A Positive Narrative for the Anthropocene

David P. Turner / July 16, 2020

Humans are story-telling animals.  Our brains are wired to assimilate information in terms of temporal sequences of significant events.  We are likewise cultural animals.  Within a society, we share images, words, rituals, and stories.  Indigenous societies often have myths about their origin and history.  Religious mythologies remain prevalent in contemporary societies.

The discipline of Earth System Science has revealed the necessity for a global society that can address emerging planetary scale environmental change issues – notably climate change.  A shared narrative about the relationship of humanity to the biosphere, and more broadly to the Earth system, is highly desirable in that context. 

The most prevalent narrative about humanity’s relationship to the Earth system emphasizes the growing magnitude of our deleterious impacts on the global environment (think ozone hole, climate change, biodiversity loss).  The future of humanity is then portrayed as more of the same, unless radical changes are made in fossil fuel emissions and natural resource management.

In the process of writing a book for use in Global Environmental Change courses, I developed an elaborated narrative for humanity − still based on an Earth system science perspective but somewhat more upbeat.  I used the designation Anthropocene Narrative to describe it because Earth system scientists have begun to broadly adopt the term Anthropocene to evoke humanity’s collective impact on the environment. 

There are of course many possible narratives evoked by the Anthropocene concept (e.g. the historical role of capitalism in degrading the environment), all worthy of study.  But for the purposes of integrating the wide range of material covered in global environmental change classes, I identified a six stage sequence in the relationship of humanity to the rest of the Earth system that serves to link geologic history with human history, and with a speculative vision of humanity’s future (Figure 1).  The stages are essentially chapters in the story of humanity’s origin, current challenges, and future.  The tone is more hopeful than dystopian because our emerging global society needs a positive model of the future.  

Figure 1.  An Earth system science inspired Anthropocene narrative with six stages.  Image credits below.

The chapters in this Anthropocene narrative are as follows.

Chapter 1.  The Pre-human Biosphere

The biosphere (i.e. the sum of all living organisms) self-organized relatively quickly after the coalescence of Earth as a planet.  It is fueled mostly by solar energy.  The biosphere drives the global biogeochemical cycles of carbon, nitrogen, and other elements essential to life, and plays a significant role in regulating Earth’s climate, as well as the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans. The biosphere augments a key geochemical feedback in the Earth system (the rock weathering thermostat) that has helped keep the planet’s climate in the habitable range for 4 billion years.  By way of collisions with comets or asteroids, or because of its own internal dynamics, the Earth system occasionally reverts to conditions that are harsh for many life forms (i.e. mass extinction events).  Nevertheless, the biosphere has always recovered − by way of biological evolution − and a mammalian primate species recently evolved that is qualitatively different from any previous species. 

Figure 2.  The pre-human biosphere was a precondition for the biological evolution of humans.  Image Credit: NASA image by Robert Simmon and Reto Stöckli.

Chapter 2.  The Primal Separation

Nervous systems in animals have obvious adaptive significance in term of sensing the environment and coordinating behavior.  The brain of a human being appears to be a rather hypertrophied organ of the nervous system that has evolved in support of a capacity for language and self-awareness.  These capabilities are quite distinctive among animal species, and they set the stage for human conquest of the planet.  The most recent ice age receded about 12,000 year ago and a favorable Holocene climate supported the discovery and expansion of agriculture.  With agriculture, and gradual elaboration of toolmaking, humanity ceased waiting for Nature to provide it sustenance.  Rather, Nature became an object to be managed.  This change is captured in the Christian myth of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden (Figure 3).  They lived like all other animals in the biosphere until they became self-aware and began to consciously organize their environment.

Figure 3.  The story of Adam and Eve symbolizes the separation of early humans from the background natural world.  Image Credit: Adam and Eve expelled from Eden by an angel with a flaming sword. Line engraving by R. Sadeler after M. de Vos, 1583. Wellcome Trust.

Chapter 3.  The Build-out of the Technosphere

The next phase in this narrative is characterized by the gradual evolution and spread of technology.  An important driving force was likely cultural group selection, especially with respect to weapons technology and hierarchical social structure.  The ascent of the scientific worldview and the global establishment of the market system were key features.  Human population rose to the range of billions, and the technosphere began to cloak Earth (Figure 4).  The Industrial Revolution vastly increased the rate of energy flow and materials cycling by the human enterprise.  Telecommunications and transportation infrastructures expanded, and humanity began to get a sense of itself as a global entity.  Evidence that humans could locally overexploit natural resources (e.g. the runs of anadromous salmon in the Pacific Northwest U.S.) began to accumulate.

Figure 4.  The Earth at night based on satellite imagery displays the global distribution of technology dependent humans.  Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/Visualization Analysis Laboratory.

Chapter 4.  The Great Acceleration

Between World War II and the present, the global population grew from 2.5 billion to 7.8 billion people.  Scientific advances in the medical field reduced human mortality rates and technical advances in agriculture, forestry, and fish harvesting largely kept pace with the growing need for food and fiber.  The extent and density of the technosphere increased rapidly.  At the same time, we began to see evidence of technosphere impacts on the environment at the global scale – notably changes in atmospheric chemistry (Figure 5) and losses in global biodiversity.

Figure 5.  The impacts of the global human enterprise on various indicators of Earth system function take on an exponential trajectory after World War II.  Image Credit: Adapted from Steffen et al. 2015.

Chapter 5.  The Great Transition

This phase is just beginning.  Its dominant signal will be the bending of the exponentially rising curves for the Earth system and socio-economic indicators that define the Great Acceleration (Figure 5 above).  Global population will peak and decline, along with the atmospheric CO2 concentration.  Surviving the aftermath of the Great Acceleration with be challenging, but the Great Transition is envisioned to occur within the framework of a high technology infrastructure (Figure 6) and a healthy global economy.  To successfully accomplish this multigenerational task, humanity must begin to function as a global scale collective, capable of self-regulating.  Neither hyper-individualism nor populist tribal truth will get us there.  It will take psychologically mature global citizens, visionary political leaders, and new institutions for global governance.

Figure 6.  A critical feature of the Great Transition will be a renewable energy revolution.  Image Credit: Grunden Wind Farm

Chapter 6.  Equilibration

Human-induced global environmental change will continue for the foreseeable future.  The assumption for an Equilibration phase is that humanity will gain sufficient understanding of the Earth system – including the climate subsystem and the global biogeochemical cycles – and develop sufficiently advanced technology to begin using the technosphere and managing the biosphere to purposefully shape the biophysical environment from the scale of ecosystems and landscapes (Figure 7) to the scale of the entire planet.  Humanity is a part of the Earth system, meaning it must gain sufficient understanding of the social sciences to produce successive generations of global citizens who value environmental quality and will cooperate to manage and maintain it.  The challenges to education will be profound.

Figure 7.  An idealized landscape in which the biosphere and technosphere are sustainably integrated.  Image Credit: Paul Cézanne, Mont Sainte-Victoire, 1882–1885, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As noted, this Anthropocene Narrative is largely from the perspective of Earth system science.  In the interests of coherence, humanity is viewed in aggregate form.  Humanities scholars reasonably argue that in the interests of understanding climate justice, “humanity” must be disaggregated (e.g. by geographic region or socioeconomic class).  This perspective helps highlight the disproportionate responsibility of the developed world for driving up concentrations of the greenhouse gases.  The aggregated and disaggregated perspectives on humanity are complimentary; both are needed to understand and address global environmental change issues.

The Anthropocene Narrative developed here is broadly consistent with scientific observations and theories, which gives it a chance for wide acceptance.  The forward-looking part is admittedly aspirational; other more dire pathways are possible if not probable.  However, this narrative provides a solid rationale for building a global community of all human beings.  We are all faced with the challenge of living together on a crowded and rapidly changing planet.  The unambiguous arrival of global pandemics and climate change serve as compelling reminders of that fact.  A narrative of hope helps frame the process of waking up to the perils and possibilities of our times.

Recommended Video:  Welcome to the Anthropocene (~ 3 minutes)

This blog post was featured as a guest blog at the web site for The Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB).

https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/a-positive-narrative-for-the-anthropocene/

Can Humanity be a “We”?

David P. Turner / February 16, 2020

The peer-reviewed literature and the popular media today abound with concern about human-induced global environmental change.  Articles often argue that global scale problems require global scale solutions: humanity is causing the problem and “we” must rapidly implement solutions.  Environmental psychologists have found that people who sympathize with or identify with a group are energized to support its cause.  Can a majority of human beings identify with humanity in a way that motivates collective change towards global sustainability?      

Let’s consider several key constraining factors and unifying factors relevant to making humanity a “we” with respect to global environmental change.

Constraining Factors

Notable sociopolitical factors that impede global solidarity include the following.

1.  Climate Injustice among Nations 

In the process of their development, the most developed countries burned through a vast amount of fossil fuel and harvested a large proportion of their primary forests, hence causing most of the observed rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration.  But these countries are now asking the developing countries to share equally in the effort to curtail global fossil fuel emissions and deforestation to prevent further climate change.  At the same time, the impacts of climate change will tend to fall most heavily on the developing countries because of their lower capacity for adaptation.  The developing countries are pushing back on the basis of fairness, e.g. the outcome of the Kyoto protocol (albeit now obsolete) was that only the developed countries made commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

2. Rising Nationalism

Economists generally agree that economic globalization has spurred the global economy and helped lift hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty.  However, globalization of the labor market beginning around 1990 has also meant a large transfer of manufacturing from the developed to the developing world – and with it many jobs.

Likewise, immigration is helping millions of people a year find a better life by leaving behind political corruption, resource scarcity, and environmental disasters. 

Unfortunately, one effect of economic globalization and mass immigration has been political backlash within developed countries in the form of populism and nationalism.  Hypersensitivity to loss of national sovereignty is not conducive to international agreements to address global environmental change issues.

3.  Climate Science Skeptics

Although the global scientific community is broadly in consensus about the human causes of climate warming and other global environmental change problems, the rest of the world is more divided.  Most people in the U.S. accept that the global climate is changing, but only about half accept the scientific consensus that climate warming is caused by human actions.  Sources of skepticism about climate science include religious beliefs and vested interests. 

4.  Economic Inequality

Wealth inequality, both within nations and among them, is a pervasive feature of the global economy.  The rich end of the wealth distribution contributes to the vested interests problem as just noted.  At the poor end of the wealth distribution, the hierarchy of needs discourages concern for the environment; solidarity with the fight against climate change is a luxury when you are starving.

These four constraining factors are deeply rooted and are only the head of a list that would also include competition for limited natural resources and geopolitical conflict.  It is daunting to think about overcoming these obstacles to a “we” that includes all of humanity.  There are substantive ongoing research and applied efforts (not documented here) to overcome them, but in a general way let’s consider some equally significant factors that may help foster a global “we”.

Unifying Factors

The following rather disparate set of factors supply some hope for human unification under the banner of environmental concern.

1.  Our Genetic Heritage

Humans are social creatures.  Sociobiologists, such as Harvard Professor E.O. Wilson, have argued that many of our social impulses are genetically based.  We have an instinctual propensity to identify with a particular social group, and to draw a distinction between that group (us) and outsiders (them).  The average ingroup size during the hunter/gatherer phase of human evolution, which largely shaped our social instincts, is believed to have been about 30 people.  Remarkably, the size of the social group that humans identify with has vastly expanded over historical time − from the level of tribe, to the level of village, empire, and the modern nation-state.  Conceivably, that capacity could be extended to the global scale:  we might all eventually consider ourselves citizens of a planetary civilization.

The historical expansion of social group size was driven in part by military considerations  − the need to have a larger army than your neighbor.  Obviously, this rationale breaks down at the global scale, but a distinct possibility for inspiring global solidarity is the looming threat of global environmental change. 

Note that being a citizen of the world does not require rejecting one’s local or national culture.  Multiple sources of identity could include being an autonomous individual, being a member of various ingroups, and being a member of humanity in its entirety.

2.  The Advance of Earth System Science

A conspicuous general trend favorable to achieving a collective sense of responsibility for managing human impacts on the Earth system is growth in our scientific understanding of the Earth system.  From studies of the geologic record, scientists know that Earth’s climate has varied widely, from cool “snowball” Earth phases to relatively warm “hothouse” Earth phases.  Greenhouse gas concentrations have consistently been an important driver of global climate change, which gives scientists confidence that as greenhouse gas concentrations rise, Earth’s climate will warm. 

The scientific community also has expansive monitoring networks that reveal the exponentially rising curves for metrics such as the atmospheric CO2 concentration.  Earth system models that simulate Earth’s future show the dangers of Business-as-Usual scenarios of resource use, as well as the benefits of specific mitigation measures.  At the request of the United Nations, the global scientific community periodically assembles the most recent research about climate change, the prospects for mitigation (i.e. reduction of greenhouse gas concentrations), and the possibilities for adaptation. 

If improved understanding of the human environmental predicament can filter down to the global billions, we might hope for a strengthening support for collective action.

3.  The Evolution of the Technosphere

The technosphere is a new global-scale part of the Earth system.  It joins the pre-existing geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere.  However, just as the evolution of the biosphere was a major disturbance to the early Earth system, the evolution of the technosphere is proving to be disruptive to the contemporary Earth system.  

Around 2.3 billion years ago, cyanobacteria evolved that could split water molecules (H2O) in the process of photosynthesis.  The resulting oxygen (O2) began to accumulate in the atmosphere, radically changing atmospheric chemistry.  Oxygen was toxic to many existing life forms, but eventually micro-organisms capable of using oxygen in the process of respiration evolved, which in time led to the evolution of multicellular organisms (and eventually to us). 

In the case of technosphere evolution, a process that emits excessive amounts of CO2 (combustion of fossil fuels) has arisen, which is altering the global climate and ocean chemistry in a way than may be toxic to many existing life forms.  One potential solution is that the technosphere can further evolve (by way of cultural evolution) to subsist on renewable energy rather than combustion of fossil fuels, thus moderating its influence on the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere.

A characteristic feature of technosphere evolution is ever more elaborate means of transportation and telecommunications.  These capabilities – especially the on-going buildout of the Internet – allow for increased integration across the technosphere and tighter coupling of the technosphere with the rest of the Earth system.  Sharing results of environmental monitoring in its many dimensions over the telecommunications network can help with creating and maintaining sustainable natural resource management schemes.   

Through the popular news and social media, nearly everyone in the world can learn about events such as regional droughts and catastrophic forest fires that are associated with climate change.  It is thus becoming easier to have a common frame of reference among all humans about the state of the planet.

There is not yet anything like a global consciousness that coordinates across the whole technosphere.  However, the Internet is facilitating the emergence of a global brain type entity.  One indication of what the nascent global brain is thinking about is the relative frequencies of different search terms on Google.  Interestingly, in the algorithms that determine the response to search engine queries, a high frequency of previous usage for a relevant web site makes that site more likely to reach the top of the response list.  That process is evocative of learning, i.e. reinforcement through repetition.  Similarly, the Amygdala Project monitors Twitter hashtags.  They are classified according to emotional tone, and a running visual summation gives a sense of the collective emotional state (of the Twitterers).  Advances in artificial intelligence and quantum computing may soon improve the module in the global brain that simulates the future of the Earth system.

4.  The Expanding Domain of Human Moral Concern

In “The Slow Creation of Humanity”, psychologist Sam McFarland recounts the history of the human rights movement.  Writer H.G. Wells, humanitarian Eleanor Roosevelt, and others have helped develop the rationale and legal basis for including all human beings in our “circles of compassion” (Einstein’s term).  The concept of rights has now begun to be legally extended to Nature (in Ecuador) and specifically to Earth (in Bolivia).  Since protecting the rights of Earth (e.g. to be free of pollution) clearly requires that humans work collectively, we come to an incentive for global human solidarity.

Again, these four unifying factors are only the start of a list that might also include global improvements in education, as well as growth in the activities of global non-governmental environmental organizations. 

Conclusions

The field of Earth system science is producing an increasingly clear understanding of the human predicament with respect to global environmental change.  Scientist know what is happening to the global environment, what is likely to happen in the future under Business-as-Usual assumptions, and to some degree, what must change to avert an environmental catastrophe.

The process of changing the trajectory of the Earth system cannot be done unilaterally.  From the top down, an important step will be genesis or reform of the institutions of global governance – including institutions concerned with the political, economic, and environmental dimensions of governance.  This is a task for a generation of researchers, political leaders, and diplomats.  From the bottom up, individuals must be brought around as adults, and brought up as children, to adopt an identity that includes global citizenship and associated responsibilities for the global environment.  This is a task for a generation of educators, religious leaders, and business leaders.

If “we” human dwellers on Earth don’t gain a collective identity and begin to better manage the course of technosphere evolution, then we may no longer thrive on this planet.

Recommended Audio/Video, Mother Earth, Neil Young