide. We will not give up our political domination, our standards of living and our levels of consumption. There's not a single politician in any major party or any major country who would suggest such a thing even couched in the most hypothetical language.

We are at a tipping point. Time is not on our side. We have a dozen years, probably less, to decide the fate of our species.


Toby said...

The fate of our species will probably resemble its beginning. As Einstein postulated, WWIV will be fought with stones.

Hugh said...

The economy runs on energy. Govt wants to grow the economy. The economy is now mainly powered by fossil fuels. BC has BC Hydro, which produces about 11,000 megawatts of clean, renewable hydro energy.

AniO said...

Here is a hopeful idea:

The Mound of Sound said...

Thanks AniO. What Kate Raworth proposes appears to be a variation on the "steady state" economic models, something I've been championing for quite a while. The steady state model is addressed in books such as Herman Daly's, "Beyond Growth," or Thomas Prugh's anthology of essays, "Natural Capital and Human Economic Survival," among others.

The underlying principles hold that the economy can never be permitted to expand beyond the environment, our planet's ecological carrying capacity (it's nearly double today); population must be stabilized and then, through reproductive technologies, births matched to deaths; and, in an economy finally shrunk safely within the limits of the environment (the survivable capacity), growth in production, consumption and waste must be static with growth afterward focused on knowledge (how to do everything better) and quality of life.

I don't mention these ideas much any longer because I think they represent a level of enlightenment that's simply beyond us as communities, as nations and as a global civilization. That sounds cynical because it is yet if these principles, so obvious and sensible, cannot be grasped even by our Green Party leadership in Canada, they won't have a chance of getting off the ground elsewhere - the U.S., China, India in particular.