Warning lights — for our societies and the planet — are flashing red

June 9, 2021

Garbage landfill of the town of Cholpon-Ata, Issyk-Kul. Unsorted waste is collected here from all over the town. Photo: Chyntemir Kalbaev / UNDP Kyrgyzstan

Blog is prepared by Anna Kirilenko, eco activist and chairperson of BIOM Movement. 

The United Nations Development Program has released its 30th Anniversary Human Development Report titled The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene. The title is not an incident as we find ourselves living at an unprecedented moment in the history of humankind and our planet. The International Geological Congress in 2016 announced the beginning of a new geological era - the Anthropocene. The term* was coined to denote the era in which humankind became the main driver of environmental change and anthropic activity caused planetary scale biogeophysical effects.

When and why has the Anthropocene begun and has it really?

Science has yet to agree on the issue, however, to date there are two common positions: according to the first, it is 1784, when the Scottish engineer James Watt improved the efficiency of the existing Newcomen steam engine made it possible to use fossil fuels and initiated the industrial revolution. According to the second view: the "golden nail" of the new era was the thermonuclear bomb testing in the early 1950s, when artificial radionuclides spread throughout the world, and since then, sedimentary deposits contain various chemical components and plastic particles.

How is the Anthropocene different from other geological eras? The key features distinguished for the Anthropocene appear on a planetary scale and can serve as geological markers of a new stage in planet’s life. 

Video explanation of Human Development Report - 2020.

Global extinction of species

One of the signs of Anthropocene is unprecedented for the Holocene acceleration of wildlife extinction, which is called the sixth mass extinction. The normal species extinction rate in nature is 0.1 and 1 per 10,000 species per 100 years, while the current average extinction rate is almost 100 times the background rate. A quarter of species are on the verge of extinction, many within decades (Lenton, Pichler and Weisz 2016. Lenton). Thus, since 2010, 467 species  have been declared extinct, and almost a million of animals and plants[3] are under threat of extinction (According to The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). The following species can no longer be seen in wild - Chinese paddlefish, Chinese river dolphin, eastern cougar, Cameroon black rhinoceros, Pyrenean ibex, Balinese tiger, red wolf, marsupial wolf and many others. They vanish off the face of the earth not only due to hunting and direct extermination, but also because of environmental pollution, such as pollution of rivers and seas, plowing lands of species habitat. They leave silently causing non-healing wounds on biota.  The loss of these species makes human life increasingly insecure as only biosphere with billions of species acting as a single complex global mechanism enables conditions for life on a planetary scale. The loss of each species leads to destruction of this unique mechanism, without which there will be no climate, no atmosphere, no life on earth.

Red deer from Naryn State Nature Reserve, Kyrgyzstan. Photo: / UNDP Kyrgyzstan

Humans and their livestock overweight other species of animals in total biomass. To illustrate this - humans and livestock account for 97% of mass of all vertebrates on Earth while everyone else, from bats to elephants, make up to 3%. According to geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, “since the middle of the 20th century, chicken has become the most widespread bird on the planet.”  About 83 percent of the land is now impacted by human activity. More than 90 percent of organisms that undergo photosynthesis are also influenced by anthropogenic factors.

The biomass of humans and domestic animals by an order overpasses the biomass of wild animals in Kyrgyzstan.

Humans with their domestic animals and forest consumption should be included in the group of large consumers, that is, consume less than 1%, and still other members of this group will be doomed to extinct. Modern human consumes (together with domestic animals and forest harvesting) more than 10% of biosphere's production, that is, far beyond of what is allotted for large consumers in the biosphere.

Climate change and gas composition of the atmosphere

The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 40 percent since Industrial Revolution (Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations now exceed 400 ppm (Marangoni and others 2017), and carbon dioxide emission levels are the highest in 65 million years. Concentrations remained stable until 1850, slowly increasing from 260 ppm about 9000 years ago to 285 ppm (Waters and others 2016). 

Most obvious sign of global warming is ice melting, which affects tectonic and volcanic processes, fast rise of the global sea level (it is assumed that by the end of the century it will rise by 1-2 meters). Earlier in the Earth history, the global sea level would rise by only 25 centimeters in such short periods. This will affect the rainfall cycle. Arid regions will become drier, and humid regions will become even more humid. Even a 4-degree warming is a huge threat to key ecosystem elements, many of which will not survive. The idea that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will stop climate change is largely one-sided and does not take into account global systemic effects. Maintaining a climate favorable for life on the planet is impossible without preserving the living, functioning ecosystems!

Rangers of National Park Kan-Achuu. The park was created to conserve unique biodiversity of the Western Tian Shan. The animals including snow leopard, brown bear, lynx, golden eagle, bearded vulture, etc., are being safeguarded by the park rangers. Photo: Dmitry Motinov / UNDP Kyrgyzstan

In Kyrgyzstan, on average for the Between 1976 and 2019 the average annual air temperature rise in Kyrgyzstan was 0.23 ° C every 10 years. The largest increase was observed during spring (0.45 °C/10 years), the lowest - in autumn (0.14 °C/10 years) and summer periods (0.12 °C / 10 years). Climate change leads to deteriorating living conditions and economic opportunities for the majority of our country’s inhabitants.   

Environmental pollution

As a marker and evidence of a new geological era, scientists consider plastic, aluminum and concrete particles, high levels of nitrogen and phosphate in soils. Humankind has synthesized new substances previously unknown to the biosphere. These substances cannot be returned into the biota life cycle since there are no destructive organisms for them. Plastic, for instance, is one of such substances. Microplastics are included in the ecosystems’ food chains and traces of plastic can already be found in new sediments. There are three times as much nitrogenous compounds than before human activity. Traces of persistent organic pollutants are found in all ecosystems, including the polar zones. 

UNDP Report: Warning lights — for our societies and the planet — are flashing red

The crisis-to-crisis transition is one of the defining features of today, which in a way relates to "normalcy." The concept of human development emerged 30 years ago to counterbalance the shortsighted definitions of development.

The report consists of three consequential parts: Part I. Charting human development in the Anthropocene, which describes the current situation and key challenges. The main conclusion of this part is that we destabilize the planetary systems that enable our existence and by this aggravate social crises. Part II. Acting for Change, as the title suggests, reflects recommendations for action at all levels. An update of social norms and improved incentives is analyzed and proposed to increase social solidarity and sustainable interaction with nature. Part III. Measuring human development and the Anthropocene. The new era requires new tools to measure human development. Authors propose to review and adjust Human Development Index to reflect the pressures on nature.  

Authors question the mere idea of “solutions to the problem”, which view solutions to individual issues as external, found somewhere “out there,” not relevant to us and to each other. Any promising solutions can have dangerous unintended consequences. We should redirect our approach from solving isolated, unrelated problems to tackling multidimensional, interconnected and increasingly universal problems. What solutions will give us a chance for survival and a healthy future? The report reflects on this and engages readers in discussion. Technological solutions might not be enough and there is an urge to change the entire structure of society, power, the role of everyone to become a driving force of change. Authors emphasize that policies should stop treating people as patients but rather agents - agents of change.

Economic development ceases to be the main goal and measure of everything. Economic growth is not the goal, but rather a mean. Acquisition of more material resources matter when they are distributed equitably both within the planet and within each society in order to empower people from one generation to the next.

A new dimension in the Human Development Index - planetary pressures

The Report moves to measuring progress by reaffirming the relevance of the Human Development Index (HDI) as far as it is interpreted to measure a partial set of key capabilities and does not intend to cover the entire human development concept. However, authors introduce a new experimental index that takes into account both human development progress and planetary pressures.

How well does the Kyrgyz Republic do against the global indicators? Below are some values of key Indices. 

Some Kyrgyzstan indicators by indices within the HDI.

As you noticed, Kyrgyzstan still has a long way to go, but at the same time, our country has its own advantages. One of these is preserved intact ecosystems, which become more and more rare on our planet.  Kyrgyzstan is a biodiversity hotspot! Meaning that our country is very important for biodiversity conservation and this is globally recognized. In total, 233 ecological regions have been identified as the most valuable in terms of biodiversity conservation (biodiversity hotspots, 1998). Western Tien Shan and Southern Fergana are an integral part of the oldest Central Asian botanical and geographical center of origin of crops.

Anna Kirilenko. Photo: ecostan.kg

It is the natural ecosystems that will make it possible to overcome many future challenges - they will allow stabilizing climate, mitigating emergencies, preserving moisture, increasing crop yields and pasture productivity, and much more.

To sum up we should once again stress the importance of The Next Frontier: Human Development and the Anthropocene UN report not only for understanding the current situation, but also enhancing the necessary efforts in unison with the rest of the world so that we all have the future we want!