Is there no such thing as the Anthropocene?

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Last week, the International Union of Geological Scientists (IUGS) announced it would uphold a March 4th vote by geologists rejecting a proposal to officially recognize the present as a new geological epoch—the Anthropocene—succeeding the Holocene epoch of the last 10-12 millennia in the Earth’s geological timeline. Popularized in the early 2000s (particularly by the late Paul J. Crutzen’s 2002 article “Geology of Mankind”), the term proposed that the human impacts on the Earth are now manifest in the stratigraphic record, as isotopes from nuclear tests layered into rock, or higher levels of carbon dioxide and methane are trapped in ice, and in other such geological features. Those sorts of impacts, the IUGS ultimately decided, are not enough to justify the naming of a new epoch.

There were good reasons to reject the notion of an Anthropocene epoch: the impacts highlighted were not caused by humanity as a whole but by particularly voracious segments of the species; the notion of an “epoch” implies distinctive conditions spanning thousands of years, but we do not know where the planet will be in that timeframe. Its future remains open.

At the same time, the IUGS’s vote may feel like a boon to climate change deniers and their ilk. When informed people raise Anthropocene-related concerns, the nay-sayers can simply reply that there is no such thing as the Anthropocene, and hence nothing to worry about. The matter has been closed.

But that’s hardly the case. Between Crutzen’s article and this month’s decision, the term Anthropocene evolved significantly in its terms of reference, away from its geological pedigree and into the expanding sciences of the Earth system, ecology, and sustainability. In these contexts, the term does not focus on stratigraphy, but rather on the ways in which human actions have become the primary drivers of change in the Earth system through such processes as climate change, ecosystem destruction, biodiversity loss, landscape conversion, and other forcings. Anthropogenic carbon emissions, for example, have just produced the hottest year of the past 100 million.

So while the geologists have rejected the term, the term itself has shifted to capture something more compelling yet even more worrisome. It is not about how the human impact is inscribed in rock, it is about how the human activities are pushing the planet beyond key boundaries and out of its “safe operating space,” leaving our future deeply uncertain. Though not a geological epoch, the Anthropocene concept is more valid and timely than ever in its ability to capture our present predicament. It’s little wonder that it has been picked up and productively employed by fields far removed from geology—from social science to philosophy to literature. The IUGS vote notwithstanding, ‘the Anthropocene’ is here to stay.

– Polycrisis Fellow Michael Lawrence

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