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‘Time for a New Concept of Development Adapted to the Anthropocene’

  • Category
    Geography
  • Published
    6th Jan, 2021

Humanity is at war with the living planet, endangering our prosperity and indeed our very survival on Earth. That is the stark message of the 30th Human Development Report, “The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene,” released by the United Nations Development Program.

Context

Humanity is at war with the living planet, endangering our prosperity and indeed our very survival on Earth. That is the stark message of the 30th Human Development Report, “The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene,” released by the United Nations Development Program.

Background

  • For too long, humans have pursued an economic model of development based on unsustainable production and consumption, heedless of the impact on the natural world in which we are inextricably embedded.
  • The bill is now coming due. The COVID-19 pandemic, which began as a zoonotic disease, is only the latest exampleof the pressures we are placing on the planet.
  • Since 1945, the world has achieved remarkable economic growth, bringing hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and improving the lives of billions more.
  • Unfortunately, these material gains have come at grievous cost to nature, including in the form of runaway climate change, collapsing biodiversity and rampant pollution.
  • Humanity has altered the composition of the
    • Atmosphere
    • chemistry of the oceans
    • contours of landscapes and seascapes
    • distribution of species, and so much more
  • People are now the most powerful force shaping the entire integrated Earth system.
  • Scientists now favor designating an entirely new geological era: the Anthropocene, or Age of Humans.

Analysis

Entering a new era

  • The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch that powerfully expresses the planetary scale of the environmental changes wrought by human activity.
  • For the first time in a relationship spanning 300,000 years, instead of the planet shaping humans, humans are shaping the planet. This is the Anthropocene: the age of humans.
  • This new era can be a force for good but unfortunately, it is more a force for bad than good at the moment. The human enterprise is growing fast, too, while nature keeps shrinking. 
  • Today, the mass of all inorganic and manmade materials, including everything made of plastic, officially outweighs all organic matter such as plants and animals.
  • Humans have created 1 trillion tons of material, and this amount doubles every 20 years. These gigantic numbers mean that weekly manmade production equals the weight of the entire human population.
  • The vast majority of manmade objects find their way back into nature as waste.
  • This waste poses a critical threat to plant and animal life, including plastic waste in the oceans that have threatened certain fish species with extinction.
  • The mass extinctions of plants and animal species and widespread pollution of the seas and the air cannot be ignored nor underestimated. Pollution, waste and extinctions have significantly altered the planet.

What are the signs of Anthropocene?

  • Global warming: Today, climate is no longer stable and is beginning to warm rapidly. Human activities, rather than any natural progress is the primary cause of the accelerated global warming.
  • Plastic pollution: Plastic could become a key marker of the Anthropocene. The planet is now awash with plastic. Millions of tons are produced every year, which does not biodegrade and ends up littering soils and ocean beds.
  • Extinction: Though there have been mass extinction events in Earth’s history, until now they have all been triggered by natural causes like asteroids and volcanic eruptions. It is for the first time, a single species has caused such destructive effects on the natural world and had an awareness of doing so.
  • Unprecedented changes: Agriculture, urbanization, deforestation and pollution have caused extraordinary changes on Earth.

Human Development Index

  • For the past 30 years, the UNDP has released the Human Development Index (HDI) to act as an alternative metric to gross domestic product (GDP).
  • Instead of arbitrary economic figures, the Report introduces an experimental new lens to its annual Human Development Index (HDI).
  • By adjusting the HDI, which measures a nation’s health, education and standards of living to include two more elements: a country’s carbon dioxide emissions and its material footprint, the index shows how the global development landscape would change if both the well-being of people and also the planet were central to defining humanity’s progress.
  • With the resulting Planetary-Pressures Adjusted HDI (PHDI), a new global picture emerges, painting a less-rosy but clearer assessment of human progress.

What is HDI?

  • The Human Development Report is an important product by the United Nations (UN).
  • The index is a statistic composite index of life expectancy, education, and per capita income indicators, which are used to rank countries into four tiers of human development.
  • It examines three important criteria of economic development
    • life expectancy
    • education
    • income levels

The alarming questions

The new report makes an urgent case for reining in the humans and their impacts on the planet. It is premised on the following questions:

  • What do we do with this new age?
  • Do we choose in the face of uncertain futures to embark on bold new paths that expand human freedoms while easing planetary pressures?
  • (or) Do we choose to try and ultimately fail to go back to business as usual and be swept away, ill equipped and rudderless, into a dangerous unknown?

Challenges

  • Inequalities: But in this Age of Anthropocene, everybody is not equal; the report reiterates that inequality will continue in our existence and interaction with nature.
  • Discrimination based on ethnicity: Discrimination based on ethnicity frequently leaves communities severely affected and exposed to high environmental risks such as toxic waste or excessive pollution—a trend reproduced in urban areas across continents.
  • Inefficient exploitation of resources: While developed countries have mastered the art of extracting services from nature efficiently and to a greater extent, developing or poor countries, despite living in natural resource-rich geography, have not been able to attain that level of exploitation.
  • More burden on poor: The developed countries have deeper and more devastating impacts on the planet’s ecology than the poor or developing nations. Yet, to reiterate, poor and developing countries suffer the most and will continue to do so.

Key-suggestions of the Report

The report leaves no doubt that humans have to be the point of solution for the planet’s uncontrolled slip into an abyss of ecological disaster. The report argues for:

  • Control on consumption: Human consumption has been put at the centre of the solution to the greatest development challenge of climate change and also to control occurrences of pandemics like the ongoing novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19). The report advocates nature-based solutions to these challenges.
  • Collaboration between humans and nature: With impeccable data, it also sounds confident that humans and nature could again collaborate to tone down the impact of any catastrophe.
  • Forest conservation: Reforestation and taking better care of forests could alone account for roughly a quarter of the pre-2030 actions humans must take to stop global warming from reaching 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
  • Dismantling imbalance of power and opportunity: Easing planetary pressures in a way that enables all people to flourish in this new age requires dismantling the gross imbalances of power and opportunity that stand in the way of transformation.

Conclusion

The next frontier for human development will require working with nature, and not against it, while transforming social norms, values, and government and financial incentives. This aspect of our relationship with nature is going to define our survival and well-being in the Anthropocene. For the poor Homo sapiens, it is going to be a lonely affair.

Making peace with nature is the defining task of the 21st century.  Reconciling people and the planet must begin with a new concept of development, tailored to the Anthropocene.

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