Humanity and Biosphere

November 9, 2016
By Louis J. Kotze

The article is part of the SFG publication “Big Questions of Our time: The World Speaks”. To access the full publication please click here.

Today there is persuasive evidence suggesting that humans have become a major driving force in modifying the biosphere and moving the Earth and its systems into a critically unstable state, with Earth systems gradually becoming less predictable, non-stationary and less harmonious.

The Anthropocene (or epoch of humankind) was recently coined by Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen as a term of art expressing the geological significance of this overwhelming human imprint on the biosphere. Preparatory work is underway to propose the formal acceptance of the Anthropocene to the International Commission on Stratigraphy as a new geological epoch.

To do so will require of scientists to find evidence of human-induced environmental change in the fossil record, such as evidence of cities and diversion of waterways, or a warming climate and radioactive traces of nuclear activities, and then to prove that these human impacts changed the way the Earth and its systems operate.

If accepted, the proposal will have the effect of amending formal time-stratigraphic nomenclature, indicating that humanity’s stratigraphic imprint would be discernible to future geologists in the same way that a volcano’s imprint on the Earth would be visible to future geologists.

It is highly likely that humanity has already become a geological agent in much the same way as a volcano is; able to change the Earth and its systems, and possibly even to cause a mass extinction as a result of human mastery over nature, limitless consumption, and the many deliberate inter and intra-species hierarchies and vulnerabilities that humans create and that span this generation and well into the future.

Together with the realisation that we are powerful geological agents capable of changing the Earth, we will also have to acknowledge our vulnerability and assume far greater responsibility for other human beings, the many non-human constituents on Earth, and the Earth system itself, if we are to survive the Anthropocene.

A business-as-usual approach will not do since the Anthropocene problematic will ultimately require a critical re-interrogation of our social regulatory institutions such as law, economics, religion and politics in a manner and to an extent never undertaken before. 

Vulnerable humans will have to become responsible agents of change and planetary stewards in the Anthropocene.

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