Dawning of the age of the Anthropocene

Millenium, schmillenium: Humans have made such a mess it's time for a whole new epoch.

By Andrew Leonard
January 31, 2008 4:59PM (UTC)
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Because I am the kind of person who cherishes that rare moment when a car's odometer flips from 99,999 miles to 100,000, I have always taken deep satisfaction in being lucky enough to live through the changing of a millennium. But never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine that I would see the dawning of a whole new epoch.

Mongabay alerts us that the current issue of GSA Today, a journal published by the Geological Society of America, features a peer-reviewed article by scientists arguing that the 11,550-year-old Holocene epoch, witness to the glorious entirety of human civilization, ended at around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. At that point, the human impact on the planet starts to become so great as to effectuate what geologists like to call "stratigraphically significant change." That means: change you can notice, if, say, you were looking back in history from a million (or hundred million) years from now.


Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: the Anthropocene.

From "Are we now living in the Anthropocene?":

A case can be made for its consideration as a formal epoch in that, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, Earth has endured changes sufficient to leave a global stratigraphic signature distinct from that of the Holocene or of previous Pleistocene interglacial phases, encompassing novel biotic, sedimentary, and geochemical change. These changes, although likely only in their initial phases, are sufficiently distinct and robustly established for suggestions of a Holocene-Anthropocene boundary in the recent historical past to be geologically reasonable.

The concept is not new -- Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen proposed the new epoch in 2000. But the GSA Today treatment appears to be the most academically rigorous appraisal of the evidence supporting a new epoch conducted to date. It makes for a fascinating, if gloomy, read. Delineations of geological time are often marked by mass extinctions or drastic climatic changes, and the Anthropocene (so called because, unlike any other epochal demarcation, humans are considered the primal cause of this transition) looks to be no exception.


The combination of extinctions, global species migrations, and the widespread replacement of natural vegetation with agricultural monocultures is producing a distinctive contemporary biostratigraphic signal. These effects are permanent, as future evolution will take place from surviving (and frequently anthropogenically relocated) stocks.

No doubt, there are those who disagree with the necessity for a new name, since there are some who still deny that climate change is occurring, or if it is, that humans are responsible. These Anthropocene-deniers can be counted on to fight for the honor of the Holocene until the very last coastal metropolis sinks beneath the sea. But it will be to no avail. You can't stop a new epoch. You probably can't even hope to contain it.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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