EM SC 470
Applied Sustainability in Contemporary Culture

The Anthropocene and Biodiversity


Living in the Anthropocene and Recognizing Planetary Boundaries

To Read Now

The following is a summary of some key points from the readings:

  • The National Wildlife Federation defines an ecosystem service as:
    "any positive benefit that wildlife or ecosystems provide to people."

    Examples include plants that convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, fisheries that naturally replenish themselves and feed humans, wetlands that filter toxins and mitigate storm impacts, soil organisms that foster plant growth, and bees that pollinate food crops and other plants. We could cite innumerable examples, but without ecosystem services, life on earth would not be possible. Further, much of what we depend on for survival is offered for free by nature. Most ecosystem services are performed by the biosphere, which "includes all living organisms on earth, together with the dead organic matter produced by them." (Credit: Encyclopedia of Earth).

  • Folke starts out with a brief discussion of the biosphere, which is "the living part" of the area on and near the earth's surface.
  • He points out that humans have become "a dominant force in the operation of the biosphere."
The time that we find ourselves in now is what he terms the "Anthropocene," which he defines as "the age in which human actions are a powerful planetary force shaping the biosphere."
  • Note that the term "Anthropocene" is well-known in scientific circles - Folke is nowhere near alone in using it! Regardless, the unprecedented success of the human species during this time has "to a large extent...been enabled by the human ability to draw on the functioning of the biosphere." He notes that ecosystem services (e.g., "fertile soils, storm protection, and sinks for greenhouse gases and other wastes") have played an essential role in humanity's success.
  • He points out that there have been many positive benefits to people, but that we are overburdening the biosphere and risk "undermin(ing) the capacity of life-supporting ecosystems to...provide the essential ecosystem services that human well-being ultimately depends on."
  • If we humans are to continue the success that we have realized in the past few thousand years, he believes that we need to work on reducing our ecological impact to the point that ecosystems can continue to thrive and provide essential services. In order to do this, he points to the need to measure our impact in "critical biophysical processes in the Earth's system." These are termed the "nine planetary boundaries."
  • The nine planetary boundaries provide metrics that can be analyzed to determine if humans are overusing ecological capacity. They are called "boundaries" because they represent indicators of when we have crossed into dangerous territory. He is careful to point out that there is some uncertainty with some of the boundaries, but that they provide the best scientific analysis of whether or not humanity is operating within safe ecological limits. 
Planetary boundaries according to Rockström et al. 2009 (doi:10.1038/461472a) and Steffen et al. 2015 (doi:10.1126/science.1259855). The green areas represent human activities that are within safe margins, the yellow areas represent human activities that may or may not have exceeded safe margins, the red areas represent human activities that have exceeded safe margins, and the gray areas with red question marks represent human activities for which safe margins have not yet been determined.
Figure 3.1. The Nine Planetary Boundaries. The green areas indicate sectors where humans are operating within safe margins, the yellow indicates uncertain but "increasing risk," and the red indicates "beyond the zone of uncertainty."
Credit: Ninjatacoshell, CC BY-SA 4.0, based the Stockholm Resilience Center

Why call it the Anthropocene?

So where does the term Anthropocene come from? You may remember the concept of the geologic time scale from Geology or Environmental Science class, which is how the earth's history is separated into different time periods called eons, eras, periods, epochs, and ages. (Refer to this chart from the Geological Society of America for details.)

The Holocene epoch began around 10,000 years ago and saw the beginning of agriculture and thus permanent human settlements. The term "Anthropocene" is a deliberate reference to the fact that humans have become such a dominant force in the world that many scientists consider it to be a new geologic epoch. "Anthro" refers to "humans" (remember anthropocentric from an earlier lesson?), which is why it is referred to as the Anthropocene.


The American Museum of Natural History in New York defines biodiversity thus:

The term biodiversity (from 'biological diversity') refers to the variety of life on Earth at all its levels, from genes to ecosystems, and can encompass the evolutionary, ecological, and cultural processes that sustain life. Biodiversity includes not only species we consider rare, threatened, or endangered, but also every living thing — from humans to organisms we know little about, such as microbes, fungi, and invertebrates.
Credit: U.S. Museum of Natural History

Biodiversity is the variety of life on earth, encompassing everything from the largest ecosystem to strands of DNA. It is in every living thing around us, and everything around us is part of it. I know, this all seems very poetic, and nature can be appreciated merely by virtue of its own beauty and diversity. But there are some practical, and even selfish reasons to care about biodiversity, as you will see in the readings below.

Optional Reading

There are many reasons to care about biodiversity. Aside from the huge economic benefits of ecosystem services, we depend on the biosphere - and by extension, biodiversity - to sustain human life. We depend on ecosystem services for food, shelter, clothing, water, and even our oxygen. So yeah, basically everything we need to physically survive!

Life on earth is connected in innumerable ways, and compromising one part of an ecosystem - including a single organism - has impacts in other areas. Unfortunately, human activity is playing a major role in ecosystem damage, including species extinction. Wilson points out that:

"Species are disappearing at an accelerating rate through human action, primarily habitat destruction but also pollution and the introduction of exotic species into residual natural environments."

Biodiversity is a key aspect of ecosystem services, and ecosystem services are essential for human survival. One thing that makes biodiversity difficult to manage is that we don't know how many species exist, and by extension do not know exactly how many are going extinct each year.

The 6th Mass Extinction

So how much danger are we in, and how do we know? As it turns out, it is possible to measure - or at least scientifically estimate - the rate at which biodiversity is dropping. As Carl Folke pointed out in Chapter 2 of Is Sustainability Still Possible?, the rate of biodiversity loss as one of "The Nine Planetary Boundaries." The metric used to quantify this loss is the background extinction rate, which is defined as the number of species going extinct every year. So, how are we doing on this front? Some recently published studies can shed some light on this issue.

Sutter starts out by stating: "Many scientists say it's abundantly clear that Earth is entering its sixth mass-extinction event, meaning three-quarters of all species could disappear in the coming centuries." A mass extinction event is when more than 50% of the world's species disappear in a relatively short period of time (hundreds to thousands of years), according to National Geographic. There have been five mass extinction events in earth's history. The last one was around 65 million years ago when the last of the dinosaurs famously went extinct.

It's not every day that you read a serious article that quotes a knowledgeable person as stating that: "What is at stake is really the state of humanity." Alas, that is where we find ourselves on this issue. There is unequivocal evidence that populations of many species have dropped considerably since humans became the dominant species, and as the article states, the background extinction rate is probably at least "100 times what would be considered normal" (see the optional reading above for some insight on this), which may be a conservative estimate. As indicated in the article, there is some controversy regarding this issue - the Atlantic article that Sutter links to provides a good, even-keeled assessment of some of them - but this primarily has to do with difficulty in determining the rate of extinction, and whether or not it should be considered a "mass extinction" or just a dangerous level of it.

Whether a true mass extinction event is happening or not, we do know that humans are causing species to go extinct at an accelerated rate for a variety of reasons, including land use change (especially food production), poaching, climate change, ocean acidification, and more. It is important to point out that it is very unlikely that we have crossed an extinction threshold from which we cannot recover, but many signs point to us risking catastrophe. There is hope, but we will likely have to take action very quickly to prevent the worst outcome(s). Before this happens, it will have to be recognized as a problem, which unfortunately is only happening very slowly.