The Anthropocene: Looking back to move forward

2023 will be a significant year for humanity. Scientists will vote to define the Anthropocene as the new geological epoch

By Amit Kurien
Published: Monday 10 July 2023
This new geological categoristion is meant to rewire our thinking and relationship with the Earth. Photo: iStock

The Anthropocene has become a buzzword among scientists and the media. It is the new geological epoch we live in. It is regarded as separate from the previous Holocene epoch because of the influence of human activity on land, water, air and Earth’s biogeochemical cycles. 

This new geological categoristion is meant to rewire our thinking and relationship with the Earth. It is thus a call-to-action concept that is at once scientific and political.

The concept is not officially recognised by the scientific community. But the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which consists of more than three dozen scientists and experts, has voted in favour of considering it a new epoch

The debate is about identifying the right starting point in the rock record that shows definite geological signals or ‘golden spikes’ in human activity. Examples include signs of manufactured materials, radioactive isotopes, industrial chemicals or particulates from fossil fuel emissions. Should it begin in the ‘early Anthropocene’ some thousands of years ago or the Industrial Revolution from the 1800s? Or should it be the mid-twentieth century that saw a post-World War surge in human activity including population growth, industrialisation and globalisation?

The AWG has currentky placed the mid-twentieth century as the beginning of the Anthropocene, demarcating it from the previous Holocene epoch. 2023 will see scientists voting to define it.

Now for the complexities in understanding the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is not like the other geological epochs. Unlike the previous ones, humans are the root cause of its features. 

But the popular depictions of the Anthropocene can fog one’s understanding of it. For instance, we mark this period using terms such as ‘global warming’. But ‘climate change’ might be the more relevant terminology. Although mean temperatures are rising, the local experiences are not the same. In fact, some places are getting colder. In one sense, there is no global. Each location encounters very different climatic experiences and ecological and social outcomes

Even though such climate cooling may be consistent with human activity, summoning imageries of heating for political action by interpreting aggregate trends should be judiciously done. Adaptation policies, development schemes, etc. that emanate from it have social, economic, cultural, and political consequences for countries, towns, and villages, especially in the Global South. 

The emphasis on 20th century events and climate change can also distract us from other human influences that affected and continue to affect life on Earth. For instance, social scientists, archaeologists and palaeoecologists object to privileging the post-World War II period as the birth of the Anthropocene. They contend that it renders a Eurocentric and technocratic perspective of human influence on the environment. It dismisses several millennia of human-led landscape change. 

The effects of agriculture, deforestation and irrigation works from several millennia ago are observable on land. They, in turn, influenced soil formation and the life in them. Furthermore, widespread human-led extinctions of species occurred centuries and millennia ago (aurochs, giant elephant bird and dodo are some examples). They were caused by agricultural change, competition with livestock, introduced predators and hunting.

For policy and action, it is also important to recognise that not all humans everywhere contributed to this epoch. This is especially the case for human influences after the 1950s. The surge and scale of post-World War II industrialism and globalisation in Europe and the USA are responsible for the current global situation. The environmental historian JR McNeill referred to this period as the ‘Great Acceleration’. 

When combined with centuries-long histories of colonisation that metamorphosed landscapes and ecological relationships, and created socioeconomic disparities at the hands of countries of the Global North, the Anthropocene simply does not affect all places the same way. Today, the average North American emits 11 times more carbon dioxide than an African. Many more interpretations of the Anthropocene can exist

Thus, political action to ‘reverse’ the effects of the Anthropocene should be clear about who should bear the greater responsibility of undoing its effects and whom and how it will affect. 

‘Climate-oriented solutions’ are becoming part of conservation and development discourse for this epoch. These efforts should equally focus on the local realities and biophysical changes. 

Many pressing issues in the Global South, for instance, may have more to do with land use change and water shortage, lack of access to land, public health, education, food security and related issues, and less directly influenced by or sensitive to trends in temperature change. Thus, the coming decades should not translate into another era of mistakes using old frameworks of techno-economic tools with technology transfer and routing of development aid.

New frameworks for achieving this epoch’s environmental conservation and development goals will emerge in the coming decades. But a key to finding solutions is to begin by reconceptualising the Anthropocene. For this, one must focus on everything that is not anthropos the primordial ruling class man. Women, children, other marginalised groups and the other creatures of this planet could present to us new ways of living with the planet. Are we listening? Observing? Are we seeing the signs?

The scientific community is yet to converge on the validity and geological birth of the Anthropocene. Significantly, the geographer Noel Castree points out correctly that each suggested geological timestamp is a value judgment based on what some regard as epochal. Formalising the epoch only validates one among the many competing value judgments. 

On the other hand, psychologist Matthew Adams argued this epoch is better used as a reminder for ourselves of life as interdependent and interconnected and situate the awe and wonder of deep time.

Regardless of what the outcome of the upcoming voting exercise might be, the Anthropocene is here to stay – conceptually, scientifically and politically. Yet, its connotations and the kind of political and civic action it elicits could change for the better. This is where our focus should be. 

Yes, there is cause for concern. Ecologists highlight rapid extinctions, shifts in ecological ranges, and other behavioural changes of species among animals and plants in land and water because of temperature changes. But they also attribute similar changes caused by other human activities such as deforestation and poaching. It is thus a period of transition to a natural world order, greatly rearranged. It is also one that is disturbing to the minds of many of us, but one through which we must find a way. 

Without new visions, sound science and judicious multi-pronged action, we cannot proceed into a just, sustainable and peaceful future. 

Amit John Kurien is assistant professor of environmental science, School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, RV University, Bengaluru. Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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