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Can Humans End the Anthropocene?

There has been a great deal of buzz and attention in the science and policy communities over the idea that Earth has left the Holocene epoch and entered the Anthropocene, a proposed epoch that begins when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s geology and ecosystems. What is unique about the Anthropocene is that it is human-driven. We started it through the massive impacts our industry, resource extraction, agriculture, and sheer numbers have had on the biosphere. The question is whether we can end it, and if so, how and at what cost to humanity?

In a fascinating article in Science on this theme, Francois Sarrazin and Jane Lecomte outline five different scenarios for how humans handle the Antrhopocene based on how we treat our fellow species. In the most dystopian (for Earth) scenario, which they call the Blind Anthropocene, we give up on conservation of ecosystems and engage in runaway consumption to serve human needs only. In a range of three Deliberate Anthropocene scenarios, humans engage in conservation efforts, but for different goals. In the most human-focused scenario we conserve biodiversity to produce flows of provisioning (e.g., extracting timber) and regulating (e.g., wetlands providing sediment capture) ecosystem services benefitting human communities. An intermediate scenario adds protection of wilderness and landscapes, but only to enhance cultural (e.g., recreation) ecosystem services. In the most progressive Deliberate Anthropocene scenario, conservation is aimed at inter-generational fitness of humanity, which would focus on maintaining sustainable flows of regulating ecosystem services even at the expense of satisfying wants of present society.

Most environmental policy discourse focuses on which of these four scenarios, all of which are anthropocentric, should guide our decisions and actions. As Sarrazin and Lecomte argue, however, none of these approaches, not even the most aggressive Deliberate Anthropocene conservation scenario, will bring the Anthropocene to an end. They argue that a fifth scenario, which they call the Deliberate Overcoming of the Anthropocene, will be required. In this “evocentric” scenario, humans design conservation to ensure not only the fitness of future generations of humans, but also to ensure the future evolutionary fitness of all other species. Only if we can return other species to such an evolutionary trajectory—one not so influenced by human impacts—could we begin to entertain the idea that the Anthropocene is drawing to a close, thanks to us.

Their proposal is, to say the least, radical. What would it take to accomplish it? What laws and policies would we need to put in place now to start turning the Anthropocene around—to actually end rather than soften its impacts—and how long would it take? Is it even possible?

Regardless of its audacity, their proposal could prompt a useful thought exercise to test just how progressive even our most progressive conservation policies truly are. It could also provide a reference point for measuring how deeply entrenched the Anthropocene moves over time. It is at the very least worth thinking about.


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