It is impossible to predict the future. What we can do is extrapolate a vision from our current body of scientific knowledge, mixed with a bit of good old-fashioned imagination. The result is a sort of trailer, which offers us a glimpse of what may be in store.
At the moment, our future appears set for a classic apocalypse blockbuster. Thanks to a new mathematical formula that charts the rate of humanity’s environmental impact, we may even have a rough idea of when to expect it at the cinema (and for that matter, everywhere else on the globe).
Named the Anthropocene equation, the formula was created by Will Steffen, a climate research professor at the Australian National University, and Owen Gaffney, a science journalist and communications consultant at the sustainability research firm Future Earth. According to their formula, recently published in The Anthropocene Review, human activity is altering the environment 170 times faster than under normal circumstances.
What do the authors mean by normal circumstances? Up until the Anthropocene age—our current geological age, during which human activity has exerted a dominant influence on the planetary ecosystem—Earth’s environment was shaped by three main determinants: astronomical forces (A), which affect insolation and mostly relate to the “gravitational effects of the sun and other planets”; geophysical forces (G), which include “volcanic activity, weathering and tectonic movement”; and internal dynamics (I), which pertain to the natural course of biological activity taking place on the planet.
But within the last century, the authors argue, these forces have largely paled in comparison to the overwhelming effects of human activity (H). Given this fact, Steffen and Gaffney were able to model their equation, which essentially suggests that due to massive population growth, consumption and technology, the (H) factor has become the sole force shaping the trajectory of Earth’s environmental system. The authors demonstrated this point using the rate of global temperature change over the past 7,000 years.
Until 45 years ago, this figure has decreased at 0.02°F per century. However, since our current age of industrialization, that rate has drastically reversed, with the figure now reflecting an increase of 3.1°F per century, which translates to a rate 170 times higher than the 7,000-year average.
This figure, Gaffney explained to New Scientist, reflects the fact that “far from living on a deeply resilient planet, we live on a planet with hair triggers.” The problem is that we have been “lulled into a false sense of security by the deceptive stability of the Holocene”—the previous geological era that spanned the last 11,700 years.
“Remarkably and accidentally,” Gaffney continued, “we have ejected the Earth system from the interglacial envelope and are heading into uncharted waters.”