Insecurity, the Anthropocene & nature’s tipping points

Each February, leaders, policy-makers, thinkers and practitioners in the field of security, broadly defined, get together at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in Munich for a three day international conference. At the Munich Security Conference in February 2019, Germany’s then Chancellor, Angela Merkel, opened her speech by reflecting on the world’s entry into a new geochronological age – the Anthropocene Epoch. 

She explained, “This means that we are living in an age in which humankind’s traces penetrate so deeply into the Earth that future generations will regard it as an entire age created by humans.” She briefly touched on different human impacts on the environment and then said, “All of this has implications for global security and for the issues that are being discussed right here, right now.”

Right here, right now, too right.

Dating the Anthropocene

The label for the epoch of the last 12 millennia is Holocene. The idea that the Anthropocene label is right for this epoch was first proposed in a 2-page, 1000-word article in a professional academic newsletter in 2000. It was adopted by the International Union of Geological Sciences in 2016. As Ms Merkel said, the term simply means that human activity is the major influence on the natural environment. Not all scientists accept the new terminology but, for me, the core of the argument is right: due to human activity, something new is unfolding and thinking about security and peace and, indeed, every aspect of governments’ policies and everyday life are touched by it. 

In order to acknowledge and define a new geological epoch, geologists want to identify a signal that is (or will be) part of the global geological record. The signal reveals the trigger event that creates the transition from one epoch to the next. The extinction of the dinosaurs 66m years ago by a meteor colliding with Earth marks the end of the Cretaceous epoch, which was followed by the Paleogene; that change is identifiable in iridium deposits around the world that were originally dispersed from the meteorite.

So what about the Anthropocene – the dating of its onset and the trigger event that brought it on? Debate on both continues. One line of thought favours the start of the industrial revolution, around 1800 CE, while others opt for 1945 or thereabouts – the beginning of the nuclear age, the start of dense carbon emissions from coal-burning power stations, the beginning of large-scale environmental pollution, and the start of the plastic age and of the Great Acceleration in the use of natural resources. Taken together, these combine to leave so many signals behind that it’s hard to choose which one to prioritise. 

A precise dating is an unlikely exercise but, to my mind, it makes sense to think of the approximate start date as being in the vicinity of 1945–1950, rather than at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. 

Tipping points

Humans live on the lithosphere (land) as part of the biosphere, relying as other animals do on the hydrosphere and the atmosphere for water and air, and on the climate sphere to regulate food production. Taken together, these spheres form the ecosphere. 

For more than a decade now, researchers have noted that the human impact on the ecosphere is increasing the occurrence of tipping points. These large, abrupt and persistent critical changes in ecosystems can be seen in a wide range of diverse locations and at scales ranging from local to global. Many of these changes mean the loss of the contributions that nature makes to people’s wellbeing that have hitherto underpinned livelihoods, commerce and development. When they happen, the change in many cases is likely to be irreversible.

The timing is hard to figure out. It’s not only unclear when tipping points might be reached but also, so to speak, how long they will take to tip.

The reason for the uncertainty is that what is involved are the combined consequences of shifts in different ecosystems. The idea of tipping points thus reflects the inter-connectedness that is a fundamental characteristic of the natural world. Everything links to something else and, because it does, the system as a whole is relatively robust; once damaged, however, the consequences unfold in cascades.

Nature has proven to be a lot more durable than a house of cards but, if and when parts of it are fatally damaged, that may well be how collapses happen.

The new world

Many of the environmental events that lie ahead will be unprecedented. This is a new world, or a new age of the world, and it hasn’t happened yet, so it’s not surprising if nobody fully understands it. But the glimpses we can get should be enough to say, No thanks.

The ecosphere is a network of interactions. Many of them are strange at first sight and hard to grasp yet surprisingly, even astonishingly real, such as the connections to be found between trees and the earth’s rotation, or between wolves’ behaviour and the course of a river. As a result of this intrinsic inter-connectedness, in nature’s cascade, negative events will likely have a widely dispersed and even global impact. For example, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon region, where more than one-third of the land has been degraded by logging and drought, may trigger changes in patterns of rainfall and seriously affect maize yields in much of Latin America, with severe effects on food security.  

Changes that are individually the result of activity in one sector, such as agriculture, fishing, urbanisation or industry, can combine together to generate the risk of inter-locking, unexpected and damaging effects in geographically far distant regions.

The new world we are inadvertently in the process of creating, in other words, is one whose full reality for us will be defined by a profound degree of connectedness – not just in the “connectivity” sense of communications, trade and transport, but, more importantly, in the sense that humans, nature, regions and activities of all kinds are linked together.

Us too

So the kind of changes we are talking about are not limited to the natural environment, seen as something separate from us humans, especially those living in the richer parts of the world. It is about us too.

Or, perhaps better said, it is about humans because we are part of nature.

And the truth is that we do not know and must have some concerns about how we will handle the consequences of tipping points. There will be those who survive – perhaps the powerful, the privileged and the relatively protected most of all. Social orders will perhaps take on a new shape and continue.

But along the way there will be a heightened risk of insecurity, upheaval, conflict and probably violence, both within states and, possibly, between them.

That risk is what we need to address now. There is still time to mitigate some of the risk – to reduce the likelihood of some major tipping points being crossed. But there are places where localised tipping points have already been crossed, revealing a new ecological reality to which people must adapt.

Sometimes adaptation is and will be pretty smooth and sometimes it is and will be deeply disruptive, not just of individual lives and families, but of communities and societies and of their political order. And that is when and how the security implications of environmental change will hit hard.

Which is why Angela Merkel was so right to declare four years ago that everything that is discussed at the Munich Security Conference is – or should be – influenced in one way or another by the world’s entry into the Anthropocene Epoch.

And therefore…

To conclude with a set of points that I have already made:

  • The biosphere is a network of interdependence of which we humans are a part and on which we fully depend;
  • That inter-connectedness means that the negative consequences of seemingly disconnected human activities can cascade together;
  • To limit and reverse the damage done to the biosphere so that people may thrive will require cooperative action between groups and between states that are currently adversaries;
  • Thus, two spaces – security and the ecosphere – that are each characterised by complex inter-connections are also connected to each other.
  • Protecting the natural environment can enhance peace; and enhancing peace will limit damage to the natural environment and help us start to care for it better.


A good source of discussion and inspiration on these themes is the book, Anthropocene (In)securities: Reflections on Collective Survival 50 Years After the Stockholm Conference, edited by Malin Mobjörk and Eva Lövbrand, published by Oxford University Press in 2021.

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