Jan Zalasiewicz and Colin Waters
The Anthropocene hypothesis—that humans have impacted “the environment” but also changed the Earth’s geology—has spread widely through the sciences and humanities. This hypothesis is being currently tested to see whether the Anthropocene may become part of the Geological Time Scale. An Anthropocene Working Group has been established to assemble the evidence. The decision regarding formalization is likely to be taken in the next few years, by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the body that oversees the Geological Time Scale. Whichever way the decision goes, there will remain the reality of the phenomenon and the utility of the concept.
The evidence, as outlined here, rests upon a broad range of signatures reflecting humanity’s significant and increasing modification of Earth systems. These may be visible as markers in physical deposits in the form of the greatest expansion of novel minerals in the last 2.4 billion years of Earth history and development of ubiquitous materials, such as plastics, unique to the Anthropocene. The artefacts we produce to live as modern humans will form the technofossils of the future. Human-generated deposits now extend from our natural habitat on land into our oceans, transported at rates exceeding the sediment carried by rivers by an order of magnitude. That influence now extends increasingly underground in our quest for minerals, fuel, living space, and to develop transport and communication networks. These human trace fossils may be preserved over geological durations and the evolution of technology has created a new technosphere, yet to evolve into balance with other Earth systems.
The expression of the Anthropocene can be seen in sediments and glaciers in chemical markers. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by ~45 percent above pre–Industrial Revolution levels, mainly through combustion, over a few decades, of a geological carbon-store that took many millions of years to accumulate. Although this may ultimately drive climate change, average global temperature increases and resultant sea-level rises remain comparatively small, as yet. But the shift to isotopically lighter carbon locked into limestones and calcareous fossils will form a permanent record. Nitrogen and phosphorus contents in surface soils have approximately doubled through increased use of fertilizers to increase agricultural yields as the human population has also doubled in the last 50 years. Industrial metals, radioactive fallout from atomic weapons testing, and complex organic compounds have been widely dispersed through the environment and become preserved in sediment and ice layers.
Despite radical changes to flora and fauna across the planet, the Earth still has most of its complement of biological species. However, current trends of habitat loss and predation may push the Earth into the sixth mass extinction event in the next few centuries. At present the dramatic changes relate to trans-global species invasions and population modification through agricultural development on land and contamination of coastal zones.
Considering the entire range of environmental signatures, it is clear that the global, large and rapid scale of change related to the mid-20th century is the most obvious level to consider as the start of the Anthropocene Epoch.
Confidence in the projected impacts of climate change on agricultural systems has increased substantially since the first Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. In Africa, much work has gone into downscaling global climate models to understand regional impacts, but there remains a dearth of local level understanding of impacts and communities’ capacity to adapt. It is well understood that Africa is vulnerable to climate change, not only because of its high exposure to climate change, but also because many African communities lack the capacity to respond or adapt to the impacts of climate change. Warming trends have already become evident across the continent, and it is likely that the continent’s 2000 mean annual temperature change will exceed +2°C by 2100. Added to this warming trend, changes in precipitation patterns are also of concern: Even if rainfall remains constant, due to increasing temperatures, existing water stress will be amplified, putting even more pressure on agricultural systems, especially in semiarid areas. In general, high temperatures and changes in rainfall patterns are likely to reduce cereal crop productivity, and new evidence is emerging that high-value perennial crops will also be negatively impacted by rising temperatures. Pressures from pests, weeds, and diseases are also expected to increase, with detrimental effects on crops and livestock.
Much of African agriculture’s vulnerability to climate change lies in the fact that its agricultural systems remain largely rain-fed and underdeveloped, as the majority of Africa’s farmers are small-scale farmers with few financial resources, limited access to infrastructure, and disparate access to information. At the same time, as these systems are highly reliant on their environment, and farmers are dependent on farming for their livelihoods, their diversity, context specificity, and the existence of generations of traditional knowledge offer elements of resilience in the face of climate change. Overall, however, the combination of climatic and nonclimatic drivers and stressors will exacerbate the vulnerability of Africa’s agricultural systems to climate change, but the impacts will not be universally felt. Climate change will impact farmers and their agricultural systems in different ways, and adapting to these impacts will need to be context-specific.
Current adaptation efforts on the continent are increasing across the continent, but it is expected that in the long term these will be insufficient in enabling communities to cope with the changes due to longer-term climate change. African famers are increasingly adopting a variety of conservation and agroecological practices such as agroforestry, contouring, terracing, mulching, and no-till. These practices have the twin benefits of lowering carbon emissions while adapting to climate change as well as broadening the sources of livelihoods for poor farmers, but there are constraints to their widespread adoption. These challenges vary from insecure land tenure to difficulties with knowledge-sharing.
While African agriculture faces exposure to climate change as well as broader socioeconomic and political challenges, many of its diverse agricultural systems remain resilient. As the continent with the highest population growth rate, rapid urbanization trends, and rising GDP in many countries, Africa’s agricultural systems will need to become adaptive to more than just climate change as the uncertainties of the 21st century unfold.
Regimes of environmental stress are exceedingly complex. Particular stressors exist within continua of intensity of environmental factors. Those factors interact with each other, and their detrimental effects on organisms are manifest only at relatively high or low strengths of exposure—in fact, many of them are beneficial at intermediate levels of intensity. Although a diversity of environmental factors is manifest at any time and place, only one or a few of them tend to be dominant as stressors. It is useful to distinguish between stressors that occur as severe events (disturbances) and those that are chronic in their exposure, and to aggregate the kinds of stressors into categories (while noting some degree of overlap among them).
Climatic stressors are associated with extremes of temperature, solar radiation, wind, moisture, and combinations of these factors. They act as stressors if their condition is either insufficient or excessive, in comparison with the needs and comfort zones of organisms or ecosystem processes. Chemical stressors involve environments in which the availability of certain substances is too low to satisfy biological needs, or high enough to cause toxicity or another physiological detriment to organisms or to higher-level attributes of ecosystems. Wildfire is a disturbance that involves the combustion of much of the biomass of an ecosystem, affecting organisms by heat, physical damage, and toxic substances. Physical stress is a disturbance in which an exposure to kinetic energy is intense enough to damage organisms and ecosystems (such as a volcanic blast, seismic sea wave, ice scouring, or anthropogenic explosion or trampling).
Biological stressors are associated with interactions occurring among organisms. They may be directly caused by such trophic interactions as herbivory, predation, and parasitism. They may also indirectly affect the intensity of physical or chemical stressors, as when competition affects the availability of nutrients, moisture, or space.
Extreme environments are characterized by severe regimes of stressors, which result in relatively impoverished ecosystem development. This may be a consequence of either natural or anthropogenic stressors. If a regime of environmental stress intensifies, the resulting responses include a degradation of the structure and function of affected ecosystems and of ecological integrity more generally. In contrast, a relaxation of environmental stress allows some degree of ecosystem recovery.
Jean Louis Weber
Environmental accounting is an attempt to broaden the scope of the accounting frameworks used to assess economic performance, to take stock of elements that are not recorded in public or private accounting books. These gaps occur because the various costs of using nature are not captured, being considered, in many cases, as externalities that can be forwarded to others or postponed. Positive externalities—the natural resource—are depleted with no recording in National Accounts (while companies do record them as depreciation elements). Depletion of renewable resource results in degradation of the environment, which adds to negative externalities resulting from pollution and fragmentation of cyclic and living systems. Degradation, or its financial counterpart in depreciation, is not recorded at all. Therefore, the indicators of production, income, consumption, saving, investment, and debts on which many economic decisions are taken are flawed, or at least incomplete and sometimes misleading, when immediate benefits are in fact losses in the long run, when we consume the reproductive functions of our capital. Although national accounting has been an important driving force in change, environmental accounting encompasses all accounting frameworks including national accounts, financial accounting standards, and accounts established to assess the costs and benefits of plans and projects.
There are several approaches to economic environmental accounting at the national level. Of these approaches, one purpose is the calculation of genuine economic welfare by taking into account losses from environmental damage caused by economic activity and gains from unrecorded services provided by Nature. Here, particular attention is given to the calculation of a “Green GDP” or “Adjusted National Income” and/or “Genuine Savings” as well as natural assets value and depletion. A different view considers the damages caused to renewable natural capital and the resulting maintenance and restoration costs. Besides approaches based on benefits and costs, more descriptive accounts in physical units are produced with the purpose of assessing resource use efficiency. With regard to natural assets, the focus can be on assets directly used by the economy, or more broadly, on ecosystem capacity to deliver services, ecosystem resilience, and its possible degradation. These different approaches are not necessarily contradictory, although controversies can be noted in the literature.
The discussion focuses on issues such as the legitimacy of combining values obtained with shadow prices (needed to value the elements that are not priced by the market) with the transaction values recorded in the national accounts, the relative importance of accounts in monetary vs. physical units, and ultimately, the goals for environmental accounting. These goals include assessing the sustainability of the economy in terms of conservation (or increase) of the net income flow and total economic wealth (the weak sustainability paradigm), in relation to the sustainability of the ecosystem, which supports livelihoods and well-being in the broader sense (strong sustainability).
In 2012, the UN Statistical Commission adopted an international statistical standard called, the “System of Environmental-Economic Accounting Central Framework” (SEEA CF). The SEEA CF covers only items for which enough experience exists to be proposed for implementation by national statistical offices. A second volume on SEEA-Experimental Ecosystem Accounting (SEEA-EEA) was added in 2013 to supplement the SEEA CF with a research agenda and the development of tests. Experiments of the SEEA-EEA are developing at the initiative of the World Bank (WAVES), UN Environment Programme (VANTAGE, ProEcoServ), or the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (SEEA-Ecosystem Natural Capital Accounts-Quick Start Package [ENCA-QSP]).
Beside the SEEA and in relation to it, other environmental accounting frameworks have been developed for specific purposes, including material flow accounting (MFA), which is now a regular framework at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) to report on the Green Growth strategy, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), reporting greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration. Can be considered as well the Ecological Footprint accounts, which aim at raising awareness that our resource use is above what the planet can deliver, or the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment of 2005, which presents tables and an overall assessment in an accounting style. Environmental accounting is also a subject of interest for business, both as a way to assess impacts—costs and benefits of projects—and to define new accounting standards to assess their long term performance and risks.
Mark V. Barrow
The prospect of extinction, the complete loss of a species or other group of organisms, has long provoked strong responses. Until the turn of the 18th century, deeply held and widely shared beliefs about the order of nature led to a firm rejection of the possibility that species could entirely vanish. During the 19th century, however, resistance to the idea of extinction gave way to widespread acceptance following the discovery of the fossil remains of numerous previously unknown forms and direct experience with contemporary human-driven decline and the destruction of several species. In an effort to stem continued loss, at the turn of the 19th century, naturalists, conservationists, and sportsmen developed arguments for preventing extinction, created wildlife conservation organizations, lobbied for early protective laws and treaties, pushed for the first government-sponsored parks and refuges, and experimented with captive breeding. In the first half of the 20th century, scientists began systematically gathering more data about the problem through global inventories of endangered species and the first life-history and ecological studies of those species.
The second half of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries have been characterized both by accelerating threats to the world’s biota and greater attention to the problem of extinction. Powerful new laws, like the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, have been enacted and numerous international agreements negotiated in an attempt to address the issue. Despite considerable effort, scientists remain fearful that the current rate of species loss is similar to that experienced during the five great mass extinction events identified in the fossil record, leading to declarations that the world is facing a biodiversity crisis. Responding to this crisis, often referred to as the sixth extinction, scientists have launched a new interdisciplinary, mission-oriented discipline, conservation biology, that seeks not just to understand but also to reverse biota loss. Scientists and conservationists have also developed controversial new approaches to the growing problem of extinction: rewilding, which involves establishing expansive core reserves that are connected with migratory corridors and that include populations of apex predators, and de-extinction, which uses genetic engineering techniques in a bid to resurrect lost species. Even with the development of new knowledge and new tools that seek to reverse large-scale species decline, a new and particularly imposing danger, climate change, looms on the horizon, threatening to undermine those efforts.
Resilience thinking in relation to the environment has emerged as a lens of inquiry that serves a platform for interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration. Resilience is about cultivating the capacity to sustain development in the face of expected and surprising change and diverse pathways of development and potential thresholds between them. The evolution of resilience thinking is coupled to social-ecological systems and a truly intertwined human-environment planet. Resilience as persistence, adaptability and, transformability of complex adaptive social-ecological systems is the focus, clarifying the dynamic and forward-looking nature of the concept. Resilience thinking emphasizes that social-ecological systems, from the individual, to community, to society as a whole, are embedded in the biosphere. The biosphere connection is an essential observation if sustainability is to be taken seriously. In the continuous advancement of resilience thinking there are efforts aimed at capturing resilience of social-ecological systems and finding ways for people and institutions to govern social-ecological dynamics for improved human well-being, at the local, across levels and scales, to the global. Consequently, in resilience thinking, development issues for human well-being, for people and planet, are framed in a context of understanding and governing complex social-ecological dynamics for sustainability as part of a dynamic biosphere.