Business Day

Con­ti­nent is cru­cial test­ing ground for new epoch of hu­man reign

- JOHN STREMLAU Overpopulation · Climate Change · Ecology · Politics · Social Issues · Society · United States of America · Soviet Union · China · Paris · United Nations · Member states of the United Nations · Australia · Science · African Union · University of the Witwatersrand

THERE’s a grow­ing be­lief that as­serts that our civil­i­sa­tion is em­barked on a new epoch, the An­thro­pocene, de­fined by hu­man dom­i­na­tion of earth’s phys­i­cal and nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. Its more pop­u­lar slo­gan is cli­mate change.

It re­places the Holocene epoch, a pe­riod stretch­ing back 11,700 years dur­ing which con­di­tions were uniquely con­ducive to the global spread and flour­ish­ing of Africa’s orig­i­nal homo sapi­ens.

When did the An­thro­pocene epoch start? This is the big is­sue still be­ing de­bated by an au­thor­i­ta­tive in­ter­na­tional and mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary work­ing group of earth sci­en­tists. They are con­sid­er­ing what date and ge­o­log­i­cal mark­ing — the so-called “golden spike” — spec­i­fies the epoch’s com­mence­ment.

How long the An­thro­pocene will last, and what will be its most en­dur­ing at­tributes, will not be driven and de­cided sci­en­tif­i­cally. It will be driven po­lit­i­cally, at all lev­els of hu­man so­ci­ety. And Africa, which cra­dled hu­man­ity, is likely to be one of our epoch’s ear­li­est and most im­por­tant test­ing grounds.

Po­lit­i­cal is­sues are im­plicit in the sci­en­tific de­bates about dat­ing and mark­ing. Some in the An­thro­pocene work­ing group ad­vo­cate that it be­gan in 1750 — the start of the In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion. But a ma­jor­ity favour a more re­cent start­ing date at 1950, when the com­pound­ing ef­fects of sev­eral key en­vi­ron­men­tal in­di­ca­tors of global stress be­gan to ac­cel­er­ate.

The pe­riod since 1950 co­in­cides with un­prece­dented global peace, pros­per­ity, power dif­fu­sion and ci­ti­zen em­pow­er­ment, although Africa ben­e­fited least from these ad­vances. And Africa’s views on how to deal with the dam­age done and threats will mat­ter greatly if our civil­i­sa­tion is to adapt and flour­ish.

The lead­ing ge­o­log­i­cal can­di­date for mark­ing the start of the hu­man age is also the grow­ing ev­i­dence of ra­di­a­tion caused by the pro­lif­er­a­tion of 1950’s test­ing of nu­clear weapons.

Had pol­i­tics failed to con­trol their sud­den mas­sive use in Oc­to­ber 1962 dur­ing the US-Soviet Cuban mis­sile cri­sis, peo­ple all over the world would have died. A marker of that scale would have ri­valled the last great ex­tinc­tion of life on our planet 50-mil­lion years ago.

Should the An­thro­pocene end with another mass ex­tinc­tion, it al­most cer­tainly will not be the re­sult of de­ci­sions of just two men with the power to end civil­i­sa­tion in an in­stant. But nei­ther can this be as eas­ily pre­vented. It ap­pears we are all in vary­ing ways part of the prob­lem and ef­forts to deal with its many as­pects. There are rea­sons for hope. I of­fer just three, all bear­ing on Africa’s fu­ture.

The US and China, re­spon­si­ble for emit­ting 40% of the chem­i­cals con­sid­ered detri­men­tal to a live­able cli­mate, have an­nounced a joint ef­fort to ful­fil their re­spec­tive global com­mit­ments on emis­sions. This is part of the his­toric frame­work agree­ment adopted in Paris in De­cem­ber 2015 by all UN mem­bers.

Their com­mit­ment should help ac­cel­er­ate na­tional de­ci­sions to meet glob­ally agreed tar­gets. Progress will be par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant for Africa, where global warm­ing across large ar­eas is al­ready ris­ing at twice the global mean.

Another step in the right di­rec­tion is the de­ci­sion by African coun­tries to de­velop and ap­ply sci­en­tific ev­i­dence more sys­tem­at­i­cally across rel­e­vant dis­ci­plines and in ways that will be more use­ful. This is im­por­tant be­cause Africa’s peo­ples will be bet­ter in­formed about how to adapt to the ef­fects of cli­mate change. Is­sues in­clude bet­ter land use and food pro­duc­tion, wa­ter re­source de­vel­op­ment and man­age­ment, pub­lic health and en­ergy.

Con­crete steps have been taken to make this hap­pen. A coali­tion of South African univer­si­ties, in part­ner­ship with the In­ter­na­tional In­sti­tute of Ap­plied Sys­tems Anal­y­sis, have cre­ated the South­ern Africa Sys­tems Anal­y­sis Cen­tre to train more than 150 PhD stu­dents over the next nine years. There is also a com­mit­ment to pro­vide short re­train­ing stints for those fur­ther along in their ca­reers.

This will en­able gov­ern­ments to adopt more ev­i­dence-based anal­y­sis in de­cid­ing on more cost-ef­fec­tive strate­gies of na­tional and re­gional adap­ta­tion and they will have more ca­pac­ity to do so.

A third source of hope is the AU’s com­mit­ment to peace­ful in­te­gra­tion and wider and deeper democ­racy. Africa’s spread­ing na­tional demo­cratic ex­per­i­ments of the 1990s ap­pear to have stalled. This is de­spite the fact that in 2007 all states unan­i­mously adopted the African Char­ter on Democ­racy, Elec­tions and Gov­er­nance. So far 35 of the AU’s 54 mem­bers have rat­i­fied the char­ter.

There are too many bad ex­am­ples of coun­tries amend­ing or ig­nor­ing con­sti­tu­tion­ally man­dated pres­i­den­tial term lim­its, elec­toral abuses, and au­thor­i­tar­ian ten­den­cies. But en­vi­ron­men­tal re­al­i­ties will re­quire ever more ro­bust, re­silient and in­clu­sive demo­cratic ex­per­i­ments across Africa and ev­ery­where else.

Africa could pro­vide valu­able lessons to oth­ers on how to adapt to the new re­al­i­ties of the An­thro­pocene, par­tic­u­larly in how to strengthen democ­racy. This is be­cause it has frag­ile states and a his­tory of sur­viv­ing and over­com­ing nat­u­ral and man-made de­pri­va­tions.

These may gen­er­ate new demo­cratic in­gre­di­ents, in­no­va­tively mixed to suit its highly di­verse re­gional pop­u­la­tion, that prove vi­tal for sus­tain­ing democ­racy.

Stremlau is a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at the Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand. This is an edited ver­sion of an ar­ti­cle that ap­peared at www.the­con­ver­sa­tion.com

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