Encyclopedia of Sustainability in Higher Education

Living Edition
| Editors: Walter Leal Filho

Anthropocene and Sustainable Development

  • Leonardo Freire de MelloEmail author
  • Sara Aparecida de Paula
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-63951-2_108-1


The Anthropocene is the name given to the set of changes and transformations through which the planet Earth has passed during the last century or so and that have reached such a profound magnitude that several scientists and researchers affirm that the planet has entered a new geological era. These transformations can be seen and experienced in processes as the fast and vast urbanization process all over the world, growth in social and economic inequality rates like never seen before, wider and deeper overexploitation and scarcity of natural resources (soil erosion, water pollution, use of oil and other fossil fuels as main energy source by an increasing number of people), ecosystems degradation, and a higher incidence of phenomena like hurricanes, storms, droughts, floods, and high risk natural disasters in general, as well as the extinction of animal and vegetal species in unforeseen speed and proportions. Its comprehension is fundamental to discuss and to plan strategies and global action to achieve sustainable development and to assure the survival of our species through the adaptation to new environmental conditions.


Nowadays, the transformations through which the planet Earth has passed have become increasingly visible, especially its consequences on the environment and on society as a whole. Examples of these transformations can be seen in processes such as: the fast and vast urbanization process all over the world, growth in social and economic inequality rates like never seen before (Buttel et al. 1985; Galtung 1979; Tucker 1982; Ophuls 1977), wider and deeper overexploitation and scarcity of natural resources (soil erosion, water pollution, use of oil and other fossil fuels as main energy source by an increasing number of people), ecosystems degradation, and a higher incidence of phenomena like hurricanes, storms, droughts, floods, and high risk natural disasters in general, as well as the extinction of animal and vegetal species in unforeseen speed and proportions. These changes have reached such a profound magnitude (Osborn 1953), that several scientists and researchers affirm that the planet has entered a new geological era, which is called the Anthropocene.

Anthropo is a word of Greek origin which means man or human being while cene, also of Greek origin, means era or new, being mostly common used for geological eras. Thus, in a general sense, anthropocene can be understood as the “Human Being Era,” meaning that humans have developed and reached such a potential to change the environment (both social as natural) that the species became the most important driving force of the planetary transformation processes but has not the full control over them. However, before getting into the main topic of this text, it is important to better understand the previous Era and why it has changed.

Scientists called the last 12–10 millenia until now as the Holocene Era, a period of time mainly characterized, in human species’ perspective, by the transition from nomadism, when our ancestors were basically hunters and gatherers wandering around the planet to sedentary and organized societies influenced by the discovery and control of fire, which was essential to heating, cooking, and pottery processes, and tools manufacturing. In general, it already represents a huge transformation of the relationship between humans and nature, as long as humans were able to produce food through agriculture and domesticated animals. It was also a relatively stable period regarding global climate and environment changes, which helped humans to thrive developing both physically and intellectually.

There is yet another basic and essential feature that should be perceived and understood besides all the transformations aforementioned. It emerges if one highlights the role of the overuse of fossil fuels and its resulting emission and increased concentration of greenhouse effect gases on Earth’s atmosphere, fact that did not happen in the Holocene at rates as high as the observed during the last 300 years. This aspect is very important to understand the global transition to the Anthropocene and will be better explained ahead.

What is Anthropocene in Theory?

Paul J. Crutzen, Dutch chemist and 1995 Nobel-prize winner, suggested in 2002 that mankind and the planet would have entered into a new age, that he called as the Anthropocene. According to him, about approximately 300 years ago, from the Industrial Revolution scenario at the end of the eighteenth century, human action gained geological and morphological transformation potency, confirmed by the increased levels of carbon dioxide and methane concentration, causing the planet to migrate from the Holocene era to the Anthropocene (Crutzen 2002, 2006).

In addition to the fast industrial advance as one of the main characteristics of this transition, it can also be mentioned aspects as the potential of transformation and access of the human being to nature, in addition that there are also the consequences related to the population increase resulting from the urbanization process and the greater use of energy resources, mainly through the overexploitation of fossil fuels such as coal and oil, which is profoundly related to the higher levels of dioxide and methane concentration in the atmosphere, a keypoint to understand the Anthropocene debate. Crutzen suggests that Planet Earth in the Anthropocene has left its natural geological cycle, mainly, by pervasive human activities.

Considering these aspects of the transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, it is important to note that the preindustrial period is also marked by transformations in the relationship between society and nature, however, these impacts were transitory and restricted to a more local and reduced geographic scale. As stated by Steffen et al. (2007), preindustrial societies did not have an organizational structure in the economic, social, and technological spheres that allowed a real “domination” of nature and this is the main difference in relation to the dynamics of industrial and post-industrial societies.

It is essential to pay attention that, according to the main theorists in this topic, the Anthropocene has three stages: the first one takes place from the Industrial Revolution (between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) until 1945, the second is from 1945 (the end of the World War II) to 1960, and, from 1960 until the present, Earth is going through the third stage.

The first phase, which lasted until 1945, is marked by the process of industrialization with the implementation of new techniques and technologies not only in industrial production processes but also in agriculture with the increasing mechanization and use of pesticides and fertilizers, which allowed not only a significant and unprecedented increase in the production of food and other goods but also influenced the modification and degradation of the environment with the emission of noxious gases and deforestation, for example.

Since 1945, after World War II, the world is experiencing the so-called Great Acceleration of the Anthropocene. This context is marked, initially, by political and economic actions based on the reconstruction of the countries involved and devastated in the conflict. In this sense, beyond the recovery and modernization of the physical infrastructure, the period is also characterized by the implementation of high investments in key sectors related to social well-being of the population; more than this, it is paramount to highlight the role of policies to encourage mass consumption (and consequently the formation, expansion, reproduction, and consolidation of middle classes in central countries) as predominant and central to economic growth and social development (Keyfitz 1976; Kate 2000).

This historical period is also described as the phase of the Great Acceleration for other reasons, such as, the global population practically doubled during this period (this factor, in conjunction with the industrialization of the Global South and reindustrialization of the Global North processes, caused a rural exodus boom as millions of people headed to urban areas all over the world), economic development rates increased with an ample flow of capitals and trade in general (this period was also known as the Golden Age of Capitalism with high growth rates linked to state policies such as the Marshall Plan), the increase of oil and other fossil fuels consumption (for industrial processes and transportation systems, which was accelerated through the incentives given to the automobile industry and the popularization of the use of the car), the acceleration of the urbanization as mentioned and the advent of new technologies as never seen before.

After that, it is important to keep in mind that since the 1960s the planet started a transition to the third stage of the Anthropocene, also called the “business-as-usual” stage. The main difference from the previous period concerns the role of the state in the economy, that is, until the 1960s, Keynesianism was predominant, especially in developed countries, in the sense that the state had a central role in controlling the economy. After this period, economic crises demonstrated the exhaustion of this model and the rise of a new mind-set based on neoliberalism, in which everything is defined and commanded through the actions and wills of the market, which regulates itself. In this sense, not only economics and politics would be and should be market driven but also the environment and its resources, which came to be treated as unlimited commodities, while the belief, or myth, that technology could solve any problem related to scarcity and environmental degradation spread and consolidated throughout the planet. Sky was literally the limit for Humankind (Schnaiberg and Watts 1980, 1986; McPhee 1989).

As discussed and highlighted by Crutzen, it is not possible to place a specific date for the beginning of the Anthropocene. Thus, the author relates the Anthropocene to the Industrial Revolution, because it is at this moment in history that the impacts of human actions on nature and the different societies (such as the smogs in London in the early 1950s and the diverse and growing problems of air, water, and soil pollution in large cities in developed countries, for example).

As a direct consequence of this hegemonic mind-set together with burning fossil fuels, the use of fertilizers and pesticides in agriculture, the intensive livestock breeding and deforestation, greenhouse gases have increased substantially in the atmosphere, altering rainfall patterns, causing increases in temperature and rising sea levels. These are some of the examples used to understand the potential of human activities.

Another aspect highlighted about the Anthropocene is that in the previous Era, the Holocene, environment impacts used to happen locally, and in the current Era, it occurs in a Global scale, by this way, gas emissions in some countries may affect the climate patterns in others as well, or the ocean patterns which may increase the incidence of storms and earthquakes, causing structural problems and people displacements, for example. Therefore, the overall consequences are considerably higher than in previous times, thus representing great challenges for the survival of Humankind and that is why understanding the concept is primordial.

In an attempt to getting a richer discussion, the concept that started in a chemistry circle is turning or getting space either in the human and social sciences discussions about the world, the sustainability and the future.

An example of this kind of approach was made by Amparo Vilches and Daniel Perez, who published in 2008 an article for the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014) which is associated to the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (eight global Goals adopted and assumed in 2000 for the twenty-first century).

In this text, the authors point out that it is important not only to pay attention to the consequences and risk situations but also to take it as an opportunity of changing the society mind-set and human being behavior in relation to nature and the environment (Vilches et al. 2008).

For understanding this process, it is important to bear in mind that human actions in the Anthropocene contextualization are connected to the economic system and how we explore the natural resources for our daily lives and the products our society consumes. The main problem of this equation is that natural resources such as oil, water, and soil are actually limited and they have been used as unlimited resources. For Vilches and Perez, acting as if Earth is a limitless resource warehouse and waste disposal facility boosts this whole scenario to an emergency situation. If nothing is done, there is a serious risk of another mass extinction on the planet.

When studying the Anthropocene and its main characteristics in relation to the impacts caused by the emission of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it is important to point out that these results are deeply felt by society, either by the transformations caused by climatic disasters or the scarcity driven by environmental changes such as pollution and soil erosion, for example. Thus, it is necessary to construct the Anthropocene approach as an interactive system between nature and society (and all its economic, political and cultural dynamics).

Bruno Latour (2014) describes that there was a strong tendency to treat science and politics as divergent and strictly separate areas; however, for the author, the answer to the challenges would be deficient and would only loose with this type of relationship. In this way, Latour points out that one of the main challenges for the Anthropocene as a tool of analysis is to treat politics and science as joint areas, relating the factors with the concerns about how to face the problems.

From this perspective of integration, Artaxo (2014) reports that, in a general sense, Earth is surpassing the planetary boundaries, which would be the safe operating limits for the survival of humanity. In order to corroborate this idea, the author brings to the discussion the analysis of the “Great Acceleration” charts, where it is clear that the patterns of production and consumption of the current natural resources are determinant for the transformation of the planet and the population.

In 2010, Will Steffen published a work, which based the Anthropocene trajectory, according to the aforementioned charts of the “Great Acceleration.” These charts were originally published in 2004 and extended in the year 2010. They were built and synthesized under the project of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP), which initially comprised the period between 1999 and 2003. Considering the considerations made by Paul Crutzen, the graphs demonstrate the transformations that occurred on the planet, both in biophysical and socioeconomic aspects between 1750 and 2000, especially highlighting the deep acceleration that occurred in the second half of the twentieth century.

The large-scale growth of the aforementioned elements can be easily related to socioeconomic trends charts. It can be seen that in the period between 1950 and 2000, the global population has practically doubled (something new in the history of mankind being given such a magnitude in such a short time); however, it is necessary to understand and analyze that most of this growth occurred in countries in the process of development. In this sense, one of the most paradoxical issues in this area is that, despite this growth occurring in developing countries, real GDP growth is much higher in developed countries, thus demonstrating the structural economic and social inequalities between the different groups. In addition, the sector of investments, transport, paper, water, and fertilizer use occurs on a larger-scale also in developed countries; however, the consequences of environmental changes are always more felt in places of greater economic and social vulnerability (Bankoff et al. 2004; Cutter 1996; Cutter and Emrich 2006; Cutter et al. 2003; Cutter et al. 2006; Galtung 1986; Jones 1993; Adger 2000).

The aforementioned discrepancies and contradictions are a central part of the analysis to understand the magnitude of the challenges in order to broaden the debate and its search for alternatives of mitigation and resolution of the problems, after all it is perceived that a generalist view that human action transforms the environment is limited as societies are diverse in structures and patterns. Therefore, it is noteworthy that it is substantial for the anthropocene to expand more and more into an integrative and systematic analysis.

Anthropocene and Sustainable Development

As discussed before, since 1945 at the end of World War II, industrial production has increased a lot, as well as its local, regional and global impacts. For this reason, since the 1960s, global warming has been at the mainstream world debate about environment, and this is why the concept of Anthropocene is so important nowadays as a way to conceptualize the global environmental changes, as well as their human dimensions.

Some researchers are attesting the need to understand the world as a system, in which society and environment are deeply related. It means that human actions and activities certainly may affect environment and their impacts will come in return to society as well. Authors as Crutzen affirm that the actions that characterize the Anthropocene will occur for thousands or millions of years yet. This is an unknown situation, still though, this theory brings up to the debate a strategy to understand what is occurring, how to manage with, and, most importantly, how to adapt ourselves and our societies to it (Crenson 1971).

Rachel Carson launched her book “Silent Spring” in 1962, questioning whether we should actually use so many chemicals in pest control in agricultural production, and more than that, pointing to the fact that nature is fragile and that its equilibrium can be easily ruptured by human intervention (Ames et al. 1987). A series of researches began to bring attention to the risk that the human species was exposing itself by demanding more of the planet than it was capable of (Giddens 2009; Beck 1992). However, other voices rose to say that whatever was said about the risk of environmental collapse, the technology would be able to solve.

The 1970s represented a moment of growing concern for society regarding environmental issues. A series of major environmental disasters and the progressive deterioration of the quality of urban life have made the attention of people in general, the academic community and governments turned to the environmental dimension of development.

In 1972, in Stockholm, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment took place. It was the first time that representatives of industrialized and developing countries met to discuss, exclusively and systematically, the issue of the global environment and the development of the planet. This conference has achieved significant results, such as the creation of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the further development of a series of United Nations conferences focused on issues such as food, housing, population, human rights and the living conditions of women, and the promotion of the idea that it was necessary to change the way humans relate to the environment (United Nations Environment Programme 1981a, 1981b, 1986, 1987). A preparatory meeting for this conference that deserves attention, according to Sachs (1993), was what the author defines as “a memorable” Founex Meeting, Switzerland, in 1971.

In the same year, MIT published the report “Limits to Growth,” (Meadows et al. 1972) produced by the so-called Club of Rome. The report explicitly pointed out the limits of economic growth because of its dependence on the non-renewability of most natural resources and proposing – polemically – “no economic growth” or “zero economic growth.” Produced in a period marked by the fashion of using computer models of complex phenomena, the report was severely criticized for a number of reasons.

First, its conclusion condemned the Third World (which in 1972 was still a social, economic, and political reality) to eternal poverty. Without growth, there was no possibility of development. Secondly, the report completely ignored the demographic transition, incorporating linear extrapolations of vital rates at the time. The transition already foreseen by demographers (who just could not pinpoint their timing) had already begun, albeit timidly and imperceptibly (Ackerman 1959; Brown and Hutchings 1972; Brown 1981; Brown et al. 1999; Boserup 1965, 1981). However, the advances of demographic science, as early as the early 1970s, did not absolutely authorize this simplification. Third, other simplifications have been incorporated to compensate for the lack of data concerning the parameters of the model, especially regarding natural resources (Malthus 1998).

In 1974, in Cocoyoc, Mexico, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, which produced a document, the Cocoyoc Declaration, was considered by many authors as fundamental for the construction of a new perception of the relationship between society and nature, incorporating into the discussion the idea that there were environmental and social limits for development that should be respected.

Another event was held in Nairobi, Kenya, in 1982, this time focused on assessing what it had advanced in relation to the discussions in Stockholm. This meeting resulted in the formation of the World Commission on Environment and Development, which, however, was only concretely implemented in 1983.

In 1987, this Commission published the “Our Common Future” report – also known as the “Brundtland Report” because the committee chair was then Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland – which a world conference to drive efforts to establish another form of relationship with the environment. For the first time, the concept of “sustainable development” was used which, according to the commission, was defined as “development that meets the needs of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

However, this concept was not new, especially for the academic community. Since the early 1970s, a number of researchers, including Ignacy Sachs (1970, 1972, 1980, 1981, 1993), have been discussing the need for and urgency of change, particularly in relation to the production and consumption patterns of industrialized countries, in order to find ways of building in practice what some called ecodevelopment.

In 1992, in Rio de Janeiro, there was perhaps the most famous meeting of world leaders until then, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the Earth Summit, Rio Conference, Eco’92 or simply Rio-92. This conference was attended by 178 world leaders and produced a series of documents that synthesized the yearnings and concerns of the peoples of the planet regarding the environmental issue.

Among these documents, it is important to highlight Agenda 21, the Rio Declaration, the Declaration of Principles on Forests, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Framework Convention on Climate Change. The same conference resulted in the creation in 1993 of the United Nations system of the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), which aimed to monitor the implementation of Agenda 21.

In 1997, Rio+5 or the Special Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations was hosted by the SDC in Cairo, Egypt, and its main objective was to review the implementation of the Global Agenda 21 so far. This conference identified a number of gaps related to the difficulties faced in pursuing social equity and reducing poverty on the planet. These difficulties were considered, according to the experts and scholars who attended the meeting, as a direct result of the reduction of international financial aid, the increase in external debts and the failure to improve Agenda 21 measures such as technology transfer, capacity building for participation and development, institutional coordination, and reduction of excessive levels of production and consumption. At this moment, the increasing need for ratification and more efficient implementation of international conventions and agreements relating to the environment and development has been strengthened.

In 2002, in Johannesburg, South Africa, the World Summit on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio+10, took place. The first analyzes, still produced in the heat of the events, indicated that perhaps this was the less effective and more empty of the big global meetings to discuss environment and development.

In 2012, Rio+20, also known as UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It is noteworthy that Rio+20 is quite significant because it represents not only the extent of Rio 92 discussions but also a debate center on what has really been effective and what needs to be improved. In this sense, for Sánchez and Croal (2012) it is important to highlight two of the main positive results of the 1992–2012 period: consolidation of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) through a legal framework and legislation based on them in most countries, not only in the political-state environment but also in the international arena in organizations and institutions such as the World Bank and OECD and the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) with development planning initiatives.

Sánchez and Croal point out that Rio+20 for some experts was not as promising as expected due to disagreements over the green economy, for example, which was a central element of the conference, and because it did not give so much emphasis to elements such as EIA and SEA.

In spite of these considerations, it is important to note that, as posed by David Evans (2018), the concept of “sustainable consumption” was retaken at Rio+20, which had its first debates in Rio’92, as a means to broaden the discussion about the challenges of impacts on the environment driven by the capitalist economic model. From this perspective, the author emphasizes that it is not necessary to change only production and consumption but all the economic, political, cultural, and social processes that permeate this dynamic in search of a sustainable systematization.

To increase the importance of the sustainability debate, in the 2000s, within the UN, member states defined eight Millennium Goals as an attempt to discuss, mitigate, and adapt to contemporary challenges. These objectives were mainly based on the attempt to eradicate poverty, improve health conditions, promote equality, and ensure sustainability in relation to the environment. It is noted that the configuration of such objectives function as an integrated system in which each element depends on the other to guarantee its success (United Nations 2015).

Already in the year 2015, in a published report, the UN notes that many advances have been made, however, other problems continue or have even been aggravated as the issue of social and economic inequality, and the environmental issues that have become increasingly prominent in recent years.

For these reasons, in 2015, the UN launched 17 goals known as “Sustainable Development Goals,” highlighting previously agreed goals and expanding their scope, placing the role of sustainability as central to ensuring change, such as the importance of responsible consumption, as well as food and energy security for social sustainability and ensuring action against global environmental and climate change.

It should be stressed that, in this sense, sustainability does not only appear in relation to the environment but also in consideration of economics and policy to allow the promotion of development and growth in a sustainable way. These elements highlight again the relationship between society and nature as the mode of production and development affects the environment and vice versa (Almeida 1972; Bates 1969; Campbell and Wade 1972).

Analyzing the centrality of the problem mentioned here is essential for trying to make new strategies for facing it. Thus, the role of sustainability and the quest for sustainable development are very important for the survival of our species through the Anthropocene (Tolba 1982; Giddens 2009), as such measures adopted in the political, social, and productive process as a whole would be essential for promoting the mitigation of problems and, especially, the preparation to adapt to changes already under way and also to those that will still come.


The discussion connecting topics such as the Anthropocene and Sustainable Development has brought to light debates as this one are essential to the understanding of issues so present in the everyday life of contemporary societies. This is mainly due to the fact the twenty-first century faces challenges when it comes to maintenance and survival of the planet, as today’s world is presented with threats as severe as climatic disasters and environmental changes, which are, as a whole, indubitable.

As put by the authors studied, these transformations have occurred on a large and deep scale in a relatively short period of time, dating back roughly to the period after the Industrial Revolution, that is, just over 150 years.

It is noted that the risks have deepened, mainly by the influences of human action on the environment. However, it is important to point out that this influence is part of a very broad process, involving different spheres and areas, that is, the political action linked to the mode of production and consumption as an economic model based on the supposition that the resources would be unlimited; in addition, there is the preconception of social patterns and habits linked to the idea of consumption as happiness and satisfaction. It is in this sense that not only the analysis of what is happening must take place in an integrated way, but also the search for solutions.

Given the available information, this article concludes by highlighting the importance of the relationship between the natural sciences and the human and social sciences, so the Anthropocene should not be treated only as a chemical concept on greenhouse gas emissions and their consequences in the global environmental changes but still as a systemic crisis, in which the observation of society as a whole is fundamental to broaden its understanding. This observation can be corroborated with the graphs on “The Great Acceleration” adapted by Steffen in 2010, relating the social and planetary trends according to the different regions and countries (with their particularities).

Another consideration is the construction of the concepts of sustainability and sustainable development. The authors who discuss the Anthropocene make it clear that the fact that the planet is reaching its limits represents a situation so complex that it is no longer possible to reverse the whole problem and therefore the search for alternatives based on adaptation is extremely essential (Janssen and Ostrom 2006; Giddens 2009). And it is in this sense that sustainability is central to determining Humankind’s ability to adapt to changes to survive the Anthropocene. It is noted that the term ascended from the 1970s and went through different phases of discussion, sometimes being expanded and in others “erased” with the idea that technology could solve any planetary limitation.

Finally, the subject discussed in this entry is of great relevance for the contemporary debate. Besides, it makes an attempt to link sustainable development to the concept of anthropocene.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Leonardo Freire de Mello
    • 1
    Email author
  • Sara Aparecida de Paula
    • 2
  1. 1.Centre for Engineering, Modelling and Applied Social Sciences, Territorial Planning DepartmentFederal University of ABCSão Bernardo do CampoBrazil
  2. 2.Centre for Engineering, Modelling and Applied Social Sciences, Master’s Candidate on the Programme of International Political EconomyFederal University of ABCSão Bernardo do CampoBrazil

Section editors and affiliations

  • Tamara Savelyeva
    • 1
  1. 1.The Education University of Hong KongHong KongChina