The Anthropocene Effect

In 1972, the mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz gave a talk at a scientific conference entitled “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” And so the Butterfly Effect was born. It describes mathematically how complex systems evolve in radically different ways even if the starting point is tweaked just a little. What is surprising is precisely how little.

In the Anthropocene we are seeing an altogether different type of effect emerging as two giant complex systems collide: seven billion people and one biosphere — the sum total of ecosystems on our planet. If the Butterfly Effect is about unpredictability, small change and big consequences, the Anthropocene Effect is about speed, scale and connectivity. When a typhoon hits Taiwan, its effects reverberate instantaneously and globally through social media, stock markets and supply chains.

But the Anthropocene Effect is not about connectivity, speed or scale per se, it is about how this changes Earth’s life support system. All new ideas and innovations from the plough to the iPhone have unintended consequences, good and bad. When innovations spread through a system of one billion consumers, and negative consequences scale at a rate greater than one, then we might well have a planetary problem. The Anthropocene Effect is about emergent behaviour at the planetary scale — caused by you know who.

Thinking exponentially

The coupling of these two giants forces us to reconsider notions of responsibility. Global temperatures are spiralling upwards. Biodiversity loss is approaching mass extinction rates. We have crashed through planetary boundaries relating to climate, land use change, fertilizer use and species. We are on exponential trajectories known as the Great Acceleration and taking grave risks with the stability of the Earth system.

The trajectory of the Anthropocene: the Great Acceleration (Steffen, Broadgate, Deutsch, Gaffney, Ludwig 2015)

The consumption and production of one billion people, the global middle and upper classes, is unwittingly crowd-sourcing disasters. For many living on a low-lying island, the apocalypse has already arrived. Extreme events are on the rise. And scientists have indicated parts of the Antarctic ice sheet have crossed a Rubicon — the point of no return — with nothing stopping collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet resulting in a sea level rise of three metres globally in the long term. I wouldn’t bet on Greenland’s stability either.

To understand the Anthropocene Effect and the world we have undoubtedly created, we need to think exponentially. But exponential thinking does not come naturally to our brains programmed on the savannas of Africa, fine-tuned for hunting and gathering, and upgraded to foster language and culture. Imagine if I took 35 paces from you. It is easy to guess where I would end up — closer to the trees over there by the gazelles — but still within sight, probably. If I took exponential steps doubling each time 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32…where then would I end up? The answer is thirty five million kilometres away — halfway to Mars. One more step and I am on the surface.

Understanding and exploiting the power of exponentials is arguably the biggest social, economic and technological challenge we face. Even scientists struggle to apply exponential thinking to industrialisation. Around 1900, Swedish meteorologist Svente Arrhenius proposed the industrial revolution would cause temperatures to rise by three degrees Celsius or so, but guessed it would take 3000 years. Temperatures have already risen one degree Celsius and Earth is on course to crash through three degrees by the end of the century. Arrhenius wrongly assumed a linear rise in fossil fuels.

Silicon Valley, however, has a handle on exponentials — Moore’s Law drives the sector, after all. But the energy and intellect invested is often directionless in the endless pursuit of “progress” whatever that means. This leads to solutions to non-problems like remote pet monitoring, or worse, solutions that are actually harmful to the biosphere and our own health.

Exponentials in the Anthropocene are not black swans; they are the norm. Many exponential trends are driven by the mathematical equations that influence Google search engines, buying behavior on Amazon, or stock market transactions. They shape our lives, influence our behavior and contribute to greater consumption driving the Anthropocene Effect. In 2015 colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre published the Biosphere Code, a set of principles relating to algorithm development. The authors, led by Victor Galaz, argued that algorithms bring great power but with this comes great responsibility for Earth’s biosphere. They said algorithms should serve humanity and biosphere. The benefits and risks should be distributed fairly. They should be flexible, adaptive and context-aware. And, they should help us expect the unexpected.

Exponential thinking is a necessary response to, for example, remove carbon from the global energy system. We need to solve these problems in decades not centuries. We have until 2030 to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, and fossil fuels must be history by 2050. Turning the oil tanker upon which we live will require gargantuan effort in four areas: cities, food, water and energy — the global megatrends. Singularity University, a think tank located at NASA Ames Research Centre a stone’s throw from Google’s offices in Mountain View, is already pushing for this approach to grand challenges. They want to use exponential thinking to make the lives of one billion people better — Peter Diamandis, Rob Nail and team are training their energies on tackling poverty, disease, clean water, telecommunications and the environment.

Biosphere positive

Living in the Anthropocene means adapting to radically new conditions. All our actions should enhance rather than destroy biodiversity, reduce not increase pressures on the land, and store rather than emit greenhouse gases. It means building a fishing industry where fish populations rise not fall and where rainforests, mountain glaciers, ice sheets and waterways are not valued like luxury goods where their future value is considered economically worthless to consumers today — yet every dollar I spend is a vote for the world I want to live in, to quote L.N. Smith. Indeed, all dominant economic ideologies are pre-Anthropocene thinking and obsolete, assuming as they do endless horizons of forests and oceans. The trick will be to apply “Biosphere Positive” thinking to everything we extract, build, produce, consume and discard. A Biosphere Positive approach enriches biodiversity, stores carbon, purifies water and prevents eutrophication. In short, a biosphere positive approach enhances resilience of the Earth system. This is an entirely new approach to problem solving.

I am writing this from Quito, Ecuador. Over 40,000 people have gathered here to discuss the state of the world’s cities. I am here to launch a new magazine the Anthropocene (online, in print and live). The magazine is a product of the Future Earth Media Lab, it is editorially independent and edited by the brilliant Kathy Kohm, the former editor of Conservation Magazine. We want to explore what it means to live in this age we have created and table scalable and innovative social, economic, technical and cultural solutions. Perhaps the seeds emerging from Quito will spark the biosphere positive innovations — social and technical — that will shape our planet in the centuries to come.