Condivergence: The Anthropocene epoch

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 13, 2020 - January 19, 2020.

Andrew Sheng

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Every Christmas until the New Year, I spend time in Ubud, Bali, enjoying the greenery and culture, but also using the time to read, think and reflect on why we continue to live in a phase of great confusion.

In Christmas 2018, I thought that 2019 would usher in the Quantum Age, in which advances in quantum computing would transform the nature of geopolitical competition, business models and information processing. The media headlines over the US-China trade war only masked the underlying rivalry in artificial intelligence, data processing, analytics and research tools that could define who has the edge over the other in knowledge power, if not in military hardware.

But with several years of rising temperatures, causing the hottest period on record, the defining issue in the decade of 2010s is climate change. The term Anthropocene was introduced to acknowledge the fact that man not only has conquered nature, but his activities have reached a point where the future of all life on Earth is now threatened.

The Earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old, and plant and animal life appeared half a billion years ago, in what geologists call the Pleistocene epoch. Human activities appeared in the Holocene era, roughly 10,500BC, when man was still a ­hunter-gatherer, living off the land. But once mankind began agricultural activities through farming, irrigation and animal husbandry, he started to change the environment.

The history of global population was not always relentlessly upwards. The global population dropped several times because of disease or climate disaster, exacerbated by war. It took 200,000 years to reach a population of one billion by 1804, 123 years to double that by 1927, 33 years to reach three billion, 39 years to double that to six billion and today, it is 7.5 billion.

Most scientists agree that Homo sapiens evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 300,000 years ago, migrating to the Middle East about 120,000 years ago and reaching China by 100,000BC. After that, there were different waves of migration and around 12,000 years ago, people migrated to the Americas. By the time Columbus “discovered” America in 1492, there were already an estimated 60 million people living there.

When did the Anthropocene age begin? Geologists studying ice cores in the Arctic or Antarctic can detect the age of air pollution and carbon content, while plant scientists can study tree rings to understand what happened in each year of growth. Two recent books by Simon Lewis (The Human Planet, 2018) and David Wallace-Wells (The Uninhabitable Earth, 2019) bring out brilliantly what climate scientists now understand about how man has changed nature forever.

With human migration and settlement also came the loss of animal species and plant life due to hunting, burning and deforestation. Before the agricultural revolution, there were roughly six trillion trees on Earth; now less than half remain. In terms of body mass, today, wild animals make up only 3% of living animals, two-thirds comprise human beings and the remaining comprise domesticated animals for food or transport.

Man became dominant once he mastered energy and information. In the hunter-gatherer stage, population growth was limited to what food humans could forage from animals or plants. But once farmers learnt to grow food and preserve it during lean seasons, and keep warm with fire and clothing, population increased.

New energy came not only from planted or domesticated food but also wood fuel, and then animal power such as horses, camels and donkeys. Then man began to harness water and steam power and eventually fossil fuel, from coal to oil and gas. We have today mastered nuclear power as well as solar, wind and even geothermal power.

Globalisation was powered by migration, new sources of food, energy and drive for new knowledge at scale. What truly changed the world was the “discovery” of the Americas, because it was the death of up to 50 million native Americans (roughly 10% of all human population then) through disease, colonisation and war between 1492 and 1610 that removed the native farms and regenerated forests, causing a sharp decline in global carbon dioxide emissions and a mini-Ice Age of global cooling. This period coincided with the Thirty Years’ War in Europe (1618-1648), the Manchu conquest of Ming China, the English revolution and the Mughal rebellions in India — documented by economic historian Geoffrey Parker (Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe, 2013).

Human intervention changed the climate that changed the direction of humanity.

What happened after 1610, the date of the Golden Spike (the point of lowest carbon emission of cooling during the mini-Ice Age), was the Industrial Revolution, in which Britain and Europe drew on new sources of energy and resources from the Americas (gold, silver, corn, potatoes and sugar), tapped slave labour from Africa, and used the new energy to generate maritime science and technology to conquer new lands in Africa, India and the East Indies.

In essence, once man moved from coal to oil and gas (fossil fuel), modernisation, globalisation and technology became unstoppable. The problem is that the capitalist mode of production and consumption largely ignored the costs to Mother Nature and the environment. Sitting in the traffic jams in Bali, I realised that much of the irreplaceable fossil fuel that we burn is wasted. Air conditioning has enabled man to work in the tropics, but only by increasing carbon emission through electricity generated by coal or natural gas.

Since the Industrial Revolution, we have added 2.2 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increasing levels by 44%, consequently heating up the atmosphere and acidifying the oceans. The United Nations study on climate change projects that by 2100, global temperatures could increase by about 3°C to 5°C, if we do nothing.

Global warming will have massive impact on food and water security, flooding, civil strife and war. The World Bank estimates that by 2050, there may be 140 million refugees from North Africa and Middle East that will dwarf the million refugees from the recent Syrian civil war, which was sparked by several years of drought.

Even more scary is the impact of global warming on the Arctic permafrost, which on melting may release 1.8 trillion tonnes of carbon, twice what exists currently in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Mankind therefore has a ticking time bomb, but no one seems to be willing to face up to the consequences of the Anthropocene. Pessimists are convinced that man is doomed, that the best we can do is to adapt and mitigate. Optimists think that technology will save us, and they may well be right, but we also know that all too often, politics stand in the way of implementing the best technology.

This survey of the Anthropocene is not to scare the reader, but to lay out as simply as possible the profound challenges we face in the beginning of the third decade of the 21st century.

As Wallace-Wells aptly puts it, human beings became a force of nature and changed its course; now, it is up to mankind to change again to prevent his own destruction. That is not impossible, but “we cannot afford to fail”.


Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective

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