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Building a Better Anthropocene – The Challenge of Our Time


Once a year, on Earth Day, many of us pause to think about matters environmental.  Then we get on with our lives.  Yet the ‘matters environmental’ get more serious year by year, and I wonder why so many of us fail to see the obvious.  Today I try to summarize the problem by looking at five articles that appeared in Science the day before Earth Day 2017.  They all centered on aspects of how humanity currently interacts with the rest of the biosphere.  Three reviews dealt directly with this interaction while the other two were more methodological.  These two were concerned with how to encourage people to care about how we interact with the natural world, and with why the problem of our interaction with the natural world is what scientists call a ‘wicked’ one.

You can almost see the Biosphere in images of Earth from space.  It is that infinitesimal layer of air, soil, water, and organisms that envelopes our planet and sustains all life.  This photo, taken from the Space Station on 28 February 2015 looks north up the western USA coast towards Canada, with Vancouver Island near center.  Photo courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.

All five reviews were clearly written and should be accessible to most readers; unfortunately, they are not on open access and this will limit their real accessibility to non-specialists.  That is a pity, because the world needs to understand the nature of our interaction with the rest of the biosphere, how it is changing rapidly during the Anthropocene, and the serious consequences that will follow if current trends in this interaction continue.  We also need to understand the complexity of our interaction with the rest of the biosphere and how that makes solutions to the growing problems difficult to devise, as well as the fact that our interaction with the rest of the biosphere is predicated on cultural norms and attitudes so that solutions must involve changes in culture.  You do not change peoples’ beliefs by providing detailed science-based explanations of what is happening and why, and certainly not by fear-mongering, so moving towards new forms of interaction with the rest of the biosphere requires sociology and psychology as well as natural sciences

The value of the Biosphere

You may have noticed my repeated use of the clumsy phrase ‘our interaction with the rest of the biosphere’ in that paragraph.  I wrote that deliberately to remind everyone, right at the start, that humanity is one species within the biosphere.  Our tendency to view ourselves as standing outside the biosphere is very strong, deeply entrenched in modern industrialized cultures of all political stripes, and imbedded in our laws and our economies.  That tendency is a major factor in why we currently have a substantial environmental crisis on our hands, yet for the most part seem unaware of it.  In reality, we, like all other species, are parts of the complex system which sustains life on this planet.  The biosphere is that thin layer of ‘stuff’ that surrounds our planet – water, soil, lower atmosphere, all forms of life, and the ecosystems these comprise.  Through the myriad chemical, physical and other interactions among its components it provides the opportunities for and sustains life.  The cycling of energy and materials through the various biosphere components provides the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink and the food we eat, while also providing the other natural resources, such as timber, that we use in our lives, while decontaminating wastes.  The constant stream of energy from the sun and the intricate cycling of the biosphere are ultimately what make all life on this planet possible, even the life of Homo urbanensis, that city-dwelling, supermarket-browsing, nature-ignoring human that becomes more prevalent year by year as the global human population becomes more strongly urbanized.  City-dwellers increasingly fail to see the role of the natural world in their lives because they have been separated from it by our civilization.  And the idea that humanity will ultimately be able to do away with nature completely grows in acceptance despite the fact that we have never succeeded in doing this even on a small scale and for short periods of time.

Biosphere 2, a $200 million plus, 3.14 acre space enclosed under a glass and steel dome in Arizona, was intended to replicate the biosphere at small scale.  It was constructed in the early 1990s and stocked with selected species to populate five quasi-natural biomes.  Then 8 people were shut inside with the goal of living completely independently – other than by exchange of information, and inputs of sunlight – for two years.  The experiment failed within six months when the internal atmosphere became dangerously low in oxygen and food was running out.  And Biosphere 2 did not attempt to replace the natural processes such as photosynthesis that drive our biosphere, so even if it had been successful it would not have demonstrated we do not need the real biosphere on this planet.  Biosphere 2 continues to be used as an enormous closed environment, but it provides no confidence that we could engineer a replacement for the real biosphere if something serious went wrong.

The reality is that the bulk of our agriculture depends on the hydrologic cycle for irrigation, and all of it depends on photosynthesis to build the plant and animal foods we consume.  We speed up food production by enhancing the supply of nutrients using fertilizers derived from rock or by planting legumes and relying on their intricate symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria to make atmospheric nitrogen accessible to plants and microbes in the soil.  Our fisheries depend on natural production in lakes and the ocean, and increasingly on aquaculture, an analog for feedlot rearing of cattle which depends on continuous inputs of food obtained from marine or terrestrial sources.  In every case, we have been able to increase the rate of production of selected food products, but we are still relying on the processes the biosphere provides.  Along the way, our intensive agriculture and aquaculture have generated numerous problems in waste production that have overtaxed the biosphere’s capacity to recycle wastes.  The belief that humanity can do without the natural world is unlikely to become reality anytime soon.

I am taking time to emphasize the essential value of the biosphere for human existence because this is one point on which the reviews in the 21st April issue of Science are largely silent.  While environmental scientists understand and accept the essential value of the biosphere, I do not believe this understanding is widespread in our societies.  It is something everybody needs to understand, and many people do not.  Our considerable technical expertise and accumulated tools and infrastructure, and our modern consumer economy do not equip us to replace the biosphere.

Loss of Biodiversity

In their review of biodiversity loss and conservation in the Anthropocene, Chris Johnson, University of Tasmania, and six colleagues from UK, Brazil, China, New Zealand and Australia, discuss the great acceleration in extinction rates that is now taking place.  They point out that our impacts on extinction rates go back 2 million years to the time when our ancestors, through their use of tools as weapons, first began to take over the role of large terrestrial predators.  The immediate result was the loss of two thirds of the other large predators of Africa, and the simultaneous loss of many large herbivores hunted by humans.  For example, the 12 species of elephant in Africa 3 million years ago was reduced to two.  Similar impacts subsequently occurred on other continents as our species expanded its range, and increased noticeably in rate over the past 60 thousand years.  They report 140 genera, more than 10% of all land mammals, went extinct in the 100,000 years prior to 500 AD.  This is a pace far exceeding background extinction rates for mammals, and similar patterns of loss occurred in reptiles and birds.  These ‘prehistoric’ extinctions tended to coincide with the arrival of humans at particular places, and are most easily understood as due to effects of highly efficient hunting.  More recently, we have caused extinctions of terrestrial species primarily through usurpation and modification of land, although hunting continues to be an important cause as does the introduction of invasive species from elsewhere that prey upon, causes disease in, or out-compete native fauna.

With the great expansion of our environmental footprint since the start of the industrial revolution, and particularly since 1950, there are many signs that the rate of extinction is rising rapidly.  We are now having demonstrable effects on marine organisms as well as terrestrial, and the bias towards extinction of larger species that was initially evident is now greatly reduced.  We now have many ways to cause extinction beyond hunting, and we are also harvesting many smaller species, at least in the oceans.

While extinction is absolute and permanent, it is also the end-point of reduction in population size.  Our impacts on the natural world have greatly reduced the standing stock of most species of animals and plants, both on land and in the ocean.  Reasonable estimates of the biomass of fishery species now swimming in the oceans suggest we have reduced abundance by 90% since the 1930s, primarily through over-harvesting.  Larger species have been hardest hit, but our direct impacts on oceanic abundance extend to anchovies and krill, both of which are harvested primarily as foods for aquaculture and livestock.  Johnson and colleagues point out that the consequences of these losses and reductions are not simply to the species impacted.  Because all species are engaged in a web of interactions with each other, the extinctions and reductions in abundance can have ramifications throughout the biosphere, often unexpected ones.  Johnson and colleagues note how the impacts on tropical trees with large fruit of the loss of mammalian seed dispersers has altered the composition of tropical forests, and how the over-harvest of larger herbivorous fishes has tilted the balance towards fleshy algae instead of corals on some tropical reefs.  Other authors have documented the impacts of reductions in abundance of bees and other pollinating insects on efficiency of seed set in agricultural crops around the world.  While Johnson and colleagues do not attempt to delineate a critical threshold for extinctions or abundance reductions, they refer to the loss of ecosystem resiliency that comes with loss of biodiversity and argue that major ecosystem collapse becomes much more likely as biodiversity falls.  At a time when climate change, another problem we have caused, is placing new stresses on ecological systems, we should be doing all we can to retain or enhance biodiversity.

Rates of extinction for various vertebrate groups over several time periods, shown as cumulative losses of: A) mammal genera over past 60,000 years, B) species of New Zealand birds since colonization, and C) bird (blue), mammal (red), and other vertebrates (green) since 1500.  Increases in the percentage of all birds, mammals and amphibians listed as threatened by IUCN since 1992 are shown in D) with estimates for a number of other taxa (open circles).
© C. Johnson and Science

Johnson and colleagues show that increases in the rates of extinction show no signs of slowing down despite considerable attention at both local and global levels.  The reasons for our failure include the fact that our accelerating impacts, characteristic of the Anthropocene, are sufficient to swamp most of the efforts being made to conserve species.  The human footprint has been expanding ever since the concept was developed in the early 1990s.  Secondly, extinctions occur from combined effects of multiple stressors, but too often efforts to conserve a species focus on one or two of these.  Thirdly, adequate funding to tackle what is an enormous problem has never been available.  Fourthly, conservation is not mainstreamed into economic and social planning in most countries, and tends to be pursued separately, by politically weak (often non-governmental) groups.  This marginalization leads to an unwillingness, or inability to tackle the core driving factors of rising consumption, unrealistic ‘growth’ economic agendas, and the growing separation of people from nature.  While Johnson and colleagues close with some examples of effective action to rescue biodiversity, it is clear that this is a serious problem and needs far more attention than it is receiving.

The conflict between environmental sustainability and human quality of life

The review by Eileen Christ of Virginia Tech, and two colleagues at other US institutions, focuses in on the growing human population as a fundamental cause of biodiversity loss.  In their view, despite our considerable technical skill, and the fact that consumption of resources varies substantially among communities, the current size of the global population, and especially the continuing growth in that population mean that our pressure on the biosphere, and resulting biodiversity loss, will continue and likely grow also.  In particular, the need for food is not easily substituted with other resources, and our production of food directly impacts natural ecosystems if only in the land used to produce it.

Human population growth is an important part of the environmental crisis.
© Joel Pett, Lexington Herald-Leader.

In their opening paragraph, they confront but do not resolve a core problem: raising human living standards sufficiently to eliminate poverty, and preserving natural ecosystems and their biodiversity are both valued goals of sustainable development.  Goals accepted, at least on paper, by all countries in the UN system.  These goals are in conflict.

Raising standards of living, while accommodating the roughly 3-4 billion additional people anticipated to be living on this planet by 2100, cannot be done without a massive increase in the diversion of natural production towards the production of food for humans.  While increased efficiency in production and reduction in food wastage can help, the expected expansion of the population plus the need to lift millions out of poverty will require a 70% increase in production by 2050 and a doubling or tripling of production by 2100.  Changes in the human diet could help, but current changes are all in the ’wrong’ direction – as people become more affluent, they consume more meat!

Christ and colleagues provide a coherent argument for the need to reopen the discussion of human population growth.  They also show that continuing the present avoidance of this topic makes any attempt to simultaneously raise human living standards and maintain biodiversity very unlikely to be successful.  We cannot double food production over the remainder of this century without putting massive additional stresses on global biodiversity, and the current rate of extinction is already alarming.

Having painted an alarming picture, they provide a possible solution.  They point out that the long-held belief that over-consumption was a problem of the global north while over-population was a problem of the global south is no longer true and is rapidly changing.  All over the world, large numbers of people are entering the middle class and adopting lifestyles that consume more resources of all kinds, including more meat in their diets.  The result is that over-consumption is now becoming a global issue, and that should make it easier for nations to come together and find solutions.  Secondly, it has been demonstrated many times that increasing educational and lifestyle opportunities for women leads to a preference for smaller families.  This is something that happens to a degree when living standards rise (the demographic transition), but it can be actively encouraged far more than at present.  Such a preference could be encouraged if there was agreement that growth in the global population needs to be reduced.  Stabilizing and then reducing the global population makes many environmental and human rights problems easier to deal with.  Continuing the present policy of not speaking about human population growth at all if we can avoid it is a sure way to ensure continued biodiversity loss, and perhaps also continued poverty.

By picking on the evident conflict between feeding growing numbers of people and protecting biodiversity, Christ and colleagues have particularized one of the major difficulties confronting those who seek to protect biodiversity.  Given that Johnson and colleagues listed three additional issues that made biodiversity conservation difficult, the Christ review has brought that difficulty home even more clearly.

How to live in harmony with the rest of the biosphere

If Johnson and Christ have written reviews of specific aspects of our interaction with the rest of nature, Jonathan Foley of the California Academy of Sciences provides a passionate essay on the more general issue of how to live in harmony with the biosphere.  He summarizes the history of our understanding that the planet has finite limits on what it can provide by referencing the work of Malthus, then of Paul Ehrlich on the human population, and finally the publishing of Limits to Growth in 1972.  Each step, we refined our understanding of the ways in which humanity was outstripping the capacity of the planet to support us.  The most recent manifestation of this understanding has been the development of the concept of the nine planetary boundaries that together define a safe (or Holocene-like) living space for humanity on planet Earth.  In one paragraph he references the ways in which we are pushing planetary systems beyond their limits – 40% of land now converted to agriculture, freshwater resources being exhausted faster than they are replenished, natural cycles of nitrogen and phosphorus radically altered through our manufacture and use of fertilizers, ocean fisheries being depleted while we also acidify and warm the water, a 50% increase in atmospheric CO2 due to our emissions, and the profound climatic changes that change in atmosphere produces. Nothing new here, but it is a powerful recap.

Foley discusses the gaps in our knowledge and the need to better delineate the planetary boundaries, and he admits of the possibility of technological achievements which, like the Green Revolution of the mid-1970s, will adjust the planetary boundaries to permit a still greater intensification of our use of resources.  But he also points out that the ultimate rules set by physics and chemistry cannot be violated so our ever-expanding footprint has to be contained.  We may be optimists or pessimists, but ultimately all humanity must learn to live sustainably or suffer the consequences.

Foley finishes with a discussion of solutions, drawing a clear distinction between natural ecological systems and the artificial systems we use when we attempt to replace them.  He writes,

“I would suggest that natural ecological systems on Earth succeed—often where humans do not—because they adhere to the following guidelines: They do not consume resources faster than they are regenerated by the environment; do not produce wastes, especially those that disrupt the environment and the climate system, faster than they are assimilated or removed by the environment; are highly diverse, making them more robust in the face of changing conditions; and power nearly everything they do with the Sun.”

Until we are able to emulate that, we’d be wise to make the considerable effort needed to reduce our environmental impacts to something much more sustainable than we have at present.

These three articles together provide a thought-provoking discussion of our current dilemma.  We persist in calling it an environmental problem but it is a problem with how we are choosing to behave.  Change our behavior and all could be well.

Why the environmental crisis is wickedly difficult to solve

This brings me to the other two articles.  Ruth DeFries of Columbia University and Harini Nagendra of Azim Premji University, India, discuss the reasons why environmental management is a wicked problem.  They begin by stating that the ecological systems of the biosphere are self-regulating complex systems that have evolved over time to their present states.  In building our global civilization, humans disrupt these systems, and then are forced to introduce management activities to remedy the problems caused.  Far too often management introduced is too late, too feeble, or simply inadequate to rectify the issue of concern.  Over time, as our impacts grow, we are disrupting ever more of the biosphere, and failing substantially in our efforts to remedy the damage we cause.  They then suggest an explanation for why taking remedial action so often proves to be ineffective – environmental problems are wicked ones.

DeFries and Nagendra trace the development of environmental management from pre-industrial times to the present.  Indigenous local knowledge evolved to suit the local environment, and social systems were based on ecological understanding of the dynamics of the local resource base.  Such methods worked well so long as human use of resources remained low relative to the capacity of the ecosystem to regenerate targeted components.  With industrialization, the initial goal was to manage exploitation of targeted local or regional resources so that natural processes of production were sufficient to maintain the ecological system.  The purpose of management was to ensure a sustained supply of renewable resources.

With time, as our use of resources expanded, it became necessary to consider deliberate efforts to retain land in natural condition in order to sustain natural ecosystems, and to consider management of waste disposal so that this was done in ways to facilitate its incorporation back into the dynamics of the natural environment.  With further growth in our economy, use of novel chemicals in our environment, and expanded long-distance transport of resources the task of environmental management became far more complex.  Problems had to be dealt with on regional or global bases as well as locally, new chemicals introduced novel forms of waste with unexpected environmental consequences, and all problems became larger.

To complicate matters, the science and practice of environmental management developed during a time when the prevailing view was that ecosystems were not only self-regulating, but regulated in ways that conveyed considerable stability in condition.  As the science of ecology matured during the 1970s and 1980s, and we became aware that natural systems were dynamic, and frequently maintained by periodic disruption, the task of environmental management became even more difficult.  Now, in the Anthropocene, with many aspects of environment and climate subject to profound, continuous, one-way change, that task is more difficult still.  Truly wicked.

A wicked problem is one which is inherently resistant to clear definition and easily identifiable, predefined solutions.  DeFries and Nagendra identify several factors that make environmental problems wicked ones.  The biosphere is comprised of complex and interdependent components, which create positive and negative feedbacks and nonlinear responses to management interventions.  The risks of acting as well as those of not acting in any particular circumstance are uncertain, and there are frequently unintended consequences of actions taken.  In environmental management, it is usual for several stakeholders to be participating – almost always these have differing values and different capacity to make decisions or implement them.  The spatial and temporal scales and boundaries of ecological processes rarely coincide with administrative boundaries, so that actions taken are implemented at inappropriate scales or over regions or time periods that do not match with the ecological processes.  Added to all these factors is the fact that environmental management takes place in the real world; management actions are seldom the only environmentally significant actions taking place, and discerning the consequences of the management action is seldom a clear-cut exercise. Definitely, definitively wicked!

Having established that environmental problems are wicked, DrFries and Nagendra set out five approaches to dealing with them effectively.  In discussing these, they emphasize repeatedly that environmental problems will usually prove to be time- and location-specific; there will be no off-the-shelf solutions.  As well, every management effort will require an adaptive management approach in which a cycle of “action taken, consequences assessed, action revised” is repeated over time as a way of zeroing in on an effective solution.  I think the chief value of their review is the clear picture it paints of the difficulties facing us if we hope to manage environmental problems effectively.  The idea that sustainable environmental management is not rocket science is important here.  It is way more difficult than rocket science.  Knowing that, it behooves us to treat our current circumstances with the seriousness they deserve, and work to increase our effectiveness at managing the environmental crisis.

Building the will to act

Taking the need to manage the environmental crisis seriously enough to learn how to tackle such wicked problems requires first that we recognize that the environmental crisis really is a crisis, and a really serious one at that.  Too many of us have heard about biodiversity loss, or desertification, or loss of coral reefs, or even climate change, but continue to assume that these ‘environmental’ problems are not going to impact our lives.  They are ‘environmental’ as in ‘not really important except to nature lovers’.  Elise Amel of University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, and two colleagues tackle the psychology that helps individuals develop an appreciation of the severity of the environmental crisis and a willingness to take action to build a more sustainable world.  Environmental advocates are learning that people do not become supporters of changing our way of life simply by being given the facts about the environmental crisis, and it is increasingly clear that progress on this front demands that we learn what we can of relevant human psychology.

The human brain does not sit passively sifting incoming information in order to make rational decisions.  If it did our lives would be a lot less interesting, although our politics just might be more rationally based.  Instead the brain actively selects information to receive and stores primarily information that it considers important.  In Amel’s words,

“rather than neutrally receiving information, human brains privilege that which supports their preexisting worldview. Given limited mental resources for processing the boundless information available in the world, evolution favored cognitive efficiency. New information is processed through the filters of personal beliefs, first-hand experiences, and social identities. Ideas are dismissed or assimilated on the basis of a quick but biased heuristic of whether they line up with what is already perceived to be true. It is difficult to escape bias, even when exerting conscious mental effort.”

Human behavior, our responses to the information we receive, is determined by forces both inside and outside of the individual.  Internal factors such as emotions, beliefs, attitudes, and values influence behavior, but so does the powerful context within which behavior occurs, comprising cultural worldviews, social networks, status inequalities, policies, scripts, roles, and rules.  Environmental problems are typically slow to develop, or be resolved, at least on human timescales, and our evolution has built us as creatures well tuned to respond to immediate, rapidly approaching threats, and to act in ways which bring short-term rewards.  We also crave a sense of belonging to the social group, which makes it difficult to alter our behavior from accepted norms, such as driving gas-guzzling SUVs to the supermarket, even when logic says we should be cutting our emissions of greenhouse gases by driving smaller cars or by getting to the shops using public transit or some form of active transport.  The shift may involve some change in personal convenience, but it also requires that we stand out from the crowd.

In 1968, the Senegalese forestry engineer, Baba Dioum wrote, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”  Increasingly, environmentalists recognize that appreciating nature requires some real experience of nature.

Amel and colleagues also point to the need for community and national or global responses to solve environmental problems.  Without leadership by already committed individuals, these larger social groups have little chance of changing behavior.  In talking about the environmental crisis it is essential to build the will to act, changing personal, community, national and global patterns of thought and action.  They suggest several ways in which this might be achieved.

To begin with, information about environmental problems such as climate change should be framed in ways that emphasize short-term and local impacts to make the problem more ‘real’ and ‘immediate’.  Messaging that includes incentives for appropriate sustainable action will encourage individuals to act, and if sustainable behavior can also be presented as the socially accepted norm that will further encourage action – it is more effective to encourage individuals to recycle as many of their neighbors do, than to encourage them to recycle while suggesting that most of their neighbors don’t do this, regardless of what proportion of neighbors actually recycle.

Amel and colleagues also make the important point that in the great majority of environmental issues, the actions of individuals play only a small role compared to the actions of industry and government.  Thus, it is hopelessly insufficient to work to change individual behavior without also including a significant effort to encourage individuals to push for changes to societal behavior.  Motivating individuals to act to promote sustainable action is even more difficult than motivating them to change their own behavior, but this has to be the goal.  Building a new worldview, which is what reforming our relationship with the biosphere demands, is inherently a sociological, psychological and political process, and environmental managers have been slow to take up the appropriate tools and approaches.

Psychologists do not yet know what it is that makes some individuals more willing than others to take a bold stand, resisting the pressures to conform with conventional patterns of behavior, but they do know that it takes heroism.  Environmental managers have long recognized the value of local heroes, respected individuals with leadership qualities (although not necessarily in formal leadership positions), in getting buy-in by a community to sustainable management actions, although they have not learned how to produce such heroes when they are needed.  Amel and colleagues suggest there is work to be done; in doing that work environmental managers will benefit by drawing on psychological, sociological and political expertise.

The goal of environmental sustainability is within reach

The challenge of the Anthropocene is to wrestle humanity back into an appropriate relationship with the rest of the biosphere.  It is an urgent challenge and a difficult one to meet.  As Amel and colleagues note, more than 50% of humanity is now urban, and far too many of urban humans are growing up with little if any direct experience of nature.  Finding ways to provide our cities with more green space is not only a way to civilize or humanize them; it is an excellent way to provide opportunities to experience nature directly.  Parks, community gardens, bike paths and walking trails, together with school programs to bring youth into real contact with the outdoors need to be valued for the ways in which they bridge the gulf between urban experience and the natural world that ultimately sustains us.

If we can rebuild the connections between humanity and nature, while also reframing the environmental crisis as a human behavior crisis we have a good foundation upon which to build a reimagined worldview that keeps human activities to appropriate form and scale for the planet.  Our goals of ensuring a sustainable biosphere and raising the quality of life for all humans can be met, but we will have to redefine quality of life and control quantity of life.  If we engage psychology, sociology and political science along with the natural sciences, we stand a good chance of being able to bring about the immense transformation that solving this crisis requires.  These is considerable urgency to act, but many reasons for optimism that we will succeed in building a far better Anthropocene than the one we will surely inherit if we continue our current ways.