Picture: AFP
Picture: AFP

THERE’s a growing belief that asserts that our civilisation is embarked on a new epoch, the Anthropocene, defined by human domination of earth’s physical and natural environment. Its more popular slogan is climate change.

It replaces the Holocene epoch, a period stretching back 11,700 years during which conditions were uniquely conducive to the global spread and flourishing of Africa’s original homo sapiens.

When did the Anthropocene epoch start? This is the big issue still being debated by an authoritative international and multidisciplinary working group of earth scientists. They are considering what date and geological marking — the so-called "golden spike" — specifies the epoch’s commencement.

How long the Anthropocene will last, and what will be its most enduring attributes, will not be driven and decided scientifically. It will be driven politically, at all levels of human society. And Africa, which cradled humanity, is likely to be one of our epoch’s earliest and most important testing grounds.

Political issues are implicit in the scientific debates about dating and marking. Some in the Anthropocene working group advocate that it began in 1750 — the start of the Industrial Revolution. But a majority favour a more recent starting date at 1950, when the compounding effects of several key environmental indicators of global stress began to accelerate.

The period since 1950 coincides with unprecedented global peace, prosperity, power diffusion and citizen empowerment, although Africa benefited least from these advances. And Africa’s views on how to deal with the damage done and threats will matter greatly if our civilisation is to adapt and flourish.

The leading geological candidate for marking the start of the human age is also the growing evidence of radiation caused by the proliferation of 1950’s testing of nuclear weapons.

Had politics failed to control their sudden massive use in October 1962 during the US-Soviet Cuban missile crisis, people all over the world would have died. A marker of that scale would have rivalled the last great extinction of life on our planet 50-million years ago.

Should the Anthropocene end with another mass extinction, it almost certainly will not be the result of decisions of just two men with the power to end civilisation in an instant. But neither can this be as easily prevented. It appears we are all in varying ways part of the problem and efforts to deal with its many aspects. There are reasons for hope. I offer just three, all bearing on Africa’s future.

The US and China, responsible for emitting 40% of the chemicals considered detrimental to a liveable climate, have announced a joint effort to fulfil their respective global commitments on emissions. This is part of the historic framework agreement adopted in Paris in December 2015 by all UN members.

Their commitment should help accelerate national decisions to meet globally agreed targets. Progress will be particularly important for Africa, where global warming across large areas is already rising at twice the global mean.

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