Environmentalism and the anthropocene


in Politics, Science, The environment

The term ‘environmentalist’ is not consistently applied. In some circumstances, it is such a generic concept that it would include virtually everybody. If you don’t think we should fill the Grand Canyon with radioactive waste, perhaps you are an environmentalist. In other places, ‘environmentalist’ is a dirty word that politicians feel the need to distance themselves from, using labels like ‘conservationist’.

At the same time, there is enormous disagreement on the scale at which changes in environmental policy and behaviour need to take place. There seem to be people who genuinely think that things like plastic grocery bags are the true environmental scourges of our age (a sort of local environmentalism), but who do not see the planet as a whole as imperilled by human behaviour.

The term ‘anthropocene’ refers to the new geological era in which humanity is the most powerful force affecting what happens on Earth. We are much more influential now than the slow forces that made the climate change in the past. Barring an impact from a meteor or asteroid – or perhaps some kind of megavolcanic event – humanity will remain firmly in charge for the foreseeable future.

Perhaps we need another word for people who recognize this: that in an important sense there is no ‘wilderness’ left, and that the fate of the entire planet now comes down to human decisions. Recognizing this doesn’t mean that you care a lot about nature or wilderness – or even about humanity. It is just a recognition that on this spinning ball of iron (with a glaze of water on the surface and a whiff of atmosphere around) there are about seven billion bipedal primates who are running the show, albeit without a great deal of long-term thinking, ethical deliberation, or wisdom.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

klem March 24, 2011 at 11:23 am

I just looked it up on Wikipedia and there is no “new geoligic era” called the anthropocene. Do people like you have no self respect? What else have you just made up to suit your position? No wonder environmentalists are ignored nowadays.

Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geologic_time_scale

Milan March 24, 2011 at 12:26 pm

Not that Wikipedia is the final authority on such matters, but:

“The Anthropocene is an informal geological epoch that serves to mark the recent extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. A proposal was presented in 2008 to the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London to make the Anthropocene a formal unit of geological time. A large majority of the Stratigraphy Commission decided that the proposal had merit and should therefore be further examined. Steps are being taken by independent working groups of scientists from various geological societies to determine if the Anthropocene will be formally accepted into the Geological Time Scale.”


Matt March 24, 2011 at 2:49 pm

Do people like you have no self respect?

The irony.

R.K. March 24, 2011 at 6:44 pm

The term ‘anthropocene’ refers to the new geological era in which humanity is the most powerful force affecting what happens on Earth

Wind, rain, and tectonic drift are still doing more to affect what happens on Earth than humanity, though that may not be true if you are only considering living organisms.

If I recall properly, human beings themselves are now a significant fraction of the planet’s total animal biomass.

R.K. March 24, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Apparently, just humans have eight times as much mass as all the wild vertebrates on land. Our mass approximately equals that of all the fish and whales in the ocean. Things are even more dramatic when you factor in domesticated animals. They contain 100 megatonnes of carbon – 20 times as much as there is in all the wild vertebrates on land.

Tristan March 24, 2011 at 11:39 pm

We could devise a word for people who recognize that we live in the Anthropocene, and yet don’t care about the normative implications of this fact. But I think the term will be of little importance unless it has a motivating/ethical aspect – if being an Anthropocene-recognizer doesn’t imbue you with certain motivations, why should you care about the category of people who are athropocene-recognizers?

If you want to talk neutrally about the recognition or non recognition of the anthropocene, and if, despite Klem’s remark about our self-respect, it is recognized scientific understanding – might it be more appropriate to make a term for those who refuse to recognize the anthropocene? We could call them anthropocene-deniers? And, judging from the number of red lines appearing in this comment, perhaps we should accuse Microsoft of anthropocene-denial first of all?

Matt March 25, 2011 at 5:49 pm

perhaps we should accuse Microsoft of anthropocene-denial first of all?

You’re using IE?!

. June 7, 2011 at 6:09 pm

The geology of the planet
Welcome to the Anthropocene
Humans have changed the way the world works. Now they have to change the way they think about it, too

THE Earth is a big thing; if you divided it up evenly among its 7 billion inhabitants, they would get almost 1 trillion tonnes each. To think that the workings of so vast an entity could be lastingly changed by a species that has been scampering across its surface for less than 1% of 1% of its history seems, on the face of it, absurd. But it is not. Humans have become a force of nature reshaping the planet on a geological scale—but at a far-faster-than-geological speed.

A single engineering project, the Syncrude mine in the Athabasca tar sands, involves moving 30 billion tonnes of earth—twice the amount of sediment that flows down all the rivers in the world in a year. That sediment flow itself, meanwhile, is shrinking; almost 50,000 large dams have over the past half- century cut the flow by nearly a fifth. That is one reason why the Earth’s deltas, home to hundreds of millions of people, are eroding away faster than they can be replenished.

Geologists care about sediments, hammering away at them to uncover what they have to say about the past—especially the huge spans of time as the Earth passes from one geological period to another. In the same spirit they look at the distribution of fossils, at the traces of glaciers and sea-level rises, and at other tokens of the forces that have shaped the planet. Now a number of these scientists are arguing that future geologists observing this moment in the Earth’s progress will conclude that something very odd was going on.

The carbon cycle (and the global warming debate) is part of this change. So too is the nitrogen cycle, which converts pure nitrogen from the air into useful chemicals, and which mankind has helped speed up by over 150%. They and a host of other previously natural processes have been interrupted, refashioned and, most of all, accelerated (see article). Scientists are increasingly using a new name for this new period. Rather than placing us still in the Holocene, a peculiarly stable era that began only around 10,000 years ago, the geologists say we are already living in the Anthropocene: the age of man.

. July 3, 2011 at 10:47 am

The age of man

SIR – Your leader on the geological impact of human activity on the planet described geoengineering, which is the deliberate intervention in the climate system to counteract global warming, as a “dramatic change” designed to enhance the Earth’s durability (“Welcome to the Anthropocene”, May 28th). I would go further. The emerging debate over geoengineering is the principal forum in which old and new visions of nature and society are competing to guide our collective approach to life. Geoengineering is the most concrete embodiment of the recognition that humanity is now the dominant geological force on the planet, and must act accordingly.

In a world in which people have altered the climate system, it is not only inaccurate, but also irresponsible and even untenable to continue to view civilisation as separate and distinct from nature. The need for active, purposeful management of the Earth’s systems clashes with a premise on which much of modernity, including environmentalism, is founded, namely, that man stands apart from nature. Geoengineering erases this distinction. Given the stakes, the arguments are certain to intensify.

Joshua Horton

SIR – Geoengineering, which would potentially scrub carbon from the sky, is the type of thinking that got us into this environmental mess in the first place. If we really do want to “think afresh” about our relationship with the planet, we should find solutions that avoid such high-risk projects.

Dan Saragosti

SIR – A key element missing from your briefing is that human alterations to the planet over the past 50 years have degraded our ecosystems. We depend on properly functioning ecosystems for our well being, including providing freshwater, regulating the climate and controlling pollination. Restoring and sustaining these for growing populations and an unpredictable climate is the paramount challenge of our time.

As you said, we can “add to the planet’s resilience, often through simple and piecemeal actions.” Governments, the UN and some businesses, such as Mondi, Syngenta and Akzo Nobel, are using an ecosystem-services review to identify what they affect and depend upon. We need a concerted approach to repair our ecosystems. Otherwise, we will be fiddling as the Anthropocene comes to an abrupt end rather than moving toward the Sustainocene.

Janet Ranganathan
Frances Irwin
World Resources Institute
Washington, DC

* SIR – You quoted Henry David Thoreau as saying “In wilderness is the preservation of the world”. This was slightly wrong. In “Walking”, Thoreau actually wrote: “In wildness is the preservation of the world”.

Daniel Shively
Indiana, Pennsylvania

* SIR – You said that “the natural fluxes in carbon dioxide into and out of the atmosphere are still more than ten times larger than the amount that humans put out every year by burning fossil fuels”. True enough, but climate-change sceptics often pounce on this fact to pooh-pooh the anthropogenic impact from the burning of fossil fuels.

Although you went on to recognise that human activity causes these natural flows to become unbalanced, it can actually take only two or three decades for humans to cumulatively emit an amount that matches those natural fluxes, given how long carbon dioxide persists in the atmosphere and the low amount that the earth can absorb each year.

Anant Sundaram
Hanover, New Hampshire

. August 5, 2011 at 4:07 pm

The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans. By Mark Lynas. Fourth Estate; 280 pages; £14.99. To be published in America in November as “The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans” by National Geographic; $25. Buy from Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk

“WE ARE as gods and might as well get good at it,” proclaimed Stewart Brand, an American environmentalist, as he introduced the cornucopia of tools and ideas that made up his Whole Earth Catalog in 1969. What was true as the Apollo missions headed off for the moon is all the more so now, as the last space shuttle prepares for landing.

“The God Species”, by a British environmental journalist, Mark Lynas, who is something of a follower of Mr Brand, is about recognising the true extent of the power humans derive from their tools and their sheer numbers. It embraces the idea that the extent of this power, outstripping the dominion of any previous species, means that the earth is now in a new period of its history, the “Anthropocene”, and from that standpoint adumbrates the limits wise deities might impose on the further use of such world-altering abilities.

. August 29, 2016 at 9:45 am

To define a new geological epoch, a signal must be found that occurs globally and will be incorporated into deposits in the future geological record. For example, the extinction of the dinosaurs 66m years ago at the end of the Cretaceous epoch is defined by a “golden spike” in sediments around the world of the metal iridium, which was dispersed from the meteorite that collided with Earth to end the dinosaur age.

For the Anthropocene, the best candidate for such a golden spike are radioactive elements from nuclear bomb tests, which were blown into the stratosphere before settling down to Earth. “The radionuclides are probably the sharpest – they really come on with a bang,” said Zalasiewicz. “But we are spoiled for choice. There are so many signals.”

In contrast, some species have with human help spread rapidly across the world. The domestic chicken is a serious contender to be a fossil that defines the Anthropocene for future geologists. “Since the mid-20th century, it has become the world’s most common bird. It has been fossilised in thousands of landfill sites and on street corners around the world,” said Zalasiewicz. “It is is also a much bigger bird with a different skeleton than its prewar ancestor.”

. December 22, 2016 at 7:29 pm

As a geologist I have been following the Anthropocene debate with mild amusement (“Dawn of a new epoch?”, September 3rd). No other geological unit of time bears the name of species. To accord that honour to our own exemplifies the ego that characterises Man. Given the short time frame, the low preservation potential in terrestrial environments and the subduction of oceanic sediments, one must question just how much of our record will be preserved in 100 million years.

Regardless of the outcome of debates and votes cast by official stratigraphic commissions, we should at least enjoy an ironic chuckle that when the Anthropocene ends, we won’t know it.

Vice-president of geology
Warwick Energy
Oklahoma City

. August 13, 2019 at 5:26 pm

Perhaps, someday, our signal in the rocks will be found, but only if eagle-eyed stratigraphers, from God knows where on the tree of life, crisscross their own rearranged Earth, assiduously trying to find us. But they would be unlikely to be rewarded for their effort. At the end of all their travels—after cataloging all the bedrock of the entire planet—they might finally be led to an odd, razor-thin stratum hiding halfway up some eroding, far-flung desert canyon. If they then somehow found an accompanying plaque left behind by humanity that purports to assign this unusual layer its own epoch—sandwiched in these cliffs, and embarrassed above and below by gigantic edifices of limestone, siltstone, and shale—this claim would amount to evidence of little more than our own species’ astounding anthropocentrism. Unless we fast learn how to endure on this planet, and on a scale far beyond anything we’ve yet proved ourselves capable of, the detritus of civilization will be quickly devoured by the maw of deep time.

Geological time is deep beyond all comprehension. If you were to run a 26.2-mile marathon covering the entire retrospective sweep of Earth’s history, the first five-foot stride would land you two Ice Ages ago and more than 150,000 years before the whole history of human civilization. In other words, geologically and to a first approximation, all of recorded human history is irrelevant: a subliminally fast 5,000-year span that is over almost as soon as you first lift up your heel, crammed entirely into the very end of an otherwise humdrum Pleistocene Ice Age interglacial. (NB: That this otherwise typical and temporary warm spell of the Pleistocene has also been strangely given its own epoch, the so-called Holocene—quite unlike the dozens of similar interglacials that came before it—is the original sin of anthropocentric geology.)

. May 5, 2021 at 7:31 pm

The idea that humans act as a force of nature, and that the extent of that action meant the Earth had crossed a threshold into a new mode of being, was not new. But his outburst gave it wings. Partly it was a matter of timing: the full import of climate change and the lack of much success at curbing it, despite decades of effort, were beginning to sink into scientists’ minds. Partly it was that “the messenger was the message”. No one had done more to understand the ways that humans were changing, and could change, the nature of their planet than Paul Crutzen had.

If, as seems quite likely, the International Commission on Stratigraphy eventually extends formal recognition to the idea of the Anthropocene, the fallout from such testing, now settled into sea-floor sediments, may well be chosen as the geological formation that marks its base. And it also seems likely that, for as long as that epoch lasts, those who study it will be following the lead of Paul Crutzen.■


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