In terms of geologic time, we are living in the Holocene Epoch, a name which comes from Greek words meaning “entirely new.” Eras and epochs of geologic time are organized according to changes in composition of earth strata which mark major geological or paleontological events, such as mass extinctions. However, two scientists, Paul Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, used the term Anthropocene to describe the current epoch wherein human activities play a dominant role in shaping the earth’s ecosystems. Jedediah Purdy, in a 2015 book titled, After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, wrote, “As a driver of global change, humanity has outstripped geology.”
An accounting of human activities that alter the earth and its atmosphere bears out that claim:
- Clear-cutting of forests for farming
- Extracting coal, gas, and oil and burning it
- Dumping waste from mining operations into waterways
- Releasing manufacturing wastes into air and water
- Altering land formations in extracting natural resources
- Polluting groundwater with the burial of solid waste
- Allowing agricultural chemicals to leach into soil and water
- Upsetting ocean water balance with maritime accidents
- Reshaping natural topography with highways
- Damming rivers
- Building levees that redirect flooding upstream
- Restraining ocean flow with sea walls
The sum of human activities has shifted the balance in the earth’s ecosystem. As Purdy states, “The Anthropocene begins amid a threefold crisis – of ecology, economics, and politics…. The three crises share a starting point: recognition that a system believed … to be stable and self-correcting has turned out to be unstable and even prone to collapse.” Purdy argues that the world’s population is not organized to deal with this prospect: “All serious responses to global climate change – and to inequality in global capitalism – face the same basic problem: there is no political body that could adopt and enforce them.”
Enter COP21, the recently concluded Paris UN summit on climate change – which represents but a piece of the Anthropocene assault on the earth. While far from certain success for the conference’s agreement, the nearly 200 rich and poor nations agreed to a goal of eliminating man-made greenhouse gas output by 2100. The agreement encourages nations to reduce emissions and requires rich nations to fund a $100 billion dollar a year support to developing nations to shift to clean energy.
Following the conference, there are some signs of support for the conference’s goals.
The terrorist attacks in Paris reminded some participants of the link between global warming and conflict. Dutch climate envoy Michel Rentenaar noted, “There may be even more awareness of how important it is to address climate change, given the impact of climate change on the stability of countries.”
China, which some feared would be a holdout in acceptance of the agreement, sees it as an opportunity to draw support for reforms that will move its economy away from energy-intensive industry towards services.
And while many governments have heretofore dragged their feet in addressing climate change, insurance companies have taken the issue seriously following substantial losses from extreme weather events in the past 20 years. Climate change is recognized as having a big impact on investors’ returns, either from higher taxes on fossil fuels, regulatory controls, or damage due to extreme weather.
Human intervention may now be directed toward action prescribed by COP 21.