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Reflecting on Two Global Environmental Change types

B.L Turner and a team of seven colleagues from The Earth Transformed Program at Clark University in Worcester MA wrote in 1990, “The long sweep of human history reveals an escalating trajectory of alterations and transformations of Earth – of the geosphere-biosphere that sustains life as we know it.”  They go on to remind us that it’s human activity that drives much of this change, and this activity is highly regionalised.

This paper draws the attention to the notion that Global Environmental Change (GEC) manifests on multiple scales and it is increasingly important to understand the regionalised human-induced drivers of change at the macro, meso and micro scales, where the meso-scale provides interesting links to the pre-existing knowledgebase (1990) at either ends of the scale.  The paper seems to define the context in which human activity affects environmental change.  They define the two types as global systemic change and global cumulative change, identifying the activities causing those changes as either ‘proximate sources’ or ‘driving forces’.

What’s very interesting is their linking of GEC with a wide-scope definition of ‘environment’, including the natural environment, the ‘material conditions external to the individual’ and the non-material conditions such as the ‘household, workplace relations and settings’, and what one could add as the cultural norms or society in which individuals exist, etc. (at a variety of scales).

One might be struck by just how widespread Systemic Change is, characterised by environmental change operating at the level of the major global geosphere-biosphere systems.  Such change includes atmospheric and marine systems, and can be caused at three different scales: the global scale (such as greenhouse gas emissions like CFCs and methane), high concentrations at particular locations (such as industrial sources of CO2 emissions), and wide distributions (such as planetary albedo change through land-use transformations).  What’s really scary is the fact that so many of these changes are so widespread that stemming such change seems an intractable problem. But that’s no reason to give up now!

Just as worrying is their identification of cumulative change, which is more or less the aggregated ‘substantive accumulation’ of change happening at local levels on a worldwide scale. So all those little actions of me and my neighbour and Joe Bloggs, when widely replicated and added up, equate to a substantial change in the environment (both natural and man-made).

It would seem that prior to 1990 much more attention was given to Systemic Change than Cumulative for many reasons, but Turner and his colleagues are keen to point out that ‘if the human dimensions of GEC are to be understood, attention to cumulative change is essential’ and co many processes are related ‘in both cause and effect’.

Also really interesting is the notion that the ‘geocentric focus’ of natural science needs to be balanced by an “‘anthropocentric’ perspective that evaluates physical changes primarily in terms of their importance to society”.

Somehow, one might posit that in order to fix the problems we’ve made we need to address the source of the problems, us; humankind.  And isn’t Global Environmental Change is fundamentally a social problem?

Clearly if there is no relevance to society it is difficult to see why society will choose to change its unwholesome ways. And they suggest this will be effected through society’s perception and response via localised conditions.  Two thoughts might come to mind: the NIMBY effect, and the ‘OMG-it’s-happening-to-me’ effect, i.e. it’s no longer a distant problem for someone else to worry about.

Two types of Global Environmental Change, Turner et. al., 1990, Butterworth-Heinemann

Also see the journal entitled Global Environmental Change.

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This entry was posted on 2 November 2012 by in Environmental Sustainability.

Part of the Problem? or Part of the Solution?

Rampant consumerism.
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Extensive environmental degradation and biodiversity loss.
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Climate change.
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