The planetary conditions that have enabled society to grow and become what it is today are changing, shifting to uncertain terrain with potentially catastrophic results. It’s important for business owners and global citizens to understand the source of this change to be empowered to anticipate and adapt to these changes and potentially help reverse them through intentional, sustainable action.
This article will cover the Holocene—the era of conditions that enabled society to grow and thrive, the theory of the Anthropocene, planetary boundaries, tipping points, and resilience thinking while urging readers to consider their impact and how to secure the future they want.
The Anthropocene: Pushing Society Past Its Limits
For the past 11,700 years since the last ice age, humans have experienced a period of planetary conditions that have allowed society to develop and thrive, known as the Holocene. As human society has continued to innovate exponentially, largely at the expense of the planet, scientists have hypothesized that we are beginning to enter a new epoch, or period of time in history, defined by human impact on the earth known as the Anthropocene. As industry is one of the biggest drivers of global climate change and is entirely dependent on the earth’s resources for production, it is important for business leaders and employees to understand the Anthropocene, its implications, and what it means for the future of sustainability and industry.
Eras in the Earth’s history are defined by major climactic events and distinguished through the fossil record, carbon dating, and other methods. The Holocene began after the last glacial retreat, which carved out the Earth as we know it today, giving Wisconsin and Minnesota their lakes, leaving remnant glaciers in Colorado, and shaping seas.
Prior to the Holocene, humans depended on large, cold-adapted animals for food such as the wooly mammoth; however, once the glaciers receded, humans hunted the last of the large mammals, and the planetary conditions began to warm, humans switched to hunting smaller game and increased their gathering of plants. Typically, a population will expand until it meets carrying capacity, or the maximum number of individuals that the environment can support without collapse; however, agriculture allowed humans to sidestep constraints of the natural environment, which gave way for society to continue to innovate and grow.
At the end of the first century, there were approximately 170 million people on Earth, by 1800, the population was over 1 billion people with major cities developing, breakthrough medical advancements, and continued technological innovation. The industrial revolution allowed human populations to grow exponentially and brought along with it seemingly limitless opportunities for discovery; however, this time also marks the beginning of humankind’s rapid degradation of the environment. During this era, humans began releasing concentrated amounts of carbon and other emissions, causing extreme air pollution and marking the start of the constant rise of atmospheric CO2, leading us to where we are today.
Today we find ourselves in the Anthropocene, an unofficial unit of geologic time where human activity has started to have a notable and significant impact on the Earth’s climate and ecosystems. The word Anthropocene was coined by biologist Eugene Stormer and chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000 and has since gained popularity and acclaim.
Though the term Anthropocene has not been formally adopted by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), skeptics and believers alike can agree that we have been experiencing, with a steady increase, record-breaking global temperatures, instances of drought, hurricanes, and fires that have devastated entire communities. However, for the Anthropocene to be formally accepted as a new epoch, the IUGS needs to determine if humans have changed the Earth system to the point that it is reflected in the rock strata.
The next question when determining if we have entered the Anthropocene is determining when it began. Theories range from estimating that it began at the start of the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s when human activity started releasing significant amounts of carbon and methane in Earth’s atmosphere and others think that it should be 1945 when humans tested the first atomic bomb, and then dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japa, resulting in radioactive particles detected in soil samples globally. In 2016, the Anthropocene Working Group confirmed that the Anthropocene is different from the Holocene, and it began in the year 1950 with the Great Acceleration.
The Great Acceleration – Beyond Natural Variation
The Great Acceleration is the period after World War II during which the rate of impact of human activity on the Earth increased significantly. The International Geoshpere-Biosphere Programme and Stockholm Resilience Center published a dashboard of 24 indicators that each depict a synchronous acceleration of upward trends from the 1950s to present day. These graphs are divided into two sections– 12 socio-economic and 12 Earth systems from 1750 to present-day which present strong evidence that the Earth has entered a new state or epoch. The graphs include an analysis of the contributions of wealthy nations compared to emerging economies and developing countries and highlight the inequalities of contributions between countries and economic development status.
These indicators, including but not limited to carbon dioxide, methane, ocean acidification, tropical forest loss, population, GDP, water use, and transportation, have reached the point past natural variation, showing indisputably that the Earth is in a different state than before.
Planetary Boundaries – Conditions for Human Society to Continue to Grow and Thrive
Now that we’ve discussed the cause of the shift to a new era of planetary conditions, what does it mean? The Earth may have increased atmospheric emissions, reduced forest mass, and a greater population than ever before, but how does this affect how society continues to operate?
To answer these questions, the former Stockholm Resilience Centre director Johan Rockström, along with a group of 28 internationally renowned climate scientists, identified nine processes that regulate the stability and resiliency of the Earth’s ecological and climatic systems known as the planetary boundaries. These are the proposed boundaries within which humanity can continue to develop and thrive for generations to come and which, if crossed, can increase the risk of generating large-scale and potentially irreversible environmental changes.
The Nine Planetary Boundaries
- Climate change – Recent evidence suggests that atmospheric CO2 has already transgressed the planetary boundary and is approaching several Earth system thresholds. We have reached a point at which the loss of summer polar sea ice is almost certainly irreversible, now the main question is how long we can remain over this boundary before experiencing large, irreversible changes.
- Novel entities – Emissions of toxic and long-lived substances such as synthetic organic pollutants, heavy metal compounds, and radioactive materials represent some of the key human-driven changes to the planetary environment. These compounds can have potentially irreversible effects on living organisms and on the physical environment (by affecting atmospheric processes and climate).
- Stratospheric ozone depletion – The stratospheric ozone layer in the atmosphere filters out ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. If this layer decreases, increasing amounts of UV radiation will reach the surface/ground which can cause a higher incidence of skin cancer in humans, crop destruction, drought, and damage to terrestrial and marine biological systems.
- Atmospheric aerosol loading – Aerosols play a critically important role in the hydrological cycle, affecting cloud formation and patterns of global and regional weather patterns, such as the monsoon systems in tropical regions. They also have a direct effect on climate, changing how much solar radiation is reflected or absorbed in the atmosphere.
- Ocean acidification – Surface ocean acidity has already increased by 30 percent since pre-industrial times. Around a quarter of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere is absorbed and dissolved in the oceans which then becomes carbonic acid, a substance that alters ocean chemistry and decreases the pH of the surface water. This increased acidity makes it difficult for organisms such as corals and some shellfish and plankton species to grow and survive. Losses of these species would change the structure and dynamics of ocean ecosystems and lead to drastic reductions in fish stocks.
- Biogeochemical flows – The natural biogeochemical cycles of nitrogen and phosphorous have been radically altered by humans through industrial and agricultural processes. Nitrogen and phosphorous are both essential for plant growth, thus they are made into fertilizers that pollute waterways and coastal zones, and accumulate in the world’s soil and land. Increased amounts of nitrogen in phosphorous can cause organisms and ecological systems to become oxygen starved, as the resulting algae blooms grow and in extreme cases create dead zones where no other organism can survive.
- Freshwater use – Water is becoming increasingly scarce – by 2050 about half a billion people are likely to be subject to water insecurity. The freshwater cycle is strongly affected by climate change and its boundary is closely linked to the climate boundary, yet human pressure is now the dominant driving force affecting the functioning and distribution of global freshwater systems.
- Land-system change – Forests, grasslands, wetlands, and other land types have been converted to agricultural land all across the globe. This transition is one driving force behind the serious and rapid reductions in biodiversity, resulting in impacts on water flows and on the biogeochemical cycling of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, and other important elements.
- Biosphere integrity – The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment determined that changes to ecosystems due to human activities were more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history, increasing the risks of abrupt and irreversible changes. The main drivers of change are the demand for food, water, and natural resources, causing severe biodiversity loss and leading to changes in ecosystem services.
As of April 2022, scientists have concluded that humanity has exceeded the safe operating space of biosphere integrity, freshwater change, novel entities (specifically plastic and microplastic), and biogeochemical flows. The below graph is the most recent assessment of planetary boundaries, green indicates the safe operating space that society has experienced throughout the Holocene, orange/yellow indicates a zone of uncertainty or increasing risk, and red indicates a zone of high risk.
Tipping Points – Earth’s “Achilles Heels”
Along with the nine planetary boundaries, scientists have also identified a set of nine “tipping points” that could push parts of the Earth into abrupt or irreversible change. If these tipping points are affected by even small human-induced changes, these vital elements of the Earth’s ecosystem could be pushed over the edge, leading the planet towards a different state. If these tipping points are crossed, the Earth can become more unstable, and as more are crossed vital systems will continue to collapse and become nearly impossible to stop.
Tipping points can be caused by natural fluctuations in the environment but external factors such as human impact accelerate the natural shifts, making it more likely to be pushed over the edge. These tipping points are variable, meaning since they have not been crossed during the current era of human society, the exact resulting impacts and the point at which they are irreversible are not certain; however, scientists do know that allowing them to be crossed will result in a different Earth system than we currently know it. Tipping points don’t exclusively equal negative impacts, in some cases, it could lead to more vegetation and rain, but they do mean planetary conditions that are outside the realm humans have known thus far.
The Nine Tipping Points
- Shutdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation – The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) forms part of a wider network of global ocean circulation patterns that transports heat all around the world. It is driven by deep water formation and is the sinking of dense, therefore heavy, water in the high latitudes of the North Atlantic. Climate change affects this process by diluting the salty sea water with fresh water and warming it up.
- West Antarctic ice sheet disintegration – The West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) is one of three regions making up Antarctica. The other two are East Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula, with the Transantarctic Mountain range dividing east from west. The WAIS holds enough ice to raise global sea levels by around 3.3 meters, with even a partial loss of its ice being enough to change coastlines around the world dramatically.
- Amazon rainforest destruction and mass dieback – There are three potential causes that may turn the Amazon into a climate that cannot support a rainforest including a decline in rainfall, less transpiration (water going back into the atmosphere), and deforestation. Beyond this point, the forest would see widespread “dieback” and transition to savannah – a drier ecosystem dominated by open grasslands with few trees.
- West African monsoon shift – Climate change and global mean warming of three to five degrees Celsius could cause a collapse of the West African monsoon. This could lead either to the drying of the Sahel or a wetting due to an increased inflow of rain from the West. The wetting could result in more vegetation or greening of the region, in what would be a rare example of a positive tipping point.
- Permafrost and methane hydrates – Permafrost is ground soil or rock that contains ice or frozen organic material that has remained at or below 0C for at least two years. It covers around a quarter of the non-glaciated land in the northern hemisphere and submarine permafrost exists in shallow parts of the arctic and southern oceans. Permafrost holds a vast amount of carbon that is accumulated from dead plants and animals over thousands of years. There is nearly twice as much carbon in permafrost than is currently in the atmosphere. If this permafrost thaws, it will release CO2 and methane which can even further accelerate global warming.
- Coral reef die-off – Coral reefs are often described by scientists as one of the ecological systems that are most sensitive to global warming. Mass coral bleaching, or the expulsion of the tiny colorful algae that live in coral tissue and provide corals with energy, has significantly increased over the past 40 years. The rate of coral bleaching and other threats to coral reefs such as overfishing, runoff, ocean acidification, destructive fishing practices, and sea level rise has increased to such a rate that coral reefs may vanish within our lifetimes. A healthy reef can bounce back within 10-15 years after bleaching; however, many reefs have shown little to no recovery due to the existence of other pressures.
- Indian monsoon shift – The Indian summer monsoon rainfall between June and September critically affects India’s agriculture and economy, being the primary source of fresh water in the Indian subcontinent. Global warming tends to strengthen the monsoon since warmer air can carry more water; however, the Indian summer monsoon could become more and more unpredictable and in the worst case start to chaotically change between an active and a weak phase in only a couple of years.
- Greenland ice sheet disintegration – The Greenland ice sheet is the second largest mass of ice on Earth, holding about 6% of the planet’s freshwater and enough water to raise global sea levels by 7.2 meters and, as a result, change the shape of the world’s coastlines.
- Boreal forest shift- These extensive northern forests, also known as Taiga or snow forests, consist mostly of pines, spruces, and larches. As global warming increases, so will wildfires and vulnerability to diseases. Global warming of three to five degrees could lead to large-scale dieback of boreal forests within 50 years.
Resilience Thinking and Sustainability
Whether you agree with the theory that the Earth has entered a new epoch, it is an interesting thought exercise, to reflect on the scope of human impact on the planet and consider whether the changes and scope are significant enough to be observed as a new period of planetary conditions outside of those we have experienced since the beginning of civilization. Either way, the planetary boundaries, and tipping points are key factors that we must consider. Though the exact timing and scope of their associated changes and impact cannot be determined without a doubt, we do know that crossing them will result in a different Earth than that which allowed society to become what it is today.
We have the ability to stop and potentially reverse these changes, we just need to shift our way of thinking toward resiliency. Even in best-case scenario situations, we still need to figure out how to adapt to the changes we may face and support ourselves for generations to come, which leads us to resilience thinking.
Resilience is the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while still maintaining essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedback. A resilience thinking system or approach investigates how people and ecological systems can best be managed to ensure a sustainable and resilient supply of ecosystem services that humanity depends on without sacrificing the integrity of the system itself.
There are seven key principles for resilience thinking.
- Maintain diversity and redundancy – Systems with many different components, species, or actors, are more resilient than systems with few components.
- Manage connectivity – Well-connected systems can recover from disturbances more quickly, but overly connected systems may lead to rapid spread across the entire system. Connectivity should be properly managed so that they are resilient but not overly reliant on the entire system.
- Manage slow variables and feedbacks – The key challenge in managing slow variables and feedback is identifying the key slow variables and feedbacks that maintain the social-ecological regimes which produce desired ecosystem services, and identifying where the critical thresholds lie that can lead to a reconfiguration of the system.
- Foster complex adaptive systems thinking – Acknowledging that social-ecological systems are based on a complex and unpredictable web of connections and interdependencies is the first step towards managing in a way that increases and fosters resilience thinking.
- Encourage learning – Learning and experimentation ensure that different types and sources of knowledge and perspective are valued and considered when creating solutions, leading to a greater willingness to try new things.
- Broaden participation – Bringing in new perspectives and broadening the scope of participation can build trust and diversify solutions.
- Promote polycentric governance – Polycentric governance promotes collaboration, connectivity, and learning across scales and cultures. Well-connected governments, institutions, and structures can deal with change and disturbance quickly and effectively.
Industry and the Anthropocene
Since industry is one of the largest resource consumers and drivers of global climate and ecosystem change, businesses must alter their operations to prevent the Earth from crossing its planetary boundaries and tipping points. Businesses have been able to thrive in the world we have today, if the world shifts into uncertain territory driven by the Anthropocene, their success and future security will be compromised as well, making it imperative for them to take action now.
Steps businesses can take
- Educate yourself and your colleagues about planetary boundaries and tipping points.
- Assess your business operations to understand how you are contributing to climate change, resource scarcity, and ecosystem decline.
- Incorporate resiliency into your business model by:
- Hiring a diverse workforce to increase different perspectives, feedback, and input.
- Building community partnerships.
- Determining ways to become self-sufficient to increase resiliency in the face of natural disasters.
- Encourage your employees to constantly learn and develop their professional skills.
- Bring people from different roles and levels into decision-making.
- Become certified for your sustainability and social responsibility efforts to track your progress and gain recognition.
What Can You Do About the Anthropocene?
Though the Anthropocene, the planetary boundaries, and the tipping points may create a scary picture for the future, these ideas are simply highlighting that society as we know it is entering an unknown. We can either sit with this knowledge and watch the world change or use it as fuel to create the future we want. The UN SDGs were created as a roadmap and framework to develop economically and continue to grow responsibly within planetary boundaries. You can adopt the SDGs and resilience thinking within your business and your life to do the same. In a society that is heavily interconnected, we have the power to enact more change than ever and make the planet even better than we inherited it.