New Mathematical Equation Shows How Fast Humans Are Wrecking Earth
By Robin Scher
It is impossible to predict the future. What we can do is extrapolate a vision from our current body of scientific knowledge, mixed with a bit of good old-fashioned imagination. The result is a sort of trailer, which offers us a glimpse of what may be in store.
At the moment, our future appears set for a classic apocalypse blockbuster. Thanks to a new mathematical formula that charts the rate of humanity's environmental impact, we may even have a rough idea of when to expect it at the cinema (and for that matter, everywhere else on the globe).
Named the Anthropocene equation, the formula was created by Will Steffen, a climate research professor at the Australian National University and Owen Gaffney, a science journalist and communications consultant at the sustainability research firm Future Earth. According to their formula, recently published in The Anthropocene Review, human activity is altering the environment 170 times faster than under normal circumstances.
What do the authors mean by normal circumstances? Up until the Anthropocene age—our current geological age, during which human activity has exerted a dominant influence on the planetary ecosystem—Earth's environment was shaped by three main determinants: astronomical forces (A), which affect insolation and mostly relate to the "gravitational effects of the sun and other planets"; geophysical forces (G), which include "volcanic activity, weathering and tectonic movement"; and internal dynamics (I), which pertain to the natural course of biological activity taking place on the planet.
But within the last century, the authors argue, these forces have largely paled in comparison to the overwhelming effects of human activity (H). Given this fact, Steffen and Gaffney were able to model their equation, which essentially suggests that due to massive population growth, consumption and technology, the (H) factor has become the sole force shaping the trajectory of Earth's environmental system. The authors demonstrated this point using the rate of global temperature change over the past 7,000 years.
Until 45 years ago, this figure had decreased at 32°F per century. However, since our current age of industrialization, that rate has drastically reversed, with the figure now reflecting an increase of 35°F per century, which translates to a rate 170 times higher than the 7,000-year average.
This figure, Gaffney explained to New Scientist, reflects the fact that "far from living on a deeply resilient planet, we live on a planet with hair triggers." The problem is that we have been "lulled into a false sense of security by the deceptive stability of the Holocene"—the previous geological era that spanned the last 11,700 years.
"Remarkably and accidentally," Gaffney continued, "we have ejected the Earth system from the interglacial envelope and are heading into uncharted waters."
Humanity has reached a tipping point. How our leaders decide to act now and in the next decade will drastically determine what direction our future takes. The authors themselves described their study as "an unequivocal statement of the risks industrialized societies are taking at a time when action is vital."
If no drastic changes takes place, it could "trigger societal collapse."
We face two very distinct possible realities. In one future, thanks to the greed of a small handful of global elites, humans will become extinct. How might we react to such an outcome? According to a recent psychology study by the University of Buffalo, the answer is—peacefully. Reported on iflscience.com, the study created its observational conditions by using the open world of a multiplayer online role-playing game called ArcheAge. A separate server was created for the study and all 270 million participants were told that in around 11 weeks, all their progress made in the game would be deleted. As the deadline approached, rather than grow more violent or greedy, players actually tended to become less aggressive and more cooperative.
Taken with a large pinch of salt, the study highlights an altruistic streak in human nature. But why wait until it's too late to demonstrate it?
Enter the second possible future, forged through global unity, instead of division. It's difficult to picture what form such unity should take, which makes it a challenge. What we do know, as the New Scientist article points out, is that instead of our current "dominant neoliberal economic systems [which] still assume Holocene-like boundary conditions," what we need is "a 'biosphere positive' Anthropocene economics."
Yuval Noah Harari is a historian and author of the book Sapiens, which provides a sprawling and incisive historical account of our species. His new book, Homo Deus, offers a similar expansive view of our future. In a recent TED Dialogue, Harari explored the need for a change in both our political and our economic thinking.
"The old 20th-century political model of left versus right is now largely irrelevant," Harari said. "The real divide today is between global and national, global or local." He noted that we now have a global ecology and economy, but a national politics, which makes our "current political system ineffective, because it has no control over the forces that shape our life."
Like our two possible futures, Harari believes human society has two possible solutions: "Either de-globalize the economy and turn it back into a national economy or globalize the political system." The latter suggestion might sound a bit unrealistic at the present moment, but if humanity wants to avoid near-certain doom, it is probably the direction we will need to take.
Fortunately, in Harari's view, humanity still looks like it could be on track for a happy ending. "I am an optimist," he said. "I think the human race will rise to meet these challenges."
Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:email@example.com" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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