Climate Action

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho, Anabela Marisa Azul, Luciana Brandli, Pinar Gökcin Özuyar, Tony Wall

Anthropocene and Climate Change

  • Krishna RokaEmail author
Living reference work entry


In 2002, Paul Crutzen claimed that we have left the Holocene, and humans have entered a new epoch – the Anthropocene (Zalasiewicz et al. 2008). The term “Anthropocene” has since gained popularity across disciplines like life and earth sciences, philosophy, geology, communication, sociology, politics, or law. It is discussed as a geologic epoch characterized by the global impact of human activities on the Earth Systems. In politics, it is contemplated as a logical consequence of global capitalism or the decoupling between environmental health and human welfare. In philosophy, it has become an expression of modernity, an attack on Earth and the biosphere, or a biological imperative inherent for human existence (Autin 2016).

The idea of human activities’ impact on the earth is not new. Past scholars have suggested the concept of a transformation of the biosphere into the noosphere, that is, the anthropogenic transformation of the Earth System. One of the earliest mentions of this concept is found in the book by Fairfield Osborn, Our Plundered Planet, that mentions the idea of “man: a new geological force” (Steffen et al. 2011b). The Anthropocene can be defined as the human-driven alteration of: (1) the biological fabric of the Earth; (2) the stocks and flows of major elements in the planetary machinery such as nitrogen, carbon, phosphorous and silicon; and (3) the energy balance at the Earth’s surface (Steffen et al. 2007:614). From this view, the term Anthropocene suggests (1) the earth is now moving out of its current geological epoch, called the Holocene, and (2) that human activity is largely responsible for this exit from the Holocene or that the human kind has become a global geological force in its own right (Steffen et al. 2011b:843).

Bonneuil (2015) defines Anthropocene as, “… the sign of our (humans) power, but also of our impotence. It is an Earth whose atmosphere has been damaged by the 1,500 billion tons of carbon dioxide we have spilled by burning coal and other fossil fuels. It is the impoverishment and artificializing of Earth’s living tissue, permeated by a host of new synthetic chemical molecules that will even affect our descendants” (p. 11).


The history of the relationship between humans and the environment is very long since the beginning and well before the emergence of fully developed modern humans. From the start, humans have taken advantage of the natural ecosystems to gather food from plants or by hunting animals. Early humans were limited in their ability to modify the chemical composition of the atmosphere or the oceans. However, modern technology and knowledge have enabled humans to significantly alter the earth’s composition and dictate the terms of the relationship. The concern for this relationship is the prospect of an increasing population, expected to reach nine billion by 2050, and their needs for food, water, and energy that will put more pressure on the earth. The strain on the natural resources are already apparent raising the question on the ability of the planet to continue providing the same environment that has facilitated human development for the past 10,000 years (Steffen et al. 2011a).

There are three important services the Earth System offers: providing goods and services (food, fiber, water, fossil fuels, metals), supporting services (nutrient cycling, soil formation, and primary production), and regulating services (regulating climate system and controlling pests and diseases). Human activities are affecting all three ecosystem services in a way not seen before. The impacts of human activities will be long-lasting and be observable in the geological stratigraphic record for millions of years to come, which suggests that a new epoch has begun (Lewis and Maslin 2015).

… climate change and the appearance of the ozone hole owing to man-made chemicals are strong evidence that humanity can over-whelm important chemical, physical, and biological processes that modulate the functioning of the Earth System. (Steffen et al. 2011a:xx)

The word Anthropos means “human being,” and kainos means “recent, new” in Greek; therefore, the Anthropocene is the new epoch of humans, the age of man. As a fact, “the human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system” (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016:16). Based on the evidences, it can be said the official narrative of the Anthropocene is “we,” the human species, unconsciously destroyed nature to the point of hijacking the Earth System into a new geological epoch. However, the concept has multiple meanings, depending on the discipline it is applied (Table 1).
Table 1

Anthropocene across disciplines (Autin 2016)


What is Anthropocene?

Life and Earth Sciences

A new geological epoch

An ecological catastrophe

Human imprint on the Earth System

An assault on archaeologists

The end of uniformitarianism

The obsolescence of geology textbooks


An expression of modernity

Evolutionary nostalgia

An attack on the Earth System

The dystopian end of humanity

A revelation about humanity

An environmental meme


An assault on human rights

A call for feminism

An outgrowth of capitalism

A global political phenomenon

Decoupling of human welfare from environmental impacts

A political project


Between apocalypse and nostalgia

Volatile, apocalyptic beat

Belonging to the invertebrate world

An ethical and biological imperative

Excess in consumerism

Intimately disconnected and unhappy

Different Narratives of the Concept

In Anthropocene, humans are the dominant species causing the problem and the only species capable enough to decide the future of the planet. They are the drivers changing the environment and the climate leading to species extinction and massive extraction of resources. Despite their impacts, there is no consensus on the relationship between humans and the environment. Bonneuil (2015) identified four Anthropocene narratives that summarizes the relationship between humans and the environment:
  1. (a)

    Naturalist narrative that focuses on the role of humans as the planet-changing agent

  2. (b)

    Post-nature narrative, which argues the nature-society divide is surpassed and replaced by human-enhanced “hybrid techno-nature”

  3. (c)

    Eco-catastrophist narrative that projects the probable collapse of human civilization and the global ecosystem

  4. (d)

    Eco-Marxist narrative that argues the current condition as a consequence of social and economic inequality


Critiques of Anthropocene

Anthropocene is currently applied to convey two messages: one, raising awareness about the impact human actions have on the Earth and two, suggesting the possibility of human power to design a better future. Rull (2017) sees three issues with the current understanding of the concept: (i) the concept of “Anthropocene” is not a recent invention, but scholars have proposed similar concept about a century and a half ago under a different name; (ii) the widespread use of the concept may create the misconception that the term is already a formal official measure of geologic time scale but it is not; and (iii) the current definition of the concept is a gamble on the future, and as such, its meaning and eventual formalization depend on the future development of human affairs (Rull 2017:1056). In addition, the current use and understanding of the concept have these issues: (1) the procedure is incorrect; (2) the start date is not accurate; and (3) sociopolitical factors are not considered in the current version of the concept. It is believed that just recognizing the concept will make societies and governments become aware of human impacts. On the other hand, it has become an unpopular concept that is a compliance with those who exploit the planet as if its resources and recovery capacity were unlimited. Both views conclude humans as managers to solve earth’s problems and not as contributors of the problems.

History of Anthropocene

In 1873, Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani proposed the name “anthropozoic” to discuss the evidence of “human relicts” (tools, weapons, buildings, and products of art and industry) and other evidences of human activities on the Earth’s surface such as the slumps in lacustrine and marine sediments, alluvial plains, deltas, marshes, peat bogs, caves, glacial moraines, or volcanic rocks. He further suggested that “anthropozoic” era started during the stone age with the first appearances of stone tools (Rull 2017).

In 1883, American physician and geologist Joseph Le Conte used the term “psychozoic” or “reign of mind” to discuss the impact of human activities that began in the Neolithic period with the development of stone tools and the global expansion of agriculture. In 1922, the Russian geologist Alexei Pavlov used the term “anthropogene” for the emergence of the genus Homo and its dominance. In 1924, the French theologist Pierre Chardin, the French mathematician Edouard Le Roy, and Ukrainian chemist Vladimir Vernadsky proposed the term “noosphere” or the “sphere of the mind” as an analogy for the atmosphere or the biosphere. Later, the noosphere was discussed as an idea to include human transformation and atomic energy. In recent years, terms like the “atomic age” (1946) after the first nuclear explosion, “technogene” or “quinary” (1988), “ecozoic” as an era where humans live in harmony with nature in 1992, and “anthrocene” in 1992 as a precursor for “Anthropocene” have been proposed to discuss the relationship between humans and the environment (Rull 2017).

The start date of Anthropocene is debatable, and there is no formal agreement, with proposed dates ranging from before the end of the last glaciation to the 1960s (Lewis and Maslin 2015). The Anthropocene Working Group ( voted majority for the 1950 start date, while some consider the date to be around 3000 years ago. Some in the group even argue that the Anthropocene started when humans commenced large-scale agriculture around 5000–8000 years ago. Others suggest that Anthropocene started around 2.6 million years ago with the development of tools in Africa and propelled with the domestication of animals around 14,000 years ago. Based on the above information, Kunnas (2017:13) suggests a four-staged Anthropocene:
  1. 1.

    The early Anthropocene, which began 5000–14,000 years ago depending on whether we time it according to the domestication of animals or the beginning of large-scale agriculture. This would also include the Greek and Roman civilizations and other early civilizations.

  2. 2.

    The first acceleration phase of the Anthropocene began with large-scale burning of coal at the time of the Industrial Revolution.

  3. 3.

    The post-1950 Great Acceleration that coincided with high production and consumption of personal goods.

  4. 4.

    And finally, the good or the bad Anthropocene depending on whether humans take decisive action in time that ensures us staying within the planetary boundaries providing a safe operating space for humanity.

Some of the factors used to determine the start date for Anthropocene include those focusing on the impact of fire, pre-industrial farming, socio-metabolism, and industrial technologies. Some scholars consider the start date to be 1809, when concentration of CO2 topped the Holocene maximum of 284 ppm and reached 290 ppm by the mid-nineteenth century (Lewis and Maslin 2015). Others believe it started in 1945 with the explosion of nuclear bomb and the emission of radionuclides, the novelty of petrochemical products, and the sudden expansion of synthetic nitrate fertilizers (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016). However, there is compelling evidence that it began with the start of the industrial revolution. It is because the pre-industrial society had lesser impact on the natural environment (Steffen et al. 2007: 615):

preindustrial societies could and did modify coastal and terrestrial ecosystems but they did not have the numbers, social and economic organization, or technologies needed to equal or dominate the great forces of nature in magnitude or rate. Their impacts remained largely local and transitory, well within the bounds of the natural variability of the environment.

From the above information, the start dates for the Anthropocene can be categorized into different stages (Steffen et al. 2011a):
  1. 1.

    Hunting and gathering society: For more than 90% of human’s 160,000-year history, humans have existed as hunter-gatherers only. Activities like fire stick farming and hunting of megafauna during the Pleistocene had a demonstrable impact on the environment. Even though these activities led to a wave of extinctions of the Pleistocene megafauna in Asia, Australia, and Americas, these human impacts registered only slightly at the global scale, and the functioning of the Earth System continued more or less unchanged.

  2. 2.

    Agriculture society: 10,000 years ago, close to the onset of Holocene, agriculture was developed that leads to more sedentary lifestyle, development of cities and villages, and the creation of complex civilizations. In the process, land clearing led to substantial changes in the ecosystem; however, its impact was limited constrained by the availability of only human and animal power. There is evidence of land conversion for cropping about 8000 years ago and the development of irrigated rice cultivation 5000 years ago. Even though agriculture activities (mostly burning) led to an increase in CO2 concentration, this was not enough to raise the CO2 concentration above the natural variability.

  3. 3.
    Industrial society: Industrial era began with the enhanced use of fossil fuels around 1800 AD in the UK. It was the beginning of the end of agriculture as the dominant human activity. It was one of the greatest transitions that happened. It helped to overcome resource constraints, changed social and political structure, initiated scientific thinking, and created a new economic order. All these resulted in accelerated land clearing, which surpassed 50% mark early in the twentieth century. Some of the characteristics of the industrial revolution included:
    1. (a)

      The discovery and exploitation of fossil fuel overcame the constraint of obtaining energy from areas where it was available (sun energy). Fossil fuels replaced solar energy which were energy-rich, dense, easily transportable, and easy to extract. As a result, human use of energy rose four to five times during the industrial period compared to agrarian time.

    2. (b)

      The availability and extraction of fossil fuel enabled the industrial manufacturing of nitrogen through the Haber-Bosch process. This primarily, transformed natural ecosystems, converting forests into cropland and grazing areas.

    3. (c)

      Between 1800 and 2000, human population grew from 1 billion to 6 billion, energy use increased by about 40-fold, and economic production grew 50-fold. The land conversion for human activity increased from 10% to 25–30% during the same period. Also, the amount of greenhouse gases like CO2, CH4, and nitrous oxide increased rapidly (Steffen et al. 2011b).

  4. 4.
    Great acceleration: Even though, human activity always had an imprint during the industrial revolution. The imprint grew sharply between 1945 and 2000, a period called as the Great Acceleration. The rapid industrialization, in North America and Europe after WWII, was the beginning of the second stage of the Anthropocene. During this period, human population exploded, and the global economy and material consumption grew many times faster. For example, population increased from 3 to 6 billion, petroleum consumption increased by a factor of 3.5 since 1960, motor vehicles number grew from 40 million to 700 million, urbanization accelerated, and atmospheric CO2 increased from 311 ppm to 369 ppm. Furthermore, the imprint of human activity on the Earth System is noticeably clear.
    1. (a)

      Factors that contributed to the great acceleration were the new international institutions, Bretton Woods institutions, that were created to assist economic recovery and fuel renewed economic growth. Neoliberal economic principles increased the flow of goods and capital globally that significantly changed the earth’s ecosystems.

    2. (b)

      Other factors include the rise of scientists and technologists and innovative technologies developed during the war that overtook the civil economy.


Indicators of Anthropocene

Human activities affect the earth in almost every sector. One of the biggest impact is how they affect the biogeochemical cycles. For example, the invention of the Haber-Bosch process that allows for the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia to be used as fertilizer has significantly altered the global nitrogen cycle. Through various activities, human actions have released 555 petagrams of carbon (1 pg = 1015 g= 1 billion metric tons) to the atmosphere since 1750 (Lewis and Maslin 2015). The released carbon has increased ocean acidity at a rate not exceeded in the last 300 million years. Of all the impacts, human activities may have altered the evolutionary process of species from antibiotics, pesticides, genetically engineered organisms, relocation of species to new habitats, intense harvesting, and selective changes from rising temperatures (Lewis and Maslin 2015).

Some of the major human impacts on the environment that are used as indicators of Anthropocene include (Lewis and Maslin 2015):
  1. 1.
    Pleistocene human impacts
    • Fire was the earliest impact of human on their environment.

    • The megafauna extinction between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago is the second impact, the extinction killed half of all large-bodied mammals worldwide, equivalent to 4% of all mammal species were lost.

  2. 2.
    Farming impacts
    • The advent of agriculture caused long-lasting anthropogenic environmental impacts as it replaced natural vegetation and increase species extinction and altered the biogeochemical cycles.

    • Agriculture is estimated to have originated about 11,000 years ago in southwest Asia, South America, and North China and between 6000 and 7000 years ago in the savanna of Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and North American.

  3. 3.
    Collison of old and new worlds
    • The arrivals of Europeans in the Caribbean in 1492 led to one of the largest human replacement in the past 13,000 years.

    • The connections of the world led to increase in trade, mostly in food stuffs like maize, potatoes, and several tropical plants.

    • It also moved animals around like horse, cow, goat, pig, black rat, earth worms, and American mink. This contributed to the swift, ongoing, radical reorganization of life on earth.

    • It also led to reorganization of human population. It is estimated that a rapid decline of 6 million people in the new world by 1650 is due to the exposure to new diseases, war, and enslavement.

  4. 4.
    • The beginning of the industrial revolution is often suggested as the beginning of the Anthropocene, because of the accelerating use of fossil use and rapid societal changes.

    • The revolution started sometime between 1760 and 1880 in northern Europe.

  5. 5.
    The great acceleration
    • After 1950 the influence of human activity has increased markedly. This “the great acceleration” is marked by the major increase in human population, changes in natural processes, and the development of new materials from minerals to plastics to persistent organic pollutants and inorganic compounds.

    • The nuclear bomb tests are also used as the marker of this global change event.

In recent years, data on the impact of humans on the environment is robust enough to produce a clear picture of the impact on individual sector. One of the best available indicators of human impacts suggesting that we are living in Anthropocene is available from the study of the 12 planetary boundaries (Steffen et al. 2015). The 12 Earth System indicators track change in major features of the system’s structure and functioning – atmospheric composition, stratospheric ozone, the climate system, the water and nitrogen cycles, marine ecosystems, land systems, tropical forests, and terrestrial biosphere degradation (Fig. 1). And the socioeconomic trends include parameters like human population, real GDP, foreign direct investment, urban population, primary energy use, fertilizer consumption, large dams, water use, paper production, transportation, telecommunications, and international tourism (Fig. 2). Some of the highlights of these graphs are that human population growth is projected to reach 10 billion, global fertilizer consumption, paper production, and water use have risen, the number of large dams has levelled, the number of automobiles and global tourism continues to grow rapidly, urbanization has grown rapidly, and ocean acidification has intensified. Meanwhile all 12 Earth System indicators show a rapid increase after the 1950s indication of the impact industrial growth had on the natural resources. The two data sets imply the impacts of human activities on the structure and functioning of the Earth System making it important enough to distinguish that we have entered a new era beyond Holocene (Steffen et al. 2015).
Fig. 1

Trends from 1750 to 2010 in indicators for the structure and functioning of the Earth System. (Steffen et al. 2015, with permission)

Fig. 2

Trends from 1750 to 2010 in globally aggregated indicators for socioeconomic development. (Steffen et al. 2015, with permission)

Other indicators of Anthropocene that complement the graphs highlight the significant rise of human footprint since the industrial revolution (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016). These indicators add to the growing perspective that Anthropocene began with the advent of industrial revolution.
  1. 1.

    Since 1750, the amount of methane in the atmosphere increased by 150%, nitrous oxide by 63%, and carbon dioxide by 43%. Meanwhile, CO2 concentration has risen from 280 ppm before industrial revolution to 400 ppm in 2013, a level not matched for 3 million years. In addition, new chemicals have entered the atmosphere since 1945 like fluoride gases – CFCs and HCFCs.

  2. 2.

    Biodiversity is collapsing from human activities mostly leading to simplification or monocropping from agriculture and urbanization, fragmentation, and destruction of the earth’s ecosystems. Ocean acidification has increased by 26% since pre-industrial period. Rate of extinction of species has gone up from 100 to 1000 times than natural rate. Currently, 97% of the total biomass of land vertebrates is made up of humans (32%) and domestic animals (65%) leaving only 3% for the remaining 30,000 land-dwelling vertebrate species.

  3. 3.

    Along with climate change from increased concentration of carbon dioxide, anthropogenic activities have altered the biogeochemical cycles of water, nitrogen, and phosphate. For example, humans are draining nearly half the planet’s wetlands using more than 45,000 dams with heights of more than 15 m. The amount of phosphorus in air has increased by eight times greater than the natural level. Some 20 million tons of phosphorus are mined to manufacture fertilizers, and 9 million tons of these end up in the oceans.

  4. 4.

    Humans have also transformed the terrestrial ecosystems into artificial ones like pastures, croplands, and cities. The population increased from 900 million in 1800 to over 7 billion today, which consumes nearly a third of the production of continental biomass and consumes each year nearly one and half times what the planet can annually produce on a sustainable basis. Humans use almost two-thirds of the net primary productivity.

  5. 5.

    This epoch is also characterized by an upsurge in energy mobilization: coal, hydrocarbons, and uranium. This energy availability of power has helped plough up, urbanize, and domesticate the ecosystems. Pasture, cropland, and cities’ land areas increased from 5% in 1750 to over third today. Ninety percent of photosynthesis on earth occurs in “anthropogenic biomes.”

  6. 6.

    New type of substance has been deposited in the planet’s ecosystems over the last 150 years like hydrocarbons, plastics, endocrine disturbance, pesticides, radionuclides, and fluoride gases.


Understanding Anthropocene

Aside from the disagreement on the starting date, many scholars, the public, and the governments agree we live in Anthropocene era dominated by human values and desires. The human-nature relationship has significantly transformed humans as “receiver” of ecosystem services to the role of “manager” and “manipulator” to meet their needs. This transition is rooted in the sociocultural changes to the growing needs of the increasing population. Toivanen et al. (2017) suggests four approaches to understand Anthropocene:
  1. 1.

    Geological Anthropocene: This approach looks at the rock layers (strata) and layering (stratification) to estimate the beginning of the epoch and evidence of human activities embedded in these rocks. Based on the evidence, the Anthropocene Working Group determines the starting point as 1950 a period when substantial global human impact can be traced in rock strata.

  2. 2.

    Biological Anthropocene: This approach focuses on the effects and changes humans have caused to the biosphere and how this is related with the development and spread of human societies. The arrival of Columbus to the Caribbean Islands in 1492 brought together the New and Old Worlds. The Columbian Exchange enabled the distribution of plants, animals, and people in all directions like tomatoes, cacao, potatoes, maize, cassava, banana, sugarcane, coffee, horse, cattle, smallpox, typhus, and people. Some evidence of human impacts includes the dispersion of nearly 13,000 plants worldwide. In addition, it led to massive extinction of the wildlife, which some call it as the Sixth Extinction. The WWF estimates 58% decline in wildlife since the 1970s. As the author concludes, “it is obvious that the ecological effects of human–nature interactions have been diverse and sometimes counter-intuitive to the simplistic narrative of humans destroying nature – as we could see, the disruption of human action has sometimes resulted in large-scale changes and destruction of novel environments, even continent-wide” (p. 190).

  3. 3.

    Social Anthropocene: This approach looks at the human-nature relations within historical social structures. Along with cultural Anthropocene, it looks for the causes of environmental problems from human activities, economic development, technological solutions, and political decisions. This focuses on the eco-social histories of the 500 years after the Columbian Exchange through the new capitalist economic order and the Industrial Revolution. It also looks at the past relationship, especially during the Neolithic Revolution that gave rise to new socioeconomic order with massive impact on the natural system. This approach can identify, problematize, and popularize the economic, political, and ideological obstacles toward sustainable pathways and can contribute to innovate, establish, and rearrange the institutional structures of economy, social life, and environmental relations.

  4. 4.

    Cultural Anthropocene: This approach views that cultural phenomena always were intertwined with natural beings, places, and processes. With regard to environmental problems, the fundamental idea is that these problems and issues are based on certain ideas, beliefs, attitudes, habits, and practices. Cultural influences in understanding Anthropocene like manifest destiny, perfectibility of humans, the linear ideas of progress, limitless of resources, and power structures are tied to cultural values.


Future of Anthropocene

There are discussions of scenarios where Anthropocene’s advance will be disrupted from global catastrophe in the future – massive volcanic eruptions, a nuclear war, asteroid impacts, a glaciation, or a socio-ecological collapse caused by our own stupidity. These scenarios discuss the significant reduction and elimination of human populations. It is interesting how people have just begun to experience the new epoch (since 1800), and scholars are already proposing its end. That is how fast Anthropocene is changing the earth.

On the other hand, the discussion of the “end of Anthropocene” revolves around the eternality of Homo sapiens. This perspective believes humans as a species are likely to become extinct one time or another like other species. Therefore, the extinction of Homo sapiens will mark the end of the “Anthropocene,” but the earth and its biosphere will persist and continue its travel through space and time:

In the absence of a total extinction of humankind, our influence on earth and the corresponding stratigraphic imprint may disappear or become negligible after a drastic reduction in the human population and/or a change in our relationship with the planet. (Rull 2017:1059)

Berkhout (2014) makes five different predictions about the future of Anthropocene. It is important to note that the future will not be universal; just like there are multiple realities in the present, there will be multiple realities of Anthropocene in the future.
  1. 1.

    Anthropocene presents both costs and opportunities for sustainability. For example, peak oil scenario presents opportunities for the growth and innovation of renewable energy. However, if a larger oil reserve is discovered, then investment in the renewable energy sector declines. Similarly, it is possible to speculate on the costs and opportunities in the food production system from climate change. Fear of food insecurity and the demand to protect biodiversity will lead to a new, more diversified but intensified global food production systems. As Berkhout (2014) claims, “Scarcity and crisis lead to new strategies among producers and preferences among consumers, and this in turn leads to the emergence of new scarcities, crisis and innovation in patterns that can only be guessed at” (p. 156). Therefore, the future of Anthropocene can be better understood by understanding the connectedness of global change and sustainability problems and how interactions are shaping the social, cultural, and economic responses.

  2. 2.

    In the future, the severity of resources’ scarcity and rapidly changing global environmental systems will escalate; however, the costs and opportunities from these changes in the coming decades and in particular places are not clear. Rather, focusing on the long-term impacts might act as an impediment to finding solutions or acting now. There is still much to learn precisely when, where, and how severe risks will affect cities, infrastructures, water services, and food security.

  3. 3.

    The costs and opportunities from future planetary risk will be unevenly distributed – there will be winners and losers. Any attempt to “act globally” will depend on who is being affected; the response is urgent when power, economic, and politics interests are at stake. The weaker nations will continue to face risks. In addition, the competition for resources and services among societies will make it difficult for global cooperation to act on environmental issues.

  4. 4.

    On the positive side, new capacities and resilience to cope with adverse environmental changes will develop at all scales – global, national, community, and individual. This will happen as communities strengthen their economic resource base.

  5. 5.

    Finally, it can be said there will be multiple Anthropocene futures that depends on who you are and where you stand. We could become part of a single collective unit sharing the same perspective. Or there will always be the “good” and “bad” perspectives about Anthropocene for a foreseeable time.

Similarly, Steffen et al. (2011b) predict the following as the future of Anthropocene:
  • In the twenty-first century, the Anthropocene has continued but in new directions. The most prominent is the rapid development activities of the developing countries like India, China, Brazil, Indonesia, and South Africa. As a result, emissions from developing countries have increased by over 40% in recent years. China is now the global leader in carbon emission, mostly from its use of coal.

  • The future of Anthropocene indicates changes in our use of fossil fuel, especially petroleum oil. Coal will dominate to generate energy in most countries. Phosphorus production is likely to peak at 25-3-Mt per year by 2030.

  • The quest for molecular level understanding of life has opened a new field of building synthetic life. The availability of technology to delete and replace original DNA from other organisms has opened many possibilities. CRISPR claims to cure defective genes that cause diseases using gene editing technology (

  • The impact of human activity on other life forms could bring some positive results. Just in the period from 1970 to 2010, there were newer areas protected for conservation and saw a 12% increase in land allocated for wildlife. This positive trend is labeled as Anthropocene 3, where humans become more aware of their impact on the environment and attempt to build global governance systems to balance their relationship with the Earth System. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and UN SDGs are examples of this burgeoning trend.

  • In the process of addressing problems, humans are actively managing the ecosystems using traditional and scientific knowledge. Local adaptive management empowered local communities in managing and using natural resources. While, geo-engineering is attempting to apply technology in solving the problems because of human activities. Some of the technological ideas include using aerosols to reflect sunlight, building large infrastructure to mitigate impact from natural disasters, and carbon capture technology to suck CO2 from the atmosphere.

  • The rise of climate skepticism is undermining the efforts toward creating a balanced system. The prospect of replacing human process or the status of humans in the natural world is becoming the rallying point for the skeptics.

Anthropocene and Sustainability

The Anthropocene presents many uncertainties regarding how we manage natural resources and organize economic, social, and political systems and the future of human civilization.

The relationship between Anthropocene and sustainability can be understood from these two possible scenarios (Knight 2015).
  1. 1.

    The concept of sustainability is central to the relationship between human and nature. Furthermore, it is key to how societies respond to environmental changes in the Anthropocene epoch. To become sustainable, our society should live within the physical boundaries of the earth – water, biogeochemical cycles, biosphere, and sediment system. Based on the current research, achieving sustainability in the Anthropocene requires two separate but related components: (a) a scientific understanding of the dynamics and behavior of individual Earth Systems, which suggests sustainability means different to different environmental context, and (b) a management framework that is appropriate to the “systems” context of the resource being managed (p. 154).

  2. 2.

    Sustainability has its limitations in the Anthropocene. It is wise to ask these three questions regarding sustainability: Sustainability of what? Sustainability for what purpose? How do we know if we are being sustainable? Water use in the Anthropocene serves as example to display the limitations. Water use is not just about the supply-demand to use in irrigation and household consumption but also touches on the issues of equity of water supply, water security, aquatic ecosystems, biodiversity and ecosystem services, irrigation and food production, river and groundwater pollution, and energy production. Therefore, sustainable water use must reconcile different viewpoints and requires a more adaptative and integrate governance frameworks.


In the future, sustainability could be measured outside the realm of resource management like human health and well-being, greenness of urban spaces, environmental ethics, water footprint, food waste, carbon footprint, renewable energy use, and recycling. Managing future change must be built with our current understanding of the Earth System, which is proving challenging for the political and societal institutions. The future society might look inept to effectively manage natural resources from the challenges like (1) future climate conditions and (2) increased urbanization and the increased vulnerability to food and water security. Therefore, the future social structure needs a different kind of global sociopolitical system that can frame resource use in two ways: (1) sustainability concept should be broad enough to include impacts on human well-being and environmental and social justice. (2) The role of technology in the areas of gene editing and food production includes bioremediation, environmental monitoring, satellite remote sensing, and climate modelling (Knight 2015). The future of sustainability depends on our understanding of the physical environment and in combination of the sociopolitical systems.


We live in Anthropocene. Here is a summary of how humans are the dominant species in the epoch and what the future holds for them. Humans have made immense progress toward food production, healthcare, and energy use; however, these improvements have serious impact on the natural world. First, the human development measure is too narrow as it does not incorporate cultural or psychological dimensions when people are displaced as a result of environmental deterioration and opportunity costs. Nor does it include the externalities like species extinction and habitat destruction. Second, it also masks the global disparity associated with the distribution of wealth and the impacts of ecosystem service decline. Third, the existence of time lags between decline in ecosystem service and their impact on human well-being, particularly geological changes (polar ice cap melt), operates on time scales of decades, centuries, and millennia. To be precisely, humans are short-sighted to see the long-term impact of our embracing human development goals. These prompt societies to deal with three challenges – collapse, migration, and creative invention through discovery. The likelihood of collapse of human civilization from environmental pressure has led to a global scale response in the form of global treaties and international market mechanisms. However, such solutions are unequally distributed, and this does not consider the collapse that might happen at the local level. On the other hand, a well-connected human society could lead to increased knowledge and techniques for local adaptation, averting or containing local collapse before it can happen (Steffen et al. 2011a).

The most likely start date for Anthropocene is in the second half of the eighteenth century or during the beginning of the industrial revolution. The rationale being that industrialization was the end of agriculture as the dominant economic activity that led to a new economic order. Some of these activities during the new order included the 40 times increase in fossil fuel use between 1800 and 2000, 50-fold increase in human population, and increase in atmospheric CO2 from about 280 to 380 ppm. The biggest change happened after WWII, under the name of “great acceleration” that accelerated human activity with amazing numbers. For example, the human population increased by 3 billion in just 50 years, economic production multiplied by 15 times, the number of motor vehicles increased from 40 to 700 million, petroleum consumption increased by 3.5 times, urbanization and humanization of half of the terrestrial surface, biodiversity depletion accelerated, and atmospheric radioactivity increased. Other imprints of industrialization are found in lake and sea sediments and polar ice deposited during the past 70 years. Other possible indicators of human activities are the lake sediments from fertilizer runoff from agriculture, acidification of lakes and oceans, and manufacture and use of plastics (Rull 2017).

Anthropocene can therefore be seen as a good force to benefit humans or as a bad force that will lead to their demise. A good Anthropocene is when humans make decisive action to maintain the stability of the nine planetary boundaries in the earth. However, there are evidences that four out of nine planetary boundaries are already tipped over by human activity: climate change, loss of biosphere activity, land-system change, and altered biogeochemical cycles (nitrogen and nitrogen). The goal here is to live in Anthropocene within the limits of these boundaries (Kunnas 2017).

On the other hand, in the bad Anthropocene human activities oversteps or tips over all nine planetary boundaries resulting in irreversible changes. The true significance of Anthropocene is “While the concept of the Anthropocene reflects the past and present nature, scale and magnitude of human impacts on the Earth System, its true significance lies in how it can be used to guide attitudes, choices, policies and actions that influence the future” (Bai et al. 2016:351).



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyWinona State UniversityWinonaUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Anabela Marisa Azul
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for Neuroscience and Cell BiologyUniversity of CoimbraCoimbraPortugal