The Anthropocene – can human activity become a force for good for the planet?

Louise McRae

“Humans are altering the planet, including long-term global geologic processes, at an increasing rate.” This quote from a journal article in Science in 2016 is referring to the Anthropocene, a term coined to describe the new human-mediated geological epoch.

Earth - Africa and the Middle East

This suggests that our species, Homo sapiens, is having a measurable impact that can be observed in the rock record and is leaving an indelible mark on our planet.

Recent advances in scientific research on new minerals and rock types, geochemical signatures, and climatic changes have been used to support this theory of the Anthropocene. Alongside these measures, trends in global biological diversity also suggest that the planet is changing rapidly. For example the rate at which species are going extinct is 1,000 times greater than estimates of the natural background rate of extinction.  Predictions of a sixth mass extinction have been made given this increase in the loss of species.

The context of the Anthropocene and in particular the changes in biodiversity set the scene for the latest publication on the health of the planet, WWF’s Living Planet Report 2016. Two measures stand out in this report: one is that we are consuming more of the Earth’s natural resources than is sustainable, as shown by the Ecological Footprint, which indicates that we need the equivalent of 1.6 Earths to support current global consumption. The second is that, at the same time, we are seeing a global decline in biodiversity as measured by the Living Planet Index, which shows a 58% decline in the abundance of vertebrate populations between 1970 and 2012. The pressures on the natural resources and the effect on wildlife appear to be growing unabated, suggesting that we could be heading towards irreversible changes to our planet.

The results presented in the Living Planet Report are of course worrying. However, such findings are also a wake-up call. In an article in the Guardian, Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society and professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, states that the 21st century “…marks our collective realisation that the Anthropocene has begun – and it’s a century when human actions will determine how long that epoch lasts.”

The current state of the environment is certainly a global problem that requires political, technological and economic solutions on an international scale. But to what extent is achieving a sustainable future also in the hands of individuals making choices about their daily lives?  This is the topic of two events happening at ZSL this month.

On Tuesday 15 November ZSL is hosting an evening debate – ‘Can I protect the planet? How our daily decisions impact global biodiversity decline’ – exploring the relationship between personal choices and the processes contributing to biodiversity declines.

On Tuesday 29 November, ZSL will be hosting a one-day scientific symposium entitled ‘The Living Planet Report 2016: Threats, pressures and addressing challenges’. This symposium  will bring together leading experts to examine the primary drivers of decline and explore how individuals, communities and governments can make better choices in order to preserve biodiversity.

What the Living Planet Report has made clear is that action – no matter at what level – can be taken, but that it needs to be taken now. We need to marshal all our efforts to protect the ecosystems that support people and wildlife.

By Louise McRae & Valentina Marconi, ZSL Indicators & Assessments Unit

Living Planet Report 2016 cover

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