The anthropocene, the era when there are more artificial things than natural ones
A study in Nature magazine shows that in 2020 the volume of materials made by mankind outweighed the volume of all the living beings for the first time in history. Which is why some scientists are suggesting that we have entered the anthropocene, a new geological era marked by the impact of mankind. Here are its characteristics and its effects on the environment.
According to a recent study published in Nature External link, opens in new window. magazine, the mass of everything made by humans on the planet in 2020 (anthropogenic mass) overtook the combined mass of living beings (biomass) for the first time in history. Its dry weight was around 1.1 teratons and that is without counting the mass of the rubbish also produced. To put this in perspective, the weight of everything that exists today in New York that has been made by man is equal to the weight of all the fish in the world, while the mass of plastics alone on the planet is already double the mass of all the terrestrial and aquatic animals.
Another important aspect is that, in 1900, anthropogenic mass (buildings, cars, clothing, bottles, etc.) only amounted to 35 gigatons, which is a mere 3 % of its present weight. Since then, this mass has doubled every 20 years to reach today's weight, according to data from the last five years. This represents an annual increase of 30 gigatons, equivalent to each person on the planet producing their own weight in anthropogenic mass every week.
What is anthropocene. Definition
Due to the way humans are interfering with the climate and the biodiversity of the planet, some experts warn that we have entered the anthropocene, a new geological era that follows the holocene — the warm period after the last glaciation. The concept "anthropocene" — from the Greek anthropos, meaning human, and kainos, meaning new, was popularised in 2000 by Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995, who used the term to designate a new geological era characterised by man's impact on the Earth.
Paul Crutzen, Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner in 1995
I was at a conference and someone said something about the Holocene. Suddenly, I thought that term was wrong. The world had changed too much. No, I said, we are in the anthropocene
The use of the word anthropocene to define a new geological era still triggers passionate debate among scientists. Among those who have accepted it, a disagreement arises in specifying the beginning of the anthropocene, which many associate with the Industrial Revolution. In any case, the data published by Nature leave no doubt that anthropogenic mass has been growing rapidly during the 20th century, particularly after World War II.
Characteristics and causes of the anthropocene
The anthropocene is mainly characterised by three factors: the technological progress that sped up after the First Industrial Revolution, the explosive growth in population thanks to improvements in food, health and hygiene, and the multiplication of production and consumption.
The interaction of these three factors in human evolution has led to a growing increase in the consumption of natural, mineral and fossil resources, as well as the expansion of farmland, cities and transport infrastructure and routes. These are the main human activities that have changed the face of the planet over the last two centuries.
The shock of anthropocene. Environmental effects
The increase in anthropogenic mass to the detriment of biomass has pernicious effects on the planet. The most relevant ones are mentioned below.
During the Holocene, temperature stability allowed humans to settle in cities, develop agriculture, trade and communication networks. However, the rapid accumulation of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, inherent to the frenetic activity of the anthropocene and caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels, is exacerbating the greenhouse effect and thus contributing to climate change, the main consequences of which seriously threaten global stability.
It is estimated that, at present, the world loses 13 million hectares of forest per year and that 17% of the Amazon has been deforestated, a percentage that is close to the 20 % considered as the point of non-return. In addition to climate change, land conversion for agricultural and livestock use is the leading cause of deforestation in the world.
Loss of biodiversity
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species, more than 35,500 species are in danger of extinction, that is to say, 28 % of known species. A dramatic loss of biodiversity. As a result, scientists are now talking about a sixth extinction, this time, caused by human activity in contrast to the previous five—caused by meteorites and volcanic eruptions.
How to minimise the impact of the anthropocene. Solutions
Key trends to minimise the impact of human activity on the environment include:
- Decarbonising the economy. The drive towards renewable energy and smart networks, as well as the electrification of transport, are key to reducing the carbon footprint and making a fair transition to the decarbonised economy the planet needs.
- The circular economy. Reuse, repair and recycle, increasing responsible manufacturing and consumption, allows us to reduce waste, save energy and reduce environmental damage.
- Protecting biodiversity. We need action plans to protect biodiversity. They are crucial to safeguarding the functioning of ecosystems and for ensuring food security.
- Protection of water resources. Reducing the water footprint of individuals and companies, as well as being careful not to pollute water, are the only ways to continue enjoying this natural resource on which all the forms of life depend and that is becoming scarcer every year.