[This article has been published in Spanish in The Huffington Post on the occasion of the World Environment Day]
The Anthropocene Age began about 70 years ago, and is defined by the profound impact of human beings on the natural environment
There is a general scientific consensus that we have left behind the Holocene Age, which lasted about 12,000 years, to enter what has been named the Anthropocene Age. This new epoch began about 70 years ago, and is defined by the profound impact of human beings on the natural environment. During this period our behavior, such as energy uses, natural resource consumption, waste generation and creation of products like plastic, will have an irreversible impact on climate conditions and the biosphere.
For example, every year, humans now consume more resources than the earth can regenerate. While this has allowed humanity to flourish in many ways, the risks are also increasing, and it implies that our existence is no longer sustainable within our natural boundaries. In short, it is the Age of Us, where human activity moves to center stage and will have the biggest influence on the future of our planet.
As human beings who inhabit and share this planet with other life forms, have an unprecedented role and responsibility for the collective future
Depending on whom you talk to, the Anthropocene Age can be perceived as an impending catastrophe or an opportunity. What it does make clear is that we, as human beings who inhabit and share this planet with other life forms, have an unprecedented role and responsibility for the collective future. On the occasion of the World Environment Day, from the Urban Planning, Environment and Health Initiative at ISGlobal, we reflect on what this means for our cities and our health.
The majority of human activity and consumption now occurs in urban areas, and this trend is growing. Globally, cities cover only about 2% of the earth’s surface, but are responsible for 60% of human energy consumption, and produce 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of global waste. Not surprisingly, people in urban areas often have higher exposures to environmental threats such as air and noise pollution and heat island effects. Over 80% of cities worldwide exceed the World Health Organisation air quality guidelines for safe air. Outdoor air pollution alone kills almost four million people a year worldwide. These same pollutants that threaten our health also affect the environment, raising temperatures and melting snow and ice, contributing to a cycle of consequences that reach the entire ecosystem.
Globally, cities cover only about 2% of the earth’s surface, but (...)produce 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of global waste
The concentration of populations in cities makes us more vulnerable to extreme weather events and natural disasters. Urban areas also have greater inequality in the distribution of natural resources such as water and green space. Yet, the growth of our cities need not be a recipe for demise and despair. Better understanding and awareness of the impacts of urbanisation can also lead to individual and collective action to promote and protect our own health and that of the environment. This will require innovation to change the way we plan and live in our urban contexts.
Technology will be our ally, but alone will not be sufficient. We must also recover those elements, such as cycling and green corridors, which many cities have left behind, but are effective and achievable strategies to reduce our environmental impacts. We should also rethink the paradigms and priorities used to make both policies and individual choices that generate unsustainable resource use and fail to protect common goods such as clean air, soil and water that we all depend upon.
Planetary Health: human health and human civilisation depend on flourishing natural systems and the wise stewardship of those natural systems
One relevant framework to understand and address the challenges of urbanisation in this new age is Planetary Health. The underlying premise is powerful, human health and human civilisation depend on flourishing natural systems and the wise stewardship of those natural systems. Our health, indeed our very survival as a species, is intrinsically linked with that of the planet. Planetary health goes beyond a research agenda, to take on issues of governance, human behavior and definitions of core concepts such as prosperity that drive policy and development. ISGlobal is a member of the Planetary Health Alliance, and our research and translation activities contribute to its objectives.
Ultimately, our success will depend on our ability to work together, bridging gaps in research, policy and local action. It necessitates that we transcend political and geographical borders to consider how local actions and responsibilities contribute to global impact. We all have something to contribute to making this an age where we and our planet can thrive.