Accepting the Anthropocene

Ever since atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen coined the term more than a decade ago, scientists have increasingly come to accept that we are now living in a new epoch known as the Anthropocene: a geological age characterised by the dominance of human activity on our small blue planet. The term has yet to receive official sanction, but long ago it made its way out of the senior common room and into popular dictionaries and public discourse.

Some scientists are uneasy with the growing acceptance of what is still a poorly-defined concept, but the debate is progressing, and one has to ask whether it is necessary at this point to have the Anthropocene formally accepted by way of international scientific edict.

The latest contribution to the debate is to be found in an essay in the journal Environmental Science and Technology by a group of eminent scientists who argue for formal acceptance of the bleedin’ obvious, and present evidence for the scale of anthropogenic global change that would justify such an epoch-making move.

Crutzen, together with Leicester University geologists Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, and Will Steffen of the Australian National University, says that in the past two centuries population growth, the rise of megacities and increased use of fossil fuels have wrought vast and unprecedented changes to the Earth that will last for millions of years.

“However these debates will unfold, the Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other. Geologically, this is a remarkable episode in the history of this planet.”

It is a strong case made by these scientific big guns, but the subject remains controversial, and getting a formal designation of the Anthropocene will be difficult.

Not only are there serious scientific objections to the Anthropocene, there is politics involved. For example, if we are living in a human-dominated geological epoch, this gives weight to the almost universally accepted view that human activity is affecting the Earth’s climate. One might therefore expect objections from those whose ideological prejudices lead them to claim that climate change is almost all natural, and that humanity has no significant influence over the environment on a global scale. The irony is that such an objection does not sit well with an anti-environmentalism that puts Man above Nature.

Further reading: Zalasiewicz et al., “The New World of the Anthropocene”, Environ. Sci. Technol. (2010)