There are vigorous academic discussions around the definition, implications, and utility of establishing the Anthropocene as a new stage in geological time. Researchers in both the natural and social sciences are part of ongoing debates regarding the concept of a human epoch.
In geology, one controversial issue has been the evidence required to mark the start of the epoch. This conversation revolves around Global Stratotype Sections and Points (GSSP), stratigraphic reference points that define the lower boundaries of geological time units and are part of the criteria to formalize the Anthropocene as such. A number of researchers have proposed multiple datings for the beginning of the Anthropocene, while others have argued there might be insufficient data and are skeptical of the relevance of the term.
Humanist academics have also engaged in interdisciplinary exchanges regarding the Anthropocene. In recent work, scholars have questioned the scope of the term and proposed alternative frameworks that include historical, gender, economical, and racial perspectives.
The term has also transitioned into popular culture, sparking conversations about climate change and the environmental crisis among the wider public.
- 1 Geological Debate
- 2 In Humanities and Social Sciences
- 3 Multidisciplinary impact
- 4 Alternative framings
- 5 See also
- 6 References
The geologic time scale is a way of dating the Earth by classifying geological strata. Geologists have come together to split the 4 billion years of Earth's history into various eons, eras, periods, epochs, and ages. According to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the current geological epoch we are in is the Holocene, or 'recent' epoch.
There are formal criteria to define a geological time unit. Geological stratigraphic material defines each era, with global scale changes noted in rock, glacier, ice or marine sediments. These are known as Global Stratotype Sections and Points, or GSSPs, and must be agreed upon by the International Commission on Stratigraphy. GSSPs can also be referred to as golden spikes, since they refer to a specific instance in time. They must correspond with one single, physical aspect that appears in a stratigraphic section, with this change being felt globally. After identifying a strong enough event, geologists then find complementary stratigraphic changes, which are correlated with the initial golden spike, and called auxiliary stratotypes. These GSSPs must be strong enough to cause a singular, global change.
Because of this long list of qualifiers, there is always room for debate within the geological community on the Geologic Time Scale, and the latest debate centers around a human-influenced geological epoch, known as the Anthropocene.
As of 2020, there is still ongoing discussions about when to date the Anthropocene. Following guidance from the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy and the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the Anthropocene Working Group has been tasked with the job of determining a start date for the Anthropocene.
There are three suggestions for how the Anthropocene should be integrated into the Geological Time Scale. Option 1 has the Anthropocene following Holocene, so retaining what would be a normal interglacial as an anomalous very short Holocene Epoch. Option 2 has the Anthropocene directly following the Pleistocene. Under the second option, it would be called the Holocenian, since all formally defined Ages have an -ian suffix. Option 3 removed the Quaternary Period, allowing the Neogene ('new life') Period to run to the present day and removes the anomalously short Holocene Epoch.
Some researchers have gone so far as to dismiss the need to establish a new geological time unit, considering there is minimal stratigraphic evidence to support what they consider a political statement rather than scientific fact. Moreover, they posit "most articles on the Anthropocene misrepresent the nature of the units of the International Chronostratigraphic Chart". Members of the Anthropocene Working Group, in turn, refute these positions arguing solid geological grounding.
There are currently multiple proposed dates to mark the start of the Anthropocene epoch.
Dating back to the Pleistocene, fires are regarded as one of the first impacts of humans on the environment. While these events can be seen in fossilized charcoal, they are localized and therefore not meeting the geological requirements for a Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP).
Another marker that could link the start of the Anthropocene to the actions of Pleistocene humans is the Megafauna Extinction, an event between 50,000 thousand and 10,000 years ago during which almost half of the world's large-bodied animals were hunted by Homo sapiens. However, this was a process that happened unevenly in a series of events spread over different continents, thus lacking the precision of a plausible GSSP.
Another possible start date within the Anthropocene debate is the development of agriculture. With the change of natural vegetation, the environmental impacts are quite obvious and human. However, agriculture had independent origins, making it hard to determine a universal GSSP. There are changes within CO2 concentrations and Methane within ice core data, with low points for both providing possible GSSPs. However, these markers have unclear origins, and with few auxiliary markers it makes it hard for geologists to date an Anthropocene epoch to the onset of farming.
The Colonization of the Americas
Some interpretations of the Anthropocene link its onset to the European colonization of the Americas, which caused two significant environmental changes.
Firstly, the homogenization of the world’s biota in a process known as the Columbian Exchange. This early globalization event started a global mixing of hitherto separate species, with foodstuffs, domesticated and invasive animals being transported from continent to continent as a result of new global trade routes.
Secondly, during the first 150 years of colonization, the native population of the Americas decreased sharply. Between 1942 -the year of Columbus' first voyage- and1650, an estimated 50 to 60 million indigenous people died as a result of the exposure to European diseases such as smallpox and influenza, and consecutive conquest wars and famines. This population decrease and ensuing cessation of agriculture and other human activities prompted the regrowth of over 50 million hectares of tropical forest, which caused a substantial reduction of global atmospheric CO2. Antarctic ice cores show the drop in carbon dioxide concentrations reached its low point in 1610.
British geographers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin have named this event the 'Orbis Spike' and suggest it as a possible GSSP to mark the onset of the Anthropocene. Their claim is further supported by evidence of American charcoal deposits, anomalous sea ice extents, pollen deposits, and decreases in atmospheric methane.
This proposed dating sparked controversy by linking the start of the Anthropocene to colonialism and the incipience of a new global economic system. Some researchers argue this interpretation is inadequate, as it introduces the social sciences to a debate that should remain purely geological. On the other hand, indigenous scholars emphasize the importance of using the link between colonization and environmental transformation to create new frameworks for study.
The Industrial Revolution, the technical and economic process that started in Great Britain in the late 1700s, is linked to the first proposed datings of the Anthropocene epoch and has remained the dominant interpretation ever since. It has received, however, important criticism from both the natural and social sciences.
Chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer tied their original proposal of the term to the late 18th century, “when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several “greenhouse gases”. This was the result of the increased use of fossil fuels, especially coal, and new machines, namely James Watt’s steam engine.
Crutzen and a group of researchers later changed their dating to the year 1800. However, they continued to affirm the Anthropocene should begin with a moment that “marked the end of agriculture as the most dominant human activity and set the species on a far different trajectory from the one established during most of the Holocene”. According to this interpretation, the Anthropocene began with industrial capitalism and increased human impact on a planetary scale.
One of the primary objections to this interpretation is that it offers only a historical date without a clear geological marker to support it. The rise in carbon and methane emissions does not offer a sharp register in geological deposits and is rather seen as a gradual transition. This is also the case for climatic changes resulting from said emissions. Given the lack of abrupt change and the dyssynchrony of ecological impacts, some researchers conclude the Industrial Revolution lacks the “suite of geological markers required to delineate the beginning of the Anthropocene”.
Other theorists point to the flaws of linking the human epoch to technical developments and the use of fossil fuels of industrial capitalism. Environmental historian Jason W. Moore posits the globalized ecological impacts of the capitalist economy began much earlier, in the late 1400s, and has even proposed alternative definitions to the current geological epoch (see Capitalocene).
The most recent possible start date is known colloquially as the Great Acceleration, following a major expansion in human population and resource use, as well as a global fallout from nuclear bomb testing. Within popular culture, this date is well supported since the massive amount of resource use changes worldwide show a serious decline in the ability to sustain a human population. Unlike other popular dates proposed, the radioactive carbon from the nuclear fallout allows for a clear GSSP, with a date of 1964 being proposed in relation to dated rings in a pine tree from Poland. The subsequent other gas changes found in stratigraphic material would be used as auxiliary markers if the Great Acceleration and 1964 became the start date of an Anthropocene epoch on the Geological Time Scale. Other proposed start dates within the Great Acceleration could be 1945, when the first nuclear bomb was detonated until 1988, when detonation decreased, since worldwide fallout is easily identifiable in the chemostratigraphic record.
Within the Anthrocopene Working Group (AWG), a mid 20th century start date for the Anthropocene is currently being proposed, with many proposed GSSPs, but a consistently promising golden spike of anthropogenic radionuclides associated with nuclear arms testing (leading to a date between 1945 and 1988 as previously proposed). Auxiliary data could include plastics and carbon isotope patterns. With all of this evidence, the Great Acceleration is seen as possibly the most plausible from an Earth Systems Science point of view. The GSSP, or global spike, is clear, singular, and global, with many examples of auxiliary stratigraphic material. From a popular interpretation of the Anthropocene, the Great Acceleration can be seen as the continuing on of the greed of capitalism, and if considered the start date for the Anthropocene, could be seen as a success for both geological and popular schools of thought.
In Humanities and Social Sciences
In light of the Anthropocene debate, current philosophical discussions are focused on the shift framework through which humans understand existence, with emphasis on a change in the narrative constructs.
Through the modern age, conventional rationalist and humanist theories conceived of a Cartesian duality between human and environment, such that humans were the Subject observing and acting upon the environment or nature as the Object. This conceptualization was challenged as the term Anthropocene affirms the human species as a geological force, but only as one of many such forces within the Earth System. Perspectives of Postmodern theory further complicated the modernist or rationalist perspective by questioning the basis of the subject-object duality and asserting there is no single grand narrative. This position has de-centered the human as subject and added the non-human or extra-human as an active agent. This understanding shifted contemporary framing, across disciplines, to abandon the previous conceptualization of human-earth relational positioning to a more complex theory of interdependence and co-production, rather than the traditional framing of the actors as parallel and sometimes separate entities.
Alternatively, the revelations of Anthropogenic change have encouraged a new sense of human exceptionalism, or anthropocentrism, which is a reiteration of rationalist, modernist, humanist and technologist perspectives of human-centeredness and humanity's imperative to modify earth systems to meet its needs. Anthropocentrism acknowledges human species as an unparalleled force and thus reasserts the position as a primary agent, or Subject. Further, anthropocentric positions affirm the imperative to develop or change or subdue changes in the Earth System by human will and ingenuity.
As scholars become more aware of the effects of human behavior on the earth, further concepts of time have been called into question. Humans must look beyond historical narrative to a geological time frame, while also concerned with impending threats of the collapse of systems as climate changes has accelerated. The new awareness has caused a flourish of activity in scholarly fields to deconstruct historical narratives as grounded in the larger history of the earth in an effort to understand better causes for human behavioral impacts on the Earth and how to move forward in the new climate.
This ongoing effort to reconcile observed changes in earth systems with varied perspectives in human history has shifted dialogue in social, political and economic realms. However, humanities scholars also actively explore tension in the conceptual framework because it is being of formulated in the same instance as the rapid changes in climate crisis unfold. The ongoing question of locating when human behavior began to change the earth systems has implications in other fields of study.
Race and ethnicity studies
The concept of the Anthropocene has been approached by race and ethnicity studies. In the scholarly world, it has been the subject of increasing attention through special journal issues, books, and podcasts. The Anthropocene prompts questions about racial and ethnic exclusion in dialogues concerning the concept.
Some race and ethnicity scholars suggest that imperialism and capitalism have already led to the extinction of mass populations during the Anthropocene and these populations have not been taken into account by geologists debating the dating. Examples are the Colombian Exchange, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and colonization. Axelle Karera states how the Anthropocene does not account for these past and current imperial injustices. To this end, Kathryn Yusoff argues how the Anthropocene is configured in a future tense rather than in recognition of the extinction already undergone by black and indigenous peoples.
Scholars suggest this is problematic because the Anthropocene then omits non-white narratives and blames the entire human race for a crisis caused by imperialist powers. A contemporary example given includes the last survivor of an uncontacted hunter-gatherer tribe in the Brazilian Amazon compared to Rex Tillerson, who was CEO of ExxonMobil. In 2017, Rex Tillerson’s company was the fifth-largest carbon emitter in the world while the last tribe member’s carbon emission is essentially zero.
Proposed solutions are centered on including non-white narratives of origin stories and when discussing the Anthropocene to “systematically grapple with the problem of black suffering”. Nancy Tuana says that racism needs to be removed from various institutions and social practices that are relevant to the current climate regime.
In 2020, The Cut podcast released an episode called "Nature is healing" which discusses racial relations with nature in America. With Anthropocenic discourse entering the mainstream, The Cut explores the ways in which non-white peoples in America have been excluded from 'nature activities' like swimming and hiking. The hosts of the show go on to describe ways in which the land, now known as national parks, was taken at the expense of indigenous peoples that lived there.
Current feminist critical commentary of the Anthropocene is heavily influenced by Ecofeminism, which has long been concerned with intersections of environmental, racial, and gender oppression in capitalist society.
Contemporary feminist theorists insist on the poststructuralist shift from a modernist perspective by calibrating notions of anthropocentrism by critically de-centering human using techniques of postcolonial theory, asserting the nonhuman is the ruling concept. The discussion on troubling the binaries is heavily influenced by Karen Barad who also focuses on intersection between ecological destruction and human systems that include racist, colonialist, nationalist and misogynistic ideologies. “There is no question that contemporary feminist theory is productively post-human, as evidenced by the work of Karen Barad, who coined the terms posthumanist performativity and agential realism to signify this enlarged and, in my terms, postanthropocentric vision of subjectivity.”
Feminist scholar Donna Haraway has been influential in this field, emphasizing a shift toward a cultivation of responsibility with the human and nonhuman – what she calls creating “kin” or a building of community, and a multispecies ecojustice, while coining the alternative take no the Anthropocene, the "Chtulucene" (see below). Haraway builds upon issues of reproductive rights while drawing attention to population issues in the wake of Anthropocene changes.
Referencing Haraway's critique of the Anthropocene concept, Claire Colebrook and Jami Weinstein summarize the contemporary feminist perspective on the controversy:
"By asking when the Anthropocene began, we revive a modified version of the time of man; once again, man is placed as the agent of history, albeit unwittingly, and he can look back upon and assess the past of his own making. Haraway is not alone in suggesting that such conceptions of a single line of time, and a conception of first cause, are highly gendered and racialized. The figure of “man” who creates his own history and recognizes himself as having come into being through a time that is readable is bound up with hegemonic conceptions of modernity, and has long been the target of feminist, poststructuralist, and postcolonial critique (e.g., Foucault 1970; Amin 1989; Grosz 2004).
Primarily in the 2010s, the Anthropocene has become more mainstream in its use in popular culture. Its widening attention has opened up new dialogues among the public that contribute to different controversies among the debate. It is more widely included in documentaries, music, poetry and podcasts.
The concept gained attention of the public via documentary films such as The Antarctica Challenge: A Global Warning, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch and Anthropocene. Released in 2009, The Antarctica Challenge: A Global Warning provides information on the effects of global warming while refraining from indulging the doomsday undertones of so many activists. Anthropocene, a 2016 documentary, and Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, a 2018 documentary, both follow the Anthropocene Working Group and state that the Anthropocene started with the Great Acceleration.
In 2019, Nick Mulvey released a music video named "In The Anthropocene". In cooperation with Sharp's Brewery, the song was recorded on 105 vinyl records made of washed-up plastic from the Cornish coast. In February 2020, Grimes released an album titled Miss Anthropocene. Though the album was praised for its "masterful" production, critiques commented on the lack of climate or Anthropocene related ideas. Ludovic Hunter-Tilney of The Financial Times thought that the Anthropocene theme was "only tangentially" explored and that the album "highlights the inconsistencies of Grimes' output". In her own words, Grimes, pits the album as a way of coping with the depression of living in the Anthropocene with a sense of "ragging helplessness".
The poet Alice Major wrote Welcome to the Anthropocene. Critiques comment that her art reckons with science and "observes the comedy and the tragedy of this human-dominated moment on Earth". Her persistent question, “Where do we fit in the universe?” leads us to "question human hierarchies, loyalties, and consciousness, and challenges us to find some humility in our overblown sense of our cosmic significance".
In 2020, author John Green released a podcast called "The Anthropocene Reviewed" where he "reviews different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale". Also in 2020, The Cut released an episode called "Nature is Healing" that talks about racial relations to nature in American as a result of the discourse of the Anthropocene.
Several scholars have attempted to reframe the Anthropocene beyond the simplification of human impact on Earth. Academics have presented alternative framings of the Anthropocene to influence the established dating as well as the focus of the proposed geologic era. To frame the Anthropocene, one must ask what changes are simply changes and what are changes creating the significant, lasting impact signifying Earthly change. For many researchers, multiple framings are used as subcategories to describe the Anthropocene holistically and consider each framing a concurrent influence on the overall era of human force.
The Capitalocene is a framing proposed primarily by Jason W. Moore. Moore stated the term Capitalocene was originally proposed in a conversation with a Ph.D. student in Sweden 2009, after discussion of the effects of capitalism in relation to the Anthropocene. The proposal of a Capitalocene was not formalized until several years later through publications starting in 2016, after a three-part outline from Moore's personal blog in 2013 (, , ).
The pillars of Capitalocene are centered on “capital, power, and nature”. In an interview with Wired in 2019, Moore stated, “Capitalocene is a critique of this idea that capitalism is just about economics. Because it's also a system of power and it's a system of culture.”  The modern world of power and culture dynamics are centered on the development of capitalism in the 17th century. The 17th century Industrial Revolution is acknowledged as the start of the Capitalocene when modern capitalism developed and spurred a change in human affairs. The resulting impacts of the Industrial Revolution are to be the ultimate point of change that should mark a new ecological epoch.
According to Donna Haraway, the Capitolocene is a boundary of “ immense irreversible destruction” for living creatures on Earth. The reference to "immense" impact entails epochal change.
The impacts of capitalism in the Anthropocene have also been supported under arguments of planetary urbanization. Sue Roderick argues that the “switch point” for Earth occurred in the 1600s during which capitalist urbanization was expanded.
The term Plantationocene was first proposed during a 2014 interdisciplinary discussion on the Anthropocene and later expounded on through publication by Donna Haraway in 2015. Scholars have defined the Plantionocene as “the current ecological crisis is rooted in logics of environmental modernization, homogeneity, and control, which were developed on historical plantations.” The pillars of the Plantationocene rely on the combined production system of plant, land, labor, technology, and infrastructure. The consequences of plantation agriculture and the persistence of plantation culture both temporally and spatially. The dating of the Plantationocene focuses on the Great Acceleration of 1492 with the colonization of the Americas by Europeans. This transcontinental connection resulted in the intermixing and exchange of plants, animals, and human communities.
Critics have argued the framing of a new epoch on plantations has limitations. The focal point of the Plantationocene “minimizes the role of racial politics,” lacking sufficient analysis of the socioecological hierarchies and consequences instilled by plantations through slavery.
Most scholars suggest the Plantationocene as a complementary framing to other framings such as the Capitalocene or as a subcategory to the Anthropocene, but not a holistic framing independently.
The Chtuhlucene is a concept brought forward by Haraway which encompasses several topics that the feminist scholar considers have not been properly addressed in the Anthropocene or even Capitalocene discussion at large. She considers that the Anthropocene is not a useful term, as it assumes itself as universal by creating a unitary concept of mankind and its actions, as opposed to situated human beings in complicated histories. The concept is not able to include particular cases, for example, like the Inuit of the circumpolar north and their understanding of the complex political and environmental troubles of the world they live in, and it is not able to set up alliances that may be necessary for dealing with these problems.
She engages with the concept of Capitalocene and considers that it captures the centuries-old process of building wealth through exterminationist extraction, but she thinks that the discussion “needs more than one word,” and so borrows from the Chthulhu Mythos (dropping the last h of the name on purpose), to evoke the character’s ancient cosmic-dread and world-destroying characteristics. She explains that the Greek root of the word, chthonic, deals with earthly powers and processes that are human and much more than human. In making the concept she attempts to connect art, science and activism. Chtulucene, then, is this current epoch, one in which the human and nonhuman are inextricably linked in "tentacular practices."
Haraway’s research has originated in evolutionary biology to include the impact of technology in humankind and its place in the natural world as well as philosophical reflections of the “knowledge-making” and “world-making” characteristics of the sciences and the humanities, questioning the apparent contradiction between the factual and the fictional in the production of narratives that attempt to define verifiable knowledge and certainty. In this regard, she has used the signifier “SF” (science fiction, science fact, science fantasy, speculative feminism, speculative fabulation, string figures, so far) as both theory and method for better understanding different perspectives of the troubled relationship between the organic and inorganic, in order to better create innovative patterns of thinking that may lead to ways of “staying with the trouble” of our present.
This type of unorthodox scholarship has drawn criticism for being too vague or not empirical enough to the point of being unhelpful   but has also brought in further scholarly debate on the relevance of the Anthropocene within scientific rhetoric, critical theory and cultural studies.
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