Anthropocene more an Event than an Epoch.

The Vattenfall lignite mine in Germany; the Anthropocene personified

The issue of whether or not to assign the time span during which human activities have been significantly affecting the planet and its interwoven Earth Systems has been dragging on since the term ‘Anthropocene’ was first proposed more than two decades ago. A suggestion that may resolve matters, both amicably and with a degree of scientific sense, has emerged in a short letter to the major scientific journal Nature, written by six eminent scientists (Bauer, A.M. et al. 2021. Anthropocene: event or epoch? Nature, v. 597, p. 332; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-021-02448-z). The full text is below

The concept of the Anthropocene has inspired more than two decades of constructive scholarship and public discussion. Yet much of this work seems to us incompatible with the proposal to define the Anthropocene as an epoch or series in the geological timescale, with a precise start date and stratigraphic boundary in the mid-twentieth century. As geologists, archaeologists, environmental scientists and geographers, we have another approach to suggest: recognize the Anthropocene as an ongoing geological event.

The problems with demarcating the Anthropocene as a globally synchronous change in human–environment relations, occurring in 1950 or otherwise, have long been evident (P. J. Crutzen and E. F. Stoermer IGBP Newsletter 41, 17–18; 2000). As an ongoing geological event, it would be analogous to other major transformative events, such as the Great Oxidation Event (starting around 2.4 billion years ago) or the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (around 500 million years ago).

Unlike formally defined epochs or series, geological events can encompass spatial and temporal heterogeneity and the diverse processes — environmental and now social — that interact to produce global environmental changes. Defining the Anthropocene in this way would, in our view, better engage with how the term has been used and criticized across the scholarly world.”

AUTHORS: Andrew M. Bauer, Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA; Matthew Edgeworth, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK;  Lucy E. Edwards, Florence Bascom Geoscience Center, Reston, Virginia, USAErle C. Ellis, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Maryland, USA ; Philip Gibbard, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK;  Dorothy J. Merritts, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA.

I have been grousing about the attempt to assign Epoch/Series status to the Anthropocene for quite a while (you can follow the development of my personal opinions by entering ‘Anthropocene’ in the Search Earth-logs box). In general I believe that the proposal being debated is scientifically absurd, and a mere justification for getting a political banner to wave. What the six authors of this letter propose seems eminently sensible. I hope it is accepted by International Commission on Stratigraphy as a solution to the increasingly sterile discussions that continue to wash to and fro in our community. Then perhaps the focus can be on action rather than propaganda.

As things have stood since 21 May 2019, a proposal to accept the Anthropocene as a formal chrono-stratigraphic unit defined by a GSSP at its base around the middle of the 20th century is before the ICS and the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) for ratification. It was accepted by 88% of the 34-strong Anthropocene Working Group of the ICS Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy. But that proposal has yet to be ratified by either the ICS or IUGS. Interestingly, one of the main Anthropocene proponents was recently replaced as chair of the Working Group.

One thought on “Anthropocene more an Event than an Epoch.

  1. Thank you for your observations on our recent suggestion concerning classifying the ‘Anthropocene’ as an event, not as a formal division of the Geological Timescale. As you say, we think this is a practical solution to the thorny problem of having to identify a fixed basal boundary for an Anthropocene Series/Epoch, etc. that is a pre-requisite if it is to be a formal chronostratigraphical division. Since the activities of humans began influencing the natural envirnment at very different times in different parts of the world, it makes little sense to have a fixed basal boundary which of necessity excludes any changes that occurred before the time selected. This is, of course, a particular problem if the boundary is placed in the mid-20th century, effectively after the major industrialisation of the northern countries and substantially after the forest clearances for agricultural activity throughout the vast majority of regions.

    One might also ask, what is the utility to the Geosciences of placing a boundary so close to the present day, a time for which we have ample written records, and moreover using the products of open-air nuclear testing for correlation.

    A full explanation of our proposal was published open-access on Monday 15 November in the journal Episodes:
    Gibbard, P..L, Bauer, A.M., Edgeworth, M., Ruddiman, W.F., Gill, J.L., Merritts, D.J., Finney, S.C., Edwards, L.C., Walker, M.J.C., Maslin, M., Ellis, E.C. 2021. A Practical Solution: the Anthropocene is a Geological Event, not a Formal Epoch. Episodes, Published online November 15, 2021 https://doi.org/10.18814/epiiugs/2021/021029.

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