What is a human world?

Today at NYTimes.com, you’ll find a collection of articles about the Anthropocene, or Age of Man. They inspired me to re-post this essay, first published in 2004.

On its opinion pages this week, the NYTimes.com published a collection of articles from various writers about the Anthropocene. Geologically speaking, since nearly 12,000 years ago, we have lived in the a geological epoch known as the Holocene, whose name stems from the Greek word holos, meaning whole or entire. Some geologists now believe we should mark the beginning of a new geological epoch, which they propose to call the Anthropocene, from the Greek root anthropo meaning human. Writers explore this idea in the New York Times online today. Their writings inspired me to re-post this essay, which EarthSky first published in 2004. I hope you enjoy it.

In 2004, as story after story about environmental degradation has crossed our desks, and as the environmental movement has contemplated its own death our team at EarthSky has been engaged in deep discussions about the state of the Earth and our reporting on it.

That is why we have begun speaking to each other of a human world.

At first, we weren’t sure exactly what we meant by those words. This idea is so new that you might not have heard of it yet either. It’s the idea that we humans and our Earth are linked, and always have been.

Sea of humanity in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from Hiren and Pankaj’s homepage

Now before you say that’s obvious, hear me out. I’m not saying that humans affect Earth. I’m saying that humans and Earth affect each other.

People don’t just live on Earth. We are linked to nature in a way that is very profound.

While trying to comprehend this new paradigm, we found an article by Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen, suggesting that the current geologic epoch be renamed the Anthropocene, due to humans’ pervasive influence. But the idea of an Anthropocene – a world affected by a large human population – is not the whole story.

Scientific studies have revealed a multitude of ways in which Earth and humanity are linked. Scientists now call this a coupled human-environment system. Here’s just one example, of millions. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina initiated a tragic illustration of a coupled human-environment system along the Gulf Coast. What began as a natural event, a hurricane, became a human disaster as levees broke and New Orleans flooded. Afterwards, contaminated water from the city had to be pumped back into the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, as environmental experts warned of devastating effects to surrounding wetlands. The secondary damage caused by polluted flood waters then impacted humans again, economically. And so the human and natural impacts cycled back and forth, dependent on each other: coupled.

We and the Earth are part of a single system. This is what many scientists today are studying, trying to understand.

Image at left via Worldwide Ecology

As scientists have begun to understand this reality, they’ve also struggled to express it to you. That struggle has resulted in the concept of ecosystem services, for example. These are nature’s services on which humanity depends for its very survival: air, water, food, sunshine, and so much more.

In story after story in the media today, you hear of the harmful consequences of the degradation of ecosystem services. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment warned that this degradation could grow significantly worse in the next 50 years, and, if so, humanity will suffer.

Over the past decade, quietly, a science of sustainability has been emerging.

It is a way of using the tools of science to understand our place in relationship to the world and thus, in the years ahead, to grow enough food for all of us, supply enough fresh water, find and use new energy sources, withstand global health crises, anticipate and survive large-scale natural disasters and so on.

There are more than six billion of us on Earth now, with the population expected to continue to increase and finally begin to stabilize at nine billion around the middle of this century. With so many people on the planet, great challenges lie ahead of us.

Science has some important tools that can help humanity understand and cope with the challenges.

Human world.

Image of Earth at night via CGFiles

What is a human world? When the first images of Earth were returned from space, we all realized suddenly that we live on a water planet. Today the fact that our planet’s surface is mostly ocean isn’t its dominant feature. Today, we live on a planet of humans, and we and the planet are linked. It’s a human world.

EarthSky wants to help illustrate the ways in which our human activities affect the world, while the world is affecting us. We want to share what many scientists have told us: although we dominate Earth’s land surface and critically influence the oceans and the air, we humans do not control nature. EarthSky wants to help the scientists who have been speaking to each other about a sustainable world speak to the world at large. That is EarthSky’s mission: to be a clear voice for science.

We believe in this mission, because we so powerfully believe that the success or failure of humanity’s ability to recognize our intimate link to nature will dictate the success or failure of humanity in the coming centuries.

At EarthSky, we see the human world as daunting, but also positive, empowering and hopeful. There are billions of humans on Earth today. That fact changes the way we need to live on Earth. But people have always traded ideas, and as human population and the complexity of human problems both have increased, so there’s been a major leap forward in humans’ ability to share visions and collectively solve problems.

Deborah Byrd