Geologists named the interglacial period which followed the development of agriculture ten millennia ago the holocene era. At a climate conference in 2000, Paul Crutzen, Nobel laureate in chemistry, declared that human impacts on the biosphere since the industrial transition 250 years ago have been so extensive as to justify naming the present era the anthropocene, which is accepted by many climate scientists.
The anthropocene has entailed harnessing energy from fossil fuels to machines for manufacturing, heating, lighting, transport, agriculture and communications. It has conferred many benefits on human health and wellbeing, including liberation from unrelenting physical toil, increased life expectancy and improved living conditions in developed countries, alongside a sevenfold global increase in population.
In terms of personal metabolism, there is a wide disparity between the one sixth of the human population suffering from under-nutrition, and a similar proportion who experience over-nutrition, including an epidemic of overweight and obesity, associated with Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers.
In terms of planetary metabolism, human activities have led to serious disruption of the ecosystems of the biosphere, including land degradation, rapid loss of biodiversity, global heating and climate disruption from greenhouse gases released from profligate combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation. Effects of the anthropocene over the past decade include extreme weather events, resource depletion and threats to food and water security to an unsustainable and possibly irreversible extent.
Transition from anthropocene to sustainocene will require radical political, economic and social changes. At the biosphere level, changes include population stabilization, inequalities reduction, education, and uncoupling economic development and employment from fossil fuel use and environmental destruction. In terms of personal health it will require less energy-rich foodstuffs and more physical activity.
Since retirement from the ANU Health Service, Bryan Furnass has extended his interests in the health of humans to the health of the biosphere, on which we all depend. He is a member of the Strategic Council of the Climate Institute.