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  • Writer's pictureArtur Bernardo Milchert

From superfluous to imperative: Humanity's role in Earth's history and the effects of the climate crisis


Artur Bernardo Milchert[1]

Automatic translation.

 

The book "Diary of a Superfluous Man", by Russian writer Ivan Turgenev (2018), was the inspiration for this short essay. On his deathbed, the protagonist sets out to recall crucial moments in his life, refraining from reporting illnesses, avoiding digressions about life and its beauties, and refusing to address depressing themes or the higher questions of human existence. Her narrative focuses exclusively on one episode: unrequited love.


Given this summary, an immense variety of scenarios justifying this rejection can be imagined. However, throughout the narrative, the reader realizes that the main character never actually took part in this story. He was as much an observer as the reader himself. His existence in that situation didn't matter any more than that of the people who weren't even mentioned in the story.


Perhaps aware of this, he chose to dwell on this moment in his life. Unlike Narcissus, he may have stripped himself of vanity and, even though he suffered for love, he saw beauty in something that wasn't just his own image or existence.


What is the point of this ramble? For a long time, humanity, even if unconsciously, was presented as a superfluous character in the history of the planet. Although the social contexts of different eras pointed to gods, kings and man himself as the centerpieces of existence, the approaches of the Natural Sciences show that the presence of humanity for many, many years did not influence the history of the Earth. Like any other species, we simply inhabited the planet.


Everything changed in the second half of the 18th century. The advent of the steam engine brought new prospects of "development" for humanity and extractivism became a powerful way of generating wealth, exploiting the raw materials for consumer goods without taking proper environmental and ecological stock of these activities. It is in the Anthropocene that man ceases to be a superfluous character in the history of the Earth.

 

(... ) as a result of observable changes in Earth systems, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, informally and unofficially, there is a Holocene-Anthropocene boundary separating a more harmonious reality (Holocene) from an increasingly erratic, non-linear and non-static reality (Anthropocene); this limit was caused by humans becoming geological forces capable of changing the Earth and its systems in the same way that natural forces such as volcanoes are capable of doing; and the unprecedented global anthropogenic impacts that are exerted on the biosphere require a change in the way humans understand and respond to global change. (KOTZÉ, 2016)

 

Paul Crutzen's proposition (2000) resonated in the most diverse fields of knowledge and, as expected of a major declaration, caused the subject to be investigated and generated more questions than answers. To date, there is no consensus on the recognition of a new geological era, nor is there a definition of a historical milestone for its beginning[2]. However, the active participation of human beings in altering the dynamics of the Earth System is undeniable.


 

The studies coordinated by Will Steffen (2011) show graphically that man's massive intervention in the Earth's essential systems has taken place mainly since the post-war period. World population, real GDP, foreign investment, river reservoirs, water use, fertilizer consumption, urban population (rural exodus), paper consumption, motor vehicles, telephone use and international tourism are some of the indices that have been analyzed to illustrate this.


It is therefore possible to point out that humanity is no longer seen as playing a figurative role in the history of the Earth. Human beings are now the main characters in this story. And no, this is not good news.


This paradigm shift implies various relational changes and imbalances in systems that were previously balanced. The proposal that best represents this is the Earth System Boundaries Theory. In its latest update, the research coordinated by the Swede Johan Rockström (2023) revealed that humanity has already caused (anthropogenic activity) the safe limit of action of 06 (six) of the 08 (eight) essential processes for the functioning of the Earth System to be exceeded.

  


The studies presented indicate that humanity is heading in the wrong direction. There is no likelihood of error to the point of denying the existence of this human intrusion into essential Earth System processes. It would be nice if we were in the world of Don Quixote and saw monsters where there are only windmills. The battle wouldn't have to be so arduous.


In the meantime, it's not uncommon for people to have to face hardship - especially those who are most disadvantaged and vulnerable. The IPCC's projections for the extreme events that humanity will face by the end of the century could be presented[3] but, for the moment, it is important to highlight what is already being experienced. On all continents, record temperatures and extreme events (sometimes compounded) are affecting the existence of peoples (NOAA, 2024) who often did not contribute to the current stage of global warming.

 


We must recognize our failure as humans, since we are harming each other. We must recognize our insignificance in the history of the planet and mitigate our impact on systems that affect not only our species. Solutions are knocking at our door, we must welcome them and put them into practice.


References

 

CRUTZEN, Paul J.; STOERMER, Eugene F.. The Anthropocene in The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013, pp. 479-490. https://doi.org/10.12987/9780300188479-041.

 

INTERGOVERNMENTAL PANEL ON CLIMATE CHANGE – IPCC. Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Summary for Policymakers. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Disponível em: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf

 

KOTZÉ, L. J. Global environmental constitutionalism in the Anthropocene. 1ª ed. Portland/USA: Hart Publishing, 2016.

 

NOAA - National Centers for Environmental Information, Monthly Global Climate Report for Annual 2023, jan. 2024. Disponível em: https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/monitoring/monthly-report/global/202313.

 

Rockström, J., Gupta, J., Qin, D. et al. Safe and just Earth system boundaries. Nature vol. 619, p. 102–111, 2023. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-06083-8.

 

STEFFEN, W. et al. The Anthropocene: Conceptual and historical perspectives. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, physical and engineering sciences, v. 369, n. 1938, p. 842-867, 13 mar. 2011.

 

TURGUÊNIEV, Ivan. Diário de um homem supérfluo. São Paulo: Editora 34, 2018.

 

WILLIAMS, J.; CRUTZEN, P. J. Pesrpectives on our planet in the Anthropocene. Environmental Chemistry, v. 10, n. 4, p. 269, 2013.


[1] Diretor de Extensão e Comunicações do Ruptura. Doutorando em Direito Comparado e Processos de Integração na Università degli Studi della Campania Luigi Vanvitelli – UNICAMPANIA, Caserta/Itália.


[2] Em suma, três são os posicionamentos defendidos por cientistas e pesquisadores: (i) a partir da Revolução Industrial, que ocorreu por volta dos anos de 1700, sendo seu marco a criação do motor à combustão; (ii) a partir da Revolução Termo-Industrial, por volta dos anos 1850, sendo seu marco a assinatura de isótopo estável de carbono (stable carbon isotope signature); e (iii) a partir da Grande Aceleração , por volta dos anos 1950, sendo seu marco os testes de armas atômicas que deixaram traços radioativos rastreáveis. (WILLIAMS; CRUTZEN, 2013, p. 09).


[3] O primeiro relatório desta última edição de relatórios publicados pelo IPCC (Sixth Assessment Report – The Physical Science Basis) dispõe que experienciamos um aumento da precipitação média, aumento da salinidade próxima da superfície dos oceanos, recuo de geleiras, diminuição da área de gelo do mar Ártico, aquecimento da superfície global dos oceanos, acidificação global da superfície do oceano global, diminuição da oxigenação em muitas regiões do oceano global, aumento do nível médio do mar, níveis sem precedentes de concentração de CO2, CH4 e N2O (Óxido Nitroso) na atmosfera, eventos de extremos quentes se tornarão mais frequentes e severos, enquanto extremos frios se tornaram menos frequentes e intensos, duplicação da frequência de ocorrência de ondas de calor marinha, aumento da probabilidade da ocorrência de eventos extremos compostos (ondas de calor, tempo de incêndio, secas, inundações...), aumento do nível do mar, dentre outros pontos elencados no documento. (IPCC, 2021)

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