The Anthropocene: from global change to planetary stewardship, Working Paper No. 2. Prepared for the “3rd Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability: Transforming the World in an Era of Global Change”, in Stockholm, 16-19 May 2011. Stockholm Resilience Centre, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Stockholm Environment Institute, the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.

Over the past century the material well-being of most people on Earth has been enhanced. However, in the 21st century we face scarcity in critical resources, many ecosystem services are being eroded, and the planet’s capability to absorb and metabolise the wastes from the growing human enterprise is being overwhelmed. Equity issues remain stubbornly difficult to solve. This situation, captured by the concept of the Anthropocene, is novel in its speed, its scale and its intersection with the Earth System. The challenge is truly global and it threatens the resilience of the life support system on which we depend. The Anthropocene began with the invention of the steam engine and the exploitation of fossil fuels, and exploded in scale and rate with the advent of the Great Acceleration after the Second World War. The 21st century challenges, however, must signal the end of business-as-usual. We need to change our relationship with the planet we inhabit. Many approaches could be adopted, ranging from geo-engineering solutions that purposefully manipulate parts of the Earth System to becoming active stewards of own life support system by, for example, defining and respecting boundaries in critical Earth System processes that should not be transgressed. The Anthropocene is a reminder that the Holocene, the geological epoch we are now leaving, has been a stable, accommodating environment for the development of complex human societies and is the only state of the Earth System that we know for sure can support contemporary society. The need to achieve effective planetary stewardship is urgent. As we go further into the Anthropocene, we risk driving the Earth System onto a trajectory towards more hostile states from which we cannot easily return.