We are presently living in a geological epoch known as the HOLOCENE, which commenced about 12000 years ago after the Little Ice Age. It corresponds with the period of human growth, civilisations and technologies. But this human impact on the planet has been so massive that geologists are now seriously considering renaming this period as the ANTHROPOCENE epoch, dating from the commencement of significant human impacts on the Earth’s geology and eco-systems, including the element of climate change. Discussions are going on in the International Union of Geological Sciences about the starting date for this new epoch. There are three options: (a) from the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution 12000-15000 years ago; (b) from the detonation of the first atom bomb in 1945; (c) from the date of the first partial Nuclear Ban Treaty in 1963.
The impact of human activity on the planet in the last 12000 years has been far greater and destructive than all the events in the hundreds of millions of years preceding it. We are literally reshaping the planet- levelling mountains, diverting the courses of rivers and stopping their natural flows, tunneling and eviscerating the very innards of Mother Earth in our ever increasing quest of more minerals, draining wetlands, sucking out the aquifers that have existed for millions of years, wiping out entire forests. Every natural resource has been exploited to the point of no return in our blind pursuit of the holy grail of GDP growth.
One hundred billion animals are slaughtered every year for food. 70% of the oceans have been fished out, to a point where marine populations can no longer replace themselves. 10000 species of life forms are going extinct every year, one thousand times the normal extinction rate in nature. Three trillion tons of Antartica ice has melted in the last 25 years; if this ice cap were to melt completely it would raise the level of the world’s oceans by 60 meters. Ten million hectares of forests are felled every year; in the last 30 years we have lost 80 million hectares of primary forests, 30% of the Amazon rain forests have disappeared, 27000 trees are felled every day for making toilet paper! India too is not to be left behind in this race to the apocalypse, as the Joshimath subsidence and the approval for diverting 140 sq. kms of forest land and the felling of 800,000 trees in Greater Andaman for crony driven “development” shows. 50 million tons of e-waste is generated every year, with 90% of it being dumped in landfills. Technology is even gestating man-made viruses, and there are reports that in China they are using genetic splicing to manufacture a new sub-species of homo sapiens! We are playing God and the Devil at the same time. Does one need to say anything more?
The atmosphere already contains 800 billion tons of CO2 and we keep adding another 40 billion tons every year. We have as much chance of restricting the global temperature rise to 1.5* C by 2050 as an ice cube in Hell. To achieve this target global emissions have to be cut by 50% by 2030- at the moment they continue to rise every year! Most climate scientists expect that we shall cross the 2* C rise barrier anytime after 2050. All the COPs and climate conferences are making no significant difference, as we continue to fight over historical culpability, funding, whether fossil fuels should be “phased down” or “phased out”, carbon tax and carbon credits, etc. Shockingly, at the recent COP in Sharm-al-Shaikh, discussions focused on the impacts of climate change, rather than on its causes: we seem to be moving towards adaptation rather than towards prevention. Actually, it’s unrealistic to expect any progress when all the world leaders fly in by chartered flights, emitting GHGs all the way, or when 18 out of 20 corporate sponsors of the just concluded COP27 support or partner with the fossil fuel industry, or when the next COP will be held in the UAE, one of the largest producers of natural gas in the world !
This depredation and over exploitation of the planet is driven by our collective hubris, greed, ostentatious consumption, distorted economics and a technology gone rogue. It is totally avoidable. We do not need to do this to ensure a good quality of life for the eight billion population: there is plenty of wealth to go around if only its distribution were not so skewed. Consider this: global GDP is about 100 trillion US dollars- that works out to 12500 dollars per capita of the world’s population, five times India’s existing per capita income. The richest 10% of the population hold 85% of global wealth while the remaining 90% have to do with the left over 15%. It gets worse- the top 1% appropriate 47.8% of all the wealth (2021, Credit Suisse report), and these figures keep going up every year. If governments had better taxation and distribution policies there would be more than enough to go round, and we would not have to chase the relentless GDP growth targets that are unsustainable and killing this planet. GDP cannot grow infinitely when the natural resources are finite.
The Anthropocene contains other dimensions which contribute to climate change and the devastation of the planet: the decline of democracies since the early 1990s and the rise of fascism, expanding global trade, increasing social and economic inequalities, the entrenchment of exploitative neo-capitalism. All these factors result in governments ignoring, and even suppressing, people’s movements; disempowering local communities, tribals and indigenous populations; prioritisation of economic gains over ecological costs; unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. Geo politics plays its role too in the ravaging of the environment; the ongoing war in Ukraine is reversing much of the small gains made in the last two decades- countries are going back to the use of fossil fuels, especially coal. Mines in Europe are being reopened, decommissioned nuclear plants are being put back in service, environmental concerns are being subordinated to geo-political and strategic considerations.
The tipping point, beyond which the changes become irreversible, is not far away, and we are running out of time. Anthropocene may be the last epoch in the history of Man. The Doomsday clock in Chicago which was set at seven minutes to midnight (the point of apocalypse) in 1947 is now at 90 seconds from midnight. As the poet said- ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee. The Trumps, Musks and Adanis of the world could probably migrate to Mars or Saturn, but what about us? In the words of Mahmoud Darwish:
Where should we go after the last frontiers?
Where should the birds fly after the last sky?
[This piece is an expanded version of the author’s views delivered at a session on ANTHROPOCENE at the Jaipur Literary Festival on 23rd January this year]
Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains.
He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls.
He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/