- 1 Definition
- 2 Development of the term
- 3 Dating the Anthropocene
- 4 Controversies and debates
- 5 Challenges and alternative proposals
The term Anthropocene (also referred to as The Human Epoch) stands for a proposed, yet not formally recognized, geological epoch characterized by the human domination of Earth and its ecosystems. It suggests that global human activity has grown to a geological force and became the primary cause of contemporary planetary changes, frequently outcompeting natural processes. Due to the severity and endurance of human-induced changes, advocates of the Anthropocene argue for regarding the present as within the Anthropocene Epoch, rather than within the Holocene Epoch.
Development of the term
The idea of a geological time unit defined by humans has existed for centuries. Comte de Buffon, who was an essential figure for the development of modern geology, wrote in his Epochs of Nature (1778) about a seventh and final geological epoch called the Epoch of Man. In nineteenth century textbooks of geology it was common to include humans in the definition of the most recent geological time unit. Different names to refer to this time unit were used, like Recent, Holocene, Anthropozoic, Era of Man and Age of Mind. Thomas Jenkyn was probably the first one to use the Greek ‘anthropos’ to denote a human epoch in 1854. All the terms used share the idea that humans have a significant impact on their environment, for instance the extinction of species or the domestication of others. This would be visible in the future fossil record. There were, however, also religious concerns that influenced geology. It was seen as important to separate humans from other animals and to preserve their special place in the Earth's history after scientists discovered that the Earth was much older than Biblical texts suggested. In the twentieth century, Western geologists started to consistently use the term Holocene. The meaning of this term began to shift and became less associated with human environmental impacts. Meanwhile scientists in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe kept using terms that point to humans being a geological force.
Proposal in the 2000s
The current use of the term the Anthropocene can be traced back to two papers in the early 2000s. In 2000, during a meeting of the International Biosphere-Geosphere Programme (IGBP) in Mexico, Paul Crutzen proposed that we now live in the Anthropocene and that the Holocene has ended. Together with Eugene Stoermer, he published a short paper in the IGBP Newsletter, one month later. Two years later, Crutzen published about the beginning of a new geological epoch in the leading scientific journal Nature. After these two articles, the concept has been taken up by various scholars and across disciplines. In 2009, the International Commission on Stratigraphy created the Anthropocene Working Group. This formal committee, led by Jan Zalasiewicz, investigates whether we can indeed speak of the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch, as well as the criteria by which it should be defined and dated.
Dating the Anthropocene
The division of history into geological periods of different orders (from highest to lowest order: Eons, Eras, Periods, Epochs, Ages) is coordinated by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) on account of the International Union of Geological Science (IUGS). The established procedure for determining the starting point of each unit is the use of a Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP), commonly a section of rock sediment or ice drill core, that indicates a definitively detectable and dateable change in global environmental conditions. Such changes can be the appearance of new plant and animal species or changes in biological and chemical cycles. These primary markers are commonly supported by secondary sediment markers from other locations that show the same change for the same time. For dating the beginning of the Anthropocene, various indicators have been proposed, pointing to different times and global developments.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration
Atmospheric gas concentrations can be reconstructed using ice core sections from the polar ice caps, in which gas is entrapped and stored over long periods of time. For atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (CO2), two changes have been proposed: the decline of CO2 levels starting in the late 16th century and reaching their lowest point around 1610; and the continuous increase of CO2 levels from the late eighteenth century onwards.
The decrease of CO2 levels leading up to the 1610 minimum can be attributed to the arrival of Europeans in the Americas from the late fifteenth century onwards. With the introduction of new diseases that local populations had little immunity for and conquest wars, populations in the Americas declined rapidly. Less land was used for food production so that forests expanded and sequestered atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. The subsequent and ongoing increase of atmospheric CO2 levels can be attributed to the expansion of European settler-driven agriculture through plantations, migration of European populations to the Americas, and, starting in the eighteenth century, increasing fossil fuel consumption for energy production. These changes are captured in atmospheric gas deposits in Arctic and Antarctic ice cores that allow for a dating of these changes.
Rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels from the late eighteenth century onwards are another alternative of designating the beginning of the Anthropocene, focusing on the use of fossil fuel-derived energy throughout the Industrial Revolution. Widespread adoption of coal as a heating fuel and the use of coal-powered steam engines released carbon from fossilised plants into the atmosphere. Changes in atmospheric CO2 levels become definitivelty measurable between the late eighteenth and nineteenth century and have continued to increase since.
Using CO2 levels as markers for the beginning of the Anthropocene thus gives two options: the early seventeenth or late-eighteenth and nineteenth century. Controversies about the choice of date revolve around what is definitive for contemporary human life: the expansion of human social relations to a planetary scale through trade, production, and conflict, which points to the 1610 atmospheric CO2 minimum that marked colonisation of the Americas; or the increasing reliance on technology and fossil fuel-driven industrial production that is indicated by the continuing rise of atmospheric CO2 levels from the late-eighteenth century.
Atmospheric methane concentration
Changes in atmospheric methane concentration are detectable in Arctic and Antarctic ice cores from 5,000 years ago. The primary causes are the expansion of farming, especially paddy rice cultivation, and livestock farming. While sedentary agriculture arose over a span of thousands of years across multiple locations, its more widespread adoption around 5,000 years before now first began to alter environmental processes and change landscapes to the point of becoming trapped in and detectable using ice cores and sedimented biological matter. While such evidence has shown the large-scale transformation of landscapes through human action, indicators of farming such as pollen deposits in sediment shows the variation in time of when and what kind of farming was adopted. The time lag between the first adoption of farming and the detectability of atmospheric methane concentration changes, then, makes this a contentious marker for designating the time when human actions brought environmental change on a planetary scale.
With the development of nuclear fission technology from the 1940s onwards, leading up to the construction and test of nuclear bombs, the release of radioactive materials as fallout became detectable as traces of human actions on a global scale. Nuclear testing accelerated throughout the 1950s and 1960s, around the same time as production, trade, and cultural engagement became increasingly interconnected around the globe. While various radioactive isotopes can be traced back to nuclear testing, carbon-14 is established as a geological indicator for radiocarbon dating and is assimilated into trees. Its familiarity and the possibility of precise dating of tree rings has made this isotope a key marker for radioactive fallout resulting from human technological innovation. The peak of carbon-14 levels in 1964, when the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty had caused a rapid decline of nuclear tests thus offers another option of designating the impact that human actions, particularly mediated through technological change, have on a global scale. However, radioactive testing is not itself a cause of environmental change but correlated to technological developments such as increases in production capacities and transitions in energy use that themselves bring changes in the global environment.
Animal and plant species
Significant changes in animal and plant populations caused by evolutionary adaptations to changing environmental conditions are another approach to dating the beginning of geological periods. Rapid environmental changes can trigger both mass extinctions and evolutionary innovations - often interdependent events as the disappearance of some species opens evolutionary niches for new species to adapt to and changes the contextual conditions of existing species. Human actions have contributed to changing animal and plant populations on a global scale through, for example, increased hunting of large-bodied mammals by an expanding human population between 50,000 and 10,000 years ago; tropical deforestation and the transformation of other ecosystems; and the introduction of new species, which homogenised their presence across the globe, while other species went extinct from hunting, diseases, and habitat loss - all of this occurring at a rapidly increasing pace after the expansion of European control in the Americas throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The megafauna extinction of 50,000 to 10,000 years ago being spread unevenly across a large period of time and different places makes it difficult to use as a period marker. Additionally, and the same being true for species extinctions from human-induced landscape transformation, the disappearance of a species cannot be definitively dated from an absence of evidence. The appearance of new plant and animal species around the globe, however, and primarily those consciously introduced by humans for agricultural use, provides another possible marker for globally transformative influences of human agency.
Controversies and debates
The Anthropocene concept has received much attention within as well as outside of academia. Many have embraced it as a means to make sense of our current ecological crisis. The concept has also attracted criticism concerning some of its aspects or implications.
The Anthropocene concept has been criticized for glossing over inequalities between humans. The narrative in which the Earth System is increasingly dominated by humanity risks framing humanity as a unified actor. Malm and Hornberg call this a species-based view and hold that this view is misleading. Instead, they argue that analyses of our current ecological crisis must take into account (historical) intra-species inequalities. Global inequality and price and wage differences have been a condition for the “high-tech modernity” in parts of the world that is responsible for the biggest human impact on the environment. Furthermore, the contribution to greenhouse gas emissions of one-sixth of the human population is close to zero. Thus, we cannot speak of an undifferentiated humanity causing climate change. Various scholars have emphasized the importance of including such nuances in the Anthropocene narrative.
No formal recognition
Research on whether the Anthropocene is a new geological epoch is still being undertaken by the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) as well as other scientists. The AWG is preparing a proposal, which then needs to be accepted by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS). Because the Anthropocene is not yet officially recognized by the ICS as an epoch it is not a formal geological time unit. In academia as well as popular culture, however, it is often treated like a fact rather than a proposal that we live in the Anthropocene. Many people, including many scientists, believe that the Anthropocene is an official epoch, which causes erroneous use. The lack of formal recognition makes that some find it a controversial term to use in science.
Furthermore, the process of formalization of the Anthropocene has been criticized for being political. Some believe that formal recognition of the Anthropocene is needed in order to install the necessary environmental policy. Others, however, have criticized the politicization of the ICS decision and argue that it is a geological issue that should be decoupled from environmental policy matters.
Interdisciplinary uses and divergences
Originally proposed as a specifically geological category, the concept of the Anthropocene has since been taken up in a variety of other disciplines such as history and political economy. This exchange across disciplinary backgrounds and methodologies has generated new insights: historical research into European colonisation of the Americas has illuminated the exact trajectories through which new species and diseases were introduced; political-economic investigations have pointed to how colonisation and environmental change are embedded in global processes of capital and production. These disciplines, however, and even different research projects within geology, employ distinctly different methodologies and therefore address different aspects of the objects they research. The shift from sedimented rocks to atmospheric gas encapsulated in glacial ice has stirred debates about whether the potential period of the Anthropocene is a discrete geological epoch or, through its association with cycles of glaciation, merely an extended interglacial warm period. The choice of evidence and methodology here distinctly shapes the results of the analysis.
Similarly, historical research tends to emphasise human action and the historical contingencies of specific human actions and choices. Thus privileging free will and rational choice, established historical methodologies tend to omit the parametric environmental conditions that co-determine human decisions and social-historical processes. A political-economic focus on the global distribution of wealth, capital, and power, on the other hand, tends to highlight the inequalities in influencing the global environmental conditions: whereas some individuals and group hold significant power over factors such as pollution, greenhouse gas emission, and global exchange routes, others have comparatively less control. Similarly, the effects of environmental change are differentially distributed across populations, with some individuals having access to greater mitigation capacities than others. Debates between scholars from different disciplines with distinct methodological backgrounds, then, have given rise to a range of understandings of the Anthropocene. While these have advanced each other, they have partly led to evaluations and critiques of one discipline's contributions from the perspective of another's premises, thus omitting or misinterpreting some nuances.
Challenges and alternative proposals
Since its emergence, the Anthropocene has generated discussions and raised a wave of criticism among experts and scholars across disciplines. The entire geological concept has been frequently criticized as incomplete and peripheral for its alleged absence of historical thinking and insufficient consideration of socio-economic factors. As the attention to the Anthropocene prevails, there are critiques of the approach that identifies humanity as a whole as the cause of the environmental crisis, thereby not considering social systems or historical processes set by minorities. Critiques of the Anthropocene have emphasized the uneven causes and consequences of global environmental change, as well as the unmarked whiteness and Eurocentricity of Anthropocene discourses. Each of the critiques explained below brings a different point of view from which they evaluate the concept and propose amendments.
Generally considered as the main contender of the Anthropocene, the main divergence of the discourse lies in the Capitalocene’s different understanding of the emergence of the current planetary state and the distinct identification of its primary drivers – most notably the emergence of capitalism. This approach is promoted by many prominent scholars such as James W. Moore, Raj Patel, Jerome Roos and others.
While the Anthropocene characterizes the current geological epoch as human-dominated and considers humanity itself as a geological force and thus the main cause of environmental changes, those arguing for the Capitalocene identify the rise of capital and the capitalist organization within human society as the origin of geological and ecological shifts. What the Anthropocene classifies as the Age of Man, the Capitalocene identifies as the Age of Capital.
The Capitalocene presents itself chiefly as an alternative way of thinking the origins and the evolution of the modern ecological crisis. According to the concept, the Anthropocene ignores historical facts crucial for the proper understanding of the modern epoch and by shifting the attention from capitalism it falsifies the history behind planetary changes. While acknowledging the Anthropocene as a solid scientific concept providing the understanding of geological changes, many promoters of the Capitalocene claim that it fails to take into account primary socio-economic drivers of these changes caused by the expansion of capitalism.
In its further clarification, the alternative approach focuses primarily on the global events following the Columbian exchange and draws attention to some of the practices that enabled and enhanced the expansion of modern capitalism, which the anthropogenic approach allegedly disregards – beginning with the Cartesian dualism as a philosophical base and followed by colonialism, racial inequalities and the subsequent exclusion of certain groups of people, appropriation and exploitation of natural resources and unfair distribution of profit.
The term “Plantationocene” was first outlined in a 2014 interdisciplinary discussion on the Anthropocene and later released in the journal Ethnos. It is the concept that suggests that our current ongoing ecological crisis is rooted in the logics of environmental modernization, homogeneity, and control, which were developed on historical plantations. The plantation system depends on the relocation of the species including plants, animals, microbes, and people. The systematic practice of relocation for extraction is necessary to the plantation system. Thus, the Plantationocene represents the devastating transformation of diverse kinds of human-tended farms, pastures, and forests into extractive and enclosed plantations, relying on slave labor and other forms of exploited, alienated, and usually spatially transported labor. The Plantationocene makes one pay attention to the historical relocations of the substances of living and dying around the Earth as a necessary prerequisite to their extraction. It embodies a growing attention to the development of global capitalism through processes of settler colonialism and enslavement, organized and rationalized by the plantation system. Haraway stresses that the concept provides a means of decentering the narrative by which coal, the steam engine, and the industrial revolution constitute the epicenter of global environmental change, instead of pointing to the crucial role of plantation ecologies and politics in shaping the present.
Scholars such as Justin McBrian offer yet another alternative approach based on similar arguments as the Capitalocene. The term Necrocene is proposed as a “system that not only accumulates capital but drives extinction”. In line with this conception, capitalism is described as life-threatening world-ecology necrotizing the Earth. Capital is illustrated as the engine of endless accumulation that eventually leads to the extinction of both species and cultures. Similarly to the Capitalocene, promoters of the Necrocene underline the exploitation of indigenous cultures and depletion of natural resources as the inevitable consequences of capitalist practices.
Still in the Holocene
Although there is a popular movement towards the recognition of the Anthropocene, many Holocene geoscientists and archaeologists do not accept that the Holocene has ended. The impact of human activities on the environment seems to be clear, but it is still uncertain whether anthropogenic effects are sufficiently distinct, consistent, and, dated for a new geological epoch. Unless the formal criteria are achieved, there is no justification for decoupling the Anthropocene from the Holocene. There is the argument that Anthropocene should be seen as an informal historical designation rather than a formally defined stratigraphic unit within the geological timescale.
Additionally, some critiques consider that the Holocene already differs from the previous Pleistocene because of the influence of humans. It has been argued that an Anthropocene epoch is not required, given that some human influence is already contained within the Holocene. Defining the Anthropocene would deprive the Holocene of its unique feature as the age in which humans live. Alternatively, the Holocene may not be required if the Anthropocene is officially admitted as a geological epoch.
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