We live in a unique time in human and Earth history, when human influence on the planet is so persuasive that it is argued we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.
The consequences of this pervasive influence spills over into the many environmental challenges we face, from climate change to depletion of marine resources and the loss and degradation of natural ecosystems.
In this lecture I examine human influence on the natural world through the concept of metabolism: how much energy flows through human societies compared to how much flows through the biosphere. We first look at the biological metabolism of the planet, how it is measured and how it is distributed over the Earth. I then explore how these energy flows have changed through human history and prehistory, and scenarios for how they may change over this century, where human-appropriated energy flows threaten to overwhelm the life-sustaining metabolism of the planet.
The metabolic profile of the UK is explored in particular detail: how much of our energy is directly consumed or embedded in products and in societal infrastructure? I conclude by exploring possible pathways out of this predicament, of how to navigate a sustainable future on a human-dominated planet.
Yadvinder Malhi is Professor of Ecosystem Science at the University of Oxford. His work focuses on the interactions between the biosphere and global change, with a particular focus on tropical biomes. He has conducted extensive fieldwork in tropical countries, and is founder of the Global Ecosystems Monitoring network, which conducts detailed studies of ecosystem processes and climate change in field sites ranging across Amazonia, Africa and Asia. More broadly he is interested in the challenge of maintaining a flourishing and sustaining biosphere under the challenges of global change. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was awarded a CBE in the 2020 Queens' Birthday Honoours for his work on ecosystem science. He is a Trustee of the Natural History Museum of London and President-Elect of the British Ecological Society.