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The Great Acceleration of human activity and its consequences

The Great Acceleration of human activity and its consequences

According to 24 indicators, the global economic system is the main culprit for the changes that the systems that sustain life on Earth are undergoing.

This new study points to the great acceleration experienced in human activity since the beginning of the industrial era as an engine of change in the Earth System and that is producing high levels of greenhouse gases, ocean acidification, deforestation and loss of biodiversity.

According to Will Steffen, study leader of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP) and the Stockholm Resilience Center, it is difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of change. "In the span of a human lifetime humanity has ended up being a geological force on a planetary scale," he says.

Twelve indicators are used in this report to represent human activity, among which are gross domestic product, population, energy consumption, telecommunications, transportation or water use.

These indicators indicate the changes that the Earth's environmental components are undergoing, such as those occurring in the carbon, nitrogen or phosphorus cycles.

This study was presented at the Davos economic forum at the end of last January.


“When we put the data sets together, we expected to see big changes, but we were surprised by the timescale. Almost all the charts showed the same pattern. The most dramatic displacements occurred after 1950.

We can say that around 1950 the Great Acceleration began, ”says Steffen.

“After 1950 you can see profound changes in the Earth System directly connected with great changes in the world economic system.

This is a new phenomenon and indicates that humanity has a new responsibility at a global level towards the planet ”, he adds.

“The Great Acceleration indicators allow us to distinguish the signal from the noise. The Earth is in a qualitatively different state than it has been until now. Several significant Earth System processes are now driven by human production and consumption, ”says Wendy Broadgate, one of the authors.

According to Lisa Deutsch, of all socioeconomic trends, only the construction of new dams shows signs of slowing down. And only one case shows positive results as a result of human intervention: the thickness of the ozone layer.

While the increase in fish catches is a reflection of overfishing. The findings provide strong evidence that in recent decades key components of the Earth System have been displaced beyond the natural variations shown in the last 12,000 years, a period known as the Holocene, which began with the end of the last ice age. This period has provided stability for the development of agriculture and livestock and the flourishing of complex cities and societies.

The Great Acceleration supports the proposition that the Earth has entered a new geological era proposed in 2000 by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer: the Anthropocene.

The International Stratigraphic Commission has not yet formalized this new era, but it has already appointed a working group on the matter to evaluate it.

The experts do not agree on the date in which to begin the Anthropocene. Some point to the beginning of the industrial revolution, while others point to more recent dates, such as the explosion of the first atomic bomb on July 16 in 1945 in New Mexico, which introduced the first radioactive elements of human origin into the layers of the crust. land.

That new result on the Great Acceleration would support this recent beginning of the Anthropocene.

The Great Acceleration is far from slowing down and many indicators show this, now that more countries are joining mass consumption. The OECD countries accounted for 74% of global gross domestic product in 2010, but they only account for 18% of the population. This shows the great inequality that exists at the global level and confuses international efforts to preserve the Earth System. This trend has recently shifted to BRICS countries and their middle class now directs much of the consumption. Thus, for example, the increase in the consumption of fertilizers or the production of paper and motor vehicles produced since 2000 has occurred mainly in non-OECD countries.

Half of the world's population now lives in urban areas and a third have completed the transition from the agrarian to the industrial social system.

This report coincides in time with the publication of another report in which it is indicated that 4 of the 12 limits of the Earth System have been crossed.

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