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The Planet is Being Reshaped by a Powerful New Natural Force

Erle Ellis, a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, has synthesized interdisciplinary research to explain the evolution of human cultural practices and their impact on ecosystems. In his study, Ellis highlights the Anthropocene’s environmental challenges, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, and argues for leveraging society’s social and cultural capabilities towards sustainable coexistence with nature.

Human societies have developed unprecedented capabilities to transform and scale up ecological systems that sustain them. From the use of fire to cook food and manage vegetation to the advancements in technology and institutions supporting intensive agriculture, urbanization, and global supply chains, humans have reshaped the planet and thrived in the process.

Ellis is a leading scientist investigating the Anthropocene, which refers to the current geological age defined by human activities’ impact on the planet. He founded and directs the Anthroecology Lab, which studies the relationships between human societies and ecosystems at various scales to guide more sustainable interactions with the biosphere. Currently a visiting fellow at the Oxford Martin School, Ellis recently presented his work on Anthropocene opportunities.

While human societies have gained capabilities to improve human lives’ quality and longevity, the unintended consequences of these advances have had negative impacts on the rest of life on Earth. Climate change, species extinctions, and pollution are some of the disruptive environmental challenges of the Anthropocene. Addressing these challenges requires action for a better future for both people and nature.

However, Ellis argues that portraying the Anthropocene as an environmental crisis overlooks its most important message. When people come together, they can change the world for the better. The urgency of current environmental challenges does not mean that narratives of crisis and collapse will effectively bring people together to shape a better future. Instead, successful efforts require harnessing the social capabilities of human societies and empowering their application through widely shared aspirations.

Ellis also emphasizes the importance of social and cultural capabilities in managing the transformative changes of the Anthropocene. While the natural sciences have limitations in forecasting and managing these changes, social and cultural capabilities based on cooperative efforts and practices that support the common good have enabled human societies to survive and thrive under challenging environmental conditions. To ensure a better future for nature, these capabilities must be extended beyond human societies.

To achieve a better future, Ellis suggests re-emphasizing the kinship relationships among all living beings and finding new ways to connect people and nature. This can include using remote sensing, webcams, nature apps, community conservation reserves, corridor networks, and ecotourism. Additionally, aspirations for a better future should involve restoring Indigenous and traditional sovereignty over lands and waters.

Ellis concludes that the societal capabilities to shape a much better future have existed for decades. The key to implementing these capabilities lies in increasing public awareness of their existence and demonstrating their successful implementation through shared human aspirations for a better world.

Reference: “The Anthropocene condition: evolving through social–ecological transformations” by Erle C. Ellis, 1 January 2024, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2022.0255

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