Introduction to the Anthropocene
In a wonderful new book, professors Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin at London University College, make a convincing case that the Earth has entered the Anthropocene (combining the Greek words for ‘human’ and ‘recent’). Humans have literally become a force of nature. Meaning that human activity changes the Earth from one state to another. To define the Anthropocene, these scholars define a framework in three parts:
- Is there evidence that human activity has begun to push the Earth in a new state? In short, yes. GHG emissions are delaying the next ice age and human actions are influencing evolution. Both will show in future fossil records.
- Is the new state marked in geological deposits? Again, the answer is yes. Changes in carbon dioxide levels are stored since the expansion of farming. Pollution of the Industrial Revolution shows in swamp sediments, and trees recorded nuclear fallout.
- When did the switch occur? From four candidates, the authors settle on the Columbian Exchange and the resulting Orbis spike (a lowest point in CO2) as the start of the Anthropocene:
(..)following Columbus’ 1492 arrival, approximately 50 million people in theAmericas perished and farming collapsed across a continent. (..) Vast areas ofland grew back to forest, removing billions of tonnes of carbon out of theatmosphere and into the new trees. This is seen as a dip in levels ofatmospheric carbon dioxide (..), with the lowest point being at 1610, capturedin Antarctic glacier ice [i.e. the so-called Orbis spike].
How Lewis and Maslin lead us towards these conclusions is a fascinating read. If you loved Guns, Germs and Steel, Sapiens, The Mating Mind, and The Origins of Political Order, you will love this book. (All of these books are highlighted in another post by the way, you can read that post here.) Below is a nice info-graphic that shows (some) of the topics they will run you through:
Why Should Managers Care About the Anthropocene? 3 Reasons.
I can almost hear you think: “All well enough that this is a great read, but why is this also a great read from a business perspective?”. Here are my 3 reasons:
1. The Anthropocene has found its way into mainstream vocabulary in relation to externalities of the firm. The term Anthropocene is a matter of huge debate (whether or not we should officially use the Anthropocene as a new geological time scale that follows the Holocene, that is). The debate itself is of little consequence for business. What is of consequence, however, is that it entered mainstream vocabulary. The link to externalities of the firm are easily made, and that’s why you should familiarize yourself with the term. [An externality is, as you know, a negative consequence of an economic activity experienced by unrelated third parties.] Like climate change entered the mainstream vocabulary in the nineties, the Anthropocene is popping up more and more. Leading newspapers, journals and organizations have already picked up on it, see for example: Nature, Wall Street Journal, the World Economic Forum, and the Guardian. There’s even a multi-media project consisting of a movie, a book, exhibitions and an interactive website that is getting a lot of media attention. This paves the way for systems thinking and more and more people and organizations will start asking questions how your business operations (as an integral part of the Anthropocene) affect the Earth’s systems. Do you already have an all-encompassing answer to this question? Do you have innovative sustainability strategies in place that take into account the Anthropocene is a central concept? Do you have the reporting processes in place to tackle this question?
2. The Anthropocene is central to the rise in ESG-pressures on your firm. Understanding the Anthropocene will answer the question where the ever increasing ESG-pressure on firms is coming from. Since more and more people will understand that the Earth is a closed system (see reason number 1), you can expect that every impact your business has on that system will, sooner or later, be under scrutiny. I argue that putting the era in which we live, i.e. the Anthropocene, as the all-encompassing force on Earth’s systems and, in turn, on people’s well-being, gives you a model to understand why there’s a proliferation of social movements and NGO’s pushing for changes in laws, regulations, reporting practices and business models. A possible depiction of how the Anthropocene ̶ through its pressure on physical and social systems ̶ sets off pressures all the way down to the level of the firm to change business models, business processes and business practices, could look like this:
3. The Anthropocene can be used as a super-structure for all ESG-related topics. If you, like me, have struggled how all different topics in the ESG-realm fit together, the concept of the Anthropocene can be used as a helpful tool. By plotting both social and natural/physical topics in the figure above, you have a super-structure where you can find all ESG-topics that might influence your firm’s business model, strategy and processes. This might be a useful addition to tools that you already have in place (e.g. a materiality or priority matrix) and can be used to track and make sense of topics as diverse as the Paris Agreement, Planetary Boundaries, the SDGs or radical transparency. I plotted a number of well-known concepts in the figure above to end up with the figure below:
Why to read “The Human Planet – How We Created the Anthropocene”
The Anthropocene, with all that it entails (just a few of the topics, covered in the book, you should know about are: humans as a force of nature; positive feedback loops; complex systems; utilization of ever more energy; generation and processing of more information; increase in collective human agency) is a handy super-framework to connect ESG-topics that might have been considered separately without such a framework.
Even if you do not see the connection to your firm’s ESG-efforts, strategy or processes, and even if you do not see the need for defining a new geological time scale (I couldn’t care less; also see this article in Scientific American), this is a book worth reading. As the reviewer in the Guardian wrote:
‘Brilliantly written and genuinely one of the most important books I have ever read.’