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Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis
Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis

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2 Anthropocene and growth

You’ll now take a step back to look at the Earth’s history and humanity’s recent history, for it is in these wider contexts that people can situate and grasp what is happening.

The Anthropocene is a label recently given to a new period in the Earth’s history. The root ‘anthropo-’ means human and refers to ‘the period of humans’. The Anthropocene label highlights just how profoundly humans have impacted on planet Earth’s geology and ecosystems.

Geology is the scientific discipline that categorises the history of planet Earth into periods, eras and epochs, mostly preceding the human species. The most recent epoch is the Holocene, a mere 11,000 years (a blip in deep geological time), in which climate stability and relatively hospitable weather enabled a prolific biosphere, within which human civilization could emerge. The Anthropocene classification is the work of a consensus of international geologists who, in 2013, claimed that the Earth was entering a new period defined by the fact that human activity now dominates the functioning of Earth systems and that the extent of these activities has thrown Holocene climate stability out of balance (Ellis, 2018).

Figure 2 shows the Anthropocene relative to the whole of geological time.

A graphic showing the different geological periods following the formation of the Earth: Paleozoic; Ordovician; Silurian; Devonian; Carboniferous; Permian; Triassic; Jurassic; Cretaceous; Cenozoic; Quaternary.
Figure 2 A summary of our planet’s geological periods.

The disruption of the Holocene and the emergence of the Anthropocene refers to the fact that atmospheric carbon dioxide is (as far as can be established retrospectively) at its highest level in 15 million years, with consequences, long predicted, that are already disastrous and could lead to human extinction. On the Anthropocene timeline [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] this level was recorded in 2014.

Figure 3 shows the Keeling Curve. This curve is represented by a graph which shows the concentration of carbon dioxide in the planet’s atmosphere. Measurements to produce this graph have been collected continuously at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii from 1958 until now. Despite carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations varying seasonally (hence why you see alternating minor ups and downs in the line), overall, the levels of carbon dioxide are continuously increasing.

A graph showing how CO2 levels have increased over time.
Figure 3 The Keeling Curve.

However, a high level of CO2 emissions is only the most notorious of many threats, all ‘anthropogenic’ (that is, all the effects the result of human activity). In addition, we are facing multiple species extinction, desertification, ice melt leading to sea level rise, deforestation, poisoning of soil and polluting of rivers and oceans. This is why we give the crisis its full name, not just ‘climate crisis’ but ‘climate and ecological crisis’.