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For the last 50 years, world population multiplied more rapidly than ever before, and more rapidly than it is projected to grow in the future. In 1950, the world had 2.5 billion people; and in 2005, the world had 6.5 billion people. By 2050, this number could rise to more than 9 billion (see chart "World Population Growth, 1950-2050").
Anthropologists believe the human species dates back at least 3 million years. For most of our history, these distant ancestors lived a precarious existence as hunters and gatherers. This way of life kept their total numbers small, probably less than 10 million. However, as agriculture was introduced, communities evolved that could support more people.
World population expanded to about 300 million by A.D. 1 and continued to grow at a moderate rate. But after the start of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, living standards rose and widespread famines and epidemics diminished in some regions. Population growth accelerated. The population climbed to about 760 million in 1750 and reached 1 billion around 1800.
The world entered a new epoch on July 16 1945 when humans detonated the first atomic bomb, scientists have concluded.
Human behaviour now has such an enormous impact on Earth that it has even altered the geology of the planet and tipped us into a new era, the Anthropocene.
Although humans have been leaving traces of their actions for thousands of years, it was not until the mid-19th century that they began to affect the entire globe, in what scientists have termed ‘the Great Acceleration.’
Since then the world has experienced a huge boom in population, environmental upheaval on land and in the oceans and global connectivity.
Scientists chose the start of the nuclear age for the birth of the new epoch because the fall-out from atomic bombs is detectable in the geological record, through radioactive isotopes.
The term ‘Anthropocene’ was first coined by Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen who in 2000 suggested that man’s impact on the world was so substantial that we were no longer in the Holocene – the era which began at the end of the last Ice Age around 11,700 years ago and saw unprecedented human expansion and the emrgency of towns and cities.
Since then many academics have embraced the concept, but there has been no agreement about when the epoch began.
The Anthropene Working Group was established to decide whether the epoch should be officially adopted by the International Commission on Stratigaphy, which will make the final decision next year.