Anthropocene: what (or who) is it for?

The made-up word chrononymy could be applied to the study of the names of geological divisions and their places on the International Stratigraphic Chart. Until 2008 that was something of a slow-burner, as careers go. It all began with Giovanni Arduino and Johann Gotlob Lehman in the mid- to late 18th century, during the informal historic episode known as the Enlightenment. To them we owe the first statements of stratigraphic principles and the beginning of stratigraphic divisions: rocks divided into the major segments of Primitive, Secondary, Tertiary and Quaternary (Arduino). Thus stratigraphy seeks to set up a fundamental scale or chart for expressing Earth’s history as revealed by rocks. The first two divisions bit the dust long ago; Tertiary is now an informal synonym for the Cenozoic Era; only Quaternary clings on as the embattled Period at the end of the Cenozoic.  All 11 Systems/Periods of the Phanerozoic, their 37 Series/Epochs and 85 Stages/Ages in the latest version of the International Stratigraphic Chart have been thrashed out since then, much being accomplished in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Curiously, the world body responsible for sharpening up the definition of this system of ‘chrononymy’, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), seems not to have seen fit to record the history of stratigraphy: a great mystery. Without it geologists would be unable to converse with one another and the world at large.

Yet now an increasing number of scientists are seriously proposing a new entry at the 4th level of division after Eon, Era and Period: a new Epoch that acknowledges the huge global impact of human activity on atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and even lithosphere. They want it to be called the Anthropocene, and for some its eventual acceptance ought to relegate the current Holocene Epoch, in which humans invented agriculture, a form of economic intercourse and exchange known as capital and all the trappings of modern industry, to the 5th division or Stage. Earth-pages has been muttering about the Anthropocene for the past decade, as charted in a number of the links above, so if you want to know which way its author is leaning and how he came to find the proposal an unnecessary irritation, have a look at them. Last week things became sufficiently serious for another comment. Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin of the Department of Geography at University College London have summarised the scientific grounds alleged to justify an Anthropocene Epoch and its strict definition in a Nature Perspective (Lewis, S.J. & Maslin, M.A. 2015. Defining the Anthropocene. Nature, v. 519, p. 171-180).-=, which is interestingly discussed in the same Issue by Richard Monastersky.

Lewis and Maslin present two dates that their arguments and accepted stratigraphic protocols suggest as candidates for the start of the Anthropocene: 1610 and 1964 CE, both of which relate to features that are expressed by geological records that should last indefinitely. The first is a decline and eventual recovery in the atmospheric CO2 level recorded in high-resolution Antarctic ice core records between 1570 and 1620 CE that can be ascribed to the decline in the population of the Americas’ native peoples from an estimated 60 to 6 million. This result of the impact of European first colonisation – disease, slaughter, enslavement and famine – reduced agriculture and fire use and saw the regeneration of 5 x 107 hectares of forest, which drew down CO2 globally. It also coincides with the coolest part of the Little Ice Age from 1594-1677 CE. They caution against the start of the Industrial Revolution as an alternative for a ‘Golden Spike’ since it was a diachronous event, beginning in Europe. Instead, they show that the second proposal for a start in 1964 has a good basis in the record of global anthropogenic effects on the Earth marked by the peak fallout of radioactive isotopes generated by atomic weapons tests during the Cold War, principally 14C with a 5730 year half life, together with others more long-lived. The year 1964 is also roughly when growth in all aspects of human activity really took off, which some dub in a slightly Tolkienesque manner the ‘Great Acceleration’. [There is a growing taste for this kind of hyperbole, e.g. the ‘Great Oxygenation Event’ around 2.4 Ga and the ‘Great Dying’ for the end-Permian mass extinction]. Yet they neglect to note that the geochronological origin point for times past has been defined as 1950 CE when nucleogenic 14C contaminated later materials as regards radiocarbon dating, which had just become feasible.   Lewis and Maslin conclude their Perspective as follows:

To a large extent the future of the only place where life is known to exist is being determined by the actions of humans. Yet, the power that humans wield is unlike any other force of nature, because it is reflexive and therefore can be used, withdrawn or modified. More widespread recognition that human actions are driving far-reaching changes to the life-supporting infrastructure of Earth may well have increasing philosophical, social, economic and political implications over the coming decades.

So the Anthropocene adds the future to the stratigraphic column, which seems more than slightly odd. As Richard Monastersky notes, it is in fact a political entity: part of some kind of agenda or manifesto; a sort of environmental agitprop from the ‘geos’. As if there were not dozens of rational reasons to change human impacts to haul society back from catastrophe, which many people outside the scientific community have good reason to see as  hot air on which there is never any concrete action by ‘the great and the good’. Monastersky also notes that the present Anthropocene record in naturally deposited geological materials accounts for less than a millimetre at the top of ocean-floor sediments. How long might the proposed Epoch last? If action to halt anthropogenic environmental change does eventually work, the Anthropocene will be  very short in historic terms let alone those which form the currency of geology. If it doesn’t, there will be nobody around able to document, let alone understand, the epochal events recorded in rocks. At its worst, for some alien, visiting planetary scientists, far in the future, an Anthropocene Epoch will almost certainly be far shorter than the 104 to 105 years represented by the hugely more important Palaeozoic-Mesozoic and Mesozoic-Cenozoic boundary sequences; but with no Wikipedia entry.

Not everybody gets a vote on these kinds of thing, such is the way that science is administered, but all is not lost. The final arbiter is the Executive Committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), but first the Anthropocene’s status as a new Epoch has to be approved by 60% of the ICS Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, if put to a vote. Then such a ‘supermajority’ would be needed from the chairs of all 16 of the ICS subcommissions that study Earth’s major time divisions. But first, the 37 members of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy’s ‘Anthropocene’ working group have to decide whether or not to submit a proposal: things may drag on at an appropriately stratigraphic pace. Yet the real point is that the effect of human activity on Earth-system processes has been documented and discussed at length. I’ll give Marx the last word in this ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it’. A new stratigraphic Epoch doesn’t really seem to measure up to that…

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2 responses to “Anthropocene: what (or who) is it for?

  1. Thank you, Steve, for this most informative blog and for the voice of reason you take into the discussion! Walter

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