Let’s maybe call it what it is: The Anthropocene

A week ago, I received an email from Prof. Sklair, a researcher from the UK, asking me if my website GREENDEX.ORG is using the word “Anthropocene”. This gave me pause because I’ve been grappling with that term for a while.

[When I created GREENDEX, my intention was an educational resource for my home community, the Florida Keys. Alas, my research took me to other places and the site sat idle, so it came as quite a surprise that somebody actually found it and looked at it.]

Honestly, the term Anthropocene could give me ulcers just thinking about it. I explained to Prof. Sklair that I have not been using the word Anthropocene on my website because I have mixed feelings about the implications. As a geologist, I haven’t been using the term because it has been falsely advertised as an epoch or era on the geologic time scale, which it is not. At least not yet.

The concept isn’t new or recent. Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani spoke about the anthropozoic era as early as the mid-1800s and Soviet scientists, such as Vladimir Vernadsky, may have been using a Russian version of the concept since the 1930s. In the U.S., American biologist Eugene F. Stoermer is officially credited with coining the term the Anthropocene in the 1970s. It wasn’t widely used, however, until the 1980s when Paul Crutzen, a Dutch atmospheric chemist, and Nobel Prize-winner, widely championed the term to describe the period of time since humans began to have an observable effect on the
Earth and its ecosystems.

The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) is the governing international body in charge of the geologic time scale. In 2018, ICS divided the Holocene (current) epoch into three, somewhat obscure, ages: Greenlandian (not obscure), Northgrippian (definitely obscure), and Meghalayan (extremely obscure). The term Anthropocene was completely omitted from any consideration by the ICS. Maybe they don’t appreciate it when other disciplines are trying to dictate their job.

My main concern with this type of language is that it confirms, in a circular way, our preoccupation with being the dominant species. Our own power positionally has brought about a necessity to acknowledge the consequences.

After deliberating for several months, I find myself coming around to calling it what it is: A period of time on our planet, where one species is fundamentally affecting the quality of life of all other species. This awesome power is even more worrisome, considering the age of our planet and the likely history of life on that planet. So far, our species has really just been a short blip on the planetary timescale, given that modern humans only arose about 200,000 years ago (a number so statistically insignificant compared to the 4.6 billion years of Earth that I have a hard time getting anything other than 0.0% out of my calculator).

It’s just so ironically anthropocentric. Or anthropocentrically ironic…

To be fair, there has been at least one other time where one species has caused the extinction of many or most other species. About three billion years ago, cyanobacteria created vast amounts of free oxygen when they adopted photosynthesis. At the time, massive amounts of dissolved iron were available to bind with free oxygen to form iron oxide. As a matter of fact, iron was so abundant, it took two billion years for all the iron on the Earth’s surface to oxidize. It wasn’t until about one billion years ago that the composition of the atmosphere changed permanently to what is today about 21% oxygen. Unfortunately, most earlier critters were anaerobic bacteria and oxygen poisoned them and so they pretty much became extinct.

Over the years, geologists have been able to decipher much of what we now know about Earth’s history and its earlier inhabitants from diligently unscrambling the rock record. Over time, stratigraphers have divided Earth’s history into eons, eras, periods, and epochs, based on fossil evidence and stratigraphic events. As a species, we’re low on the fossil scale (yet) but it has been argued that we’ve messed with nature to a degree that we’ve permanently altered the composition of the atmosphere which, in turn, will show up in the stratigraphic or rock record. Therefore, the argument goes, this period or epoch should be named the Anthropocene.

Cyanobacteria, with their more than three billion year history, might disagree but they’ve just not been very vocal in all of this. And there’s no other tribe or species to name this time period or event after us. So, calling this the Anthropocene is, in some way, just us self-identifying. And why not? We do it so well.

In 2021, the International Anthropocene Working Group will submit an official proposal to the ICS to recommend the Anthropocene as a new geological age. It remains to be seen which stratigraphic marker will determine what boundary defines this. Several candidates are under discussion, most notably radioactive nuclei, microplastics, and other toxic materials that are being deposited in measurable amounts into the sedimentary rock record.

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About the author

Hi, I’m Carmen “Mica” Alex and this is my blog about science, traveling, life and anything else that’s interesting or useful.

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