In February 2000, at a presentation on the field of geology in Cuernavaca, Mexico, scientists discussed the Holocene, the geological age. During the normal meeting, the Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his discovery of the ozone hole, suddenly interrupted everyone, saying: “Stop talking about the Holocene, we are now in the Anthropocene! ”
The world is a geological concept. According to the division of geologists, the geological age is divided into 6 time units in total, from large to small: eon, generation, century, century, period, and time. According to the officially determined geological age division theory, the current human is in the Holocene under the Quaternary of the Phanerozoic Cenozoic, which is a warm, humid and stable climate that began after the end of the last ice age of the earth about 11,700 years ago. geological period.
It is thanks to the mild climate environment of the Holocene that human beings can develop and grow step by step and become the most powerful species on earth. Slash-and-burn farming, reclaiming land around lakes, and reclaiming mountains and seas, with the growing ability of human beings to seize and transform nature, the Holocene earth ecology, which has been stable for more than 10,000 years, has undergone drastic changes due to human activities. Crutzen came up with the reason for the Anthropocene.
In 2002, Crutzen published an article titled “Human Geology” in the journal Nature, which systematically clarified the concept of the Anthropocene. He believes that since the invention of the steam engine, the influence of human activities on the natural world has been increasing day by day, and it has had an important impact on the earth’s ecology such as soil, mountains, atmosphere, and species on a global scale. Accordingly, the earth has entered a new geological age dominated by humans – the Anthropocene.
In the following 20 years, there have been more and more discussions around the Anthropocene, gradually going beyond the scope of earth sciences and entering the fields of humanities and social sciences such as philosophy, history, economics, and sociology, becoming a frontier concept for exploring the relationship between man and nature.
Although we can still hear “doomsday warnings” from professionals from time to time, for ordinary people, the climate problem is too grand and unpredictable, so it inevitably exists in our lives in a long-term way among.
However, the frequent occurrence of extreme climates such as high temperature, rain, and smog has made ordinary people finally have a personal understanding of environmental and ecological problems: human activities are making the earth “irritable”, and it is imminent to deal with environmental and ecological problems. However, confusion also followed. If human beings are the initiators of all this, how have we changed the face of the earth in the past? In the future, how can we make the earth “calm down” again on the basis of our own existence?
The Anthropocene may provide a new and important perspective for us to look at human history and understand the relationship between humans and the earth.
Human impact on the environment is accelerating
It is almost certain that every time human civilization enters a new historical stage, it is accompanied by profound changes to the earth’s environment, which has accumulated to this day and formed the current earth’s ecological pattern.
Ice core records show marked anomalies in greenhouse gas concentrations during the interglacial period since humans began farming more than 8,000 years ago. If it is calculated along the normal evolutionary trajectory, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should have crossed the peak and gradually declined, but under the influence of agricultural activities, the concentration of carbon dioxide and methane on the earth has not decreased but increased.
After the Great Geographical Discovery, the continents of the earth were connected together for the first time. Human navigation and trade activities under globalization have contributed to the unprecedented cross-continental migration of animals and plants, and produced competition and fusion, which has made the distribution of species even and profoundly changed. natural evolution of plants and animals on earth.
The discovery and use of fossil fuels has greatly increased the speed of the carbon cycle, resulting in the greenhouse effect and global warming, and phenomena such as continental thermal expansion, melting glaciers, and sea level rise have appeared one after another. Spherical carbon particles are scattered around the world with the exhaust gas and settle in the formation.
After 1945, the new global order, including the United Nations, the Bretton Woods system, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, has contributed to closer global ties, coupled with human progress in medicine, agriculture, living environment, and energy capture efficiency. , resulting in a substantial increase in life expectancy and a surge in population size. From an ecological perspective, this means that more and more atmospheric nitrogen molecules are converted into fertilizers, which are used to grow more crops and feed more people.
If the Anthropocene is defined as the test of nuclear weapons, humanity becomes an elite-driven technology story that threatens the very existence of an entire planet.
That is to say, from this period, global energy consumption began to increase suddenly, and the impact of human beings on the earth began to deepen in an all-round way. Carbon dioxide concentration, methane concentration, ozone loss in the stratosphere, surface temperature, degree of ocean acidification, and nitrogen increase in coastal seawater have all increased significantly.
More people, more demand, more energy consumption, and more changes to the earth’s ecology. Human civilization is changing the earth’s ecology at an accelerated rate in such an incremental mode.
Although the material materials produced by humans may only remain on the earth for thousands of years, the impact of humans on atmospheric changes may last for 200,000 years, while the impact of humans on biological evolution is permanent.
Defining the Anthropocene
After Crutzen put forward the concept of the Anthropocene, the relevant discussions gradually heated up, and the results of the argumentation and analysis around the Anthropocene became more and more fruitful. Scholars are no longer in doubt about the arrival of the Anthropocene, and have begun calling for the term “Anthropocene” to be used instead of “Holocene” to define our geological age.
In 2008, 21 members of the Geological Society of London’s Stratigraphic Committee jointly published a paper in “GSA Today”, arguing that human activities have profoundly affected the atmosphere, oceans, biology and other spheres, and have left a significant impact on the strata. markers that could serve as geological evidence for the existence of the Anthropocene.
In 2009, the Quaternary Stratigraphic Subcommittee under the International Commission on Stratigraphy established the “Anthropocene Working Group” to begin the identification of the Anthropocene and to examine whether it meets the conditions for a new geological era.
At this point, the focus of debate among scholars has turned to the question of when the Anthropocene began.
Generally speaking, the division of geological age is determined according to changes in the state of the earth, and these changes are reflected in geological deposits such as fossils and rocks. To define the Anthropocene, it is first necessary to determine the extent of human influence on the earth’s environment; second, to determine that human influence on the earth’s environment has been reflected in geological sediments; The sign, that is, the stratotype profile and point position of the global boundary, is commonly known as the “golden nail”.
For this reason, some scholars set the start of the Anthropocene as more than 8,000 years ago, when agriculture first developed, and slash-and-burn farming caused a significant increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane concentrations, which triggered a series of subsequent ecological changes; The Great Geographical Discovery is used as a node to highlight the extensive impact of globalization on the earth’s ecology; Crutzen uses the invention of the steam engine as a node to highlight the profound changes to the earth’s ecology brought about by the significant increase in productivity brought about by the Industrial Revolution; another The viewpoint takes the “Great Acceleration” era since 1945 as the starting point. From this point on, the impact of human beings on the ecological environment has been increasing at a double rate.
The reason why the problem of defining the starting point of the Anthropocene is so important is not only the disciplinary significance of geology, but also how humans understand the history of their own development.
In The Birth of the Anthropocene, Simon Lewis emphasizes the narrative significance of different starting points: “Locating the beginning of the Anthropocene at the Columbus Exchange, the death of fifty million people, the birth of the modern world, colonization and Slavery, the capitalist way of life, are all linked to the changes in the overall environment of the planet. If the Anthropocene is defined as a nuclear weapons test, humanity will become a story of elite-driven technology that threatens the survival of the entire planet. .This perspective emphasizes the importance of the ‘progress trap’, a technology that continues to advance toward its goals and may also be heading for the end of human development. The core of the Anthropocene has thus become science, technology, and energy.”
After years of argumentation research , scholars have gradually formed a consensus. In 2019, the Anthropocene Working Group, with 29 votes in favor and 4 votes against, positioned the Anthropocene in an era of “great acceleration” in population growth, industrialization and globalization, and took the time of the first atomic bomb test in 1945 as the The node where it starts.
Although this decision is subject to final confirmation by the International Commission on Stratigraphy and the International Union of Geological Sciences, the moment we usher in the Anthropocene is drawing ever closer.
In a word, the core view of the Anthropocene is that human beings have replaced natural forces and become the most important force in shaping the earth’s ecology. However, this is hardly an admiration for mankind, but a wake-up call to the future and destiny of mankind. Because a series of ecological consequences of the earth caused by human activities are triggering a comprehensive biosphere crisis and human survival crisis.
Since the emergence of life on earth 4 billion years ago, there have been 5 large-scale biological extinction events, which occurred in the Ordovician-Silurian period 445 million years ago, the late Devonian period 375 million years ago, and the 2.5 The Permian-Triassic period 100 million years ago, the Triassic-Jurassic period 200 million years ago, and the Cretaceous-Paleogene period 66 million years ago.
The causes of these biological extinction events include meteorite impacts, the advent of ice ages, volcanic eruptions, and plate migration. Take the mass extinction during the Permian-Triassic period as an example. During this extinction process that lasted for millions of years, a total of about 70% of terrestrial vertebrates and 96% of marine organisms went extinct, which is the largest in history. biological extinction event.
However, at present, the earth is in the process of the sixth mass extinction. Some scientists believe that the “culprit” of this extinction event is humans.
Data from the Living Planet Report 2020 released by the World Wide Fund for Nature shows that from 1970 to 2016, the monitored populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish decreased by an average of 68%, of which freshwater wild Animal populations fell by 84 percent.
According to data from the Living Planet Report 2020 released by the World Wildlife Fund, from 1970 to 2016, the monitored populations of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and fish decreased by an average of 68%, of which freshwater Wildlife populations fell by 84 percent. Studies estimate that between 150,000 and 260,000 species have gone extinct since 1500.
Although the scale of the current mass extinction is not comparable to those of the mass extinction events in history, the rate of this mass extinction is a hundred times higher than in the past. Some scholars predict that if the rate of species extinction continues, by 2050, 1/4 or even 1/2 of species will be extinct or endangered.
On the other hand, the impact of human activities on the earth is gradually threatening the survival of human beings. Sustainability research scholar John Rockstrom and earth system scientist Will Stephen once proposed the “Earth Limit” theory. They proposed 9 key environmental indicators, namely climate change, ocean acidification, and stratosphere. Ozone depletion, carbon and nitrogen cycles, global freshwater use, land-use change, biodiversity loss, atmospheric aerosol loading, and chemical pollution. If these indicators are broken, it will have a major impact on human society.
Regrettably, 4 indicators have now crossed the threshold. According to the standard, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere should be limited to below 350ppm in order to effectively prevent climate warming and melting glaciers, but by 2016, the actual concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached as high as 404ppm. In terms of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycle, the annual flow of phosphorus into the ocean should be less than 11 million tons, and nitrogen should be less than 62 million tons to avoid the formation of excessively large areas of low oxygen content in the ocean. However, the impact of excessive fertilizer use , and today’s inflows are roughly twice that.
The number of virgin forests is also not optimistic. In May 2020, the “Global Forest Resources Assessment” released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations showed that since 1990, 420 million hectares of forests have been deforested in the world, with a net loss of 178 million hectares.
The rate of extinction of the aforementioned organisms also greatly exceeds the rate of 10 disappearances per 100,000 species per hundred years.
A new perspective to understand the world
From nomadism to farming, from tribe to country, from manual manufacturing to mass production, thousands of years of human history is a history of continuous development of technology and continuous maturity and improvement of social organizations. Continuous improvement, human beings should be proud of it.
In such human narratives, however, Earth is absent. When we incorporate nature into history, things may look different. From the moment human ancestors left the trees and walked towards the earth, human beings have begun the process of using and conquering nature. Almost all iterations of organizational forms and technical capabilities are directed towards transforming and seizing nature more efficiently. Development, with it, is an increasingly intense change to the ecology of the earth.
On July 21, 2022, the International Union for Conservation of Nature announced that the white sturgeon, a species endemic to the Yangtze River, has become extinct
Thanks to the accumulation of the earth over billions of years, we have the confidence to ignore the existence of the earth itself and establish a civilization system that excludes the earth in the process of continuously requesting from the earth to strengthen ourselves. However, the current human history has reached such a point: human activities are “hollowing out” the earth, and if it continues, human civilization will be difficult to survive.
The Anthropocene reminds us that when arranging the history, culture, system, organization, and structure of human society, we must bring nature into the thinking framework, and we can no longer ignore and exclude the existence of the earth. In other words, we can no longer view the relationship between man and nature from the perspective of binary opposition, but should base human activities on the basis of global ecological changes.
Although the concept of the Anthropocene originated in geology, this new perspective on human activities and history has long gone beyond the scope of earth sciences, contributing to the “environmental turn” in the humanities and social sciences and a boom in interdisciplinary research.
The Anthropocene reminds us that when arranging the history, culture, system, organization, and structure of human society, we must bring nature into the thinking framework, and we can no longer ignore and exclude the existence of the earth.
The content of traditional economics is limited to human activities, focusing on the value, production and consumption created by specific human labor resources. However, if the Anthropocene is taken into account, and the energy factor is added to human labor, the overall appearance of human economic activities can be seen as a process of constantly replacing low-energy lifestyles with high-energy lifestyles.
In addition, the concept of the Anthropocene also prompts us to comprehensively rethink the form of human organization at an ecological level. Jeremy Davis said in his book: “Understanding the Anthropocene means that we need to broaden the focus of sociopolitical critiques to analyze power relations between geophysical components, both human, Including non-humans.”
Environmental history expert Jason Moore uses the concept of “capital world” to link capitalism with the ecological environment, emphasizing the global capitalist accumulation process behind the global climate change crisis. In his view, as a form of power domination, capitalism is no longer just a form of organization between people, but also a system of organizing nature, an ecological network that runs through the entire earth.
A very realistic interpretation is that it is difficult for us to imagine how a profit-oriented organization method, driven by the inertia of the existing culture, organization and system, can unite all mankind to jointly deal with the current climate crisis, while in an inappropriate environment. In the way of organization, the contradiction between human development and ecological protection will only intensify.
Regarding this lag, John McNeill has a precise description in his book “The Great Acceleration”: “So far, the system of thought and ideology, customs and habits, institutions and policies of a larger part, remains firmly At every level, the adaptation to the Anthropocene is just beginning.”
Changing this requires us to establish new understandings of the economics, politics, discourse, identity, organization, and other realms of the contemporary world. Recognize and find a new development framework that can coordinate the relationship between human beings and the earth. This is both an inspiration and a challenge for us from the Anthropocene.