Life in the Anthropocene
Imagine a world in which, from the north of Scotland, through England and Wales, Spain and Portugal, runs the Atlantic Rainforest – lush, biodiverse and full of life.
Imagine a world in which species of mammoth, so large they dwarf their woolly cousins, freely roam throughout North America. Imagine four tusked and spiral tusked elephants, beavers the size of black bears – eight feet tall with six-inch teeth – and giant bison weighing two tonnes.
Imagine a world in which South America is also home to giant megafauna and where huge, armoured armadillos the size of cars with tortoise-like shells are plentiful. Imagine a world where even they are small compared to the ground sloths who stand at 20 feet tall and are able to pull down whole trees with their claws.
This world may seem so distant from the one we know today, but, incredibly, all of these monsters existed until a mere 10-15,000 years ago, the same time as the arrival of the first technologically sophisticated people. The great temperate Western European rainforest lasted longer, but it too disappeared at the hands of humans by 4,000 years ago.
These are among the first examples of the reign of terror and destruction inflicted upon this planet –the only habitable place in the universe, as far as we know – by Homo sapiens.
To properly understand our impact on Earth, we must look deeper into our history. Why is it that a band of not particularly fast, not particularly strong and not particularly well adapted animals have come to utterly and indelibly change our planet’s ecology, biology and chemistry?
Though the genus Homo has existed for 2.5 million years, for the vast majority of that time, Homo has been fairly irrelevant. Despite the fact that Homo sapiens evolved 200,000 years ago, for over half of that time the life of any Homo sapiens was really no more significant than that of any other animal.
70,000 years ago, something changed.
Previously, life had been locked in a sort of dynamic equilibrium for millions of years, constantly ebbing and flowing (admittedly with an occasional mass extinction due to some exogenous event). The fact remains, rarely has natural history been pushed into such a fast-forward than it has been in the last 70,000 years.
So what happened? We learnt to create flexible, fictive language and the legends, the myths, the gods and the religions which bond our societies together, allowing us to co-operate and work for collective goals. Known as the cognitive revolution, this allowed us to rapidly colonise the world, wreaking havoc as we did so.
45,000 years ago, we learned how to make boats and sailed over to Australia. In only a few thousand years we had virtually exterminated native populations of large animals. 23 of Australia’s 24 species weighing 50 kg or more were rapidly made extinct, including a 200kg kangaroo and the diprotodon, a 2.5 ton wombat.
Then 12,000 years ago we stopped hunting and gathering, built settlements and fences around fields and started domesticating nature. Quickly, we domesticated goats, peas and lentils, wheat, rice and maize; all of a sudden, humans were enclosing and carving out huge swathes of the natural world.
As science took over in the last millennium, we were able to destroy our world faster than ever before and our population was allowed to explode.
As the industrial revolution gained pace, not only were we replacing our forests with sheep-infested grassy monocultures, we also began to rapidly change the chemical make-up of our atmosphere.
The results of this are devastating. In just the tiniest period of geological time, we have changed our world almost beyond recognition.
We’ve already lost one fifth of the world’s coral reefs, partly due to ocean warming and acidification.
Meanwhile, the existing great rainforests of the world in South America and Indonesia are being destroyed to make room for agriculture at astonishing rates. Each and every minute, 48 football pitches worth of forest is lost, 50,000 square miles per year.
The sum of all these changes has created a world so different from what existed before, so profoundly altered by human activity, that many scientists believe that today’s world should be seen as a discrete geological epoch: The Anthropocene.
So, what does this mean for us all?
The reason I started with our natural pre-history is because it essential to see our world today in context.
All too often everyone from environmentalists and conservationists to politicians, economists and the general public are guilty of ‘shifting baseline syndrome’.
This means that our expectations of the natural world are based on its state at present. In the case of the UK, that is a near-lifeless monoculture of nibbled grass and selectively-bred sheep and cows with little similarity to their natural ancestors.
Seeking to preserve such a barren wasteland is utterly ridiculous. After all, no Brazilian conservationist would defend new cattle ranches over rainforest! We can, and should, seek to find inspiration from the past as we rewild our natural world and undo some of the damage we have done.
This is already beginning in the Caledonian Forest in Scotland. The project, which is already underway, aims to rewild and repopulate the region with animals including the European beaver, Eurasian lynx and the wolf.
Imagine if we could bring the majesty of nature back here to Britain. Not only would this benefit the animals, but we could rewild ourselves too, allowing us to reconnect with and be inspired by nature.
However, I’m not actually advocating we return to live in caves, so what does the future hold?
Now, more than ever before, we really are at a turning point in history. We are constantly reminded that we are standing on the end of a metaphorical precipice, especially in the context of climate change, and business as usual is not an option.
Yet there has never been such a thrilling, pivotal and urgent time to be alive. In the next 20 years, we will turn our energy systems, industries, global economies, cultures, way of life and politics upside down.
We know we are hurtling towards a social, environmental, political and economic disaster otherwise – we’ve woken up to this and the world is ever so slightly starting to move in the right direction.
When the countries of the world met in Paris last December, we saw the greatest show of ambition to tackle climate change the world has ever seen. Yes, there is still a very long way to go, but we now have a base level of intent from where we will only build.
There is so much to do, but to be on the crest of a wave of revolution is an incredible opportunity.
It’s a revolution being led by engineers redesigning our energy systems, producing cost effective, viable alternatives to fossil fuels. Solar energy has decreased in cost by 10% every year since the 1980s and is predicted to continue to do so, which researchers at Oxford University predict puts it on course to meet 20% of global energy needs by 2027.
It’s also a revolution being led by the insurance industry. In South Africa, Santam, the country’s largest agricultural insurer, has funded the planting of 3.7 million trees to halt land degradation. This insurance industry was also pushing for a strong agreement at COP in Paris and will continue to do so. Climate change and environmental degradation pose huge financial threats to them, so as opposed to assessing the risks and charging customers accordingly, they are now on the front line of mitigating this risk.
So now, as we look out into the future, I think we should see a world of possibility.
The world may have changed faster than ever before over the past 70 millennia, but in our lifetimes it will surely change more than it has ever done in the past. Because it needs to. And we get the honour of being the engineers of this change.
A few months ago, David Attenborough was asked about the development of his interest in environmental issues. He replied: ‘it’s not an interest, it’s an obligation!’.
It is an obligation, and it is certainly in our interests that we get it right!