Problem solving in the Anthropocene

DSCN3814William Gosling on:

Barnosky, A.D. & Hadly, E.A. (2014) Problem solving in the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Review, 1, 76-77.

The short communication by Barnosky & Hadly examines the current fundamental environmental ‘problem’ for human populations  through the lens of the “Anthropocene” concept, i.e. will some human populations:

  1. continue to develop using a “business as usual” model that has been shown to elevate environmental risk to all human populations, or
  2. alter societal practice in an attempt to reduce the environmental risks now and for future generations.

Barnosky & Hadly straightforwardly and succinctly present the case that, based on the weight of evidence from the collective scientific endeavour of the global community, humans are now fundamental altering the functioning of planet Earth; a view further supported by the recently published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report (IPCC, 2014).Throughout the period of anatomically modern human existence (Homo sapiens sapiens, the last c. 200,000 years) populations have experienced a variety of environmental changes. Exposure to environmental change has had both positive and negative impacts on societal development (e.g. Gosling & Williams, 2013; Hodell et al., 1995).

The fundamental difference with the situation today when compared with past societies is that for the first time:

  • a large number of people are aware of the potential for environmental change,
  • the consequences of the potential environmental change can be projected, and
  • there are actions that can be taken to mitigate the impacts of that environmental change on human populations (and the rest of the planet).

So having defined the problem what is the solution? Barnosky & Hadly indicate the importance of collaborative cross-disciplinary working and the move towards a scientific consensus. The nature of what that consensus should be is explored further in the recently published “Consensus statement” (Barnosky et al., 2014).

Having spent the last couple of weeks thinking about the “Anthropocene” concept, with a focus on the articles within the new journal The Anthropocene Review, I remain skeptical of our ability to be able to classify the “Anthropocene” geologically speaking now. That is not to say I do not think the Anthropocene does not exist, just that the start is difficult to see because we are too close to it; in comparison with other geological divisions, we have the problem of too much information! In a few million years then I am sure that if humans continue to dominate environmental impact on the planet  then the Anthropocene transition will be easily identifiable; probably plus or minus a few thousand years!?! This might seem like an odd point to make but I think that if we are not careful the Anthropocene concept could lead the research community into a lot of wasted time and energy trying to put time lines on something very difficult to define from the current perspective. This enthusiasm for understanding our environment would be better directed at addressing, and communicating, the key environmental change issues highlighted.

Therefore, if the term Anthropocene, and cross disciplinary journals such as The Anthropocene Review, can be useful in helping provide a common language for researchers in a range of disciplines to come together and communicate effectively with policy makers then I think it has utility. However, the focus on human dominated systems should not lead us into the trap of giving the impression that the only the period of time containing humans is the period important for humans. Pre-human environmental change and studies from areas with little human impact can provide vital information on the functioning of Earth systems relevant to how the planet functions now and in the future.

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