Anthropocene Research at Newcastle University aims to address four vital questions
- “What is the Anthropocene and why does it matter to me?”
- “How is our planet changing?”
- “How do we better enable our communities to be resilient?”
- “How do we work together to enable real and meaningful change?
WHAT IS THE ANTHROPOCENE?
The Anthropocene is useful as a concept to encapsulate the growing evidence base that the interaction of human interventions with the natural world has driven huge changes whereby formerly resilient ecosystems have been pushed into altered and degraded states.
In the Anthropocene, it is arguable that we no longer have natural ecosystems disrupted by humans; the new global paradigm is of human-natural systems that are inextricably linked.
This new world-view challenges our traditional understanding that the physical Earth and natural biosphere are the major agents of global change. Instead we now see humanity as the key agent in planetary-scale change.
MERGING THE SCIENCES AND THE HUMANITIES
The transformation to the Anthropocene in environmental terms is already with us.
Newcastle upon Tyne was at the vanguard of Victorian Age change – it is arguable that the city formed the epicentre of the global carbon economy. At Newcastle University we seek new approaches to address issues in our transformed world by straddling more traditional disciplinary boundaries. Merging the sciences and the humanities, we co-create new knowledge through interdisciplinary research across disciplines. We are developing better modelling and smarter use of resources, with emphasis on new and exciting technologies.
In the 21st century, Newcastle University is spearheading innovative and sustainable solutions to a range of environmental issues. We engage our experts: artists, social scientists, engineers, historians, archaeologists, educationalists, planners, linguists and colleagues from many other disciplines to develop new transdisciplinary approaches.
Throughout, our philosophy is that the Anthropocene comprises “an intellectual lens through which to view the future”.
Our focus on enacting change for humanity and all species on our planet therefore does not depend on formal definition of a new geological epoch.
THE GREAT ACCELERATION
There is debate over when to place the start of the Anthropocene, but since the 1950s, humanity has initiated a ‘Great Acceleration’ of the rate of change towards a fundamentally different world from the Holocene (the post Ice Age era which includes the rise of civilization, the Industrial Revolution and the 20th century population explosion).
Human-induced change and the increase in its effects can be scientifically evidenced using a variety of measures (such as nuclear isotopes in the atmosphere, rising CO2, ice cap melting and ocean acidification).
Today, 80% of the world’s population is under the imminent threat of water insecurity and biodiversity loss.
Over 50% of humanity now lives in cities and there are no ‘pristine’ environments anywhere on Earth not affected by human intervention.
At Newcastle our chosen start point for the Anthropocene is ‘the Great Acceleration’ - the period since 1950 when human impacts on natural and engineered systems increased at an exponential rate. However our extensive work on 'deep histories' both complements, and provides essential context for, this period of enormous change.
Effectively addressing the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) demands a coupled human and natural systems approach. In turn this requires understanding of feedbacks between these human and natural systems. Integrating knowledge from multiple disciplines is essential to understand and better manage complex systems like rivers and deltas.
ENOUGH, FOR ALL, FOREVER
Our approach to Anthropocene research emphasizes Newcastle University’s definition of sustainability: ‘Enough, for all, forever’.
At Newcastle University we continually challenge ourselves, asking not just
“what are we good AT?”, but also “what are we good FOR?”
Addressing global societal challenges, our Anthropocene work aims to transform dominant modes of thinking, not just within researcher communities, but also among the general public, policy-makers, non-governmental agencies, and industry and the media. This is known as ‘Global Systems Science’, where our approach is to integrate knowledge from the natural, engineering and social sciences and apply it to real-life situations. In this way we can begin to address major challenges that are beyond the remit of any one traditional discipline.
We aim to achieve this integration and application in a transformative way by concentrating on identifiable ‘nodes’ (Helbing 2013), where threat, risk and opportunity coincide, and thus where our most innovative solutions can be targeted for maximum effectiveness.
A RADICALLY-DIFFERENT WAY
‘Holocene’ thinking was about ‘experts’ and policymakers developing and holding information within a hierarchical relationship, exacerbating divisions between specialist fields of knowledge and raising barriers between the academic disciplines, especially between the sciences, social sciences, arts and humanities.
In privileging the ‘expert’ over the ‘non-expert’ and favouring an overly narrow approach 'observe, react, observe’, traditional ways of dealing with environmental and societal issues were to design solutions FOR people without engaging WITH people.
We seek to co-create knowledge and make information and datasets as widely accessible and understandable to as wide a sector of society as possible.
The transformation to the Anthropocene in environmental terms is already with us. New approaches straddling traditional disciplinary boundaries, and in how we think, plan and organize, are aimed at smarter use and stewardship of planetary resources. The intended outcome of our work is dynamic solution-building via new and exciting technologies.
What is CHANS-based research?
The Coupled Human and Natural Systems (CHANS) framework, also called ‘social-ecological systems’ and ‘human-environment systems’ frameworks, provides an effective ‘lens’ with which to understand often complex interactions and feedback loops. CHANS emphasizes a transdisciplinary approach to study complex systems(1) characterized by feedbacks, thresholds, time lags and legacy effects across multiple spatial, temporal and organizational scales (2).
World-wide, workers across the natural and physical sciences and the humanities and arts are generating new integrated knowledge aimed at better understanding and starting to address pressing environmental and social problems. Despite good advances in understanding feedbacks in individual disciplines, interdisciplinary research on CHANS feedbacks to date remains scant and often site-specific (3). This is an issue that prevents complex coupled systems from being effectively understood.
Locally-focused or indigenous knowledge has a significant role to play in environmental management and governance. Yet there is still a tendency by the scientific community to assimilate or ‘fit’ local-scale ecological knowledge within Western world-views of managing nature (4). Typically though, communities possess the expertise and local knowledge to resolve their own problems and implement their own solutions. Key is finding ways to enable this to happen.
Ultimately the aim must be to ensure solutions are equitable, good for the environment, self-reliant and not dependent on long term external support. Solutions should be built on collective values and have a strong underpinning of justice and governance. Our approaches emphasize community-owned approaches so that community members can monitor for themselves the quality, impact and outcomes of initiatives.
What makes a good CHANS Project?
The best CHANS projects are characterized by good communication. Importantly, these same communication skills also help our scholars craft research questions that are clear and understandable across disciplinary boundaries.
At the core of its philosophy the Anthropocene Research Group at Newcastle University aims to foster interdisciplinary conversations through the four ‘Big Questions’ shown at the centre of Figure 3 (see tab below for more detail).
Newcastle's Interactive Approach
At Newcastle University our Anthropocene approach brings together experts in a range of disciplines (e.g. social, economic, biological, geophysical, engineering art, history, education). Our vision is characterized by a central emphasis on addressing real-world problems. The vast majority of our existing projects have carefully crafted approaches for engaging with stakeholders and communities from the outset.
We aim to develop CHANS projects consisting of deep-layer, deep-time comparisons of river catchments. Candidate catchments are the River Tyne River in north-east England, the Essequibo River in Guyana (tropical South America), the White River and Ohio River in the United States and the River Yangtze in China. Despite their strikingly different climate contexts and their varied economic, social, cultural and political environmental legacies, these river systems share commonalities and challenges that are developed at contrasting stages, from almost pristine to post-industrial.
We also seek to examine the role of dams in the Anthropocene. Dams have traditionally been put in place world-wide for two principal reasons: hydropower and raising social livelihoods. The 20th century saw a huge increase in dam building across the planet with SE Asia in particular experiencing a massive increase in impoundment from the 1950s on.
The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is a “plan of action for people, planet and prosperity” which also “seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom”.
The UN recognises that eradicating poverty in all its forms and dimensions is the greatest global challenge and an indispensable requirement for Sustainable Development. At Newcastle University, we define such sustainable development as “enough, for all, forever”.
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals seek to build on the Millennium Development Goals and, over the 15 year period from 2015 to 2030, to achieve what the MDGs did not.
The SDGs, also known as the UN Global Goals, seek to establish and nurture the human rights of all and to achieve gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls. They are integrated and indivisible and balance the economic, social and environmental dimensions of sustainable development.
“The anthropocene is a way of reimagining the world. The power is in the idea. Much as the renaissance and the enlightenment changed the way people thought, the anthropocene could shape thinking going forward. We can rethink the way the world works - but only if we want to.”
(David Biello, 2016)