We have lived in the Holocene geological period since the retreat of the last Ice Age, 11,000 years ago. In its relatively gentle climate, humans developed agriculture, grew in number and created civilisations. We invented the book, the combustion engine and the Internet.
More than 100 years ago, scientists first noticed that Earth’s temperature was warming, correlating with an increase in atmospheric carbon, which was traced to the combustion of fossil fuels. Then, with the world’s first nuclear test in 1945, we embedded a radioactive marker in the geological record. We have altered the Earth system, climatically and geologically. This is so remarkable that a group of scientists have argued that we are in a new epoch, the Anthropocene, the time of humans.
Projections suggest that if we continue to extract, combust, manufacture, till and spray as we have been, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, we will have run out of fertile topsoil and we will be on the path to global warming of at least 3C by 2100. This would cause human progress to decline precipitously from around the mid 21st century, bringing greater poverty, hunger, sickness and inequality than we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Arguably, this decline has already begun. Nobody wants this.
Many of us are striving for something better, through new business models, new policies and new ways of thinking, to transform how we meet people’s needs, limit our use of resources and energy and distribute wealth. At the heart of this is an acceptance that the Earth doesn’t revolve around humans. We are part of a planetary biosphere that relies on the sun, helios. Our ways of living and thinking need not – and should not – be anthropocentric. We could live in the Heliocene.
Featured image by Han Lahandoe on Unsplash
The word Heliocene was coined by paleo-climatologist Summer Praetorius in her article Dawn of the Heliocene, published in Nautilus in September 2020.