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Curiosities: The Anthropocene: What Is It?

Are Humans a Major and Defining Force on the Geological Scale?

By Sverker Sörlin Published 2014

The word “Anthropocene” has had a formidable career in the last few years and is often heard among global change scientists and scholars, in policy circles, green popular movements, and think tanks, and in all spheres where environmental and climate issues are discussed. In the literal, and limited, sense it is a geological concept, on a par with other periods or epochs during the Cenozoic era, such as the Holocene (“Recent Whole,” the period since the last glaciation, ca. eleven thousand years ago). The word anthropos (Greek for “human”) in it indicates that humans, as a collectivity across time, serve as a major and defining force on the geological scale.

Whether this is so is a matter of definition, and it is an ongoing and open issue whether this is the case. The Royal Geological Society of London handles these kinds of issues through its Stratigraphy Commission, which expects to be able to present its view on the matter to the Society by 2016. The chief criterion in their search for evidence is whether there will be enough lasting and significant traits left of the “strata” of the Anthropocene to merit it an individual geological period, or epoch (Zalasiewic et al. 2011). This is less a philosophical or judgmental than an empirical issue. Are the assembled impacts and remnants of human activities in the lithosphere, biosphere, atmosphere, pedosphere (the layer of soils), and cryosphere (the layer of ice) so overwhelming that we can be certain that the “deep future” will still be able to register the strata of humanity embedded into Earth itself?

In its extended understanding “the Anthropocene” is more of a metaphor and a historical, symbolical, and now also a political concept that speaks to the underlying environmental and climate impacts of human societies. In fact, while Holocene was a period marked by a relative stability of climate and most major Earth system parameters, the Anthropocene, it is argued, is marked by more drastic and rapid amplitudes. This was also the reason that atmospheric chemist and Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen first used the concept during a discussion at a meeting of the Scientific Committee of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in February 2000. (The original article in 2000 outlining the concept was by Crutzen with Earth scientist Eugene F. Stoermer, who had used the word in an informal way since the 1980s, and a more widely read version was published by Crutzen in Nature 2002; see Steffen 2013.) Crutzen was dissatisfied with the counterintuitive connotations that the concept “Holocene” evoked in this no-longer-so-stable world we humans now live in. In not much more than a decade, the Anthropocene has gone from an esoteric concept to what has been termed an “elevator concept” (Eileen Crist 2013, citing Hacking 2000), i.e., a kind of word that captures enough meaning for anyone to be able to address during a short ride in an elevator and also to take our understanding of the world to a higher level.

Several interesting observations could be made about this extended, and still expanding, usage of the term. One is that it is not entirely new; foresighted thinkers have for more than a century argued that a period would soon be under way where humans would be central to shaping the Earth (a root of this can be found in Christian doctrine). Another observation is that the universality of the concept and its planetary scale has provoked thinking about humanity as one common category, implying a shared responsibility for the current human predicament. Around this “inadvertent collectivization” of nations, cultures, groups, and individuals past and present, there has been much debate where critics argue that a flaw with the concept is precisely its innate tendency to mask the far-from-even contributions that are made to the impacts on the Earth, and thus also the far-from-even sharing of the fruits that come out of these impacts. In plain words, the poorest people who have contributed least to the Anthropocene seem to bear the brunt of the problems that follow when the growing Earth-system amplitudes are felt––as global warming and more frequent and violent environmental disasters.

A third important observation is the effect of “Anthropocene” on how we conceive of time, temporalities, and responsibility. If we are entering an era when humans change conditions of the Earth, some of our most deeply held ideas and virtues may come in a new light. If the seeking of wealth is linked to perturbations on a global scale, what will this imply for geopolitics and security? The forceful and expansive deeds that marked high social and historical virtues in the past––the “bravery” that “never goes out of fashion,” as William Thackeray told us in the middle of the nineteenth century, when such an idea seemed safe to canvass––may have to be reconsidered as humanity enters a new period.

Some may wish for an Anthropocene where sharing and redistribution become chief virtues. Others may argue that now is the time to make our societies more efficient in order to sustain wealth while not endangering our Earthly guardrails. Still others would be hard headed enough to suggest that the world will become a more violent place where only the strongest will be able to grab enough of the available “space” within the “planetary boundaries” to take a return path toward Holocene stability. In all likelihood, old values, virtues, vices, and political ideals will survive even under the Anthropocene. But their framework conditions will change and perhaps also the relative status of these values. If the Anthropocene turns out to be a nasty place, it will at least be harder to argue for status quo as the human desideratum. Words have power, especially if they stay as defining the world we live in.

Sverker Sörlin (sorlin@kth.se), Member (2013–14) in the School of Social Science, is Professor of Environmental History in the Division of History of Science, Technology, and Environment at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH). He is a cofounder of the KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory and the editor, with Libby Robin and Paul Warde, of The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change (Yale University Press, 2013), which recently won the New England Book Fair Prize for Best Edited Collection.

Published in The Institute Letter Summer 2014