Are we living in the Anthropocene?

Published at: 23 March 2016

The Anthropocene, or the geological epoch of the human, would signal the departure from the currently accepted epoch of the Holocene. The Holocene began roughly 11 000 years ago after the last Ice Age, at which time agrarian societies also started emerging. Should the Anthropocene become a scientifically accepted term by geologists and stratigraphers, it would mean that human beings have become a dominant force that is shaping the life of the planet itself.

The exact date at which the Anthropocene began still has to be determined. For some, the entire concept of the Anthropocene is illegitimate and simply a product of popularised discourse. For others, however, there are two possible ways to view the start of the Anthropocene. The first is to consider that the Anthropocene has already started with the emergence of agrarian societies whereas the second view is to link it more specifically to the invention of the steam engine and the ensuing industrialisation of society. But those subscribing to the second view are beginning to consider the start of the Anthropocene around 1950, linking it to a period known as the Great Acceleration that indicates an exponential growth in the total population, the use of resources, urbanisation and so on – all of which has led to subsequent changes in the Earth System. More specifically it also marks the period of nuclear weapons testing and the radioactive residues it left behind, possibly providing stratigraphers with a “golden spike” in the stratigraphic records of the Earth which is what they generally look for in order to date an epoch on a scale of geological time.

Although the term has not yet been officially accepted as a unit in the Geological Time Scale, it has already sparked debate across various academic disciplines. Some are showing that beyond the indicators geologists look for in the stratigraphic records of the Earth, that the effects of global human activity are also of a chemical and biological nature. This can be seen in the acidification of oceans and the increase in the rate of extinctions comparable to the time of the dinosaurs, which could possibly lead to a sixth extinction event. Others emphasize that the Anthropocene as a concept cannot only rely on the natural sciences for scientific facts but must also consider the political and economic histories inherited since the Industrial Revolution and the inequities that it has entrenched. And for the more pragmatically minded, new technologies must be developed and implemented through “geoengineering” in order to govern climatic change.

A group of specialists and scientists, the Anthropocene Working Group, have put together a proposal to formalise the Anthropocene into the Geological Time Scale. The group expects the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the international body responsible for adjudicating the scientific legitimacy of a new geological epoch, to give a verdict on the status in 2016. In the meantime, as the Earth keeps warming and plastic rocks wash ashore in Hawaii, there can only be hope that concepts such as the Anthropocene will lead to a new awareness of a future for life on the planet, and for the life of the planet itself.

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