A Post-Anthropocene Era of Sustainability?

In our last post, we discussed the challenge of determining when the proposed new epoch, the Anthropocene, began. One social ecologist, Dr. Mariana Fischer-Kowalski, is tackling this challenge and has made it her goal to numerically identify just when human pressures on Earth reached a point of undeniable geological impact. Her research has a surprisingly positive twist, and she ultimately hopes we can use this knowledge to move forward into a new era defined by sustainability, rather than destruction.

In her studies, Dr. Fischer-Kowalski focuses on the well-known I=PAT equation (Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology), but unlike other scientists, she applies the equation through history and differentiates each factor by mode of subsistence: breaking down populations into hunter/gatherer, agrarian, or industrial societies. She identifies how many people (P) belonged to each society through the ages and equates affluence (A) with energy use per person. This allows her to determine exactly how much energy was being used in each type of society through the years. After factoring in technology (determined by impact on the carbon cycle), she reaches quantifiable numbers representing human impact (I) over the past two millennia. It is no surprise that she finds human impact begins to outweigh natural population growth with the dawn of fossil fuel use in the 16th century. In her eyes, this marks the beginning of the Anthropocene.

Here’s the hopeful part: she doesn’t think that humans will continue to push the planet to the brink. Instead, she thinks we may be able to reach a point in the future where population will stabilize, affluence (energy use) will stagnate, and technology will be used to reduce carbon intensity, rather than increase it. She points to data which shows that for industrialized countries, increases in energy use no longer lead to drastic increases in quality of life as in the past. Dr. Fischer is hopeful that this knowledge may eventually lead to departure from our fossil fuel based economy. In other words, if energy use and population stabilize, we might have a shot at moving beyond the Anthropocene toward a sustainable future.