We have not lived lightly on the earth. In fact, humans have had such a massive impact on the physical, chemical, and biological world that this chunk of geologic time may be named for us. That name, “Anthropocene”, has gradually entered the public lexicon, so much so that it has been written about in magazines, newspapers and blogs, made the cover of a recent edition of the journal Nature, and inspired a new journal, titled, simply, Anthropocene. The origins of the term Anthropocene and the evidence for its use recognize the time when we began to dominate, and change, everything around us.
Anthropocene is the proposed name for the current period of geologic time, called an epoch. The geologic time scale considers the entire history of the earth, and sections it to make it more comprehensible. These sections of time are then subdivided, and subdivided again. On a smaller scale, it can be compared to the way a calendar splits the year into months, weeks, and days. An era encompasses several hundred million years and is split into periods (remember Jurassic Park? The Jurassic is a period dominated by giant reptiles). Periods are then split into epochs. In most cases these divisions are made by looking at stratigraphy, information contained in rock layers. Technically, our current epoch is the “Holocene,” roughly translated to mean the “wholly recent” time. Some scientists feel this name isn’t descriptive enough to convey what has really been happening in our wholly recent time. Enter the Anthropocene.
The word Anthropocene comes from the Greek, anthropo-, meaning “man,” and –cene, meaning “new.” It was coined by the biologist Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s, but didn’t catch on until the Nobel laureate chemist Paul Crutzen began using it in 2000. In the last few years, the name has become widely used by geoscientists, historians, archeologists, and biologists, not to mention the media. But just because the term Anthropocene is becoming popular doesn’t mean everyone agrees it should be used. Some stratigraphers, geologists that study rock layers, argue that we don’t yet have enough evidence to define a new epoch. Since epochs are traditionally identified by geological changes, these scientists attest that while the impact of humans on the planet is undeniable, there isn’t a clear enough signal in the rock layers to justify a new epoch. Others are concerned that it may simply be too soon to assess the damage; that we are rendered myopic by proximity to the problem. Some dissenters claim that the use of Anthropocene is a political move. Officially, the jury’s still out. The International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), the organization responsible for naming the divisions of the time scale, has gathered a group of scholars to declare by 2016 if we are indeed in the Anthropocene.
To define a new epoch, scientists will have to identify a starting point. Proposed start dates include the dawn of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, or the start of the nuclear age. Most recently, a paper published in Nature has proposed the year 1610 as a start date, the year when the Old and New Worlds first came into contact. This date meets the criteria for an identifiable chemical signal to be left on the planet, because this meeting resulted in the globalization of disease and the deaths of millions of people living in the New World. The resulting collapse of agriculture and regrowth of acres of forest registered as a sharp dip in CO2 levels.
No matter how you look at it, humans have had large-scale effects on the planet we inhabit. We have caused enormous declines in biodiversity, polluted the oceans, and have chemically altered the atmosphere. Maybe we deserve to have the current epoch named for us, to commemorate how we have made the world in our own image. Why not make time itself bow to our influence?