Bernard Lucet
Extract from a conference
Given at the Abbey of Ligugé (France) in February, 2020


Understanding the Anthropocene




When man has cut down the last tree
Polluted the last drop of water
Killed the last animal and fished the last fish
Then he will realize the truth

Amerindian Proverb


The habitability of the only living space we have is threatened. This is something so vital that it should have hit humanity where it really hurts. To decipher and penetrate the actual situation, thanks to the explanations provided by scientists, is the only way to bring home this vital issue. It is a matter of leaving the world of convenient guesses, a world of denial, of phantasy, of distraction.

Greenhouse gas

The effect of greenhouse gas is necessary. It keeps the mean temperature of the earth at +15 degrees C; without it the temperature would be -18 degrees and life would not be possible. The sun’s rays arrive, partly reflected by clouds, glaciers, snow; solar energy is converted into heat which in its turn spreads out in the form of infra-red; certain gases in the atmosphere block the infra-red which therefore remains in the low atmosphere. The more greenhouse gas (GES) there is, the more energy builds up and the higher the temperature rises. The supplementary energy from our emissions builds up almost entirely in the oceans, a little on the ground, only 1% in the atmosphere.

The biosphere is getting warmer (currently +2.7% per annum). Such an acceleration is ten times higher than the most rapid increases of the past since more than a million years, and it is impinging on the biological and geophysical ecosystems. In fact for the last eight hundred thousand years the rate of CO2 had varied little. Unfortunately the pressure on marine and terrestrial ecosystems is altering the capacity of carbon reserves, destroying something which could help us to slow the increase of heat.

Lowering emissions is principally a matter of lowering the use of fossil energy, which is far from being the order of the day. What should be done?

Many people think that it would be possible to dispense with the resources of fossil and nuclear energy for the sake of the very considerable gains by the reduction of expenditure and the energy-efficiency of our apparatus and machinery. It might well be possible in the West to achieve this by achieving a radical change in our use and our habits, that is, by turning our backs on development. But there are many countries which need development to help their populations emerge from poverty, to educate, nourish, care for them – and why should these populations be unable to arrive at a more comfortable life-style, even well below our own? It is because on the world-scale energy would not decrease significantly, and even more because a great deal would be needed to help the world adapt to so many kinds of de-regulation by which climactic episodes here and there are going to occur. Think of the immense works required, for example, to protect exposed cities from the rise of water-levels! The fair worldwide needs of adaptation to the consequences of warming require a great deal of energy, the very opposite of the radical diminution of energy required by reliance on renewable energy.

It cannot be denied that fossil-energy – the major cause of emission of GES – is still irreplaceable. To eliminate oil would be all the more difficult because it is a practical and highly concentrated form of energy. We owe our style of life to powerful and cheap fossil fuels which power our machinery. Just look at the work-potential of an agricultural tractor on a single tankful of diesel and the enormous quantity of workers replaced by it! Without all these machines – and even the figures are dependent on the machines – it would mean a different civilization in a very different world.

The consequences of climate change

TyphonTaclobanClimate change could be even faster that it has been envisaged. The precise modelling indicates that +2 degrees would be reached in 2040 from the emissions already present in the atmosphere. The present scale of emission indicates that it would be difficult to keep to +2 degrees after 2040. +2 degrees and even +3 degrees are already inevitable, and an average of +3, or +5 degrees on the continents, that is, a temperature reaching 50 degrees in a heat-wave in the south of Europe. Even if we succeed in reducing the emission of greenhouse gas in the future (and that is merely an hypothesis) our thermo-industrial civilization will have consequences which will last for thousands of years. Human action will affect the evolution of the planet.

In the past the major upheavals of our planet have resulted from cosmic events, such as the glacial and interglacial periods in the last million years. For the last 12,000 years we have been in an interglacial period called ‘holocene’, during which the temperature has varied only plus or minus 0.5 degrees. The actual temperature (+1.1 degrees) is the greatest for 1.2 million years. So this rise implies totally unheard-of modifications of biodiversity and climate which have adapted themselves during millions of years.

The novelty for the planet is that the temperature is increasing much more quickly: the tally of CO2 has increased ten times more quickly than in any crisis of the last eight thousand years. The changes consequent on the Anthropocene are turning the balance of the biosphere upside down and are leading to a cooked planet. The climate change is the result of political decisions made in the light of the causes, but the biogeographical accelerations to which the earth is being submitted will make the planet run out of all known systems of equilibrium.
The turning-point of ecosystems – towards a cooked planet?

People are already speaking, on the subject of animal biodiversity, of a sixth mass-extinction. We touch on the human risks, A very good presentation has been made by Gael Giraud:[2]

In the second half of the century the lethal conditions of heat and humidity will make considerable parts of the world uninhabitable for a hundred or two hundred days of the year. People will be obliged to desert places in India, south-west Asia and Africa. The World Bank reckons on two milliard climatic refugees in the second half of the century. I regard this as an under-estimate: at least three milliard will be obliged to migrate. Life is in the process of migrating towards the poles, and tropical diseases will move also, such as malaria, which is already appearing in Italy. The World Bank puts at 5.2 milliards the number of people who will suffer marsh-fever in 2050.

Such reversals are directly linked to climatic events both extreme and more frequent, such as dry spells, flooding, cyclones, heat-waves, with serious impact on provisioning and health. These climatic events are themselves the consequences of the reactions of our ecosystems under pressure of temperature rises through liberation of CO2 and the diminution of carbon reserves directly linked to melting glaciers and massive destruction of forests. The increased warmth of oceans is the sign of the accelerated warming of the planet. The oceans absorb 93% of the warming due to human activity and 25% of our emission of gas effected by greenhouse gas. This huge well of carbon is weakening because of climate-warming.

Atmospheric Rivers

This is the result of a corridor of water-vapor and warmth, a sort of atmospheric river which empties in diluvial rain over the Antarctic, thereby increasing the warming-process. Monsoons are being and will be modified by this climate change. Events such as that in Kerala (India) in August 2018 (450 deaths, a million refugees) will intensify this. The fact is that global warming will exaggerate the difference between the surface of the oceans and the earth in spring. This will increase the winds which produce monsoons. Besides, we know that warm air holds water better, with the result that flooding will be more intense at the time of the seasonal tropical episodes. This is a phenomenon already catalogued in historical summaries.

The jet stream is a current of violent winds at high altitudes around the north pole; in our latitudes it is responsible for extreme meteorological events. Climate change will increase this tendency towards 2050, linked to the heat-waves and repeated floods which we have experienced in the last few years.

The Hadley circulation is an atmospheric band formed of cellules resembling a conveyor-belt 15km high and almost 3,000km wide, controlling heat-exchange from the equator to the tropics at a high level. At the level of the equator warm and humid air rises, cools at a height (which yields strong rainstorms); the column of air, now become dry, separates into two masses pushed apart from each other at the equator before plunging to earth and bringing the warm dry air which is characteristic of subtropical regions. It is at these latitudes that the largest deserts of the planet are to be found (as the Sahara and the Atacama). With climate-warming the cellules of Hadley are enlarged, changing new regions into subtropical climates favouring a desert. The circulation of Hadley provokes an expansion of the subtropical regions and so an increase in drought. This is progressing faster than was foreseen. The phenomenon is no stranger to gigantic fires – and we are only at +1 degree.

El Niño is one of the worldwide climate disturbances produced every two to seven years. Its consequences are notable: droughts and floods over vast areas, devastating cyclones in the Pacific region, abnormally high temperatures in the years of el Niño. According to studies made in 2018 the extreme phenomena linked to el Niño are going to exacerbate and intensify the present risks, occurring twice as often, exactly like the dipole of the Indian Ocean which is one of the major causes of the recent Australian fires.

Droughts in eastern Australia, Indonesia, Asia, southern Africa, Brazil. Floods on the west coast of South America, Africa, the equatorial east and the south of the United States. Whitening of coral reefs. Devastating cyclones in the central Pacific. At the global level the mean temperature tends to be abnormally high during the years of such incidents.


TyphonRefugeesHalf the ecosystems here mentioned are already present – in a logic of balance. Rather than lament a state of fact, would it not be better to question the pertinence of the values of our global industrial civilization? These values produce a self-contradictory relationship to the world since they threaten life itself. We must come down to earth, as the philosopher Bruno Latour says, in order to get away from the overhanging cliff-edge on which we are settled and inhabit our planet differently.

What is to be done? This is the vital question. Before we talk about solutions the first step is to understand and feel the urgency by being clearly informed – not just conscious that there is a problem – that is not enough. Awareness of the urgency of the situation comes only from objective knowledge of what it is that is so urgent. The risk must be measured. So the first element is a personal ethic, confrontation with the reality of the challenge by trustworthy information, facing the imbalance and the fear.

A second element: not to blind oneself to the importance of personal gestures. They have little effect on emissions, at most 10% if the great majority make great efforts. At best it will be 5%. But make these gestures all the same, knowing their limits, such as consuming less, travelling less by air. The value of this is principally to fit one’s life-style with the enlightened sense of urgency, and by itself this constitutes a form of witness.

A third element of personal ethic: take a clear political stand. There are many destructive systems and powers, responsible politicians who are failing despite their ‘green’ credentials. Get to know them, or rather to denounce them. This has a significant effect. We should not forget decisions of re-orientation which tend towards the evolution of an economy of zero-emission (transport, energy, agro-ecology, urbanism, provisioning). These are decisions taken at the level of states and groups of states.

Finally, and still on the level of personal ethic: mobilize the spirit and the mind towards a desirable shared future. Nourish the desire for a world which lives differently. Think of the talents, especially human talents, for resolution, for self-improvement of which living environments are capable.

And never forget: ‘The forest comes before humans, the desert comes after them’.[3]


[1] M Bernard Lucet is a professional consultant of professional bodies. ‘Anthropocene’, literally ‘the age of man’, is a term used by scientists to signify that human activities now have the potential to modify the earth and its evolution [editorial note].

[2] Preface to A Pottier, Comment les économistes réchauffent la planète, (Anthropocène), Paris 2016.

[3] For a long time this saying has been attributed to Francois-René Chateaubriand, without anyone being able to find it in his works.