The Anthropocene Review
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The trajectory of the
Anthropocene: The Great
Will Steffen,1,2 Wendy Broadgate,3 Lisa Deutsch,1
Owen Gaffney3 and Cornelia Ludwig1
The ‘Great Acceleration’ graphs, originally published in 2004 to show socio-economic and
Earth System trends from 1750 to 2000, have now been updated to 2010. In the graphs
of socio-economic trends, where the data permit, the activity of the wealthy (OECD)
countries, those countries with emerging economies, and the rest of the world have now
been differentiated. The dominant feature of the socio-economic trends is that the economic
activity of the human enterprise continues to grow at a rapid rate. However, the differentiated
graphs clearly show that strong equity issues are masked by considering global aggregates only.
Most of the population growth since 1950 has been in the non-OECD world but the world’s
economy (GDP), and hence consumption, is still strongly dominated by the OECD world. The
Earth System indicators, in general, continued their long-term, post-industrial rise, although
a few, such as atmospheric methane concentration and stratospheric ozone loss, showed a
slowing or apparent stabilisation over the past decade. The post-1950 acceleration in the Earth
System indicators remains clear. Only beyond the mid-20th century is there clear evidence for
fundamental shifts in the state and functioning of the Earth System that are beyond the range
of variability of the Holocene and driven by human activities. Thus, of all the candidates for a
start date for the Anthropocene, the beginning of the Great Acceleration is by far the most
convincing from an Earth System science perspective.
Anthropocene, Earth System change, global change trends, global equity, Great Acceleration
1Stockholm University, Sweden
2The Australian National University, Australia
3International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP),
Will Steffen, Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm
University, Sweden; Fenner School of Environment and
Society, The Australian National University, Canberra,
Australia. Postal address: 409/222 City Walk, Canberra
City ACT (Australian Capital Territory) 2601, Australia.
564785ANR0010.1177/2053019614564785The Anthropocene ReviewSteffen et al.
2 The Anthropocene Review
What have now become known as the ‘Great Acceleration’ graphs were originally designed and
constructed as part of the synthesis project of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme
(IGBP), undertaken during the 1999–2003 period. The synthesis aimed to pull together a decade of
research in IGBP’s core projects, and, importantly, generate a better understanding of the structure
and functioning of the Earth System as a whole, more than just a description of the various parts of
the Earth System around which IGBP’s core projects were structured. The increasing human pres-
sure on the Earth System was a key component of the synthesis.
The project was inspired by the proposal in 2000 by Paul Crutzen, a Vice-Chair of IGBP, that
the Earth had left the Holocene and entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, driven by
the impact of human activities on the Earth System (Crutzen, 2002; Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000).
Crutzen suggested that the start date of the Anthropocene be placed near the end of the 18th cen-
tury, about the time that the industrial revolution began, and noted that such a start date would
coincide with the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in 1784.
As part of the project, the synthesis team wanted to build a more systematic picture of the
human-driven changes to the Earth System, drawing primarily, but not exclusively, on the work of
the IGBP core projects. The idea was to record the trajectory of the ‘human enterprise’ through a
number of indicators and, over the same time frame, track the trajectory of key indicators of the
structure and functioning of the Earth System. Inspired by Crutzen’s proposal for the Anthropocene,
we chose 1750 as the starting date for our trajectories to ensure that we captured the beginning of
the industrial revolution and the changes that it wrought. We took the graphs up to 2000, the most
recent year that we had data for many of the indicators. The graphs, first published in the IGBP
synthesis book (Steffen et al., 2004), consisted of 12 indicators for the human enterprise and 12 for
features of the Earth System.
We expected to see a growing imprint of the human enterprise on the Earth System from the
start of the industrial revolution onwards. We didn’t, however, expect to see the dramatic change in
magnitude and rate of the human imprint from about 1950 onwards. That phenomenon was already
well known to historians such as John McNeill (2000) but generally not to Earth System scientists.
The post-1950 acceleration was noted in the IGBP synthesis book as:
One feature stands out as remarkable. The second half of the twentieth century is unique in the entire
history of human existence on Earth. Many human activities reached take-off points sometime in the
twentieth century and have accelerated sharply towards the end of the century. The last 50 years have
without doubt seen the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the
history of humankind. (Steffen et al., 2004: 131)
The term ‘Great Acceleration’ was first used in a working group of a 2005 Dahlem Conference
on the history of the human–environment relationship (Hibbard et al., 2006). The term echoed Karl
Polanyi’s phrase ‘The Great Transformation’, and in his book by the same name (Polanyi, 1944)
Polanyi put forward a holistic understanding of the nature of modern societies, including mentality,
behaviour, structure and more. In a similar vein, the term ‘Great Acceleration’ aims to capture the
holistic, comprehensive and interlinked nature of the post-1950 changes simultaneously sweeping
across the socio-economic and biophysical spheres of the Earth System, encompassing far more
than climate change.
The Dahlem working group was chaired by one of us (WS) and included both Paul Crutzen and
John McNeill. The term was first used in a journal article in 2007 (Steffen et al., 2007), in which
several stages of the Anthropocene were proposed and the 12 human enterprise graphs were reprinted.
Steffen et al. 3
The Great Acceleration graphs have since become an iconic symbol of the Anthropocene, and
have been reprinted many times and in many different academic and cultural fora and media (for
example globaia.org, wanderinggaia.com, visualizing.org, anthropocene.info, new scientist –
html#.VCVmXef4Lew – and form the basis for the data visualisation, Welcome to the Anthropocene,
http://vimeo.com/39048998). A version of the Great Acceleration graphs even appeared in Dan
Brown’s novel Inferno.
The post-1950 acceleration of the human imprint on the Earth System, particularly the 12 graphs
that show changes in Earth System structure and functioning, have played a central role in the
discussion around the formalisation of the Anthropocene as the next epoch in Earth history.
Although there has been much debate around the proposed start date for the Anthropocene, the
beginning of the Great Acceleration has been a leading candidate (Zalasiewicz et al., 2012).
Here we update, extend to 2010, analyse and discuss the significance of the Great Acceleration
graphs, including their relevance for the definition of the start date of the Anthropocene. Where the
data permit, in the 12 graphs of socio-economic trends we differentiate the activity of the wealthy
(OECD) countries, those countries with emerging economies, and the rest of the world. These
graphs with ‘splits’ are important in exploring equity issues in terms of the differential pressures
that various groups of countries apply to the Earth System and how the distribution of these pres-
sures among groups is changing through time.
Updating the graphs: Methodology
In updating the Great Acceleration graphs we aimed to maximise comparability by retaining, wher-
ever possible, the same indicators that we used in the original 24 graphs. For the socio-economic
trends we chose indicators that capture the major features of contemporary society. The original 12
included indicators for population, economic growth, resource use, urbanisation, globalisation,
transport and communication. We have retained 11 of the original 12 graphs. The only change was
to remove the number of McDonald’s restaurants, which we used as an indicator for globalisation,
and replace it with primary energy use. The combination of foreign direct investment, international
tourism and telecommunication gives some sense of the rapidly increasing degree of globalisation
and connectivity. Primary energy use is a key indicator that relates directly to the human imprint
on the functioning of the Earth System and is a central feature of contemporary society.
We first present the updated socio-economic trends in Figure 1 as global aggregates as in the
original set of 12 socio-economic graphs. We have also now, where the data permit, split ten of the
socio-economic graphs into trends for the OECD countries, for the so-called BRICS countries
(Brazil, Russia, India, China (including Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan where applicable) and
South Africa), and for the rest of the world (Figure 2). OECD members are here defined as coun-
tries that were members in 2010 and their membership status was applied to the whole data set,
which in some cases goes as far back as 1750.
The 12 Earth System indicators track change in major features of the system’s structure and
functioning – atmospheric composition, stratospheric ozone, the climate system, the water and
nitrogen cycles, marine ecosystems, land systems, tropical forests and terrestrial biosphere degra-
dation. Other good candidates could be found, for example, percentage Arctic sea-ice loss, but our
aim is to show general, long-term trends at a broad systemic level. Furthermore, the availability of
long-term data sets limited the choice of parameters (see below).
We have retained 11 of the 12 features of the Earth System’s structure and functioning that were
used in the original graphs, but the specific indicators have changed in a couple of cases. For
4 The Anthropocene Review
Figure 1. Trends from 1750 to 2010 in globally aggregated indicators for socio-economic development.
(1) Global population data according to the HYDE (History Database of the Global Environment, 2013)
database. Data before 1950 are modelled. Data are plotted as decadal points. (2) Global real GDP (Gross
Domestic Product) in year 2010 US dollars. Data are a combination of Maddison for the years 1750 to
2003 and Shane for 1969–2010. Overlapping years from Shane data are used to adjust Maddison data
to 2010 US dollars. (3) Global foreign direct investment in current (accessed 2013) US dollars based on
two data sets: IMF (International Monetary Fund) from 1948 to 1969 and UNCTAD (United Nations
Conference on Trade and Development) from 1970 to 2010. (4) Global urban population data according
to the HYDE database. Data before 1950 are modelled. Data are plotted as decadal points. (5) World
primary energy use. 1850 to present based on Grubler etal. (2012), 1750–1849 data are based on global
Steffen et al. 5
example, the indicator for ocean ecosystems is now marine fish capture in million tonnes, replacing
the percentage of fisheries fully exploited. For biodiversity loss – or more appropriately, the change
in biosphere integrity – the indicator is now percentage decrease in modelled mean species abun-
dance (actually an indicator of the aggregated human pressure on the terrestrial biosphere), replac-
ing the modelled number of species extinctions. We have removed the number of great floods from
the set of 12 graphs and replaced it with ocean acidification. As an indicator for change in biogeo-
chemical flows, we have retained the modelled human-induced perturbation flux of nitrogen into the
coastal margin as it is the only published analysis of the temporal evolution of this or similar trends
over the 1950–2010 period. This graph could be updated in the near future based on global water-
shed models using databases of observed fluxes of nitrogen through river basins (Seitzinger et al.,
2005). The change in surface temperature is the only trend that directly tracks changes in the climate
system, although of course changes in the atmospheric concentrations of the three most important
long-lived greenhouse gases, and ocean acidification, are closely related. The updated Earth System
trends are shown in Figure 3.
There are challenges with sourcing and merging data sets to show global trends over two-
and-a-half centuries. Data availability and access have improved significantly since the original
graphs were produced; however, there are still major challenges of incomplete and inaccessible
data sets, changing methodologies (e.g. the combining of data sets) and data coverage. In this
update we provide full data sets as supplementary material with web links and references to the
sources of these data to facilitate quality control and further analysis. We worked closely with data
originators on the selection, smoothing and merging of data so that each data set was treated in an
appropriate manner (see figure captions and supplementary material for details). In many cases
measurements are superimposed on the modelled and smoothed trends in the supplementary mate-
rial. However, we are unable in most cases to check the reliability of underlying raw data since
there is rarely more than one source of these data.
Models were used to provide a long-term view of various well-understood trends (tropical for-
est loss, domesticated land, terrestrial biosphere degradation, nitrogen to the coastal zone, water
withdrawal and ocean acidification). Reliable long-term data are not available for marine fish
population using 1850 data as a reference point. (6) Global fertilizer (nitrogen, phosphate and potassium)
consumption based on International Fertilizer Industry Association (IFA) data. (7) Global total number
of existing large dams (minimum 15 m height above foundation) based on the ICOLD (International
Committee on Large Dams) database. (8) Global water use is sum of irrigation, domestic, manufacturing
and electricity water withdrawals from 1900 to 2010 and livestock water consumption from 1961 to 2010.
The data are estimated using the WaterGAP model. (9) Global paper production from 1961 to 2010. (10)
Global number of new motor vehicles per year. From 1963 to 1999 data include passenger cars, buses and
coaches, goods vehicles, tractors, vans, lorries, motorcycles and mopeds. Data 2000–2009 include cars,
buses, lorries, vans and motorcycles. (11) Global sum of fixed landlines (1950–2010) and mobile phone
subscriptions (1980–2010). Landline data are based on Canning for 1950–1989 and UN data from 1990–
2010 while mobile phone subscription data are based solely on UN data. (12) Number of international
arrivals per year for the period 1950–2010.
Sources: (1) HYDE database; Klein Goldewijk etal. (2010). (2) Maddison (1995, 2001); M Shane, Research Service,
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA); Shane (2014). (3) IMF (2013); UNCTAD (2013). (4) HYDE database
(2013); Klein Goldewijk etal. (2010). (5) A Grubler, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA);
Grubler etal. (2012). (6) Olivier Rousseau, IFA; IFA database. (7) ICOLD database register search. Purchased 2011.
(8) M Flörke, Centre for Environmental Systems Research, University of Kassel; Flörke etal. (2013); aus der Beek
etal. (2010); Alcamo etal. (2003). (9) Based on FAO (Fisheries and Aquaculture Department online) online statistical
database FAOSTAT. (10) International Road Federation (2011). (11) Canning (1998); United Nations Statistics Division
(UNSD) (2014). (12) Data for 1950–1994 are from UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organization) (2006)
and data for 1995–2004 are from UNWTO (2011), data for 2005–2010 are from UNWTO (2014).
6 The Anthropocene Review
Figure 2. Trends from 1750 to 2010 for ten of the socio-economic graphs (excluding primary energy use
and international tourism) with three splits for: the OECD countries, the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia,
India, China (including Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan where applicable), and South Africa) countries, and
the rest of the world.
capture, shrimp aquaculture and stratospheric ozone loss. For global temperature, a longer-term
trend pre-1850 is available from the palaeo record. However, this is not calibrated, so we chose to
focus on the instrumental record.
Our data are unique in that they cover, where possible, the period 1750–2010. Other data sets
that exist over parts – and in some cases all – of these periods are consistent with our data. Some
Steffen et al. 7
Figure 3. Trends from 1750 to 2010 in indicators for the structure and functioning of the Earth System.
(1) Carbon dioxide from firn and ice core records (Law Dome, Antarctica) and Cape Grim, Australia
(deseasonalised flask and instrumental records); spline fit. (2) Nitrous oxide from firn and ice core records
(Law Dome, Antarctica) and Cape Grim, Australia (deseasonalised flask and instrumental records);
spline fit. (3) Methane from firn and ice core records (Law Dome, Antarctica) and Cape Grim, Australia
(deseasonalised flask and instrumental records); spline fit. (4) Maximum percentage total column ozone
decline (2-year moving average) over Halley, Antarctica during October, using 305 DU, the average
October total column ozone for the first decade of measurements, as a baseline. (5) Global surface
temperature anomaly (HadCRUT4: combined land and ocean observations, relative to 1961–1990, 20
yr Gaussian smoothed). (6) Ocean acidification expressed as global mean surface ocean hydrogen ion
8 The Anthropocene Review
examples are global and urban population; the data we present here from the History Database of
the Global Environment (HYDE, Klein Goldewijk et al., 2010) are consistent with other sources
(FAOSTAT and World Bank). Our fertilizer consumption graph (IFA database) maps exactly onto
the FAOSTAT for the portions that overlap. Our domestic land plot (Pongratz et al., 2008) is con-
sistent with the HYDE 3.1 distribution of cropland plus pasture (Klein Goldewijk et al., 2011) and
indeed our reconstructed domesticated land and tropical forest are calculated using land-use change
estimates including those from HYDE (Klein Goldewijk, 2001).
Extending the Great Acceleration to 2010
Because the aggregated socio-economic and Earth System trends are multi-decadal, the effect of
adding the most recent decade, from 2001 to 2010, onto the long-term trends needs to be inter-
preted with caution. One decade is too short to define long-term shifts in the trends. Nevertheless,
the most recent decade, in addition to showing a continuation of most of the trends begun at the
mid-20th century, is beginning to show some notable changes in a few areas.
The dominant feature of the socio-economic trends is that the economic activity of the human
enterprise continues to grow at a rapid rate. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008–2009 may be
just discernible at the end of the global GDP curve but it is more clearly visible as a sharp down-
turn during the last decade in foreign direct investment. Recovery has been rapid, however. Also,
there may be a slowing in the construction of new large dams. However, remaining global indi-
cators show no signs of slowing in the most recent decade. Primary energy use shows the shape
typical of the Great Acceleration trajectory but shows little or no evidence of an effect of the
Global Financial Crisis.
concentration from a suite of models (CMIP5) based on observations of atmospheric CO2 until 2005
and thereafter RCP8.5. (7) Global marine fishes capture production (the sum of coastal, demersal and
pelagic marine fish species only), i.e. it does not include mammals, molluscs, crustaceans, plants, etc.
There are no FAO data available prior to 1950. (8) Global aquaculture shrimp production (the sum of 25
cultured shrimp species) as a proxy for coastal zone modification. (9) Model-calculated human-induced
perturbation flux of nitrogen into the coastal margin (riverine flux, sewage and atmospheric deposition).
(10) Loss of tropical forests (tropical evergreen forest and tropical deciduous forest, which also includes
the area under woody parts of savannas and woodlands) compared with 1700. (11) Increase in agricultural
land area, including cropland and pasture as a percentage of total land area. (12) Percentage decrease in
terrestrial mean species abundance relative to abundance in undisturbed ecosystems as an approximation
for degradation of the terrestrial biosphere.
Sources: (1) D Etheridge CSIRO, Australia; Etheridge etal. (1996); MacFarling Meure etal. (2004, 2006); Langenfelds
etal. (2011). (2) D Etheridge CSIRO, Australia; MacFarling Meure etal. (2004, 2006); Langenfelds etal. (2011). (3) D
Etheridge CSIRO, Australia; Etheridge etal. (1998); MacFarling Meure etal. (2004, 2006); Langenfelds etal. (2011). (4)
Data provided by JD Shanklin, British Antarctic Survey, UK. Available at: www.antarctica.ac.uk/met/jds/ozone/index.
html#data. (5) P Jones, Climatic Research Unit, UK in conjunction with the Hadley Centre (UK). Available at: http://
www.cru.uea.ac.uk/cru/info/warming/gtc.csv. (6) J Orr, LSCE/IPSL, France; Bopp etal. (2013) and IPCC (Intergovern-
mental Panel on Climate Change) Fifth Assessment Report, Working Group 1, Chapter 6 (Ciais etal., 2013). (7) Data
are from the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department online database (Food and Agriculture Organization-FIGIS
(FAO-FIGIS), 2013). (8) Data are from the FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Department online database FishstatJ (FAO,
2013). (9) Mackenzie etal. (2002). (10) J Pongratz, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Stanford, USA; Pongratz etal.
(2008). ad 1700 to 1992 is based on reconstructions of land use and land cover (Pongratz etal., 2008). Beyond 1992 is
based on the IMAGE land use model. (11) J Pongratz, Carnegie Institution of Washington, Stanford, USA; Pongratz etal.
(2008). ad 1700 to 1992 is based on reconstructions of land use and land cover (Pongratz etal., 2008). Beyond 1992 is
based on the IMAGE land-use model. (12) R Alkemade, PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency: modelled
mean species abundance using GLOBIO3 based on HYDE reconstructed historical land-use change estimates (until
1990) then IMAGE model estimates (Alkemade etal., 2009; available at: www.globio.info; ten Brink etal., 2010).
Steffen et al. 9
Population continued to grow strongly through the 2001–2010 period with little sign of slowing.
However, changes in fertility rates foreshadow that exponential population growth will soon be over.
Global average fertility rate has dropped to 2.5 children per woman. Humanity has passed ‘peak
child’ and population is expected to reach between 10 and 11 billion people later this century (United
Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA), 2014), though some uncertainty
remains. Gerland et al. (2014) project a population of between 9.6 and 12.3 billion by 2100.
Resource use has continued to grow through the most recent decade. Global fertilizer consump-
tion, paper production and water use have all risen. The number of large dams, however, has shown
a strong levelling over the last 10–15 years. This will probably become a longer-term trend because
the number of large dams that can be built is limited by the finite number of large rivers. We are
probably approaching that limit, so the continuing increase in water use is likely driven by increas-
ing extraction of groundwater (Shah et al., 2007).
Transport, as measured by the number of motor vehicles, and international tourism continue
their explosive post-1950 growth. Telecommunications show even more explosive growth but the
take-off point for that trend was around 1990, driven largely by the mobile phone industry.
One of the most important trends of all is the rapid rate of urbanisation. The move from rural to
urban living began its contemporary rise in the late 1800s and its rate has steadily increased since
then, rising more sharply around 1950 and continuing to the present. About 2008 humanity passed
a historic milestone: over 50% of the global population now live in urban areas (Seto, 2010). On
current trajectories there will be more urban areas built during the first three decades of the 21st
century than in all of previous history combined (Seto et al., 2012).
The Earth System indicators also, in general, continued their long-term, post-industrial rise,
although there are some interesting variations. The atmospheric concentrations of the three,
long-lived greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane – all increased
through the decade, although methane at a slower rate than the other two. The rise in carbon
dioxide concentration parallels closely the rise in primary energy use and in GDP, showing no
sign yet of any significant decoupling of emissions from either energy use or economic growth
(Friedlingstein et al., 2014).
Atmospheric methane levelled out in the late 1990s, indicating that emissions (from natural
wetlands and anthropogenic waste, agriculture and biomass burning) were in balance with the
sinks (reaction in the atmosphere and absorption by soils), and increased again from 2007. The
exact reasons for the stabilisation and subsequent increase are debated, but the IPCC AR5 reports
that the recent increase is most likely caused by high temperatures in the Arctic and increased pre-
cipitation in the tropics (Ciais et al., 2013).
The relationship between the rising concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and
the warming of the climate system is now well documented, well understood and beyond reason-
able doubt (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 2013). Here we use the global
average surface air temperature as the indicator of the state of the climate system, and it clearly
shows the warming of the climate system, including the strong rise from about 1970 to 2000, and
the so-called ‘hiatus’ from about 2000 to the end of the graph (IPCC, 2013).
The ocean currently absorbs about a quarter of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere from
human activities each year (Le Quéré et al., 2009). This leads to ocean acidification, which tracks
the carbon dioxide curve closely. Whilst the ocean uptake of carbon dioxide significantly reduces
its impact on climate, it causes marine ecosystems and biodiversity to change. For example, corals
and shellfish are finding it more difficult to build their shells (Gattuso and Hansson, 2011).
There are several trends that show signs of slowing or stabilisation, but the reasons for these
developments are likely to be different. One such trend is the apparent stabilisation of the Antarctic
10 The Anthropocene Review
ozone hole from about 1990, continuing to the present. In September 2014 the World Meteorological
Organization (WMO) described the global ozone trend:
Total column ozone declined over most of the globe during the 1980s and early 1990s (by about 2.5%
averaged over 60°S to 60°N). It has remained relatively unchanged since 2000, with indications of a small
increase in total column ozone in recent years, as expected. In the upper stratosphere there is a clear recent
ozone increase, which climate models suggest can be explained by comparable contributions from
declining ODS [ozone-depleting substances] abundances and upper stratospheric cooling caused by
carbon dioxide increases. (WMO, 2014)
The apparent stabilisation of stratospheric ozone over the southern high latitudes is an oft-cited
example of an effective human policy response to a global environmental problem. The report
Total column ozone will recover toward the 1980 benchmark levels over most of the globe under full
compliance with the Montreal Protocol. This recovery is expected to occur before mid-century in mid-
latitudes and the Arctic, and somewhat later for the Antarctic ozone hole. (WMO, 2014)
A similar trend is the stagnation of marine fish capture since the late 1980s. Here the bending of
the curve is not due to marine stewardship, but to the exhaustion of the world’s marine fish stocks
from the increasing fishing pressure that is evident from the start of the data set. This reason is sup-
ported by the observation that the amount of fish catch per unit effort is decreasing sharply; that is,
it is taking more and more effort to capture the same amount of fish (Myers and Worm, 2003). Data
on catch per 100 hooks for large predatory fish over time show a similar shape, but in the opposite
direction, to the Great Acceleration figures (Myers and Worm, 2003), indicating the removal of
essentially 90% of the large predators in all seas on the globe and the essential collapse of some
species, for example, Newfoundland cod.
The levelling off of marine fish capture does not equate to a levelling off of human con-
sumption of marine fish. The explosive rise of aquaculture (note the very rapid rise in shrimp
aquaculture in Figure 3 as an example of this trend) has ensured that a steadily increasing
amount of marine fish has continued to be available for human consumption despite the
exhaustion of marine fisheries. In essence, the growth of aquaculture is an attempt to replace
this decline with species that we want to consume but can no longer fish. Technology and trade
could not extract more fish from the wild seas but have enabled us to grow livestock in the
ocean. Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector today and 50% of global fisheries con-
sumption is aquaculture-based.
The switch to aquaculture, however, has its own environmental problems. One of the most
important is the need to capture wild fish further down the food chain as feed for carnivorous fish
raised in aquaculture (Deutsch et al., 2011), which, unless managed carefully, can weaken the
resilience of the global food system (Troell et al., 2014).
The amount of domesticated land is a third trend that shows a significant slowing, starting about
1950 and continuing through the most recent decade. Domesticated land refers to human-domi-
nated landscapes – cities, croplands, heavily managed grazing lands – that have been converted
from more natural biomes, such as forests, savannas and grasslands. The slower trend largely
reflects an intensification of agriculture as the amount of available arable land dwindles, much like
the exhaustion of the world’s marine fisheries. In recent decades what land has been domesticated
has mainly been at the expense of tropical forests, as shown by the increasing area of such forest
that has been lost, a trend that has continued through the most recent decade.
Steffen et al. 11
Deconstructing the socio-economic trends: The equity issue
The original Great Acceleration graphs (Steffen et al., 2004) treated humanity as an aggregated
whole and did not attempt to deconstruct the socio-economic graphs into countries or groups of
countries. This approach – and the common treatment of humanity as a whole in discourses about
the Anthropocene – has prompted some sharp criticism from social scientists and humanities schol-
ars that such treatment masks important equity issues (e.g. Malm and Hornborg, 2014). In this
update the socio-economic graphs with splits (Figure 2) help to address these concerns.
The most striking insight from Figure 2 is that most of the population growth has been in the
non-OECD world but the world’s economy (GDP) is still strongly dominated by the OECD world.
Despite the shift of global production, traditionally based within OECD countries, towards the
BRICS nations, the bulk of economic activity, and with it, the lion’s share of consumption, remain
largely within the OECD countries. In 2010 the OECD countries accounted for 74% of global GDP
but only 18% of the global population. Insofar as the imprint on the Earth System scales with con-
sumption, most of the human imprint on the Earth System is coming from the OECD world. This
points to the profound scale of global inequality, which distorts the distribution of the benefits of
the Great Acceleration and confounds efforts to deal with its impacts on the Earth System.
The Great Acceleration graphs themselves, along with the splits, challenge a commonly held
view of ‘what’s new about the Anthropocene?’ – predicated on the notion that humans have always
changed their environment. While it is certainly true humans have always altered their environ-
ment, sometimes on a large scale, what we are now documenting since the mid-20th century is
unprecedented in its rate and magnitude. Furthermore, by treating ‘humans’ as a single, monolithic
whole, it ignores the fact that the Great Acceleration has, until very recently, been almost entirely
driven by a small fraction of the human population, those in developed countries.
As the middle classes in the BRICS nations grow, this is beginning to change. The shift is
already emerging in the trajectories of several indicators. For example, most of the post-2000 rise
in paper production, telecommunication devices and motor vehicle number has occurred in the
non-OECD world (Figure 2). In fact, we see a levelling of the trajectory of water use, fertilizer
consumption and paper production in OECD countries. Since about 1970 most of the increase in
fertilizer consumption has occurred in BRICS nations. Although not shown in the figures, the shift
in the sources of greenhouse gas emissions has been dramatic. Around 2006 China became the
largest emitter of carbon dioxide, overtaking the USA. By 2013 per capita emissions in China (7.2
tonnes of CO2 per person per year) surpassed per capita emissions in Europe (6.8 tonnes of CO2 per
person per year) (Friedlingstein et al., 2014).
However, despite the contribution of these and other developments to bringing many people in
the non-OECD world out of absolute poverty, inequalities in income and wealth both within and
between countries continue to be a significant problem, with consequences for individual and soci-
etal wellbeing (Wilkinson and Pickett, 2009). Furthermore, because the effects of the Great
Acceleration on the functioning of the Earth System are cumulative over time, most clearly evident
in the climate system, the historic inequalities embedded in the origin and trajectory of the Great
Acceleration continue to plague negotiations to deal with its consequences.
The splits show other significant changes in the socio-economic trends amongst groups of
nations. For example, the rapid expansion in urbanisation will take place mainly in Asia and Africa.
Between 1978 and 2012 China’s urban population swelled from 17.9% to 52.6% and the country
is on course for an urban population of over one billion people within two decades (Bai et al.,
2014). In a practical sense, the future trajectory of the Anthropocene may well be determined by
what development pathways urbanisation takes in the coming decades, particularly in Asia and
12 The Anthropocene Review
There is also evidence of technological leapfrogging, which offers some hope that the post-
Second World War development pathway followed by the OECD countries, which has driven the
Great Acceleration, does not necessarily have to be followed by other nations. For example, the
very rapid rise in phone subscriptions since 2000 has occurred almost entirely in the non-OECD
world, and these have predominantly been for mobile devices, thus leapfrogging over the need to
build and support landline infrastructure across entire nations.
It remains to be seen whether similar leapfrogging can occur in the electricity generation sector;
that is, whether distributed systems based on renewable energy technologies will be developed
rather than centralised grid systems based on large fossil-fuel generation plants. Furthermore,
developing countries have the opportunity to avoid poor planning decisions made in the West that
have led to high levels of air pollution, for example, and costly remediation. However, at present
urbanisation trends in Asia appear to be following the North American model (Seto, 2010).
Implications of the Great Acceleration for the Anthropocene
The Great Acceleration graphs have important implications for the two central questions that are
driving the Anthropocene discourse. First, are the impacts of human activities on the structure and
functioning of the Earth System profound enough to distinguish the present state of the system
from the Holocene? In other words, is there convincing evidence that a new time period in Earth
history is justified? Second, if so, when is the most appropriate start date for the new time period?
The socio-economic Great Acceleration graphs (Figure 1) clearly show the phenomenal growth
of the human enterprise after the Second World War, both in economic activity, and hence con-
sumption, and in resource use. The corresponding Earth System graphs (Figure 3) also show sig-
nificant changes in rates or states of all parameters in the 20th century, although a mid-century
sharp acceleration is not so clearly defined in all of them. Nevertheless, the coupling between the
two sets of 12 graphs is striking. Correlation in time does not prove cause-and-effect, of course, but
there is a vast amount of evidence that the changes in the structure and functioning of the Earth
System shown in Figure 3 are primarily driven by human activities (e.g. Galloway et al., 2008;
IPCC, 2013; MA (Millennium Ecosystem Assessment), 2005; Rowland, 2006; Steffen et al., 2004).
Human causation of the trends in Figure 3 does not, however, directly address the question of
whether the present state of the Earth System is clearly different from the Holocene. For most of
the individual graphs in Figure 3, though, there is convincing evidence that the parameters have
moved well outside of the Holocene envelope of variability (Rockström et al., 2009).
The atmospheric concentrations of the three greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide
and methane – are now well above the maximum observed at any time during the Holocene (Ciais
et al., 2013). There is no evidence of a significant decrease in stratospheric ozone anytime earlier
in the Holocene. Nor is there any evidence that human impact on the marine biosphere, as meas-
ured by global tonnage of marine fish capture, has been anywhere near the late 20th-century level
at any time earlier in the Holocene. The nitrogen cycle has been massively altered over the past
century (Galloway and Cowling, 2002; Galloway et al., 2008) following the discovery in the early
1900s of the Haber-Bosch process that creates fertilizer from unreactive atmospheric nitrogen. The
nitrogen cycle is now operating well outside of its Holocene range, if the pre-industrial nitrogen
cycle can be taken as an approximation for the Holocene nitrogen cycle (Galloway and Cowling,
2002). Ocean carbonate chemistry is likely changing faster than at any other time in the last 300
million years (Hönisch et al., 2012) and biodiversity loss may be approaching mass extinction rates
(Barnosky et al., 2012).
Steffen et al. 13
Over the 1901–2012 period global average surface temperature increased by nearly 0.9°C
(IPCC, 2013); in the Northern Hemisphere the current 30-year average temperature is likely the
highest for the last 1400 years (IPCC, 2013). Based on a recent compilation of proxy temperature
data, the global mean temperature from 8 to 6 ka BP was about 0.7°C above pre-industrial (Marcott
et al., 2013), suggesting that the global climate is also now beyond the Holocene envelope of
Human modification of the terrestrial biosphere has had a much longer history than our imprint
on other components of the Earth System, a common argument for the ‘what’s new about the
Anthropocene?’ view. There is a rich record of this imprint over millennia, prompting some to sug-
gest a very early start to the Anthropocene (e.g. Edgeworth et al., unpublished data, 2014), perhaps
even earlier than the Holocene itself. However, these approaches are based only on records of the
human imprint on the terrestrial biosphere and do not relate these to significant changes in the
structure or functioning of the Earth System as a whole. The exception to this is the proposal that
early agricultural activities in the mid-Holocene period emitted enough carbon dioxide and meth-
ane to raise global average temperatures significantly and prevent the onset of an ice age (Ruddiman,
2003; Ruddiman et al., 2014). The weight of evidence, however, argues that the mid-Holocene rise
in carbon dioxide was a result of natural variability and not human agency (Masson-Delmotte
et al., 2013). Furthermore, analysis of orbital forcing parameters shows that an ice age was not
imminent at the mid Holocene and that the Holocene is expected to be an unusually long intergla-
cial period (Loutre and Berger, 2000).
The beginning of the industrial revolution around the late 18th century is sometimes proposed
as a start date for the Anthropocene (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000). Its importance as the beginning
of large-scale use by humans of a new, powerful, plentiful energy source – fossil fuels – is unques-
tioned. Its imprint on the Earth System is significant and clearly visible on a global scale. However,
while its trace will remain in geological records, the evidence of large-scale shifts in Earth System
functioning prior to 1950 is weak.
Of all the candidates for a start date for the Anthropocene, the beginning of the Great Acceleration
is by far the most convincing from an Earth System science perspective. It is only beyond the mid-
20th century that there is clear evidence for fundamental shifts in the state and functioning of the
Earth System that are (1) beyond the range of variability of the Holocene, and (2) driven by human
activities and not by natural variability.
A mid-20th century start date for the Anthropocene has an important implication, as shown in
Figure 2 and discussed in Section 4. A mid Holocene, or even earlier, start date for the Anthropocene
would tend to diminish the importance of equity issues, so prominent in the Great Acceleration,
and reinforce the notion of ‘humanity as a whole’ driving Earth System change. The situation is
beginning to change, though, as the Great Acceleration spreads to China, India, Russia, Brazil,
South Africa, Indonesia and other countries. In the 21st century, is ‘humanity as a whole’ edging
closer to becoming a reality?
Setting the start date of the Anthropocene at the beginning of the Great Acceleration makes it
possible to specify the onset of the Anthropocene with a high degree of precision (Zalasiewicz
et al., 2012). On Monday 16 July 1945, about the time that the Great Acceleration began, the first
atomic bomb was detonated in the New Mexico desert. Radioactive isotopes from this detonation
were emitted to the atmosphere and spread worldwide entering the sedimentary record to provide
a unique signal of the start of the Great Acceleration, a signal that is unequivocally attributable to
In summary, the Great Acceleration marks the phenomenal growth of the global socio-economic
system, the human part of the Earth System. It is difficult to overestimate the scale and speed of
14 The Anthropocene Review
change. In little over two generations – or a single lifetime – humanity (or until very recently a
small fraction of it) has become a planetary-scale geological force. Hitherto human activities were
insignificant compared with the biophysical Earth System, and the two could operate indepen-
dently. However, it is now impossible to view one as separate from the other. The Great Acceleration
trends provide a dynamic view of the emergent, planetary-scale coupling, via globalisation,
between the socio-economic system and the biophysical Earth System. We have reached a point
where many biophysical indicators have clearly moved beyond the bounds of Holocene variability.
We are now living in a no-analogue world.
The future of the Great Acceleration
Can the Great Acceleration in its present form continue indefinitely? This seems to be the dominant
narrative in the post-Second World War era, where continual economic growth as measured by
increases in GDP and ongoing technological development are assumed to be the norm. However, an
examination of human development shows a ‘… human history marked by crises, regime shifts,
disasters and constantly changing patterns of adjustments to limits and confines. Indeed, this now
emerges as a new historical meta-narrative …’ (Sörlin and Warde, 2009). Periods of growth, then
collapse, followed by reorganisation is a common pattern in the human past (Costanza et al., 2006).
There are several glimmers of hope that the growth/collapse pattern may be avoided. As noted
in the section ‘Extending the Great Acceleration to 2010’, exponential population growth is over
and global population seems more likely to stabilise this century. Regulation of chlorofluorocar-
bons (CFCs) through the Montreal Protocol has resulted in early signs of recovery of Antarctic
stratospheric ozone (Figure 1). Policies in OECD countries to regulate excessive use of fertilizers
have stabilised their consumption in these nations. The amount of domesticated land is increasing
more slowly as agricultural intensification takes over (albeit with pollution problems from exces-
sive use of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizers in some agricultural zones (Steffen and Stafford
Smith, 2013)). The rapid rise of mobile telecommunication devices in the developing world is an
excellent example of leapfrogging. If such leapfrogging could be extended to energy systems, the
developing world may lead the way in decoupling development from environmental impacts.
On the other hand, greenhouse gases are still rising rapidly, threatening the stability of the cli-
mate system, and tropical forest and woodland loss remains high. The pursuit of growth in the
global economy continues, but responsibility for its impacts on the Earth System has not been
taken. Planetary stewardship has yet to emerge.
Will the next 50 years bring the Great Decoupling or the Great Collapse? The latest 10 years of
the Great Acceleration graphs show signs of both but cannot distinguish between these scenarios,
or other possibilities. But 100 years on from the advent of the Great Acceleration, in 2050, we’ll
almost certainly know the answer.
The original Great Acceleration graphs are based on the research of the International Geosphere-Biosphere
Programme. We thank Olivier Rousseau, International Fertilizer Industry Association, Richard Feely (NOAA,
US), Dana Greely (NOAA, US), Sybil Seitzinger (IGBP), Ninad Bondre (IGBP), Richard Grainger (FAO),
Thorsten Kiefer (IGBP PAGES), Ray Bradley (University of Massachusetts), Rob Alkemade (PBL,
Netherlands), Julia Pongratz (Carnegie Institute of Washington), David Etheridge and Paul Steele (CSIRO),
Jonathan Shanklin (BAS, UK), Arnulf Grubler (IIASA), Phil Jones (CRU), James Orr (IPSL, France), Fred
Mackenzie (SOEST, USA), Darrell Kaufman (NAU, USA), Max Troell (Beijer Institute) and Marc Metian
(Stockholm Resilience Centre) for their contributions to updating the graphs. We also thank reviewers and the
editor for very useful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.
Steffen et al. 15
This research received no specific grant from any funding agency in the public, commercial, or not-for-profit
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