We have had a good run, but business-as-usual cannot continue. Humanity has begun to emit more than nature can absorb and acquire more than the Earth's resources can provide. Photo: K. Jonsson/Azote

From hunter-gatherers to planetary stewards

Human global imprint so large we risk triggering abrupt or even irreversible changes

Believe it or not, for most of human history we have existed as hunter-gatherers. Now, thanks to the dramatic fossil fuel-driven expansion since the 1800s, our imprint on the global environment is so large that we risk triggering a number of abrupt or even irreversible global environmental changes.

The big question is how we can become planetary stewards instead, and strike a long-term balance between human wellbeing and sustainable use of the Earth's ecosystems.
 
This is the point of departure for the second of three scientific papers produced for the Stockholm Nobel Laureate Symposium. The article, which follows up from calls for mankind to reconnect to the Biosphere, was recently published in Ambio.

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Time to change
We have had a good run, but business-as-usual cannot continue. Humanity has begun to emit more than nature can absorb and acquire more than the Earth's resources can provide.

In other words, we are beginning to live off the Earth's capital, rather than the interest.

The good news in all this is that we are the first generation with the knowledge of how our activities influence the Earth System. We are also the first generation with the power and responsibility to change our relationship with the planet.

The Great (fossil fuel-driven) Acceleration
About 10,000 years ago, agriculture was developed roughly simultaneously in four different parts of the world. This set humanity on a trajectory that led to a more sedentary lifestyle, the development of villages and cities and the creation of complex civilisations that eventually spanned large regions.

Around 1800 AD, however, something dramatic happened. Our ancestors at that time learned to access and exploit fossil fuels as a new energy source and dramatic changes came about at a pace never experienced before: fossil fuel-based agricultural and manufacturing systems enhanced the production of foodstuffs and other goods, and consumption began to grow along with an increasingly healthy and expanding population.

Little did they know that the rapid expansion of fossil fuel usage was slowly raising the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere above the limits of the Holocene.

The exit door from the Holocene had been opened.

The increased pace of just about everything after World War II marked a further threshold in humanity's history called the Great Acceleration. While the human population tripled, consumption in the global economy grew many times faster.

Not surprisingly, the acquisition and use of natural resources — as well as the pressure on our climate and ecosystems — has also risen dramatically during this period.

Working within planetary boundaries
So, here we are. We know the problem, we know the Earth's resilience and resource base cannot be stretched infinitely and we are uncomfortably aware that we are heading in the wrong direction. The question that remains is how we can better manage our relationship with nature.

One of the most recent and most significant attempts to provide scientific guidelines for such improved stewardship came in 2009 with the so-called Planetary Boundaries approach.  

It attempted to define a "safe operating space" for humanity and suggested boundaries within which humanity could continue to develop, but beyond which humans should not cross.

The Planetary Boundaries approach helps shift the focus from the slightly one-sided emphasis on climate change to a complex systems perspective acknowledging that the desired stability of the Earth systems is dependent on a variety of factors, including addressing overfishing, deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

Source: Will Steffen, Åsa Persson, Lisa Deutsch, Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Katherine Richardson, Carole Crumley, Paul Crutzen, Carl Folke and Line Gordon, et al. 2011. The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship. Ambio 0044-7447. Doi: 10.1007/s13280-011-0185-x.

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References

Citation

Will Steffen, Åsa Persson, Lisa Deutsch, Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Katherine Richardson, Carole Crumley, Paul Crutzen, Carl Folke and Line Gordon, et al. 2011. The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship. Ambio 0044-7447. Doi: 10.1007/s13280-011-0185-x.

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