A new force of nature is reshaping the planet

Scientist Earl Ellis has compiled interdisciplinary research to illustrate how human cultural practices have historically enabled the transformation of ecosystems, progressing from the use of fire to the development of global supply chains. By highlighting the environmental challenges of the Anthropocene, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, Ellis calls for leveraging the social and cultural capacities of human society towards sustainable coexistence with nature, with an emphasis on cooperation and reimagining our relationship with the environment for a better future.

Bringing together a range of interdisciplinary studies across archaeology, ecology, anthropology, and evolutionary theory, Earl Ellis, professor of geography and ecosystems at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, explains the evolution of cultural practices that have enabled societies to develop unprecedented capacities to expand and transform the ecosystems they support.

From the use of fire to cook food and manage vegetation to the technologies and institutions that support intensive agriculture, increasingly urban societies, and global supply chains extending across the planet, human societies have developed the social, cultural, and ecological capacities to reshape the planet and are thriving in the process.

Ellis is a leading scientist who studies the Anthropocene, the current geological epoch defined by human transformation of the planet. He is the founder and director of the Anthropology Laboratory, which studies the relationships between human societies and ecosystems at the local to planetary scale with the goal of guiding more sustainable human relationships with the biosphere. He is currently a Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Martin School, where he recently presented his work on the opportunities of the Anthropocene.

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Towards a better future

While human societies have acquired unprecedented capabilities to improve the quality and longevity of human life, Ellis shows that the unintended consequences of these developments have been generally negative for the rest of life on Earth, from climate change to… Classify extinction to increasingly widespread pollution. These devastating environmental challenges of the Anthropocene require action if we are to have a better future for people and the rest of nature.

However, as Ellis shows, portraying the Anthropocene as an environmental crisis ignores its most important messages. When people work together, they can actually change the world for the better. The urgency of today's planetary environmental challenges does not mean that narratives of ecological crisis, borders, and collapse will be more effective in bringing people together to shape a better future. Successful efforts to shape a better long-term future require that these efforts harness the unprecedented social capacities of human societies and enable their application through broadly shared human aspirations.

Connect with each other and nature

Ellis assesses the limits of the natural sciences to successfully predict and manage unprecedented transformative changes in societies, environments, and interactions that embody the Anthropocene condition. Instead, the capacities that have always enabled human societies to survive and even thrive under challenging environmental conditions are social and cultural, built on institutions, practices and narratives that enable cooperative efforts to support the common good. If we want there to be a better future for the rest of nature, these social and cultural capabilities must be expanded to include life outside human societies.

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“Reaffirming the kinship relationships between all living things – our common evolutionary ancestors – is a start, coupled with new ways of connecting people and nature, from remote sensing to webcams, to nature apps, to community conservation reserves, trail networks, ecotourism, ” Ellis shares. “Aspirations for a better future must make peace with the past by restoring indigenous and traditional sovereignty over lands and waters.”

Ellis asserts that the societal capabilities needed to shape a future far better than the one they are shaping now have been in place for decades. The key to enacting them is to catalyze their implementation by increasing public awareness that these capabilities not only exist, but can be successfully implemented through the unprecedented planetary power of our shared human aspirations to live in a better world.

Reference: “The Case for the Anthropocene: Evolution through Social and Environmental Transformations” by Earl C. Ellis, January 1, 2024, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society b.
doi: 10.1098/rstb.2022.0255

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