From Holocene to Anthropocene

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations

Today's post is by Stephen Martin who attended the inaugural WWF Living Planet Lecture, that took place at the Royal Society on November 3rd, where the guest speakers included Sir David Attenborough and Professor Johan Rockstrom.  Steve writes:

Professor Johan Rockstrom was the main speaker and rightly so, given that he is an internationally recognised scientist on global sustainability issues.  He has over 100 research publications with more than 50 peer-reviewed scientific articles and several books in the fields of global environmental change with a focus on planetary boundary theory and the Anthropocene.  A s well as being the Executive Director of The Stockholm Resilience Centre, he is  Professor of Water Systems and Global Sustainability at Stockholm University.

This event was part of the launch of WWF’ Living Planet Report 2016 which landed in my i-box a few days before this event.  The e mail began somewhat positively, given the depressing nature of the report:

"We (WWF) are pleased to announce, today, the launch of the Living Planet Report 2016."

This global report is produced every two years, and is a comprehensive study of trends in species populations and the health of the planet.  By providing an overview of the state of the natural world, human impacts and potential solutions, it aims to support governments, communities, businesses and organisations to make informed decisions on using and protecting the Earth’s resources. The report reveals that, between 1970 and 2012 (which includes the most up to date peer reviewed data available), global vertebrate populations declined on average by 58%, a truly shocking figure, and that, in a ‘business as usual’ scenario, species populations could have declined by as much as 67% from 1970 levels by 2020, the year by which global targets to halt the loss of biodiversity are supposed to be met.  The report also gives additional evidence of what scientists are beginning to call the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which the size and scale of human activity are impacting our most important environmental systems at a planetary scale.

So with some trepidation, I attended what turned out to be a tour de force presentation of what we already knew – or did we?  Did we really know that we are entering a new age – called the Anthropocene?  Did I really know or understand what the eminent Swedish professor meant by the imminent move from what he characterised as a small world on a large planet to a large world on a small planet?   Was I aware that we are moving from the halcyon days of the Holocene to the Anthropocene-where human impact on the planetary systems becomes so critical that the future of the bio-geochemical cycles and systems that make the planet sustainable, become compromised and so it becomes in the words of Professor Johan a “new renaissance?”    The evidence he provided was unassailable, rigorous and impressive!  As well as depressing too.  All of this starting in the 1990s –  such a short time ago?  A journey he described as a “journey of ignorance “and which he argued we needed to tackle with a “new logic”.  And, interestingly he described as a door that may soon be closing as “tipping points “in terms of planetary boundaries become irreversible – period!

So, was I enlightened or depressed-probably both in equal measure.  But what I found difficult to reconcile was the absence of any constructive discussion of two critical planetary/ human moral issues – firstly, the massive expansion of human population and secondly, what Margret Drabble has presciently described as “the problem with death is that it becomes increasingly avoidable or at least postponable ...”

Stephen Martin


Note – Here's a link to Will Steffen's historical development of the concept of the Anthropocene.

Posted in: Comment, Talks and Presentations


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