The Anthropocene: Eight Transformative Changes To Act On

We have entered a critical moment for our planet. We have changed it so much, we’ve brought on a new geological age – The Anthropocene. The age of humans.  For the first time in our history, the global connections that all living things rely upon are breaking. Over the past few decades, wilderness around the globe has depleted dramatically through human advancement and exploiting the earth’s finite resources. It’s no surprise the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged people to re-think their relationship with nature, and to consider the profound consequences to our own wellbeing and survival, that has resulted from continued biodiversity loss and the degradation of our natural ecosystems. The natural world is suffering badly and only getting worse... Unless we do something about it. The UN has formulated 8 transformative changes[1] that are urgently needed so human prosperity can sit harmoniously with planet earth. If we act quickly, we have the knowledge and the solutions to make our planet thrive again.

1. Land and Forests Conservation

We need to transition towards conserving our ecosystems, not destroying them for mass production of timber. To do this, we need to combat and reverse degradation and employ level spatial planning to avoid, reduce and mitigate land use. In a world of an ever-expanding human population and the need to take up land for urban sprawl, this is going to be very tricky! Since around 1850, about 35% of human-caused CO2 emissions to the atmosphere has come from land as a combined effect of land degradation and land-use change and about 38% of the Earth’s land area has been converted to agriculture[2].

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the United Nations in 2015, comprises of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to slow down the effects of climate change and goal 15 is of direct relevance to land degradation. The objective is to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification and reverse land degradation. This should all slow down biodiversity loss and improve conservation of land and forests[3]. The more we can conserve forests, the more carbon they can remove from the atmosphere. A vital component in combatting climate change.

2. Sustainable Agriculture

This refers to redesigning agricultural systems through innovative technology to enhance productivity while minimising the negative impacts on biodiversity. Conventional farming practices manage an agricultural field uniformly without incorporating the intrinsic variability in topography, soil, crop growth conditions, and other agronomic factors[4]. This can result in nutrient leaching, environmental contamination to top soils, and reduced profitability - especially when applying high inputs in low yielding areas (and vice versa). Precision agriculture can be adopted to divide the field into small management units to optimise production[5]. Not only that, but we need to consider how a new wave of farming can produce food from spaces that we already occupy. Urban farming is the practice of growing food commercially in cities. We can now grow food on rooftops and down exterior walls, on office window ledges or above car parks, in abandoned buildings or in shipping containers on brownfield sites. We can even grow food underground! Urban farming can be the solution to our growing population by using climate-control conditions, low-energy lighting and hydroponics to maximise growth conditions, keeping soil, water and nutrients to a minimum. This is clever thinking because it locates the food in the same place as their customers, so transportation emissions are dramatically reduced[6]. We need to adopt vertical farming innovation to truly support the billions of people that occupy this earth.

3. Sustainable Food Systems

What’s often overlooked is our demand for animal products and its environmental impact. Animal agriculture is the second largest contributor to human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions after fossil fuels, and is the leading cause for deforestation, soil erosion, dwindling water supply and air pollution[7]. Worldwide, we are clearing vast amounts of forests and woodlands for livestock to graze and for growing crops dedicated to the production of livestock feed. The total area dedicated to feedcrop production amounts to 471 million hectares, equivalent to 33% of total arable land[8]. Most of this total is located in OECD countries, but developing countries in South America are also rapidly expanding their feedcrop production too clear tropical rainforests[9]. These countries house some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on our planet! It’s a sad reality that will take decades for these rainforests to recover.

Photo by Jordan Opel

We need to transition towards sustainable and healthy consumption, adopting a plant-based focused diet with moderate consumption of meat and fish. This includes cutting down on food waste too, which is often found from over-supplying developed countries. Businesses like Oddbox are doing their bit to avoid food from going to waste. By offering consumers a subscription service to deliver fresh plant produce direct to your door, they rescue a range of food that is often surplus to demand. UK consumers now have the option to buy food that’s in season too, reducing their carbon footprint because they’re buying products that are more local and readily available.

4. Sustainable Fisheries and Oceans

Protecting and restoring marine ecosystems is a hot topic at the moment, especially when Netflix releases documentaries like Seaspiracy, highlighting the dark side to the fishing industry. The over-exploitation of fish stocks, condoning poor working conditions – including in some cases slave labour – and the devastating reality of by-catch has gained awareness and media attention. What we need to do is manage aquaculture through legislation by implementing sustainable practices, enhancing food security and improving livelihoods around the world. To do this, we need to:

  • Introduce more Marine Protected Areas in our oceans. Currently there are 17,000 MPAs around the world but this only accounts for 7% of the ocean, and even certain types of fishing are still permitted in the current MPAs.
  • Introduce ‘no-fish zones’ to allow individual fish to grow older and bigger. The bigger the fish can grow, the more offspring they have and in turn, the fish stocks repopulate to neighbouring waters that are fished. This is known as the spill-over effect.
  • Understand that a healthy fishing relationship with the ocean is key to enable fish stocks to recover and supply us with fish for the long term.

When designed and managed well, MPAs can ensure it’s easier to catch fish and reduce the amount of fossil fuels expended out at sea. In the longer term, we would spend less time out at sea, meaning less by-catch and more freedom for fishermen to stay onshore when the seas look rough.

5. Cities & Infrastructure

We need to encourage and deploy “green infrastructure” across the global construction industry. By making space for nature within built landscapes, we can improve the health and quality of life for humans, reduce our environmental footprint of cities and infrastructure, and encourage nature to settle in urban settlements. This means encouraging projects to use green roofs, living wall systems and installing solar panels. We need to encourage design teams to incorporate sustainable infrastructure systems, materials and methods as a baseline. Being in the construction industry myself, I understand the complexities of asking architectural practices, designers, clients and contractors to implement this new eco-mind set. But if we all introduce this ‘eco baseline’ as standard practice for any new build or master plan, over time our cities will look a lot different. Singapore is already managing to do it, so it is possible!

Green City

6. Freshwater

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the current irrigated area worldwide is approximately 300 million hectares. Projections to 2050 suggests we will encounter growing scarcities of water resources for agriculture even though water is a renewable resource! This situation has amplified anxieties of global food security, climate change, and poverty. The greatest challenge to agriculture is to provide food and fiber for almost 8 billion people in the advent of depleting freshwater resources[10]. Agriculture is the largest consumer of the world′s available fresh water, as plant growth largely depends on the availability of it. An integrated approach is needed to guarantee the water flows required by nature and people. This includes improving water quality, protecting critical habitats, controlling invasive species and safeguarding connectivity to allow the recovery of freshwater systems that begin from mountains and end in coastal regions. We also need to be mindful that single-use plastic waste from our disposable consumption habits is contributing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP). Mirco-plastics have now found their way into our food chains through our waterway systems. We need to make the transition to biodegradable and eco-friendly products quickly to combat the plastic pollution crisis. You can read further on this by heading over to Our Blog.

7. Climate Action

Our use of fossil fuels has set us the greatest and most urgent challenge we have ever faced. If we make the transition towards renewables, humankind will forever look back on this generation with gratitude. To do this, we need to employ nature-based solutions for energy – the sun, the wind, the waves and heat from deep in the earth’s crust. At present they only account for 4% of our capacity[11]. We have less than a decade to switch from fossil fuels to clean energy. We have already increased global temperatures by 1 degree Celsius since pre-industrial levels. There is a ‘carbon budget’ to how much more carbon we can add to the atmosphere[12]. If we stick to our current emission rates we will head towards a global ecological catastrophe.

We need to rapidly phase-out the use of fossil fuels to reduce the scale and impacts of climate change, while providing positive benefits for biodiversity and other sustainable development goals. There are already businesses coming through strong that are supporting climate action through technological innovation in wind farming, solar systems and upcycling waste into new products. We need to invest in these companies to fuel growth in renewables and the circular economy.

8. One Health

As David Attenborough has so poetically put it himself, there is no doubt that humanity’s approach to life has brought us spectacular gains but over the years we have lost our balance. We have “moved from being a part of nature to being apart from nature”[13]. We need to reverse this transition so we develop a sustainable existence on earth. Managing ecosystems – both agricultural and urban – as well as looking to the natural world for inspiration, we can create an integrated approach that promotes healthy ecosystems and healthy people. We can yet make amends, manage our impact, change the direction of our development and become a species that is in harmony with nature. The Anthropocene isn’t upon us. It’s here.  

 

[1] True Nature Foundation, (2020), https://truenaturefoundation.org/biodiversity/nature-humanity-at-a-crossroads-un-warns/ [Online resource].

[2] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2019), https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/4/2019/11/07_Chapter-4.pdf [Online resource].

[3] Sustainable Development Goals, (2021), https://sdgs.un.org/goals/goal15 [Online resource].

[4] Delgado, A., and J.A. Gómez, (2016), The Soil. Physical, Chemical and Biological Properties. Principles of Agronomy for Sustainable Agriculture, Springer International Publishing, Cham, Switzerland, pp. 15–26.

[5] McKinion, J.M.; Jenkins, J.N.; Akins, D.; Turner, S.B.; Willers, J.L.; Jallas, E.; Whisler, F.D. (2001), Analysis of a precision agriculture approach to cotton production. Comput. Electron. Agric. 32, pp. 213–228.

[6] Attenborough, D. (2020), A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and A Vision For The Future.

[7] An HSI Report: The Impact of Animal Agriculture on Global Warming and Climate Change, (2019), Humane Society. 

[8] Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, (2021), http://www.fao.org/3/a0701e/a0701e07.pdf [Online resource].

[9] Livestock’s Long Shadow: Environmental Issues & Options, (2006), Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

[10] Frank, D.C. et al. (2015), Water-use efficiency and transpiration across European forests during the Anthropocene. Nat. Clim. Chang., 5, pp. 579–583.

[11] Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser (2020) - "CO₂ and Greenhouse Gas Emissions". Published online at OurWorldInData.org. Retrieved from: 'https://ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions' [Online resource].

[12] Our World In Data (2021), www.ourworldindata.org/co2-and-other-greenhouse-gas-emissions#future-emissions [Online resource].

[13] Attenborough, D. (2020), A Life on Our Planet: My Witness Statement and A Vision For The Future.