New thinking needed

Why the Anthropocene is not ‘climate change’ — and why that matters

Image from Welcome to the Anthropocene. Globaia, Planet Under Pressure.

Climate is just one part of the Earth System. If we focus on that alone, we will misunderstand the complexity of the danger posed by unprecedented planetary change.

Julia Adeney Thomas is an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. With Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams of the Anthropocene Working Group, she is currently completing a book titled The Anthropocene, for Polity Press.


by Julia Adeney Thomas

“Anthropocene” is a widely proposed name for the geological epoch that covers human impact on our planet. But it is not synonymous with “climate change,” nor can it covered by “environmental problems.” Bigger and more shocking, the Anthropocene encapsulates the evidence that human pressures became so profound around the middle of the 20th century that we blew a planetary gasket. Hello, new Earth System. Hello, Anthropocene.

The phrase “Earth System” refers to the entirety of our planet’s interacting physical, chemical, biological, and human processes. Enabled by new data-collecting technologies like satellites and ever more powerful computer modeling, Earth System science reframes how we understand our planet. Climate is just one element of this system; if we focus on that alone, we will misunderstand the complexity of the danger. The term “environment” helps us understand ourselves as part of ecosystems, but fails to capture the newness of our current situation. We have always lived in the environment; only very recently, just as Asia began its skyrocketing development, did we begin living in the altered Earth System of the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene requires a new way of thinking

The Anthropocene is a multidimensional challenge. Our future is more unpredictable than ever, with new phenomena like Category 5 megastorms, rapid species extinction, and the loss of polar ice. This change is irreversible. NASA says that levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) are higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years — well before our species evolved — causing the atmosphere to warm.

The climate has certainly changed, but so too have other aspects of the planetary system. Take the lithosphere: 193,000 human-made “inorganic crystalline compounds,” or what you and I might call “rocks,” now vastly outnumber Earth’s ~5000 natural minerals, while 8.3 billion tons of plastics coat the land, water, and our internal organs. Due to modern agribusiness techniques, so much topsoil is washing away that England has only about 60 more harvests left.

The biosphere is equally altered. Never has the planet been so crowded with human beings. In 1900, there were around 1.5 billion of us; in the 1960s, around 3 billion; today there are upwards of 7.4 billion. Human beings and our domesticated animals comprise an astounding 97% of the total zoomass of terrestrial mammals, meaning that wild creatures make up a miserly 3%. Humans and our companion species occupy considerably more than half of the planet’s habitable land surface. Concerning the hydrosphere, fresh water renews itself at the rate of about 1% a year, but currently 21 out of 37 of the world’s major aquifers are being drawn down faster—in some cases much faster — than they can be replenished.

The planet’s chemistry has changed too. Warmer oceans interfere with the production of oxygen by phytoplankton, and some scientists predict that with a rise of 6oC — which could happen as soon as 2100—this oxygen production could cease. Our production of fixed nitrogen is five times higher than it was 60 years ago; in fact, Earth has never had so much fixed nitrogen in its entire ~4.5-billion-year history. Since World War II, synthetic chemical production has increased more than thirtyfold. Of the more than 80,000 new chemicals, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has tested only about 200 for human health risks.

Alarming as each factor is on its own, the concept of the Anthropocene brings all these factors and others together. This is the only way that we can understand Earth as a single reverberating system with feedback loops and tipping points that we can’t yet predict.

The Anthropocene’s interrelated systematicity presents not a problem, but a multidimensional predicament. A problem might be solved, often with a single technological tool produced by experts in a single field, but a predicament presents a challenging condition requiring resources and ideas of many kinds. We don’t solve predicaments; instead, we navigate through them.

Collaboration among scientists, policymakers, social scientists, humanists, and community leaders is key to contending with the Anthropocene. Technology is important, but the hardest challenges will be about how to alter our political and economic systems. Even the United Nations’ US$24 million Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) concluded that our current systems are not up to the task: we need “significant changes in policies, institutions and practices that are not currently under way.”

The danger of the one-dimensional thinking of climate change

So, are the techno-optimists, who believe most world problems can be solved by innovation, wrong? The answer to this question is that they are not so much wrong as misguided, addressing a narrow issue in the narrowest terms. Most begin by gesturing toward the totality of environmental problems, but end by focusing on climate change alone. Sometimes climate change is further reduced to CO2 emissions to the exclusion of all other greenhouse gases, such as methane.

A favorite example of techno-optimists like economist Jeffrey Sachs is substituting wind power for fossil fuels. Like others, he speaks in confident tones about “decoupling” economic growth from natural resources, contending that “growth can continue while pressures on key resources (water, air, land, habitats of other species) and pollution are significantly reduced rather than increased,” by means of new technologies and market pricing. In short, we can provide for the growing human population (expected to hit 8 billion in 2023) without destroying the ecosystem, without impoverishing future generations, and without bothering to transform our political and economic systems. The status quo is fine if we tighten a few nuts and bolts.

Let us look at this techno-optimism from the Anthropocene perspective.

Most offshore wind turbines require rare earth metals sourced from China, which supplies about 90% of the world’s demand and has a monopoly on some elements. Not only are the mines of China’s primary production site, the southeastern province of Jiangxi, being rapidly depleted, but such mining entails shocking environmental and social costs. According to investigative journalist Liu Hongqiao, “Research has found that producing one ton of rare earth ore (in terms of rare earth oxides) produces 200 cubic meters of acidic wastewater. The production of the rare earths needed to meet China’s demand for wind turbines up to 2050 … will result in the release of 80 million cubic meters of wastewater.”

Once obtained, this ore must be transported and processed to make turbines. These turbines, once positioned, require maintenance, using more resources. Ultimately, though, they will end up as refuse, more trash on our trash-filled planet. There is nothing dematerialized or carbon-free about wind turbines if we look at the total picture.

Reducing our problem to climate change, then to CO2, and finally to measuring emissions only at the point of energy production is a dramatic misrepresentation of our dilemma. An Anthropocene perspective is needed to keep the totality of the predicament in view.

Slowing climate change is crucial but navigating its challenges is only possible if it is understood as one facet of planetary overshoot. The challenges of our altered, unpredictable Earth System cannot be met by technological tinkering within the very systems that pushed it over the edge in the first place. There’s nothing for it but to roll up our sleeves and begin the hard work of transforming our political and economic systems with the aims of decency and resilience.

Reposted, with permission from the author,
from AsiaGlobal, January 10, 2019.

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Posted in Anthropocene, Climate Change

6 Responses to Why the Anthropocene is not ‘climate change’ — and why that matters

  1. Bernard McKenna February 2, 2019 at 1:47 am #

    This is a fine article: and concisely names the challenges we are facing. Much appreciated

  2. Brian Bailey February 4, 2019 at 10:56 am #

    My son Kyle talked about “Gaia” sp. a concept where the planet earth will protect itself no matter what we do even if it that causes all life to disappear.

  3. David Schwartzman February 4, 2019 at 3:23 pm #

    Like the author I reject the “techno-optimistic green capital solve all our problems” perspective.
    But I am critical her views on the potential of wind power in the example she gives, and by implication other energy technologies providing high efficiency collection of solar flux to Earth. Her critique of rare earth mining for wind turbine technology is well taken, however this issue should not necessarily block a big expansion of global wind power. Alternatives to the use of rare earths are being developed and second, the rate of recycling of rare earths is now low, but as the global solar/wind power infrastructure expands and replaces fossil fuels its capacity to recycle will grow, phasing out extractivism. And by all means requiring a strong protection regime for renewable technology with respect to its environmental and health impacts should be a priority for the climate and energy justice movement. This subject is discussed in our recently published book (see short review on this website last October), The Earth is Not for Sale (http://theearthisnotforsale.org).

  4. steve deeming February 5, 2019 at 6:31 pm #

    I have to agree with the article writer, particularly her final sentence. Having also read Ian Angus’ work as well as John Bellamy Foster and Clive Hamilton the disruption of our Earth System is a symptom of a total denial of social justice. Only when all have what they need , rather than the few have what they want, will humans be empowered to bring the necessary shift . I find myself totally at odds with technology that produces more energy, albeit ecologically, when the planet dictates that we consume less (in the words of Manfred van Neef http://www.nonfixe.nl/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/max-neef-Human-Scale-Development.pdf from what seems aeons ago), can we work with Human Scale Development.

    We are all digging holes…some are digging faster and thereby deeper than others. It maybe too late, even if we stop this hole digging, to prevent changing the planet permanently for us and other species, but the effort needs to be made to at least slow it down. We cannot put stuff back, but given the chance with the right ( or should that be ‘left’?) structures we might stop projected tipping points and allow our earth to re-balance.

    Freedom is the right not to do as we want, but sometimes to say ‘No! I will not do that’.

  5. Stephen Mikesell February 7, 2019 at 2:02 pm #

    Regarding the concept of “anthropocene,” the author of “Fossil Capital” Andreas Malm in his article “The Anthropocene Myth” strongly disagrees with the use of the term as wrongly framing the problem and unable to pose strategy. For example, whom do you mean by “we”? Malm might say it is an abstract subject, that consequently is unable to identify the real subject at work and thus is meaningless for action. Thus the last paragraph may sound nice rhetorically, but who is to role up their sleeves, what are the forces they find themselves opposed to, how are they to confront them?

    Regarding “environment,” I would suggest familiarizing oneself with the late Canadian ecologist J. Stan Rowe’s “What on Earth is Environment?” . The word “environment,” which means what “surrounds” humans, still poses humans as separated from, and thereby objectifying, nature as premised by the Cartesian worldview underlying science. Alfred North Whitehead in his “Science and the Modern World” said such premise is derived from prophetic Judeo-Christianity’s positing humans as separated from God, which has been internalized by science–something it can’t perceive due to its rejection of metaphysics, which it conflated with religion. More generally is Rowe’s discussion of the living planet that he calls “ecosphere,” as opposed to “earth system” and also “biosphere”. The ecosphere concept is explored in the collection of works available on the same website . Ecosphere perhaps is similar to the Gaia concept James Lovelock’s and Lynn Margolis, which another commenter mentioned, but it is based in the tradition of ecology as opposed to both the Earth System view of Lovelock and the biosphere concept which so influenced Margolis.

    An Earth System implies that humans can manipulate or, as you term it, navigate through the problem, something Rowe says is beyond human possibility and to think we can do so is hubris. Probably because of Rowe’s close connection to Wes Jackson and the Land Institute, the ecosphere concept also seems to be informed by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s work. From that, perhaps, comes Rowe’s visualization of the ecosphere as “deity incarnate,” derived possibly from the very complex dual notion of “God” that Whitehead said is required by his post-relativistic re-conceptualization of the scientific worldview. Every conceptual system, including science, must premise itself upon notions that can’t be proven within its own logical framework — what Popper, I assume spoke of as ‘paradigm’ but Whitehead developed, I think, much more deeply over the course of a series of lectures in several universities. Because of unverifiable premises derived from a universe unknowable, and thus because it is itself derived from and dependent upon that universe home planet, in its totality. Human knowledge and action will always be based in and predicated upon ignorance. The best humans can do is try to learn to live according to nature and trust nature, which in so doing may work things out, what the Land Institute speaks in terms of living, and specifically in terms of their specific project farming, “in the image of nature.”

  6. Tonami Jones March 3, 2019 at 6:59 am #

    With the grim outlook of knowing the creation of many alternative energy sources cause many other problems in time What truly is the solution to this challenge? Do we need to discover how to reduce fossil fuels or any other type of development for earth’s sustainable future in a way that does not deplete the earth and its already diminishing resources. Whather it’s our oxygen levels or loosing/gaining land mass,could we take an example from bio-intensive farmers who not only grow foos sustainably but add to the earth, it’s future existence?

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