By Nick Clark
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How did humans put the planet at risk?

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Issue 2665
Have we caused a new climate epoch?
Have we caused a new climate epoch? (Pic: Nasa)

Natural disasters and the impact of human society is creating a new climate—and one so drastic it could lead to our own extinction.

It’s becoming widely accepted that humans have created a new epoch—a new time period of conditions on Earth.

This is more than just a change in weather. It’s a radical transformation in the way the planet’s environmental system works.

This new epoch, the Anthropocene, will be defined by the effects of human activity.

Major changes in the Earth’s environment caused by human activity have already taken place.

A dramatic increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the past 100 years has not only caused global warming, but made seas and lakes more acidic.

This has impacts far beyond a hotter atmospheric temperature. For instance, the rate of extinction of animal species is at least 100 times higher than it would be without human influence.

The invention of synthetic fertilisers has added more nitrogen to the atmosphere.

And traces of plastic, aluminium and radioactive molecules created by nuclear power and weapons can already be found in soil.


Many geologists say the changes they detect now are so profound that they indicate the beginning of a new epoch.

But when exactly those changes began—or even if there is a new epoch at all—has been up for debate.

They may seem like academic questions. But this debate is really about what caused the Anthropocene in the first place, what we do about it, and even how we understand our own place in the world.

Some scientists have said the Anthropocene began as long as 11,700 years ago.

And some say that the growth of human civilisation made the Anthropocene inevitable.

But while it’s true that humans have always shaped the environment, these arguments obscure the scale of the changes currently taking place.

It’s only recently that human intervention has caused such a profound, global shift.

It’s partly because of arguments like this that some climate activists reject the idea of the Anthropocene entirely.

Not only does it downplay the scale of the problem, but it also suggests that all humans, throughout history are responsible.

Many more scientists believe the Anthropocene began much more recently.

One theory suggests that the changes were caused by the spread of colonialism, which so destroyed the societies it encountered that it altered the environment.

Another theory says it began with the growth of industrial capitalism, and its use of steam power and fossil fuels.

But the Anthropocene working group—some 35 scientists tasked with adding the Anthropocene to the geological record—set the marker in the mid-20th century.


Changes since the end of the Second World War include the growth of nuclear weapons, the intensification of agriculture, and the widespread use of disposable packaging, to name a few.

The profound effects of all of these can be measured in the soil, rock and glaciers.

All of these theories point to the fact that it isn’t human civilisation in general that caused the Anthropocene.

It’s a particular type of society—capitalism—which is run by and benefits only a minority of human beings.

The main driver of catastrophic climate change is the practise of industrially burning fossil fuels which developed alongside capitalism.

Managing the effects of the Anthropocene, and our influence on the world’s environment, means changing that society.

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