Spread of the cycles: a feedback perspective on the Anthropocene

Timothy Lenton*, Marten Scheffer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


What propelled the human ‘revolutions' that started the Anthropocene? and what could speed humanity out of trouble? Here, we focus on the role of reinforcing feedback cycles, often comprised of diverse, unrelated elements (e.g. fire, grass, humans), in propelling abrupt and/or irreversible, revolutionary changes. We suggest that differential ‘spread of the cycles' has been critical to the past human revolutions of fire use, agriculture, rise of complex states and industrialization. For each revolution, we review and map out proposed reinforcing feedback cycles, and describe how new systems built on previous ones, propelling us into the Anthropocene. We argue that to escape a bleak Anthropocene will require abruptly shifting from existing unsustainable ‘vicious cycles’, to alternative sustainable ‘virtuous cycles' that can outspread and outpersist them. This will need to be complemented by a revolutionary cultural shift from maximizing growth to maximizing persistence (sustainability). To achieve that we suggest that non-human elements need to be brought back into the feedback cycles underlying human cultures and associated measures of progress.
Original languageEnglish
Article number20220254
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1893
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2024


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