A sign of the times; the ‘Anthropocene’

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On 11 May 2011, the Geological Society of London hosted a conference, co-sponsored by the British Geological Survey, to discuss evidence for the dawn of a new geological Epoch: the Anthropocene, supposed to mark the impact on the Earth of our species. The Society, and no doubt others internationally, is interested in gathering thoughts, reflections and observations about the Anthropocene. There is indeed a a powerful and vocal, though not necessarily large, lobby directed at the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) to enshrine this new division. That lobby  has been active since 2000 (see: No escape from global warming;  Changing the world; Epoch, Age, Zone or Nonsense in EPN issues of November 2000, April 2005 and March 2008 respectively)

We currently live in the Holocene (‘entirely recent’), an Epoch with ICS imprimatur. Yet the last 11.7 ka has been but one of very many interglacials since about 2.6 Ma ago; the start of the Pleistocene Epoch and the Quaternary Period – Arduino’s last surviving division of geological time, and lately resurrected from an untimely demise! The ‘golden spike’ for the Pleistocene/Holocene boundary is at the agreed combination of signals – ‘deuterium excess values, accompanied by more gradual changes in 18O, dust concentration, a range of chemical species, and annual layer thickness’ – of the end of the Younger Dryas/Greenland Stadial 1 in a single Greenland ice core (NGRIP) held in a cold store in Copenhagen.

The Holocene itself was based on anthropocentric grounds; i.e. it roughly coincides with the transition from human foraging to sedentary life, agriculture, the relentless development of exploitation of the majority of humans and the commodification of the physical and organic environments following the Younger Dryas stadial. I guess that paraphrases how the ‘Anthropocene’ is proposed to be defined – a signal of the beginning of irreversible global change due to human activities whose future we cannot predict.

Even if it was possible to agree on some definitive signal of the onset of human-induced global change in the geological record there remains the formal difficulty for the ICS of agreeing on the location as well as the age and likely durability of the GSSP that would mark the beginning of the ‘Anthropocene’. The originator of the idea, Nobel Prize winning chemist Paul Crutzen, argued vaguely for the ‘start of the Industrial Revolution’. Recently it has been proposed by some to be 6 August 1945 marked by long-lived radioactive fallout from the atomic massacres of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Quaternary researchers decided some time back that the ‘present’ (as in ‘before present’ or b.p.) should be the year 1950 when atmospheric testing of thermonuclear weapons created excess 14C that will make radiocarbon dating of the next 50 ka somewhat more uncertain than it otherwise would have been. The ICS may well have a lengthy debate on its hands if the proposal ever reaches its deliberations.

Furthermore, the advocates are concerned that we are living in the transition into their ‘Anthropocene’ and that it will be so rapid and biologically disastrous as to manifest itself in stratigraphic sections of the future as a mass-extinction event. No previous mass extinction event has been allocated epochal status, being so brief, though never so brief (~10 ka) as the Holocene or any other interglacial of the past 2.6 Ma.

All that I can conclude is that should there still be geologists in, say, a million years time, who will be living in conditions and possessing intellects about which we would be ill advised to guess, they will still be in awe of the vast tracts of geological time and their stratigraphic and tectonic records over the last 4.55 Ga. Consequently, it is possible that they may well regard the then ancient proposal for an ‘Anthropocene’ as premature, hubristic and not a little reminiscent of the fable of Chicken Little; a humorous legacy of their somewhat startled predecessors. By all means let us be concerned  about and take action to halt adverse human influences on the planet, but sloganeering to climb aboard a bandwagon does neither. At the Geological Society meeting, Paul Crutzen observed  “… it will probably take another 20 years before it is formally accepted.” Thank goodness for a sense of reality: we may all be extinct by then…

Added 12 August 2011: Between 11.5 and 3.5 ka the greatest event in the evolution of modern humans took place on all continents except Australia and Antarctica; a foraging lifestyle gave way to settlement and the domestication of both plants and animals – the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. The production of surplus value, stored in the form of livestock herds and grain, marked by this transition set humanity on the road to its current social, ecological and economic crisis. Interestingly, William Ruddiman of the University of Virginia in 2005 noted a shift in the CO2 content of glacial ice around 8 ka, which he ascribed to intense farming and suggested that if there were to be an Anthropocene Epoch it should coincide with the start of agriculture. Combining geological and societal factors points unerringly to the start of the Holocene, so there is little need for a new Epoch. That sensible view receives support from a palaeo-demographic survey of 133 burial sites in the Northern Hemisphere: some before the local transition to agriculture, others following it (Boquet-Appel, J.-P. 2011. When the world’s population took off: the springboard of the Neolithic demographic transition. Science, v. 333, p. 560-561). The proportion of 5 to 19 year-old remains in the cemeteries shows a marked rise in the thousand years after the first local signs of agriculture thereafter to stabilise at a new higher level. This indicates a significant increase in female fertility, perhaps by as much as two births per woman. That would set in train the relentless, 1200-fold rise in world population from the estimated 6 million at the start of the Holocene to 7 billion at present.

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One response to “A sign of the times; the ‘Anthropocene’

  1. Pingback: The Time Lords of Geology |

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