A Multi-dimensional predicament

Margaret Atwood wrote this article in 2015 “Its not climate change – its everything change” . It has many fascinating pictures as well as her eloquent text. I found it in a comment on this very short article with the title “Why the “Anthropocene” Is Not “Climate Change”. The latter is one of the best reminders of the dangers of focusing only on climate change as opposed to the entire Earth System that is now being devastated by the weight of exponentially growing human impact. The author from Notre Dame University is currently co-authoring a book on the Anthropocene and makes the point that problems have solutions but predicaments (sometimes referred to as ‘wicked problems’?) are not amenable to solutions, especially ‘techno-fix’ solutions

The Anthropocene is a multidimensional challenge. Our future is more unpredictable than ever, with new phenomena like Category 5 megastorms, rapid species extinction, and the loss of polar ice. This change is irreversible. NASA says that levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) are higher than they have been at any time in the past 400,000 years—well before our species evolved—causing the atmosphere to warm.

The climate has certainly changed, but so too have other aspects of the planetary system. Take the lithosphere: 193,000 human-made “inorganic crystalline compounds,” or what you and I might call “rocks,” now vastly outnumber Earth’s ~5,000 natural minerals, while 8.3 billion tons of plastics coat the land, water, and our internal organs. Due to modern agribusiness techniques, so much topsoil is washing away that England has only about 60 more harvests left.

The biosphere is equally altered. Never has the planet been so crowded with human beings. In 1900, there were around 1.5 billion of us; in the 1960s, around 3 billion; today there are upwards of 7.4 billion. Human beings and our domesticated animals comprise an astounding 97% of the total zoomass of terrestrial mammals, meaning that wild creatures make up a miserly 3%. Humans and our companion species occupy considerably more than half of the planet’s habitable land surface. Concerning the hydrosphere, fresh water renews itself at the rate of about 1% a year, but currently 21 out of 37 of the world’s major aquifers are being drawn down faster—in some cases much faster—than they can be replenished.

Alarming as each factor is on its own, the concept of the Anthropocene brings all these factors and others together.

The planet’s chemistry has changed too. Warmer oceans interfere with the production of oxygen by phytoplankton, and some scientists predict that with a rise of 6oC—which could happen as soon as 2100—this oxygen production could cease. Our production of fixed nitrogen is five times higher than it was 60 years ago; in fact, Earth has never had so much fixed nitrogen in its entire ~4.5-billion-year history. Since World War II, synthetic chemical production has increased more than thirtyfold. Of the more than 80,000 new chemicals, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has tested only about 200 for human health risks.

Alarming as each factor is on its own, the concept of the Anthropocene brings all these factors and others together. This is the only way that we can understand Earth as a single reverberating system with feedback loops and tipping points that we can’t yet predict.

Meanwhile, the plans for more school student strikes on 15 May to pressure politicians to act on climate disruption are advancing around the world as this report with maps outlines. Margaret Atwood must certainly approve, unlike the UK government who condemned the strikes as ‘truancy‘.

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