Today is the first day in what I am referring to as my “Alphabet”, which will feature an environmental/social issue for every letter (Z and Q remain a struggle so let me know if you have any ideas!) So, A is for Anthropocene.
“Anthropocene” is the term used by many to describe the new geological epoch (time in Earth’s history) in which we now live. It has been suggested that because of the enormous and all-encompassing impacts which the wealthiest in global society have had on the planet, including climate change, ocean acidification, habitat destruction, widespread atmospheric and water pollution and resource exploitation just to name a few (Natural History Museum), we are beyond the realms of what is “natural” and are instead entering into unchartered geological territory. But before I get into the debate around this topic, let’s first understand what a “geological epoch” is.
“Recognition of intimate feedback mechanisms linking changes across the atmosphere, biosphere, geosphere and hydrosphere demonstrates the pervasive nature of humankind’s influence, perhaps to the point that we have fashioned a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.” -Waters et al., 2014
Geology can be daunting primarily because of its unfamiliarity and long names (or maybe that’s just me). But as with most things, a picture speaks a thousand words. The image below is a section of the geological timescale covering the Quaternary Period, which is the name for the most recent period of time in Earth’s life. Geological time is firstly divided into eons, these being the largest sections which encompass everything else. Within eons, there are eras, and within eras, are periods, such as the Quaternary Period, which started around 1.8 million years ago (where we are now). And much like a set of Russian dolls, there are epochs within periods, and ages within these. Got all that?! The “Anthropocene” has been suggested to define a new epoch, which is pretty significant as it would remove us entirely from our current epoch, the Holocene.
Geological time periods are typically distinguished based on the identification of geological units (physical and often observable changes in rock, sediment or fossil composition, for example changing sediment colour). Units act as evidence of events which caused major shifts in the Earth system, like mass extinction events or changes in ocean current cycling (Waters et al., 2014).
To determine whether the Anthropocene should be an official geological epoch, which would recognise that humanity is now the dominant force responsible for the Earth’s processes, the Anthropocene Working Group was set up in 2009 (Waters et al., 2014), comprising scientists, geologists and the Nobel Prize winner who coined the term, Paul Crutzen. One of its aims is to find a GSSP (Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Pont) for the start of the period, which is basically a point (or unit) in the sediment somewhere in the world which clearly defines the beginning of the new geological time zone. Markers within the sediment which distinguish it from surrounding sediment might include an obvious shift in the composition of the fossil groups preserved within, or a change in the geochemical makeup of the sediment itself.
The process of finding geological evidence for the Anthropocene has proven difficult: particularly because there is no universal consensus on when this new zone actually began. Some believe that the start of the Anthropocene (that is, the point at which humans were first dominating Earth’s processes) should represent the start of human civilisation, which came with the dawn of agriculture 12-15,000 years ago. Others instead think it should be start at 1950 during the Great Acceleration, which seems to coincide with geological evidence for population growth, industrialisation and globalisation, as well as the impact of nuclear weapons (Waters et al., 2014; Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, 2019).
Within the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) 88% believe that the Anthropocene should be an official, geologic time period defined by a GSSP, according to a vote taken in May 2019. Another 88% were in favour of the period starting at 1950. But you might be starting to wonder at this point: why does it matter? Surely it’s all just scientists arguing for the sake of arguing, without any significance for the rest of us?
Words are important in highlighting problems and their solutions. The use of the term “Anthropocene”, and its backing by scientists across the globe, forces us to recognise that our planet is now dominated and overpowered by the activities of our own species (Vansintjan, 2015). However, the term has been criticised for not being political enough: pinning the blame on humankind as a whole (as “Anthropo” from the Greek “Anthropos” means “human”) suggests that every member of society has an equal role in the destruction we have wrought on the planet, which is completely untrue. As we know, the global West has had the greatest impact on our current climate crisis, stemming at first from a historic legacy of fossil fuel burning, inefficient resource use and rapid development, and maintained through the capitalist ideals which have for decades put profit before people, planet, and just about everything else. But pinning the start date to 1950 rightfully places the responsibility at the feet of the wealthiest nations, where the Great Acceleration was most concentrated.
Vansintjan (2015) writes that acknowledging our own influence better frames the power we have to solve the problems which we now face. But if nothing else, the Anthropocene is a physical demonstration that we are beyond the realms of “natural”, and that we can’t return to the unspoiled, pristine planet of the past.
Waters, C.N., Zalasiewicz, J.A., Williams, M., Ellis, M.A. & Snelling, A.M. (2014) A stratigraphical basis for the Anthropocene?. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 395(1), pp.1-21
Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (2019) Working group on the “Anthropocene”. [online] Available at: http://quaternary.stratigraphy.org/working-groups/anthropocene/ (Accessed 07/06/2020)
Natural History Museum (n.d.) What is the Anthropocene and why does it matter? [online] Available at: https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/what-is-the-anthropocene.html (Accessed 07/06/2020)
Vansintjan, A. (2015) The Anthropocene debate: why is such a useful concept starting to fall apart? [online] Available at: https://www.resilience.org/stories/2015-06-26/the-anthropocene-debate-why-is-such-a-useful-concept-starting-to-fall-apart/ (Accessed: 07/06/2020)