How to save a scorched Earth

We have entered a new, dangerous epoch in the Earth’s history, argue Simon L Lewis and Mark A Maslin. As humanity becomes the primary force re-shaping the planet, how can we avoid destroying it?

November 1, 2018 · 9 min read
Photo NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (Flickr)

The impacts of human actions on our planet are now so large that many scientists are declaring a new phase of the Earth’s history. The old forces of nature that transformed the Earth many millions of years ago, including meteorites and mega-volcanoes, are joined by another: us. We have entered a new, human-dominated epoch of geological time called the ‘Anthropocene’.

The Anthropocene signals many things to many people, but at its core this combination of the Greek words for ‘human’ and ‘new’ or ‘recent’ indicates that the scale of human affairs is increasingly dictating the future of the only place in the universe known to harbour life.

There is little disagreement among scientists, ourselves included, that we are living in a new epoch, because the planet-wide changes seen today rival important events in the Earth’s past. Factories and farming remove as much nitrogen from the atmosphere as all Earth’s natural processes. This is the largest change to the global cycling of nitrogen for 2.5 billion years.

In terms of change to life – the usual markers of new periods of geological time – the human impact is similarly profound. Extinctions are commonplace, running at 1,000 times the typical rate seen before humans walked the Earth. And if you weighed all the land mammals on Earth, 30 per cent of that weight is us humans, 67 per cent the farm animals that feed us, and just 3 per cent are mammals living in the wild. Beyond that, human actions are homogenising life by moving species to new regions, erasing over 200 million years of separation.

Anthropocene or capitalocene?

Some on the left object to the idea of calling this a ‘human epoch’ because it can make it appear that everyone is equally to blame for today’s environmental crisis (see page 82). Some left-wing academics prefer to call it the ‘Capitalocene’ – the time of capitalism – after the economic system that brought about these planetary changes.

But epochs, as formal geological units of time, typically last for millions of years. So unless we think that capitalism will structure human societies for such a vast span of time, any such a name is a mistake. Saying capitalism is now so durable that we measure it on geological timescales closes possibilities of change, rather than opening them up as advocates of the term Capitalocene desire.

Nevertheless, the role of capitalism in the creation and development of this new chapter in the Earth’s history is obviously central to the narrative of the Anthropocene. In our new book The Human Planet, we trace the ever-greater environmental impacts of different human societies, finding that there are just five broad types that have spread worldwide.

Our original hunter-gatherer societies were followed by the agricultural revolution and new types of society beginning some 10,500 years ago. The next shift resulted from the formation of the first global economy, after Europeans arrived in the Americas in 1492. This mercantile capitalist mode of living was followed in the late 1700s by the new societies of the industrial revolution. The final type is today’s high-production, consumer capitalist mode of living that emerged after second world war.

Each successive mode of living – hunter-gatherer, agricultural, mercantile capitalist, industrial capitalist and consumer capitalist – has been reliant on greater energy use, and greater information and knowledge availability, resulting in an increase in the human population and an increase in our collective agency.

Avoiding the crash

These insights help us to think about avoiding the coming crash as our massive global economy doubles in size every 25 years with ever‑larger environmental impact. They allow us to see fresh possibilities of a new and more sustainable mode of living to replace consumer capitalism.

Seen in this way, a new sixth type of society, of whatever type, will require both greater energy provision and improved systems to communicate knowledge and manage information. The role of renewable energy for all takes on an importance beyond stopping climate breakdown. Likewise, free education and the internet for all has a significance beyond accessing social media. However, more energy and information flows alone could increase our environmental problems, as in the past.

To usher in a new way of living, the core dynamic of ever-greater production and consumption of goods and resources must be broken, coupled with a societal focus on environmental repair. Systemic interventions are needed that unleash dynamics to push society towards a new mode of living. Two increasingly discussed ideas may do just this.

Basic income

Universal basic income (UBI) is a policy whereby a financial payment is made to every citizen, unconditionally, without any obligation to work, at a level above their subsistence needs. Small-scale trials of UBI shows that educational attainment is higher, entrepreneurship levels go up, people are healthier and self-reported happiness increases.  However, UBI does more than this: it could break the link between work and consumption. The requirement for most of us to sell our labour and be ever more productive is compensated for by enabling us to increase our consumption. Given this dynamic, it makes little sense to forgo environmentally damaging behaviour when we know we have to work harder in the future regardless of our choices. Consumption is the ‘pay-back’ for being ever-more productive at work. We often tell ourselves that we deserve that disposable treat, the latest high-tech gizmo, or long-haul holiday. We say: I work hard, I have earned it.

By breaking this link between work and consumption, UBI could, if carefully managed over time, dramatically lessen environmental impacts. We could work less and consume less, and still meet our needs. Fear for the future would recede, meaning we would not have to work ever-harder for fear of having no work in the future.

UBI reduces dependency, giving people the agency to say ‘no’ to undesirable work – and ‘yes’ to opportunities that often lie out of reach. With UBI we could all think long-term, well beyond the next payday. We could care for ourselves, care for others, and care for the wider world, as living in the Anthropocene demands.

UBI also helps manage the fallout from capitalism’s demand for ever-higher productivity. As the human mind and body is increasingly unable to cope with such demands, machines are increasingly taking human roles. And in the longer-term, if UBI is designed and implemented wisely, a route to a post-growth, post-capitalist mode of living that leans heavily on technology appears possible.

Environmental repair

Environmental repair could come from the simple but profound idea that we allocate half the Earth’s surface primarily for the benefit of other species. Half-Earth is less utopian than it first appears, as we have already become an urban species. Mass-scale forest restoration is already underway, with commitments across 43 countries to restore 292 million hectares of degraded land to forest, ten times the area of the UK.

At a deeper level, our views on nature are forged by the society we live in. The idea of pristine nature in separate national parks emerged in opposition to the pollution of the industrial revolution. Acknowledging the Anthropocene re-establishes that humans are part of nature, and so rewilding projects, where large areas are managed to allow natural processes to run, are increasingly popular. Slowly, a new nature aesthetic is being born. 

But can we really escape booming production and consumption? The fate of species encountering vast new resources is exponential growth and then collapse, epitomised by the rapid expansion and eventual death of bacteria growing in a Petri dish. While it is rarely recognised, we humans have recently become the first exception to this rule: birth rates on all continents are declining or have already stabilised. The global population will not double in size again and will probably stop growing altogether by mid-century.

The swift reduction in family size is rooted in the provision of more information, in the form of girls’ education and resulting onward empowerment, which is a key determinant of family size. Education – essentially making structured information available – has enabled humans to do something unique in four billion years of life on Earth: stabilise our own population. In this case, progressive goals and planetary stewardship go hand-in-hand.

With carefully designed policies such as UBI and rewilding that unleash dynamics to push society towards a new mode of living for a new epoch, we can do what is necessary: maintain the life-supporting infrastructure of the Earth, reduce human suffering, and enable people to flourish.

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