Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course


Download this course

Share this free course

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

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2.1 The Great Acceleration

The starting point of the Anthropocene can be located in the industrial revolution, starting in eighteenth-century Europe. More commonly, though, the Anthropocene is defined as beginning with the ‘Great Acceleration’, a period from 1950 that saw steep growth in many human activities which together make up the global socio-economic system.

Activity 2 The Great Acceleration

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

Look at Figure 4, which is an example of the ‘Great Acceleration’ in human activity since the 1750s.

First, try to make sense of the trajectories of the lines in each box – what do they show about human activity? Is human activity increasing or decreasing in each domain over time? Does it develop slowly, or does it increase rapidly after a while? When did these increases start?

Second, compare this graph to the Keeling Curve (Figure 3 – in the previous section) which shows the continuous rise of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere. Do you see any patterns? They all show an exponential growth pattern – a slow rate of increase at the bottom, followed by such a steep, rapid rise that the line goes up almost vertically.

A set of graphs showing levels of various human activity over time, such as population, water use and paper consumption.
Figure 4 The Great Acceleration refers to increasing rates of human activity since the Industrial Revolution.
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Much more could be said about these features of global growth in human activity and their interactions with the planetary biosphere. The predicament can be summarised as ‘you cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet’.

During the ‘Great Acceleration’, all the indices of growth – as represented by the graphs you have been looking at – are due to two factors: global human population growth and levels of resource consumption of those populations. The Earth Overshoot Day website [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] reminds us about the relation of resource consumption to what the Earth can provide on a sustainable basis. This is called ‘ecological overshoot’. Humanity is using nature 1.8 times faster than our planet’s biocapacity can regenerate.

The massive increase in human population from 2.5 billion in 1950 to an expected 8 in 2023 undoubtedly puts pressure on the planet’s biocapacity. However, the Earth Overshoot Day website also shows how nations’ consumption habits are vastly different. Whereas the USA uses up over 5 earths, many nations of the global South – India, Pakistan, Rwanda, Uganda for example – use up less than 1, in Somalia’s case only a half. However, we need to look more closely at oversimplification about the global north’s ecological footprint.

For example, so-called developing countries are fast catching up in terms of the volume of greenhouse gases produced. In China the footprint per capita is growing fast, partly because the people espouse Western lifestyles, which have long been seen as ‘progress’. For example, with rising income, people in China are eating more meat than they used to.

Just as consequential, perhaps, the patterns of consumption in the so-called developed countries (the ones we are calling the global north) are very uneven and getting more so. For example, an Oxfam report found that the world’s richest 1% own two-thirds of new wealth amassed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. By the end of 2021, that amounted to $26 trillion. The other 11 trillion went to the remaining 99% of the world’s population. According to Oxfam, these concentrations of wealth lead to weaker economic growth, corrupted politics and media, corroded democracy and political polarisation. When it comes to the climate and ecological crisis, a billionaire emits twice as much carbon and is twice as likely to invest in polluting industries, compared to an average investor (Elliott, 2023).