What does it mean to be alive in the human epoch?
“This goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors…” So despairs Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s eponymous play on the human condition. The city of London, where the play was written, may not have been an ideal place to live in the Middle Ages, with its soot and dirt and a vaporous sky that stank constantly of coal-smoke attributed to both domestic and industrial chimneys. Although a global human influence began to be felt even in pre-industrial times, the trend became worse over the coming centuries, reaching far beyond James Watt, who invented the steam engine in 1784.In this period, humans developed many technologies capable of manipulating the environment, including mechanisation (in agriculture), earth-movers, fishing techniques, irrigation and groundwater extraction, damming of rivers and industrial-scale production of nitrogen-rich fertilisers. By about 1850, the concentrations of two major greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, had begun to rise exponentially. Paul J. Crutzen, who discovered that chlorofluorocarbons were responsible for the ozone hole, introduced the term ‘anthropocene’ to refer to this human-dominated geological epoch, and thus supplement the warm period of the last 10-12 millennia called the holocene.
But it was Vladimir I. Vernadsky, the Russian geoscientist, who had the foresight to comment on this emerging issue, in the early 20th century. In an article published posthumously by the American Scientist in January 1945, Vernadsky, quoting a contemporary Russian geologist named A.P. Pavlov, defined the “anthropogenic era’” in rather optimistic terms. After all, in those days, man was expected to always be able to triumph over nature.
Since the mid-19th century, human population has increased by the billions and technologies have become more sophisticated to cater to mass consumption. At the same time, Earth’s atmosphere has been filling with chlorofluorocarbons and greenhouse gases. We now realise that these chemicals can modify the environment such that it becomes unfriendly to many forms of life. For example, a hole in the thin ozone shield that blocks ultraviolet rays from the Sun is a threat not just to humans but also to the oceans’ phytoplanktons, a fundamental part of the food chain. In fact, the most important marker of the anthropocene epoch is going to be temperature – specifically, the (predicted) rise in global average surface temperature by 1.1º to 6.4º C by the end of this century, an all-time high since the last thermal maximum 40 million years ago. A second prominent feature is the accelerated extinction of various species at a scale similar in magnitude to a major extinction event that occurred 80 million years ago. Third: dramatic increase in erosion and denudation of the continents, at a pace an order of magnitude greater than what one would expect from purely natural processes. Our rampant use of nitrogenous fertilisers has led to a dramatic increase in food production but it has also acidified our rivers and oceans, and enhanced nitrogen fixation. Additionally, both accelerating urbanisation and people being transplanted from villages to cities have been accompanied by perennial water depletion and shortage. Over the last century or so, many major rivers that have been dammed and diverted have lost their water-carrying capacity. Overexploitation and pollution has impacted the water above ground as well as below. At the same time, global water demand is projected to increase by 55% by 2050, driven chiefly by the growth of cities in developing countries.
A prime example of a water crisis is in the Indo-Gangetic plain, home to more than 600 million people. Between 2002 and 2008, the aquifer level there fell by 4 mm/year. More than half the water in that region is undrinkable, nor is it usable for irrigation, thanks to elevated salt and arsenic levels. Global warming exacerbates these problems because it alters winds and humidity, which in turn affect rainfall patterns. The Himalayan and Andean glaciers on which half a billion people depend have been beating retreat. Since 2015, the World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risk Report has consistently ranked “water crisis” as the greatest potential threat among such contenders as natural disasters, mass migration and cyber attacks. Cape Town, the second largest city in South Africa, has been reeling under the effects of a severe water shortage crisis the likes of which it has not experienced for many generations.
These conditions are not unique either: they can be seen in Kerala, or in sub-Saharan Africa. So far, Earth’s average global surface temperature has risen by 1º C. The world’s odds of meeting the goal of capping the rise to well under 2º C remains distant. But even now, freaky things have been happening. For example, in 2015, an unruly En Niño wreaked havoc on global weather patterns, fed devastating floods, droughts and tornadoes and caused extraordinarily seesawing temperature. It was the same year Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato si’, was released and the year in which the Paris Agreement was drawn up. In his 2016 book ‘The Great Derangement’, Amitav Ghosh pointed out that it wasn’t the Paris Agreement that surprised us but Laudato si’, with the sombre clarity with which it addresses complex questions. The encyclical takes issues with such past positions as the Christian doctrine of ‘Man’s dominion over Nature’ as well as a firm stand against the idea of unlimited growth. Laudato si’ also questions the prevailing economic model of prosperity for the few founded on ecological destruction and social injustice, the burden of which is borne by the masses. Climate change is not simply a technological challenge as the Paris Agreement would imply; it embodies the question of how one would go about developing a rational and equitable society. It is time to find that yellow brick road that will lead us to sustainability – to redefining prosperity even while respecting ecological limits. Let us hope that Vernadsky’s optimism for human rationality was not misplaced.