What do military personnel and hunter-gatherers have in common?
In addition to being highly mobile, often clad with weaponry of some sort, they possess high levels of situation awareness, a nose for danger and an above average capacity for adaptation and improvisation. Their “fight and flight” responses are on full alert.
Given these capacities, it is not surprising that it was the US military who first named the new conditions in which humanity would have to operate for the remainder of the century and very likely beyond. Traditionally tasked with obtaining “intel” they are adept at reading the signs and joining the dots. As early as 20 years ago, they concluded that established methods of observation, analysis and forecasting were no longer up to the job. They coined yet another anagram to draw our attention to the new state of play suggesting with conviction and accuracy that we now live in a VUCA world in which Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity are dominant characteristics (1).
As military men are spared the restrictions of time consuming peer reviews and a drawn out publication process their observations preceded conclusive scientific evidence from biophysical scientists by a few years. But the physical scientists have since caught up in style and have introduced a fancy new term of their own – the Anthropocene; a name that is likely to last much longer in the history books. It applies to the arrival of a new geological epoch, no less, whose commencement may have started as early as the 1850s when atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and methane began to rise as a result of the introduction of the steam engine and the industrial revolution that followed. It marks a time when human activities have reached such a scale, scope and pace as to alter whole planetary systems. (2) (3)
As is the case with all “phase changes” its early beginnings were imperceptible and potentially reversible at first but really took off in the very early 1950s – coincidentally, the same time I was born. I mention this not to suggest any causal relationship between the two events (!!!) but to bear personal witness to the fact that it’s unprecedented for any human to be born in one geological epoch and reach the end of their lives in another. It seems to give a whole new depth of meaning to the term Baby Boomers as it is our generation that is witnessing this profound beginning. It’s also our generation, whose activities during what is known as the Great Acceleration, that kick-started this incipient shift.
The changing of epochs is a geological process that normally takes thousands of years so this unprecedented situation just goes to show that while change may be a constant, the rate at which change changes most certainly is not!
The Great Acceleration refers to the scale, pace and scope of human activity that has occurred since the end of the Second World War – a period during which the earth’s population tripled and GDP expanded some 20-fold. Owen Gaffney of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program has created an illuminating slide deck illustrating the most impactful period of human history in terms of our relationship with the biosphere. It’s well worth watching.
In order to appreciate the immensity of this shift, I also encourage you to watch this brief and beautifully crafted video explaining what the Anthropocene means. If you feel you don’t have time, or if you doubt that humankind can have had such an impact, consider this:
- Humans now move more sediment and rock each year than all the natural processes of erosion –rivers, rain, glaciers, frost.
- Humans manage 75% of all land outside ice sheets
- Greenhouse gas concentrations are higher than they have been recorded for just under a million years
- Humans now take out more nitrogen from the atmosphere than the biosphere does as a whole
- The average global temperature has increased by just under 1 degree Celsius in one hundred years and is forecast to rise by an equal amount in less than another thirty-five years if business as usual prevails.
- Human activity is correlated with a lost of 60% of species in that same period.
So what has this to do with VUCA and hunter gatherers?
1. By entering the Anthropocene we’ve left a short but uniquely stable period in earth’s history – an epoch called the Holocene when the ideal conditions for humans to thrive and multiply emerged and have been sustained. The Holocene began around 12,000 years ago and made it possible for homo sapiens to stop wandering around searching for food and start growing his or her own.
2. Prior to the Holocene, notably for the previous 400,000 years the Earth System had stabilised around a very different pattern characterised by huge swings in temperature (between + and =4 degrees C) that corresponded the arrival and then disappearance of huge ice flows out from the poles. As illustrated below, the last time the earth’s temperature rose significantly higher than today was in a time called Eemian when sea levels were also 4-6 meters higher than now.
During the past 100,000 years, early man – our hunter-gatherer ancestors – had to put up with huge swings in climate that made survival very difficult. It’s estimated that the population of homo sapiens was reduced to a mere 15,000 fertile individuals and flirted with extinction until a warm period enabled them to start wandering out of East Africa.
3. It was as if Planet Earth was seeking and found a balance or an internal rhythm around 12,000 years ago and average temperature fluctuations have stayed within a boundary of + or – 1 degree until very, very recently. This new stability provided a degree of predictability that humans could observe without which any form of agriculture would have been impossible. Without agriculture, there would be no settlements and without settlements there would be limited exchange of knowledge.. Our current lifestyles, transport infrastructure and agricultural surpluses have all been developed to function under the benign conditions typified by the Holocene and could not be sustained if pre-Holocene conditions were to return.
4. The arrival of the Anthropocene marks the end of that period of stability and predictability – a “regime shift”, ironically, caused by our success as a species in the Holocene. The military strategists were right – even if they didn’t know of the science. This is not just another “trend” or even another “risk factor” or “threat.” This change is about as big as it gets and there is simply no aspect of human existence that isn’t going to be affected by it.
5. This doesn’t have to be a sad story with an unhappy unending. It need not be a Greek tragedy with lots of wailing and lamentations. On the contrary, what’s so very different is that we know so very much about the benign Holocene conditions that we can avoid straying away too far away from that state. Thanks to the work of Johan Rockstrom et al, we have a dashboard that can be applied to keep humanity operating within safe planetary boundaries. We have all the tools to track our progress and many argue that we have the knowledge and tools to thrive – even as 9 billion people – within those boundaries. More importantly we have the knowledge and tools to regenerate our local environments and ensure tourism is in truth a force for good.
Using those tools and the insights of modern, however, will take awareness of the challenge (hence the need to wake up now); recognition that we can’t assume someone else will take care of us (hence the need to grow up); and development of a compelling vision of a better way of living together on this most beautiful of planet (hence stepping up and working together to create a better model). It will also require re-thinking virtually everything, including how we are going to move 1.8 billion across international borders safely every year from 2030 onwards.
If we don’t, then sharpen you spears, check out the bows and arrows, hone your foraging skills and make friends with the indigenous peoples of the world. Maybe evolution is like the game “snake and ladders” after all, and we’ll just slide down the snake to climb the ladder again. Unlike the game, however, it’s not about throwing dice but making conscious choices and collectively, co-creatively developing the skills of a hunter gatherer described at the beginning of this essay. Not because we need return to foraging but because we need to thrive in a less stable, more unpredictable world. I am confident that by so doing the outcome will be better and better for more.
1. The notion of VUCA was introduced by the U.S. Army War College in the late 1990s and took hold after the terrorist attacks on the world trade centre in 2001. See: Kingsinger, P. & Walch, K. (2012 July 9). Living and leading in a VUCA world. Thunderbird University. Retrieved from http://knowledgenetwork.thunderbird.edu/research/2012/07/09/kinsinger-walch-vuca/.
2. The terms Anthropocene was popularised by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen and subsequently a team of scientists have published several papers on the subject. Steffen, Will et al. “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship.” Ambio 40.7 (2011): 739–761. PMC. An application has been made to the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London for its formal acceptance.
3. Background history of the proposal for a new epoch http://e360.yale.edu/feature/the_anthropocene_debate__marking_humanitys_impact/2274/
4. Contrary positions toRockstrom