The Anthropocene: What is it good for?

Examples of key events that produce stratigraphical signatures that could be used to define the base of the Anthropocene [1]

Examples of key events that produce stratigraphical signatures that could be used to define the base of the Anthropocene [1]

This month marks seventy-one years since the U.S. Army, under the direction of physicist Robert Oppenheimer, detonated the first nuclear bomb in the desert at Trinity Site near what is now Alamogordo, New Mexico. The date of July 16, 1945 may ultimately serve as the ‘golden spike’ or stratigraphical signal used to indicate the time boundary between the Holocene and the Anthropocene. We mark this distressing anniversary by inviting readers to explore questions regarding the use or purpose that the term ‘Anthropocene’ should ultimately serve.

Humans have emerged as a force of planetary proportions. As evidence, we can point to mass extinction of species, disruption of geochemical flows, global climate change and ocean acidification, introduction of radioactive materials and novel chemicals and massive land use change, among other impacts of various human activities. Thus, in the May 2000 newsletter of The International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme, Nobel laureate and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, with paleolimnologist Eugene Stoermer, proposed the use of the term ‘Anthropocene’ for our current geological epoch, in order to “emphasize the central role of mankind” in driving geological and ecological change on Earth [2]. Derived from Anthropos (‘human being’) and kainos (‘new’), the Anthropocene signals a time in which human activities have become a dominant force in driving the evolution and destabilization of planetary systems.

Despite the growing popularity of the term, its adoption and use is not without controversy. Two very different debates about the Anthropocene have emerged over the past fifteen years. The first debate, largely involving physical scientists, has centered on which set of phenomena best indicates the Anthropocene and what date best indicates its origins. This can be understood as the what-and-when debate. Potential markers span human history, from the development of agriculture on the earliest end of the time scale to the explosion of the atomic bomb and the rapid expansion of economic activity over the mid-twentieth century on the later end.

However, the observed phenomena are one matter, while deciding what name we give to these phenomena is quite another. Regardless of whether the atomic bomb, the Great Acceleration or some earlier proposed date can best indicate sufficient geologic change, these various real-world phenomena tell us nothing about what word we should choose to describe this new epoch. Thus we find a second debate advanced primarily among various social theorists, critical observers, and voices from the social sciences who have called attention to the term itself. Driving this latter debate is the concern that the term ‘Anthropocene’ inappropriately aggregates all humans together as a single driver of global change. In using this term, the argument goes, we foster a narrative of collective human blame rather than making a necessary distinction regarding which humans and which activities are most responsible for the dramatic changes observed. This can be understood as the who-and-why debate. To counter this narrative of collective ‘species-level’ responsibility, we see various alternative concepts proposed (e.g. econocene, capitalocene, etc.), in what effectively has become a contest over problem definition.

The Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) project has indicated that while it is important to recognize differences among human contributions, the main point in advancing the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ is to draw attention to the severity of change and the widespread degradation of the Earth’s life support systems. Building on this knowledge, the project further seeks to inspire bold science and action to reverse these devastating trends. Others have grown impatient with the debate about what to call this new epoch, arguing that the development of the term has opened an opportunity for serious global discussion not on what name to use, but rather on what should be done. This view recognizes that most of the natural scientists and geologist who have enthusiastically (even if uncritically) adopted the term do in fact understand that not all humans share the same responsibility. What’s further, if popular culture and scientific discourse are any indication, the debate on whether to use the term ‘Anthropocene’ may already be settled, at least informally. The ‘Anthropocene’ as an informal concept may be here to stay, whether for reasons as noble as seeking to inspire planetary recovery or as cynical as appealing to the next round of funding.

The procedure for formal recognition of the Anthropocene may very well close these two debates while also opening space for a new and possibly more fruitful debate. The term is now under consideration by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS) Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene.’ The SQS working group would settle the what-and-when debate by agreeing on the geologic signal, and potentially close the who-and-why debate by establishing the term as a distinct unit within the Geologic Time Scale. Thus formally adopted, the alternative proposals would hardly be worth advancing, as timescales and textbooks everywhere would then move to describe the newest geological epoch.

By examining more closely the charge of the SQS working group, however, the possibility arises for a new debate concerning not which effects matter or how we should name them, but rather how we should employ the term ‘Anthropocene.’ This we can understand as the what-for debate. Even if the term is here to stay, its meaning is still very much open to interpretation*. Taking this term as an opportunity, what work do we want of it? What do we intend for the concept to do exactly?

It is worth noting what the SQS working group will not be doing in its process to consider the adoption of the term. The working group will not try to name this current geologic time frame based on anyone’s perceived explicit definition of the problem or views on the drivers of observed change. Even in the unlikely case that some consensus could be reached, the social and political implications of approaching the name as a problem definition are far too problematic.

Nor will the working group follow any well-established precedent for naming geologic time periods. At a glance, it appears as if the Pleistocene and Holocene were named somewhat haphazardly in the mid- to late- 19th century, and subsequently formally adopted due to widespread popular usage. The Pleistocene and Holocene refer to periods of time that can be defined by recognizable changes that are chronologically and qualitatively new (‘most new’ or ‘entirely new’, respectively). These established terms derive from the Greek and share the root word kainos meaning ‘new’. The proposal for the ‘Anthropocene’ partially follows the form of these earlier terms, but the deliberate and targeted meaning of the term is without precedent.

The charge of the working group is narrowly defined. The primary concern of the working group is to consider the functional stratigraphic signals and implications regarding the existence and start date of a new Quaternary epoch called the Anthropocene. According to the working group web site, two criteria must be met in formally accepting the term: 1) demonstrating a sufficiently large, clear and distinctive geologic signal, and 2) determining whether the formal term is useful to the scientific community. The first test is demonstrated all too well by the long and growing set of detrimental planetary changes that motivate the E4A project. The second test opens up space for the what-for debate.

In terms of this second test of usefulness, the working group explains that:

“the currently informal term ‘Anthropocene’ has already proven to be very useful to the global change research community and thus will continue to be used, but it remains to be determined whether formalisation within the Geological Time Scale would make it more useful or broaden its usefulness to other scientific communities, such as the geological community.”

If it is the usefulness to scientific communities that matters, and not the social implications, then perhaps the naming process would benefit from a public and systematic approach (we are scientists after all) to both define and evaluate usefulness in this case. Perhaps the most scientific approach to determining what constitutes usefulness and whether any specific term is useful would be to define the parameters and then engage the scientific community through the literature.

Lacking such an explicit process, we offer a modest contribution to the what-for debate by compiling a working draft of our bibliography on the Anthropocene, a collection of voices primarily but not exclusively from scientific communities that have engaged thoughtfully and productively with the concept of the Anthropocene from various perspectives. As members of the E4A community, we favor a conversation that engages with communities broadly defined. We further invite the reader to publicly (and respectfully) engage with this question of the value and usefulness of the term ‘Anthropocene’ for various communities, scientific and otherwise. What constitutes a useful term? For which of the many (scientific) communities? What do we want the Anthropocene to do beyond earlier formulations of ‘environment’ or ‘sustainability’? While recognizing that no concept is infinitely malleable, the what-for debate urges us to consider how we might meaningfully reclaim and redirect the term and toward what ends. Understanding and engaging with these perspectives allows us to critically and reflexively anticipate the formal recognition of the Anthropocene Epoch and further consider how we can usefully leverage this ominous occasion.


Matthew Burke is an E4A PhD candidate


*It is worth noting, for example, that the term is frequently mis-translated as ‘the age of humans’ while the Anthropocene Epoch more precisely translates as the age of ‘the new human,’ implying that we live in an age dominated by a new type of human.

[1] C. N. Waters, J. A. Zalasiewicz, M. Williams, M. A. Ellis, and A. M. Snelling, “A stratigraphical basis for the Anthropocene?,” Geological Society, London, Special Publications, vol. 395, no. 1, pp. 1–21, May 2014.

[2] Crutzen, P. J., & Stoermer, E. F. (2000). The “Anthropocene.” Global Change Newsletter 41,
17–18. International Geosphere–Biosphere Programme (IGBP).

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