It’s Anthropocene – why are we here and what can we do?

Dr Zofia Prokop

Jagiellonian University, Kraków, Poland

Date: Wednesday, 13.03.2019, 13:00, Cent Lecture Theatre 0142                                         How to get there: Lecture theatre 0142 is c. ~15 meters to the right after entering CeNT

Abstract. The changes which our single species has made to the biosphere and geosphere (particularly since mid-20th century) are so profound and widespread that, according to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, they go significantly beyond Holocene norms, prompting the formalisation of a new epoch in Earth’s history, which has been termed Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is characterised, among other things, by radical changes in the Earth’s climate, dramatically raised rates of species extinction (current estimates range from 10 to 10000 times above pre-industrial levels), rapid growth of human and livestock populations (currently our combined body weights constitute ca. 32%, and these of our domesticated animals – ca. 65%, of the total biomass of land vertebrates on Earth, with only ca. 3% contributed by wild animals), and increasing proportions of land being occupied by agriculture, industry, and human dwellings. Widespread denial of the responsibility of humans for the current and future state of our Planet’s well-being greatly deepens the extent of this crisis and leaves little hope for its mitigation and reversal.

Along with two other colleagues, I have been recently engaged in exploring the evolutionary underpinnings of human behaviours and predispositions which are causing this crisis. Our most destructive psychological characteristics such as greed for resources or fear of the wild, put together with cognitive limitations and biases, can be viewed as genetic predispositions that once were adaptive, in a similar fashion as our craving for simple carbohydrates – once positively selected, now leading to life-threatening health conditions. Understanding their origin may help us acknowledge, accept and finally move beyond such problematic heritage. We propose an evolutionary dissection of our planet-killer phenotype as a sound basis for developing tools for transforming our individual and collective behaviours. As we have learned to control our fertility, thus our other biological traits can be approached with awareness and regulated to levels compatible with our sustainable existence.