Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration (extract: Deconstructing the socio-economic trends: The equity issue)

The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration

Will Steffen, 1,2 Wendy Broadgate, 3 Lisa Deutsch, 1 Owen Gaffney 3 and Cornelia Ludwig 1

Published online before print January 16, 2015, doi: 10.1177/2053019614564785
The Anthropocene Review January 16, 2015 2053019614564785
Full free pdf http://anr.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/01/08/2053019614564785.full.pdf+html
Abstract: http://anr.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/01/08/2053019614564785.abstract


Deconstructing the socio-economic trends: The equity issue    

The original Great Acceleration graphs (Steffen et al., 2004) treated humanity as an aggregated whole and did not attempt to deconstruct the socio-economic graphs into countries or groups of countries. This approach – and the common treatment of humanity as a whole in discourses about the Anthropocene – has prompted some sharp criticism from social scientists and humanities scholars that such treatment masks important equity issues (e.g. Malm and Hornborg, 2014). In this update the socio-economic graphs with splits (Figure 2) help to address these concerns.

The most striking insight from Figure 2 is that most of the population growth has been in the non-OECD world but the world’s economy (GDP) is still strongly dominated by the OECD world. Despite the shift of global production, traditionally based within OECD countries, towards the BRICS nations, the bulk of economic activity, and with it, the lion’s share of consumption, remain largely within the OECD countries. In 2010 the OECD countries accounted for 74% of global GDP but only 18% of the global population. Insofar as the imprint on the Earth System scales with consumption, most of the human imprint on the Earth System is coming from the OECD world. This points to the profound scale of global inequality, which distorts the distribution of the benefits of the Great Acceleration and confounds efforts to deal with its impacts on the Earth System.

The Great Acceleration graphs themselves, along with the splits, challenge a commonly held view of ‘what’s new about the Anthropocene?’ – predicated on the notion that humans have always changed their environment. While it is certainly true humans have always altered their environment, sometimes on a large scale, what we are now documenting since the mid-20th century is unprecedented in its rate and magnitude. Furthermore, by treating ‘humans’ as a single, monolithic whole, it ignores the fact that the Great Acceleration has, until very recently, been almost entirely driven by a small fraction of the human population, those in developed countries.

As the middle classes in the BRICS nations grow, this is beginning to change. The shift is already emerging in the trajectories of several indicators. For example, most of the post-2000 rise in paper production, telecommunication devices and motor vehicle number has occurred in the non-OECD world (Figure 2). In fact, we see a levelling of the trajectory of water use, fertilizer  consumption and paper production in OECD countries. Since about 1970 most of the increase in fertilizer consumption has occurred in BRICS nations. Although not shown in the figures, the shift in the sources of greenhouse gas emissions has been dramatic. Around 2006 China became the largest emitter of carbon dioxide, overtaking the USA. By 2013 per capita emissions in China (7.2 tonnes of CO2 per person per year) surpassed per capita emissions in Europe (6.8 tonnes of CO per person per year) (Friedlingstein et al., 2014).

However, despite the contribution of these and other developments to bringing many people in the non-OECD world out of absolute poverty, inequalities in income and wealth both within and between countries continue to be a significant problem, with consequences for individual and societal wellbeing (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009). Furthermore, because the effects of the Great Acceleration on the functioning of the Earth System are cumulative over time, most clearly evident in the climate system, the historic inequalities embedded in the origin and trajectory of the Great Acceleration continue to plague negotiations to deal with its consequences.

The splits show other significant changes in the socio-economic trends amongst groups of nations. For example, the rapid expansion in urbanisation will take place mainly in Asia and Africa.Between 1978 and 2012 China’s urban population swelled from 17.9% to 52.6% and the country is on course for an urban population of over one billion people within two decades (Bai et al., 2014). In a practical sense, the future trajectory of the Anthropocene may well be determined by what development pathways urbanisation takes in the coming decades, particularly in Asia and Africa.

There is also evidence of technological leapfrogging, which offers some hope that the post-Second World War development pathway followed by the OECD countries, which has driven the Great Acceleration, does not necessarily have to be followed by other nations. For example, the very rapid rise in phone subscriptions since 2000 has occurred almost entirely in the non-OECD world, and these have predominantly been for mobile devices, thus leapfrogging over the need to build and support landline infrastructure across entire nations.

It remains to be seen whether similar leapfrogging can occur in the electricity generation sector; that is, whether distributed systems based on renewable energy technologies will be developed rather than centralised grid systems based on large fossil-fuel generation plants. Furthermore, developing countries have the opportunity to avoid poor planning decisions made in the West that have led to high levels of air pollution, for example, and costly remediation. However, at present urbanisation trends in Asia appear to be following the North American model (Seto, 2010)."

For the complete FREE paper go to the SAGE Journals page:

For interesting discussion about this paper between the authors and critics of the 'planetary boundaries' concept follow Andrew Revkin's take in his NYT DOT EARTH blog:

Can Humanity’s ‘Great Acceleration’ Be Managed and, If So, How?

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