September 11th, 12:30 pm, Seminar Talk @ The Linnean Society of London
Biosphere 2 was the world’s first experimental laboratory for global ecology. Sir Ghillean Prance, working with NY Botanic Gardens and Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London, was allocated to design Biosphere 2’s unique rainforest biome, testing strategies important for preserving rainforest biodiversity. Dr. Mark Nelson was a member of the original 8 person biospherian crew for the daring 1991-1993 closure experiment. Biosphere 2 demonstrated important lessons relevant for improving our relationship with Earth’s biosphere (Biosphere 1): the technosphere can be designed to support life without harming it; new roles for humans as atmospheric stewards; innovative bio-technologies to recycle wastewater and purify air; high-yield regenerative agriculture without use of chemicals set world records; humans as keystone predators, intervening to protect biodiversity; shared dependence on the biosphere overrides group tensions and subgroups.
UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
A recent landmark report from the United Nations unnervingly warns of a strong risk of global crisis as early as 2040. The report was issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and was written and edited by 91 scientists from over 40 countries analyzing more than 6000 studies. Their findings suggest that if we do not change our global economic system drastically in the next few years, and we keep continuing to let off large carbon emissions into the atmosphere as well as using coal as an energy source, we will begin to see the worsening of food-shortages, wildfires, the mass die-off of coral reefs as well as the beginnings of coastal flooding.
The Need for a New Direction
With the current paradigm of ecological catastrophe in mind, we find ourselves losing hope and it becomes increasingly more difficult to imagine a future in which we coexist symbiotically with our biosphere. Although the biospherians were sealed in the closed ecological framework of Biosphere 2, lessons learned from the experiment and teachings gained have escaped far beyond its physical structure, leaking out into the lives of its inhabitants and many that came into contact with it, encouraging them to live out a path aligned with planetary needs. The experiment’s surprises underscored how much is still unknown about biospheres at large. Biosphere 2 caught the world’s imagination, tapping into the desire of people to reconnect and forge a new relationship with our planetary biosphere. Its lessons are increasingly relevant in the Anthropocene era as we find ourselves desperately in search of a new direction.
Sir Ghillean Prance FRS PPLS has conducted 39 expeditions to study the Amazon flora. He is a former Director of Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, author of 24 books and monographs and extensive papers on the taxonomy of tropical plants, ethnobotany, and conservation. He was involved with the development of rainforest biomes at Biosphere 2 and at the Eden Project. Most recently, he worked at co-editor of the landmark academic volume, Ethnopharmacologic Search for Psychoactive Drugs: 50 Years of Research.
Tony Juniper, well-known British environmentalist and adviser to Prince Charles, understands what’s happening on our planet. While he’s been fighting for a more sustainable society, Tony has also been sharing information about the dramatic changes that have been happening on earth. In the following video, you can hear some of the numbers that can help you understand the changes that are going on today.
10 Quick Facts About Climate Change from Tony Juniper
Since 1950, the world’s population has tripled
The number of cities with a population of over 10 million people was: one in 1950, ten in 1990, and is twenty-eight today
Global energy demand is expected to double by 2030 compared to 1990 (with most new capacity coming from renewable sources)
Only about 1/4 of the planet’s agricultural land is being used to grow crops, the rest is being used to raise animals
About 97.5% of the planet’s total water resources is salt water, about 0.3% is liquid water at the surface, the rest is locked in groundwater and ice caps
Since 1900, the consumption of construction materials, metals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass has increased tenfold
Carbon dioxide concentrations in the planet’s atmosphere are higher now than at any point in at least the last 800,000 years
Ten thousand years ago, 99.9% of vertebrate biomass was composed of wild animals; today, 96% of vertebrate biomass is made up of people and their domesticated animals
The rate of animal and plant extinction taking place on the planet today is approaching a rate not seen on earth for 65 million years
Since 1962, the area of protected habitat on the planet, in the form of national parks and nature reserves, has increased fourteen fold, to reach more than 33 million square kilometers
Understanding What the Planet Does for Us
As we try to understand what’s happening to the planet, we can also learn what the planet does for us. Take a more in depth look at the services that nature freely provides to humanity, many of which we don’t even realize.
In What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? British environmentalist Tony Juniper points out that we think everything nature does for us—providing water, pollinating plants, generating oxygen, recycling miracles in the soil and much more—is free, but it isn’t. Its economic value can, and has been, measured. And upon realizing what that value truly is we would stop treating our natural systems in a destructive manner. For example, in 2005 Hurricane Katrina cost the US $81 billion and the damage still remains. If the land around the levees hadn’t been redeveloped for shipping and aquaculture, at an estimated value of $100,000 to $450,000 per square mile of natural mangroves, then it is believed, much of the damage caused to the city would not have occurred.
During recent years, environmental debate worldwide has been dominated by climate change, carbon emissions and the greenhouse effect. But a number of academic, technical, political, business and NGO initiatives indicate the emergence of a new wave of environmental attention focused on “natural capital,” “ecosystem services” and “biodiversity,” things nature does for us.
What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? contains impactful stories imparting warnings about unfortunate occurrences such as a rabies epidemic that followed the disappearance of India’s vultures (drugs administered to cattle killed the birds, leaving uneaten carcasses that led to an explosion of wild dogs), as well as promising and enlightening tales of how birds protect fruit harvests, coral reefs shield coasts from storms, and rainforests absorb billions of tons of carbon released from automobiles and power stations. As a result of its immediacy, Tony Juniper’s book will entirely change the way you think about life, the planet and the economy.
This Earth Day 2016 feels like a particularly poignant moment in the relationship between humans and the Earth. Just as on Mother’s Day we take extra time to reflect on our debt of gratitude to Her who gave us life, we similarly take the opportunity of raising Earth Consciousness on Earth Day to consider our connection with and appreciation for our Mother Earth.
Earth Day began in 1970 as a reflection of the growing awareness of our responsibility to the planet and the web of life – including us – that it supports. At the time the influence of Eastern spiritual thought and the introduction of psychedelics inspired a more holistic view of our relationship with the natural world. The realization dawned that our industrialized civilization was having negative impacts on the biosphere and that environmental protection was a growing necessity.
As we reflect on the Earth in the early decades of the 21st Century, we see radical imbalance. The Ecologist reported that climate scientists have reached a consensus that human activity has been driving climate change. There is a growing recognition that we have entered a new geological time period known as the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene Working Group has found that “humanity’s impacts on Earth should now be regarded as pervasive and sufficiently distinctive to justify a separate classification.”
Humans have introduced entirely novel changes, geologically speaking, such as the roughly 300m metric tonnes of plastic produced annually. Concrete has become so prevalent in construction that more than half of all the concrete ever used was produced in the past 20 years.
Wildlife, meanwhile, is being pushed into an ever smaller area of the Earth, with just 25% of ice-free land considered wild now compared to 50% three centuries ago. As a result, rates of extinction of species are far above long-term averages.
But the study says perhaps the clearest fingerprint humans have left, in geological terms, is the presence of isotopes from nuclear weapons testing that took place in the 1950s and 60s.
We can feel overwhelmed when we see the environment faced with so many threats. How do we begin to change our lives in ways that will have a meaningful impact on the global situation? We need to embrace the challenge of living in harmony with the planet.
A new kind of nature is being created, one that is shaped by humanity. It consists of the sum of all the changes caused by humans on earth.
As we come into a deep understanding of the impact of our actions on the global community, Nature is calling us to redesign our lifestyles, adopt new social structures, rewrite the codes of our major institutions, and regenerate the planet’s natural systems. To do this requires breaking free from conditioned consumerism and enforced separation. We have the responsibility to care for the Earth by making choices that support the flourishing of the planet and its people, from our next-door neighbors to the members of remote tribes. This responsibility is also to ourselves, as we owe our existence to this interdependent web of life. By making changes in our lives at the individual level, we will see that change reflected in the whole world.
Taking on Earth Consciousness – and Taking Action
Now is the time—the critical moment on our timeline—to leverage the overarching vision and tools afforded by our understanding of Earth Sciences and the wisdom provided by traditional indigenous cultures. The message of Earth consciousness is growing louder. It reaches us from the voices of Amazonian plant teachers, such as ayahuasca, and from indigenous wisdom. Scientists have been confirming the healing effects of these ancient sources of wisdom, affirming the use of these tools that lead us to a more integrative, whole system perspective of our relationship to the biosphere.
Books are some of the most powerful tools to we have to evolve our consciousness and guide our actions. Synergetic Press publishes books that carry the code of a sustainable, regenerative, thriving human future. We focus primarily on Earth science and evolving human consciousness, which we see as complementary aspects of humanity’s continuing evolution. See some of the titles below to explore the ideas that form the foundation of Earth Consciousness.
David Suzuki called the UN Paris agreement a milestone in the Anthropocene Era, and an indication that “the Age of Humans won’t necessarily lead to an age of destruction.” (The Guardian) While I’m as optimistic as they come, it’s clear that humanity needs to act swiftly and on a grand scale to effect and uphold the major changes that must occur to prevent a planetary catastrophe.
One of my favorite eco-heros, Tony Juniper, a campaigner, writer, and sustainability adviser reports from Paris conference this month: “Increased atmospheric CO2 is doing much more than warming the Earth, it’s also acidifying oceans, something that is already having major impacts on ocean ecology in the Southern Ocean and the North Atlantic. Likely effects: more CO2 in the atmosphere, more jellyfish … We really have to put the brakes on carbon dioxide and very fast. These effects are already becoming very large and there are huge uncertainties as to how this will affect among other things food production.”(The Ecologist)
Atmospheric CO2 levels are the highest they have been in millions of years and the impacts of climate change are also impacting corporate and government balance sheet at such levels that corporations are starting to sit up and take notice. Trade can no longer trump climate, as the NAFTA’s policy has upheld for decades. There is no part of the economy that doesn’t depend on Nature, says Juniper. If there is no Nature, he argues, there can be no economy, no growth, no business.
The solution, Tony says, is a shift to a “bioeconomy” where our economic system is a subset of Nature, and not the other way around. A world where the technosphere is designed to support and sustain the biosphere, not use it up. See his talk at TEDxWWF.
NEWS FLASH: UPDATING THIS POST TO AUGUST 30, 2016 — The Geological Commission has the following update published today saying a majority are convinced there is enough evidence to support recognizing us to be in a new geological epoch, the anthropocene, where humanity has become the most dominant geological force on the planet.
“The majority of us think it is real; that there is clearly something happening; that there are clearly signals in the environment that are recognisable and make the Anthropocene a distinct unit; and the majority of us think it would be justified to formally recognise it.
“That doesn’t mean it will be formalised, but we’re going to go through the procedure of putting in a submission.”
They estimate 2 to 3 years for the application process to be completed.
Here are two excellent talks on the topic. Author, journalist and Anthropocene expert, Christian Schwagerl with champion for the environment, Tony Juniper, President of the Wildlife Trusts in UK.
Christian Schwägerl and Tony Juniper
“The conditions that will come with the Anthropocene are not simply a technical and scientific subject, they’re also highly political, philosophical and about the relationship that we wish to foster with the earth into the future.” -Tony Juniper at the Royal Society of Arts. Here’s a podcast of their joint talk.
“We’re here to discuss and to listen about the point in time in which homo sapiens. . . are now influencing the geology of our world and the societal impact of that.” -Robin McKie at the Royal Institution
The Anthropocene idea originated with Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who realized the impact that human activities were having on the atmosphere. The research that Crutzen conducted revealed how certain chemicals were depleting the Ozone layer. This information incited activists to fight for bans in the 1980s on chemicals that were being used in refrigerants and aerosol cans. It’s been encouraging to see that in the years since these changes were made, Ozone levels have been steadily increasing.
The significance of this finding led Crutzen to wonder about other ways that humans might be impacting the environment. As the list of his findings kept growing longer, Crutzen was led to the revolutionary idea that the influence of humanity on earth has reached a point that warrants its own geologic epoch: the “Anthropocene.”
Christian provides twelve key ideas as we move toward a more responsible and conscious Anthropocene:
Redefining our sense of time
To get a sense of our place in the Anthropocene, we need to redefine our sense of time.
We find ourselves caught in an instantaneous flow of information, keeping us thinking in the short-term. Compared with the doomsdayism so typically associated with thinking of the environmental movement which doesn’t encourage much consideration for what the distant future will look like. By expanding our sense of time to include the long now, we can give our actions a deeper context.
When you get into a car today, you’re touching the deep past. The gasoline powering the vehicles we drive so casually was formed three hundred million years ago. At the same time, we’re also touching the deep future; fifty thousand years from now, carbon molecules released from your roadtrip will still be influencing the atmosphere.
Cities that “think like a planet”
We have to include human civilization in our understanding of nature. Cities must learn to function as planetary ecosystems. That means more sustainable transportation systems, renewable energy sources, and locally grown sources of food.
Humans are involved in the cyclical system of the biosphere where everything comes back around. There’s nowhere that resources can be extracted from without an impact; there’s nowhere to dump waste materials where they’ll disappear.
Turning agriculture into an ecosystem
The business of growing food and raising animals for human consumption now takes place on an area of land larger than the size of South America. We have to take measures to counteract the destruction of soils caused by pesticides and chemical fertilizers, reverse deforestation, and consider the influence that our personal dietary choices have on global.
Making technology compostable
Technology that is compostable must become the new standard. The iPhone has elements from forty different mountains. When we consider the resources that we’re pulling as a society from the earth for our technology, we can start to respect the process. The biosphere has a recycling process built in, and the technosphere has to become integrated within it.
Building a real sharing economy
When we consider the material level that people strive for around the world, and then multiply that by that number of humans currently on the planet it shows us that instead of fighting for resources, we need to be sharing them.
We need to be using the energy we have more wisely. We need to be encouraging meaningful strides in innovation by investing in energy research.
Becoming conscious about directed evolution
Humanity has been breeding animals and cultivating plants for over ten thousand years. More recently, innovations in biological technology provide humans with even greater level of power over evolutionary outcomes. Will the use of this power reflect an attitude of stewardship or of short-term capitalist interests?
Developing an ethos of connectedness
Though the name ‘Anthropocene’ reflects on our species, it can serve to open us up to a greater sense of all of the other life forms we share this planet with. By putting human history into a context of natural history, it can increase our sense of connection with the planetary story.
Making the economy a subset of ecology
The Anthropocene combines the spheres of economy and ecology. By putting economics into an ecological framework, we can adjust our perspective so that natural resources are not viewed as externalities, but as our true source of wealth.
Linking our lifestyles with global phenomena
In the Anthropocene we can connect our daily choices with their global impact and reflect on the influence that those choices have. We can ask ourselves what we offer back to the earth every day. In this way we can consider what we give as a daily offering to the planet—is it the contents of our garbage can?
This idea can help focus us and motivate us by contextualizing the role each person has as an individual in this epoch.
Building an internet of all things
We already have an internet that connects us with so many things in the world, from highly discounted products shipped right to our doorstep to an endless stream of cat pictures, but by creating an internet of all things we can brings in the interests of all life forms on earth. Perhaps such an internet could help us calculate the best actions to take now according to the interests of future generations.
We generally think of ourselves as a materialistic culture, but are we really if we buy things to throw them away after one use? Companies build products with planned obsolescence, so that they stop working in just a few years and we buy new things. We have to provide incentives to make lasting, quality products rather than focusing on maximizing profits.
An artistic representation of a future plastic-laden fossil. From Craft in the Anthropocene, by Yesenia Thibault-Picazo
Every choice, every action has an influence on the rest of life on earth. The globalization of our society has such a far reach that the contents of our refrigerators span continents, oftentimes without our even realizing their exotic origins. The Anthropocene reflects a change in our consciousness as we realize our role as the dominant force on the planet. As we come to appreciate this power, we must consider how to be democratic in considering the interests of future generations as well as those who are most vulnerable to climate change but may not have as strong of a voice in the plutocratic political structures that are currently in place.
As we face the possibilities of this new epoch, we should remain optimistic. The Anthropocene is an open idea. It’s an idea that presents us with a wide range of challenges at the same time that it imbues us with the agency to shift the course of life on earth. As we begin to acknowledge the reality of our role as planetary stewards, we can start by bringing mindfulness to the choices that shape our lives and intention to the actions that will shape our world.
To read more on this radical investigation of our global situation, pick up your own copy of The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How It Shapes Our Planet in our bookstore.