[Note: For fuller and more technical summaries of the Anthropocene and why it just doesn’t fit (at least not yet), please read Chris’ and Greg’s posts. Likewise, naming new periods of time for perceived changes in our species or our impact in the world isn’t anything new, i.e. the older concept of the noosphere (which I will write more about soon)]
Every few years it seems that the concept of the “Anthropocene” rears its ugly head again, the general idea being that we are now in a new geologic epoch defined by changes that our species has inflicted on the earth. The term is essentially tied to the Industrial Revolution, so from the perspective of Deep Time we’ve really only just begun to change things (and this, as I’ll argue, is why our impact on the environment is better understood as an event rather than an epoch). I first encountered the term last semester when I took a “Soils and Society” course in which the professor really tried to drive home that we were now in the Anthropocene, and even though I knew it didn’t quite fit I valued my test score high enough to just go along on the exams. (Is it just me or do many of the main proponents of making the Anthropocene a valid geologic epoch appear to be soil scientists?)
While the attachment of the moniker to our current age might be alluring given the ecologic havoc we’ve inflicted on the planet, in all I think it’s a bad move (more of a PR stunt than a rigorous scientific idea). How long is the hypothetical Anthropocene going to last? A million years? (And that’s being generous.) If anything our effect on this planet is probably going to appear more as a quick geologic event when the geologists of the future (if such creatures there be) look at the strata, so the concept of the Anthropocene epoch just doesn’t fit in with the way the geologic timescale is constructed. Indeed, geologists construct and debate the geologic timescale based upon evidence from the geologic record (including fossils), so while we might eventually be able to mark the beginning of an Anthropocene we certainly can’t do it now. If our destructive powers are as great (or greater) than we’ve feared, the Anthropocene might only last a few centuries before we destroy ourselves (remember, the starting point isn’t marked by a more distant event like the Pleistocene mass extinctions but rather by the Industrial Revolution), so naming an epoch for such quick destruction does not fit in with how the geologic time scale is constructed and understood.
The problem, as Brian points out at his blog Clastic Detritus, is that oftentimes get the association between geologic ages and the phenomena that signal transitions confused. The end of the Cretaceous is marked by the extinction of many varieties of organisms; the organisms did not reach some temporal limit and went extinct because their time was literally up. Will Cuppy, in the book How to Become Extinct humorously pointed out this fallacy with the line “The Age of Reptiles ended because it had gone on long enough and it was all a mistake in the first place.”
When viewed the right-way-around, though, naming our current epoch the Anthropocene is a bit presumptuous and smacks of hubris. (Just to clarify an issue that one of the comments brought up, even if it was in an arrogant manner, I’m not suggesting that the researchers who favor the idea of the Anthropocene are trying to underpin our glory or importance. It appears that they are driven by ecological concerns for our increasing effects on global ecology and feel that present evidence justifies their position. Still, the idea that we should mark an epoch based upon quick, catastrophic changes our species has induced upon the planet does not seem justified given our present position temporally. Whether I’m right or wrong will only be known at a far off future date when I’ll likely be a fossil myself.) We have no idea what changes in ecology we may have already triggered, and there is something of a tacit acceptance of the idea that we’ll somehow make it through and be around to identify the root of the problem. We might not be; the future is contingent on factors that have already occurred and have yet to happen, so for now I think it’s best to leave the Anthropocene on the shelf until our species can take in the long view.
“I passed one day by a very ancient and populous city, and I asked one of its inhabitants how long it had been founded? ‘It is, indeed, a mighty city,’ replied he; ‘we know not how long it has existed, and our ancestors were on this subject as ignorant as ourselves.’ Some centuries afterwards I passed by the same place, but I could not perceive the slightest vestige of the city; and I demanded of a peasant, who was gathering herbs upon its former site, how long it had been destroyed? ‘In sooth, a strange question,’ replied he, ‘the ground here has never been different from what you now behold it.’ ‘Was there not,’ said I, ‘of old a splendid city here?’ ‘Never,’ answered he, ‘so far as we know, and never did our fathers speak to us of any such.’
“On revisiting the spot, after the lapse of other centuries, I found the sea in the same place, and on its shores were a party of fishermen, of whom I asked how long the land had been covered by the waters? ‘Is this a question,’ said they, ‘for a man like you? this spot has always been what it is now.’
“I again returned ages afterwards, and the sea had disappeared. I inquired of a man who stood alone upon the ground, how long ago the change had taken place, and he gave me the same answer that I had received before.
“Lastly, on coming back again, after an equal lapse of time, I found there a flourishing city, more populous and more rich in buildings than the city I had seen the first time; and when I fain would have informed myself regarding its origin, the inhabitants answered me, ‘Its rise is lost in remote antiquity – we are ignorant how long it has existed, and our fathers were on this subject no wiser than ourselves.'”