The pressures exerted by humankind on planet Earth have led to fundamental changes to the atmosphere, ecosystems, and biodiversity while depleting many resources.
Further population and economic growth are driving the demand that is behind continuing changes, many of which are interconnected. The scale of human activity is so big as to become the most influential factor shaping life on Earth. Scientists believe we have entered a new geological era – the Anthropocene – a period in which people have become a defining global force.
A new era: The Anthropocene
The point at which the Anthropocene began is subject to debate. Some suggest it began during the Pleistocene, up to 50.000 years ago, when humans caused the extinction of many large mammals. Other suggest it coincides with the rise of agriculture.
There is a strong argument for the industrial revolution as the point from which to start the new epoch, since it ushered in an unprecedented global impact on the planet. Equally, some argue that it began when the first atomic bomb was detonated, leaving a global radioactive human fingerprint.
However, there is agreement between everyone that the 1950s is the best place to mark the start of the Anthropocene.
This was the start of a unique period, called the Great Acceleration, when many human activities reached take-off points and sharply accelerated towards the end of the century.
50,000 YEARS AGO
Group of hunter-gatherers target large mammals for food and other resources including skins and bones.
Although climate changes that accompanied the end of the last Ice Age played a part, it has been estimated that about two-thirds of the many large mammal extinctions that took place in this period were caused by humans.
8,000 YEARS AGO
The near simultaneous rise of agriculture and cities marked a sudden change in human impacts.
Hunter-gatherer societies lived close to nature in the ecosystems they depended upon. Farmers feeding urban populations made fundamental changes to their environment, including forest clearance, which caused carbon dioxide (CO2) levels to rise, while the builders of cities relied on systematic large-scale resource extraction.
5,000 – 500 YEARS AGO
Soil change created by human activity spread widely across the world with the rise of agriculture.
Some changes were deliberate and aimed at improving soil quality. Other impacts were inadvertent and led to soils being damaged to the point where they stopped producing crops.
A drop in atmospheric CO2 concentration coincides with forest regrowth.
The mass mortality of indigenous peoples in tropical rainforest regions, caused by diseases and slavery brought by newly arrived Europeans, meant fields reverted to forests, which removed CO2 from the air.
The industrial revolution begins in England but soon spreads across Europe and to North America.
The large-scale combustion of fossil fuels begins and there is a sharp increase in demand for other natural resources, industrialized farming follows in its wake. It took more than 200 years or industrialized development to spread across the globe.
The Great Acceleration: the beginning of rapid growth in many areas.
Following the first nuclear bomb detonation, the Great Acceleration marks the rise of truly global impacts caused by people on planet Earth. As well as leaving a radioactive marker in sediments across the world, climate change, ocean acidification, widespread sol damage, and a mass extinction of species accompany the sharp increase in human influence.
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