It’s funny how things can sneak up on you. One day you’re celebrating the summer solstice and the next moment you’re heading out to a New Year’s party! This happens to me when I get busy or distracted – time seems to speed up and events that were once a long way off are suddenly here. Or, they happen before I realize, and I miss them.

Take our transition to a new epoch, for example. Epochs are time periods defined by geological layers, and until recently I thought we were living in one called the Holocene, which started about 10,000 years ago. But it seems that’s no longer the case, thanks to what Thomas Homer-Dixon calls “tectonic” shifts arising from population, energy, environmental, climate, and economic stresses. These shifts and stresses have reached point where some “planetary boundaries” have been crossed and others may soon be (see below), setting the stage for abrupt and possibly irreversible global changes.

planetary thresholds

Click image to enlarge
This figure is from a 2009 paper in Ecology and Society by Rockström et al. See link below.

So, instead of the Holocene, scientists believe that we’re now living in the Anthropocene, where our actions affect “every aspect of the Earth on a scale akin to the great forces of nature.”

This is a staggering idea, but we can be forgiven for not noticing. Researchers are still debating when the Anthropocene started, and it reflects what David Orr has called “the long emergency” – where problems are converging across a wide range of scales. But it’s important to notice, so we can come to terms with this as individuals, groups, and organizations. A new chapter in the history of this planet is starting to unfold, like when a meteorite took out the dinosaurs, and we’re responsible for it.

To explore this further, check out this paper by Rockström et al, The Upside of Down by Thomas Homer-Dixon andGovernance in the Long Emergency by David Orr.