#Anthropocene — again

This is a quick/rough/hasty translation of the post I wrote in January 2016 in German. I guess the trigger for this translation is obvious: the decision to propose the 1940s/1950s as start of the big Age of Men. [slightly edited for typos and so on, 2018-06-27]

The history of mankind is a story of conquest, of the utilisation of the planet. Mankind has found means to survive in all lebensraums of earth and even to survive beyond the planet for a time. It is unsurprising that this expansion and the related configuration of the planet left traces.

Science published [in January 2016] a study, in which an international group of scientists lead by Colin Waters of the British Geological Survey document these legacies. Specifically they document how our fingerprint on the planet appears in the early 21st century. The authors are part of the Working Group on the ‘Anthropocene’ of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy which in turn is part of the International Commission on Stratigraphy within the International Union of Geological Sciences. The important words in this paragraph are Anthropocene, Stratigraphy and Geological.

The expression Anthropocene, the Age of Men, was first popularized by Paul Curtzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 after Stoermer used it since the 1980s. Already 1873 Antonio Stoppani spoke of an ‘anthropocoic era’. Crutzen clarified his approach in a Nature-article in 2002 and, in view of the human embossment of the present, thought it appropriate for science to proclaim a new geological epoch following the Holocene and to name it Anthropocene.

The proposal of the chemist Crutzen was often adopted and is now an established concept in various disciplines from political science across the environmental sciences to geology. The media also love the Anthropocene. It may even be more a pop-cultural phenomenon considering the number of popular scientific books and its use on social media.

Nevertheless the Anthropocene is not yet a defined subdivision of earth’s history but only a loose term that anybody can use as they like. Here the mentioned working group comes into play as well as the dozens of scientific papers from the last 24 months. The working group [was] engaged to prepare a formal definition of the Anthropocene according to the guidelines of the Stratigraphic Commission.

As suggested by Crutzen, this proposal aims  at defining the Anthropocene as an epoch following the Holocene. However there is still [was?] the possibility to view the anthropocene only as a subdivision of the Holocene. As an so called Age it wouldn’t be an Anthropocene but an Anthropian and would follow a still to be named early first subdivision of the Holocene. Furthermore there is still the possibility to define the anthropocene but to name the current segment of earth’s history only informally.

Irrespective of the position of a definition of the Age of Men, the scientists lead by Waters present a convincing list how humanity imprinted themselves in the geological memory of the planet. There are a number of new materials and the occurrence of these new materials changed because of our actions, our unintentional intervention in the climate and our commission of the splitting of atoms changed isotopic ratios, there are so called techno-fossils, we wiped out a number of species by our actions, the habitats of other species were cut down and furthermore our expansion and our exploration of the planet brought various species from their original habitats to places which they wouldn’t have reached without our assistance. Not least there will be human fossils on all continents – maybe with the exception of Antarctica.

The authors show moreover impressively how a big proportion of our fingerprint only becomes obvious in the last 300 years and especially in the 20th century. Population and economic growth as well as our innovations massively expanded our imprint.

From my point of the view there are three questions in the discussion about the anthropocene. Is it necessary, is it appropriate, and is the definition really sustainable in the sense of persistent?

Indeed, these questions are mainly important in view of a potential definition of the Age of Humans on a level as a geological epoch. They are also of conditional interest in view of a definition as an Anthropian.

From my point of view – and I am neither a geologist nor do I remember all articles I read about the topic – the definition is not necessary. Scientists use and need definitions to demarcate different things, to disambiguate concepts. As stratitigraphy is a geological disciplin, such a definition has to be primarily useful for geology. Where I can follow the sense of a definition of the “Recent” via the Holocene, it remains unclear to me – but I may be wrong – which use geology had from a definition of an Anthropocene – besides that geology and their members were able to answer by definition a question of mankind or at least a question of media interest. Put differently, a geologist in ten thousand or ten million years will definitely need a definition signalling to them that humanity shaped this stratigraphic series. The constant fingerprint will signal them when humanity became a geological force/process or, bio-stratigraphically, when humanity had entered all major landmasses of the planet. However, these landmasses will look quite different in ten million years.

The discussion of the period of humanity however undoubtedly already one use. It made clear which influence humanity has on the planet not only in the here and now but how we transformed the planet pertaining to the distant past and the not too close future. On the other hand the common use of the term also shows that other fields of science indeed appear to have a use for an anthropocene. Not only climate and environmental sciences deal with the growing influence of humanity on various parts of the planet.

I personally think it is inappropriate to proclaim an Age of Humanity contemporarily. In this context the discussion has for my taste a too anthropocentric focus. The discussion appears often to be mainly about re-establishing humanity as the pride of creation. The proclamation of the Age of Humanity is – in my opinion – a sign of arrogance. It is particularly a contemporary proclamation since a big part of our fingerprint arose in the last 100 years. We could in the same breath appoint people who established the period.

Furthermore the proclamation would (again) break the classical temporal dimension of stratigraphic units. Obviously this is insofar appropriate as our classification of earth’s history depends on the available evidence. Its temporal resolution and how we can assign it is more detailed the closer to the present the past is. Ages lasted usually millions of years and Epochs even tens of millions of years, but the Holocene-eppoch replaced the Age of the Tarantian after only 100,000 years. The Ionian lasted 600,000 years and the Calabrian one million years. The Age of Human makes to some extent nonsense of the classical classification.

In some sense we are with the Anthropocene located between geology, the science of the properties and the processes of the planet and its past, and history, the science of the past of human beings. Following the classification in stone age, bronze age, iron age to the present, one could certainly call the more recent past the coal, oil, and nuclear age, in which it would remain unclear how it continues in the near future. For me the question of the appropriateness of a proclamation of the Anthropocene may be not least posed as: Is the Anthropocene more a question for the historical (and social, i.e. humanties) sciences than for the earth sciences?

Waters and colleagues in their work shortly touch on the point of the persistence and conservation of the anthropogenic signals through time. They, however, do not go into detail. A number of their records for our imprint on the planet are indeed obviously characterised by their visibility beyond the near future. However, the question of the sustainability of our influence not only includes the preservation through time but also how long the influence lasts. Any classification of the Anthropocene, that starts more or less with the industrial revolution, makes a guess into the future. Even though it is rather unlikely we should ask the question: are 100 years, are 500 years, are 1000 years a geological Epoch? Let’s assume, human civilisation as we know it vanishes for some unknown reason after the 21st century, then what about this Age of Humanity? Let’s assume our imprint accelerates even further, do we have to redefine the start further to the future since the signal becomes even more clear?

In my opinion a definition of a geological time-unit towards the future doesn’t make sense. The anthropocene is a reasonable historical, social-science and probably also anthropological concept. But with respect to geology, I regard such a definition in reference to the future inappropriate and doubt it is useful. Our inability to know what will be challenges the persistence of the term.

For me, the Holocene is the a/(A)nthropocene. As Waters and colleagues note: “By 12,000 yr B.P., around the start of the Holocene, humans had colonized all of the continents except Antarctica.” This is, in my opinion, the crucial point for a human age. The definition of the Holocene is meant to
make us realize earth’s most recent history and the start of our story. That is what it does. It doesn’t need an Anthropocene for that. I don’t mind an Anthropian as much but even this appears to me too hasty. An informal definition would do most justice to the useof an Age of Humans for geology. Everything else is more a question of human history than of earth’s history.

The anthropocene poses a question to geology that faces history as long as there is history as a field of research: How does one demarcate the present from history?


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