Published 12 April 2017
On a full and finite planet there is no away
Climate change, mass extinctions, overpopulation, globalisation, growing inequality and many more challenges are all coming together in the 21st century to raise questions about the future of humanity on Earth.
This ‘perfect storm’ can be captured in a single word and concept – Anthropocene.
This talk will take us on a quick tour of the Anthropocene, beginning with the origin and meaning of the concept, and the scientific evidence for its reality. Our overarching framework for traversing the Anthropocene is the Earth System – the Earth as a single planetary-level complex system, our life support system. In this framework, humans are included as an integral part of the Earth System, now in the position of the major driver of change to the structure and functioning of the planetary system.
We will examine contemporary human societies using a systems approach, focussing on both system incompatibilities within human societies themselves as well as growing incompatibilities between human societies and the rest of the Earth System.
Based on this foundation of complex system thinking, we explore possible trajectories of the Earth System into the future.
A critical feature of the Earth System is a set of “tipping elements” that may separate two very different states of the system, and may well be decisive in determining whether or not the Earth remains inhabitable for large numbers of humans.
Finally, we’ll describe how Earth System science could inform responses to the Anthropocene paradox, and provide some useful guidance systems for surviving the epoch of humans.
Professor Will Steffen has a long history in international global change research, serving from 1998 to 2004 as Executive Director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), based in Stockholm, Sweden, and before that as Executive Officer of IGBP’s Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems project.
Will was the Inaugural Director of the ANU Climate Change Institute, from 2008-2012. Prior to that, he was Director of the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society. From 2004 to 2011 he served as science adviser to the Australian Government Department of Climate Change. He is currently a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, and from 2011 to 2013 was a Climate Commissioner on the Australian Government’s Climate Commission; Chair of the Antarctic Science Advisory Committee, Co-Director of the Canberra Urban and Regional Futures (CURF) initiative and Member of the ACT Climate Change Council.
Steffen’s interests span a broad range within the fields of sustainability and Earth System science, with an emphasis on the science of climate change, approaches to climate change adaptation in land systems, incorporation of human processes in Earth System modelling and analysis; and the history and future of the relationship between humans and the rest of nature.
Discussion led by panellists:
Professor Cynthia Mitchell, Deputy Director, UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures.
Professor Christopher Wright, Organisational Studies, University of Sydney Business School and Sydney Environment Institute.
Associate Professor Devleena Ghosh, Social and Political Science, Director, UTS Indian Ocean and South Asia Research Network.
Professor Peter Ralph, Marine Biology and Executive Director of the Climate Change Cluster (C3) in the UTS Faculty of Science.