Imagine the Earth as seen from outer space, blue and white, beautiful. In order to understand the implications of the Anthropocene, we must keep this picture in our head. The Anthropocene is the new epoch that started about 50 years ago and is characterized by the ability of human intervention to drastically disturb all of the Earth’s systems. Earth is now in a no-analog state, meaning that it hasn’t happened before.
Relentless human activity since the Industrial revolution has disturbed the essential systems of Earth: atmosphere, ocean, land, and cryosphere. It is enough to look at the graphs of carbon dioxide and methane for the last 800 thousand years to see that we have gone beyond the safe limit and into the unknown. Their rise in the atmosphere coincides with industrialization driven by profits without thinking of a sustainable balance.
We can imagine the time when humans entered the geological scene during the Pleistocene, about 200 thousand years ago. The climate was very unstable, with deep swings ranging from ice ages to hot periods, making agriculture difficult. Fortunately, 11,700 years ago, a benign climatic stable epoch called the Holocene started, and agriculture and civilization flourished. Civilization gradually gained knowledge in science which caused a technological leap in the XIX century. This leap was made possible by the concurrent finding of fossil fuels that took millions of years to form. Their fast emission in only 150 years and its effects on Earth’s systems has taken us out of our climatic Eden and thrown us into the unpredictable Anthropocene.
The cumulative use of buried fossil fuels has disturbed the carbon cycle, choking the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and methane. Greenhouse gas concentration directly correlates with Earth’s temperatures because they act as Earth’s blankets in the Troposphere. Measurements in the Arctic show that every ice age corresponds to a low in carbon dioxide concentrations. The warming is most noticeable in the Arctic, where the ice caps are rapidly melting, causing a reduction in Earth’s ability to reflect light back into space. The most frightening effect of Arctic melting is the concurrent melting of the permafrost in the cryosphere, allowing the uncontrollable release of the trapped methane under it. All of Earth’s systems are interlinked and the alteration of one factor leads to unpredictable feedback mechanisms.
One of these feedback loops is turning atmospheric and ocean currents chaotic. According to climate systems scientist Paul Beckwith, the Jet Stream has become very strange, even doing something unheard of like crossing the Equator. The disturbance of currents can cause unexpected changes in local climates, from increased droughts and floods to stronger and more lingering hurricanes.
The ocean is also paying the price by becoming a carbon sink for some of the excess carbon dioxide. This raises the acidity causing coral reef and shellfish destruction. The warming of the water is not only increasing the chances of stronger hurricanes, but causing loss of habitat for fish and possible widespread extinction. Our reliance on plastics since the 1950s is also polluting the oceans leaving a trace in even the deepest sea organisms.
Industrial agriculture advocates the mantras of monoculture and high use of nitrogen-based fertilizers claiming it is the only way to feed the world. Unfortunately, they ignore the fact that an overproduction of nitrogen disturbs its natural cycle. This excess of nitrogen is ending up in our oceans through rivers near agricultural areas, and is causing dead zones where fish can’t survive. The excess nitrogen is also emitted as nitrous oxide and contributes to the already high concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Troposphere.
The catastrophic disturbance of our planet’s ability to sustain most life has lead me to believe that an economic system based on the abuse of nature can’t continue. Capitalism has been the driving force for all the behaviors that have caused the Anthropocene. The belief in money and profit as main values has led to our alienation from nature and our culture’s refusal to notice the effects on our planet. Capitalism has convinced us that consumerism is what makes our economy healthy, while little thought is given to the concept of a true quality of life with an environmental balance.
I propose a transition into a new system with improved values. A system in which a true sharing economy with a global basic income is prioritized. The commons would be emphasized to the detriment of the private. Public transportation, commons infrastructure and an understanding of war as a highly wasteful and entropic activity would lead to a reduction of our carbon footprint immensely.
The number one priority must be the true sustainability of our biosphere. According to Peter Wadhams, head of the Cambridge Polar Ocean Institute, Arctic measurements of greenhouse gas concentrations show that we have already put enough CO2 in the atmosphere to be in a situation beyond our control. This means that we should reduce our gas emissions to a minimum and start taking out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The traditional carbon sinks like forests are being lost to Capitalism’s eternal hunger for resources. Recent studies show that even the Amazon forest has lost its ability to store carbon and has begun to emit it instead. The creation of technology for atmospheric carbon removal is a must, as is the acceptance that our natural resource binging must cease. This would require an economic change from one in which growth is paramount, to one in which economic de-growth combined with better environmental quality of life is the measure of a sound economy.
Reducing our emissions requires not just following the Paris agreement or creating a carbon tax. These measures help, but only address the surface. Our machines are very inefficient, for every gallon of gas you put in your car, only 20 percent is used for functioning, the rest is dissipated as heat. US media reported that the US was energy independent under President Obama, but it came at a dear cost. The energy needed to extract any fossil fuel in the US is larger than the one produced. This means we are making our planetary problem worse each day. The solution in this new economic system would be to make it very onerous to invest in infrastructure for dirty, inefficient fossil fuels and instead give great incentives for clean and renewable energy. Under the current Capitalist system, there is no accountability for polluters, as was evident with the British Petroleum Gulf accident. In the new system, there would be crushing punishment for polluters and for overly entropic and dirty energy production.
The task ahead of us isn’t easy, but it is better to face the reality; a misrepresented problem is not solvable. We have to incorporate ourselves back into nature and stop seeing it as something we can exploit. In America, the arrival of the European 500 years ago introduced the idea of nature as a wasteland that was only redeemed if transformed for profit. In the face of uncontrollable climate change and widespread extinctions, we have to decide to do something real and behave as though we were facing an alien invasion. We must unite globally to address the problem and forget our differences. We have to become a society of good ancestors, in which our priority is to give the next generations the likelihood of a better environment than we received.
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Helena Dearnell spent her early life in Colombia and studied Civil Engineering at Los Andes University. She then decided to explore the world and went to live in Paris, where she studied painting. She has lived in New York and Paris at different times in her life and says this has helped her to understand the European and the American perspectives. She finds this very useful for critical thinking and questioning the status quo.