Is the Anthropocene Unscientific


The planet is on the cusp of a new geological epoch, but what does that mean for us?

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Image by KL Chong

By Robyn Garner

By August 2024 the changes humanity have inflicted on the planet could officially place us in a new Epoch. Known as the anthropocene, this proposition was first popularised in the year 2000 by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen. It was intended to replace the holocene, the epoch earth has been in since the last ice age, 11650 years ago. Epochs themselves are a part of the geological time scale, which splits the history of the planet into sections based upon rock depositories. An epoch is a relatively short time in the 4.5 billion history of the year, and the second shortest unit of geochronology, though its significance is not to be downplayed. Should the anthropocene become formalised, it will become a notable contribution to the ever growing evidence of irreversible impact humanity has had on Earth.

After much effort and debate, in 2023 the official starting point and date for the anthropocene, based upon geological evidence, was voted on by the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG). Epochs across the geological time scale have been aided by radiometric dating, which uses radioactive isotopes such as carbon-14 to measure the age of materials, although are dated by their fossil content instead. For the anthropocene, however, many isotopes that would be used in this method have a margin of error too large to be of use.

Several propositions for its beginning were considered, such as Sihailongwan Lake in China and Coral Reefs in Australia. Ultimately Crawford Lake in Canada in 1950 was voted as the so-called “golden spike”, the ultimate escalation of human impact. It was declared the anthropocene’s official beginning due to the plutonium isotopes from the fallout of nuclear weapons present in the sediment in the lake, signposting indisputable dramatic human alterations to geological matter.

This has sparked much controversy among scientists across various disciplines, with many opposing putting such an exact date on the anthropocene's beginning. The anthropocene having begun is, of course, indisputable with events such as the detonation of the nuclear bomb and the increasing warming of the earth since pre-industrial times. However it is easy to argue that significant human impact was not one moment in time exactly, but a gradual effect that we sank into slowly. Ecologist Erle Ellis, who resigned from the AWG in protest against the decision regarding the golden spike, considers the definition “unscientific and harmful”. He argues that restricting the beginning of the epoch to just “a shallow band of sediment in a single lake” will harm public understanding of the anthropocene, [which will decrease understanding of the long standing impact humanity has had on the planet.]

Ellis has also contributed to an article arguing for more inclusion of the social sciences in the definition of the anthropocene, highlighting the ongoing lack of interdisciplinary research in scientific fields. If the formalisation of the anthropocene conveys important context about the ongoing environment crisis to the public, it cannot be treated as an exclusively geological matter. The article proposed an alternative committee to formalise the anthropocene, including “a formal procedure for inclusion”, ensuring that at least half of the members are of social science disciplines.

Others, particularly those who specialise in social sciences, consider the term anthropocene itself to be the problem, suggesting that it promotes an anthropocentric narrative and does nothing to challenge the supposed hubristic attitudes of humanity. The term “Capitalocene,” first put forth by human geographer Andreas Malm, instead looks at a new epoch from the perspective of the era of capital. This is in alignment with arguments that the name anthropocene itself is unfair to blame all of humanity for the actions of a few. The richest 1% account for more carbon emissions than the poorest 66%, highlighting where change must come from. Some argue this would begin with the industrial revolution, but there is no unanimous consensus. Another alternative term “Chthulucene”, meaning of the earth, proposed by philosopher Donna Haraway, instead focuses on the future hoping that a harmony between humans and nature would emerge.

Opposition to the idea does not end there. Geologist Stanley Finney argues that the AWG are “working backwards”, trying to fit the golden spike to their proposed epoch instead of considering the strata (i.e. sedimentary rock layer) first. Similarly, palaeontologist Lucy Edwards argues that the evidence for the anthropocene cannot yet exist as the epoch is too young.

As is evident, there is a wide variety of scientific and academic opinion on the definition and formalisation of the anthropocene. Whether pinpointing it to 1950 is unscientific due to geology, or unrepresentative of the true time scale humans have been affecting the planet, it appears that no one can settle on one meaning. It can become easy to view it as an arbitrary squabble between scientists that means very little outside of academic circles. Why does it matter beyond academia?

The concept of the anthropocene seems to have surpassed its original geological definition, with the social and political ramifications of announcing such an impactful change by humanity. It is undeniable that the message the concept of the anthropocene delivers is a necessary one, a fact that is far more frequently agreed upon among experts than the exact moment of its beginning. Francine McCarthy, a member of the AWG, hopes “the stratigraphic commission draws that line and formalises the time in Earth’s history when the planet has been so impacted by humans, it will hopefully convey a sense of urgency to people to act now to look after our planet.”.