processes leave a mark on our planet. The movement of tectonic plates has shaped our geography, weather conditions have shaped our flora and fauna while different species have impacted our natural environment. But what of the impact of one of the most prevalent mammals inhabiting most parts of the world, humans? With human population at over 7 billion, and projected to surpass 11 billion by 2100[sc:1], it is undeniable that our activities will have a tremendous impact on the environment. Indeed, there is no need to look into the future to see how humans have impacted our Earth. Climate change, resource depletion, biodiversity loss, land degradation, flooding, pollution of our air and water – none of these big issues have come up as a result of natural processes. They are the result of humans’ profound impact on our environment which has reached unprecedented levels that our planet can no longer cope with.
The scale of human impact on the environment
The impact of human activity, otherwise known as anthropogenic activity, is apparent in all facets of our life. We rely on agriculture and fishing for our food. Population increase has meant we need to grow more food so we have farmed our land more intensively using chemicals such as fertilisers and pesticides to increase yields and protect crops[sc:2]; we have also fished our seas so much that we have depleted our fishing stock. By doing so, we have polluted our soil and water, making our land more unproductive. We have removed trees and cleared land for agriculture and urban centres compromising ecosystems and species and often increasing the risk of flooding.
We have mined the Earth and extracted elements to produce material goods. But we have done so unsustainably and without thinking of how to deal with the increased waste that our consumption-oriented society has given rise to or seeking to use renewable materials which generally have a lower environmental impact. We have created a lot of waste, which is not properly disposed of, meaning through recycling and other waste reduction technologies, leading to greater pollution. For example, plastic pollution of our marine environment.
Urbanisation and urban expansion has often happened at the cost of wildlife. We have taken away their natural habitat leading to the demise of several species. Habitat loss is the primary reason that we often see wild animals rummaging our litter. What is more, humans have upset the natural balance of ecosystems by introducing new species that were not found there originally. This has led to the need to address invasive alien species. Under some circumstances, these alien invasive species can take over the ecosystem at the expense of local and endemic species. We are also a direct threat to some of the most iconic species of our planet which we hunt or trade illegally.
We have also eliminated distances between people, creating a more integrated and global society. But this has been done through the development of highly polluting transport modes such as shipping or airplanes. Our cars also emit dangerous pollutants. In fact, air pollution is not just affecting our environment; it is impacting our own health and wellbeing. Today it is estimated that air pollution is causing about 3.7 million premature to deaths and destroys crops that could feed millions of people[sc:3].
The evidence is also there when it comes to climate change and biodiversity loss: human activity since the Industrial Revolution has produced a 40% increase in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere[sc:4] while by 2020 average wildlife population sizes will be at reduced at 2/3 of their 1970 levels [sc:5].
This is not to mention how humans have radically impacted our planet as a result of disasters of global proportion such as the use of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the nuclear accident in Chernobyl. These catastrophes resulted in the loss of human life and many both short and long term implications for the affected areas.
The impact we have had and continue to make on our planet is such that scientists are now talking about a new geological epoch in our planet’s history; one that is largely determined by the consequences of human activity. They are calling this the Anthropocene. According to scientists, this new era will follow the Holocene, a 12,000 year period characterised by stable climate throughout which all human civilisation flourished. But following the industrial revolution and particularly since the mid-20th century there has been a striking acceleration of CO2 emissions, increase of sea levels, global mass extinction of species, unprecedented resource use and degradation, particularly in terms of land, that scientists believe it denotes a clear break with how our planet has fared up until now[sc:6].
So if humans are determining this planet’s future, what will this future look like?
It is clear that radical changes need to be made in terms of modern production and consumption models. But when people and governments have acted together, it has been possible to reverse the consequences of damaging human activities, as was the case with our response to the ozone layer hole. Already, we are seeing a slowing down of the rate with which humans are depleting our environment compared to population and economic growth, some scientists argue. This slow down needs to become more pronounced and in fact negative if we are to truly decouple anthropogenic activities from environmental depletion.