The Great Anthropocene debate

The Bagger 288 bucket wheel reclaimer moves from one lignite mine to another in Germany: an apt expression of modern times

Followers of Earth-logs and its predecessor, should be familiar with the concept of ‘The Anthropocene’. More recent readers can hardly have escaped it, for it has become a recurrent motif that extends far beyond science to the media, the social sciences and even the arts. Some circles among the ‘chattering classes’ speak of little else. It has become a trope – a word with figurative or metaphorical meaning. In 2000, atmospheric chemist and Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen suggested that the increasingly clear evidence that human society is having growing impacts on the Earth system should be recognised by a new stratigraphic Epoch. Some Fellows of the Geological Society of London launched an attempt to formalise the suggestion through the society’s Stratigraphic Commission (Zalasiewicz, J. and 20 others 2008. Are we now living in the Anthropocene? GSA Today, v.18(ii), p. 4-8; DOI: 10.1130/GSAT01802A.1). In 2009 Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester became the first chair of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) within the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS).  A dozen years on, stratigraphers continue to debate the Anthropocene (See: Brazil, R. 2021. Marking the Anthropocene. Chemistry World, 29 January 2021). One of the problems facing its supporters is the lack of agreement about what it is and when it started.

Since 1977 the ICS has been searching for localities, known as Global Boundary Stratotype Sections and Points, or GSSPs, that mark the actual beginning of each basic division of the geological record: Eons, Eras, Periods, Epochs and Ages. So far, those for Epochs and longer divisions have been agreed and GSSP markers have been cemented in place, sometimes with quite large monuments, if not actual golden spikes. Those for the shortest timespans – Ages – are proving more difficult to agree on. These GSSPs have to have global significance, yet the very nature of stratigraphy means that a fair number of the most brief rock sequences revealed by field work either formed at different times across the globe, or there is no incontrovertible dating method to record their beginning and end.

Currently, we live in the Holocene Epoch whose beginning marked the global climate system’s exit from the frigid Younger Dryas at 11.7 ka ago. The Holocene (‘entirely recent’) Epoch marks the latest interglacial. When it began every human being was Homo sapiens, made a living as a hunter-gatherer and eventually expanded into every ecosystem that offered sustenance on all continents bar Antarctica. Within a few thousand years some began sedentary life as farmers and herders after their domestication of a range of plant and animal species. A few millennia later agriculture had a growing foothold everywhere except in Australia. Natural tree cover began to be cleared and organised grazing steadily changed other kinds of ecosystem. Human influences, other than scattered artefacts and bones, became detectable in geological formations such as lake-bed sediments and peat mires. The geological record of the Holocene is by no means consistent globally, there being lots of gaps. That is partly because sedimentary systems continually deposited, eroded and transported sediments on the landmasses. In the tropics and much of the Southern Hemisphere the Younger Dryas is, in any case, barely recognisable in post-Ice Age deposits, so the start of the Holocene there is vague. Things are simpler on the deep sea floor, as muds accumulate with no interruption. But it was only when data became available from drill cores through continental ice masses on Antarctica, Greenland and scattered high mountains that any detailed sense of changes and their pace emerged. The major climatic perturbation of the Younger Dryas and its end only became clear from the undisturbed annual layering in Greenland ice cores. It proved to have been extremely fast: a couple of decades at most. The GSSP for the start of the Holocene therefore lies in a single Greenland ice core preserved by cold storage in Copenhagen. It is a somewhat ephemeral record.

Leaving aside for the moment that the Anthropocene adds the future to the geological record, when was it supposed to start? Its name demands that it be linked to some human act that began to change the world. That is implicit in the beginning of agriculture which held out the prospect of continuous growth in human populations by securing food resources rather than having to seek them. But such an event is not so good from the standpoint of purist stratigraphy as it happened at different times at different places and probably for different reasons (See: Mithen, S. 2004. After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000 – 5000 BC. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London; ISBN-13: 978-0753813928 [A superb read]). A case has been made for the European conquest and colonisation of the Americas which was eventually followed by the death from European diseases of tens of millions of native people, many of whom were farmers in the Amazon basin. The Greenland ice records a decline in atmospheric CO2 between 1570 to 1620 CE, which has been ascribed to massive regrowth of previously cleared tropical rainforest. That would define a start for the Anthropocene at around 1610 CE. Yet the main driver for erecting an Anthropocene Epoch is global warming, which has grown exponentially with the burning of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions since the ill-defined start of the Industrial Revolution (late 18th – early 19th century). It looks like in a year or so the ICS is due to debate a much later start at the peak of nuclear weapon fallout in 1964, which its champions claim to coincide with the ‘Great Acceleration’ in world economic growth, emissions and warming.

If that is accepted, anyone still alive who was born before 1964 is a relic of the Holocene, as Philip Gibbard secretary-general of ICS wryly observed, whereas our children and grandchildren will be wholly of the Anthropocene. We Holocene relics only grasped the change at the start of the 21st century! The very nature of exponential growth is that its tangible effects always come as a surprise. The build-up of human influence on the world has been proceeding stealthily since not long after the Holocene began. Annoyingly, the very name Anthropocene lays the blame on the whole of humanity. In reality it is an outcome of a mode of economy that demands continual exponential growth. That mode – the World Economy – lies completely beyond the reach of social and political control. It is effectively inhuman. So, why the pessimism – can’t human beings get rid of an ethos that is obviously alien to their interests? Perhaps ‘Anthropocene’ might be an apt name for the aftermath of such a reckoning, which may last long enough to be properly regarded as an Epoch …

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