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Defining the human age

Defining the human age IURII
26 May
2015
Debate over the nature of the term ‘anthropocene’ as a name for our current human-influenced age is widespread, both in and out of the realm of geography

Here, Geographical presents views on what the term really means, where it stands politically, and why the argument is a vital one.

While the scientific world waits for the International Anthropocene Working Group to make a recommendation in 2016 on whether the Anthropocene is an actual geological time period, the term itself has gone wild.

Back in 2000, when Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen started to popularise the term to describe our time as one where human action is significant enough to be a new geological era, he probably didn’t expect to inspire many album titles.

Anthropocene by Being came out in December 2013 and Collapse of the Anthropocene by Dimaeon came out one month earlier. Brian Eno had an anthropocene-inspired track back in 2010. This is the first proposed geological period to have playlists on music streaming sites.

This populist appeal reflects the Anthropocene’s curious nature: a scientific term that must also account for the vagaries associated with human activity and history.

In this issue’s Perspectives, we hope to provide some insight into the diverse ways to look at the Anthropocene, and to show how the debate over the term itself is crossing over disciplines.

 

SCIENCE: Same Meat, Different Gravy?

Alan Haywood, Paleoclimate modeller, School of Earth and Environment, University of Leeds

We already have an interval of time that covers up to the present day, the Holocene, which began around 11,000–12,000 years ago. One criteria used in the formulation of the Holocene was that it is a period of time where humans started to be a component in the system. Some believe the Holocene already covers the fact humans were around and influencing the environment. The question is, what was special about the Holocene when there had been many similar cycles? One different thing about it was that it was an interglacial period when humans arose. Introducing the Anthropocene could be seen as using the same criteria twice. As one scientist put it, ‘same meat, different gravy’.

Geologists want a geological interval to happen at the same time around the world. There are proposals to date the Anthropocene’s start to the great industrial acceleration in the late 1940s and 1950s when there were multiple indicators around the effect we had on climate at that time, but consumption of resources has not been at the same rate around the world since. There are also issues in the debate that received less attention, such as biodiversity and extinction events. Can we define the Anthropocene as a mass extinction event?

Whether or not the Anthropocene ends up being formally approved as a geological timescale, it’s been creeping into literature in an informal sense for many years. It serves as a way to underline or crystallise scientific thinking about our impact on the environment and the Earth as a whole. It may have an effect on the way we can communicate this change to a wider audience.

Personally, I think it likely that the Anthropocene will not be defined as new geological interval because of overlaps with the Holocene. However, its utility for galvanising thinking will continue regardless of whether it is formally defined.

 

DEFINITION: The Anthrobscene

Erik Swyngedouw, Professor of Geography, Manchester University

If the Anthropocene becomes an official geological age, then geology and Earth science could never be the same again. It would suggest the Earth’s future is intrinsically bound up with human processes. This would bring politics, economics, and social power relationships within the study of the physical dynamics of the Earth.

The Anthropocene is a misleading term to the extent that while the Earth’s physical changes cannot be understood without reference to human activity, not all humans are responsible for the change. At the moment the term suggests that humanity as a whole is responsible, but 50 to 60 per cent have either no, or just a limited effect on the planet. In much of the discussion, this element is ignored, disavowed or forgotten.

The Anthropocene does have scientific status, and while few people deny the Earth is in an environmental mess, the term suggests that there is a benevolent nature outside humans that can be regained. We might believe, for example, that the climate we had in 1989 was fine and that we should adopt policies to return there. But the question shouldn’t be what sort of nature we want to go back to? Instead, the question becomes what kind of nature do we want to construct in the future?

This is a political question, and the term anthropocene is paradoxical in its implications. We recognise how people shape physical conditions, but at the same time ignore the unequal social and political contributions in terms of their effect in shaping those physical conditions of the Earth.

My next workshop on the topic is called ‘the Anthrobscene’. Our argument is that the term anthropocene has been mobilised to depoliticise the debate. While on the one hand the term suggests an irrevocable intervention of humans, at the same time it denies human power relationships because it is presented as an ‘objective’ scientific term without political implications.

The dominant sense outside academia is that the Anthropocene reinforces a dystopian spectre. That we are racing towards a climate breakdown, an Armageddon in the next couple of years or so. It is often mobilised in terms of a bleak, apocalyptic future.

But this is how people already live. While some people think about the Anthropocene as an apocalyptic future that is going to happen, elsewhere it is already happening. It is an elite view, a view for people who do not live in the effects of this ‘apocalypse’.

This is precisely the political power of the Anthropocene. If you politicise the notion of the Anthropocene, the question becomes what kind of future do people want to make.

 

anthropocene2Image: Thaiview

 

DISCIPLINES: When Arguments Collide

Andrew Barry, Chair of Human Geography, UCL

What is this debate about? What strikes me most is that the debate has already gone far beyond just the geosciences to now include geographers, scientists, artists and philosophers. The curious thing is that there is quite a narrow debate within the geosciences that the issue goes well beyond. In the same way, the debate in the arts, social sciences and within history has had little interaction with the debate in geology.

There is an opposition between the two debates to some extent. On one hand, the geoscientists are concerned with recognising the importance of human activity as the major source of change in the present. Meanwhile, human geographers see it as a new, possibly problematic human aspect in geology.

The debate about dates in the geosciences is also a debate about history and politics. Initial discussion placed the Anthropocene as starting in the late 18th century with the advent of the steam engine. Any human geographer would know that dating human history in terms of technological inventions is a crude way of thinking about history, but it automatically suggests there is a relation between the Anthropocene and capitalism.

It’s apparent that even within the geosciences itself there is no clear account of the development of the Anthropocene. Wherever the start point is placed there are political resonances. If the Anthropocene is related to capitalism, which part of capitalism do we need to address? Do we need to contest capitalism or rethink it as a whole?

There are many geographers who would ignore the term, seeing it as irrelevant for their sub-discipline. A second strand would adopt the term from natural science as unproblematic without thinking about the politics of the natural scientific term. Another strand would try to offer a critique of the natural sciences because the natural scientific view is problematic. Natural science often suggests that history can be divided into stages. There’s a whole debate around that kind of inadequate account of history that is probably recognised in the geoscientific debate itself.

Human geography might be engaged in a discussion with physical geography, but there are debates going on in the arts and among key social theorists. It isn’t just human versus physical geography. Rather than thinking about a correct date, you have to think about what you are trying to do with this subject. It’s an intervention across subjects and in a debate, it would be a mistake to say there is a single, right answer. There needs to be space for inevitable disagreement and I don’t think that space exists at the moment. We need more debate between geography and the geosciences. In principle, geographers should be well equipped to deal with such debates because they are more used to talking across the natural and social sciences.

 

RESOURCES: Growth Limit

Kerryn Higgs, Author, Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet

Economic growth since World War II has occurred on a massive scale. This period of unprecedented growth is what has turned the human enterprise into a project that threatens its own basis in nature and has given rise to the idea of the Anthropocene, where a change brought about by humans is so radical that the Earth can be seen to be entering a new geological era.

It’s understandable that discussion of the Anthropocene tends to focus on climate. It’s a measurable incremental process, observable across the globe, and the ordinary person can begin to grasp it. It is also closely related to the processes of economic growth: burning fossil fuels for electricity, manufacture and transport around the world; expanding industrial-scale agriculture, clearing forests and peat-lands for oil palm and other crops.

There are limits to these processes. Phosphorous, for example, is both a scarce resource and a key pollutant. Accessible deposits are shrinking, so lack of adequate phosphorous as a fertiliser may well set limits to industrial-scale food production at some point in this century. At the same time, phosphorous and nitrogen have both been radically mobilised and are flowing through our rivers and continental shelves as waste.

Even though most people will concede in common sense terms that nothing can grow forever in a finite world, this piece of homespun wisdom exists side by side with our pursuit of material things, a kind of doublethink. Driven by the profit motive, our economic system pursues ever-expanding material goals as if there were no limits. And most of us are locked into it, whether by consumer ideology or extreme need.

I think that the limits most likely to grind our system to some kind of halt are the limits of the Earth to absorb our waste. Global warming is a compelling case of this. As we already observe, extreme events increase regularly in number and intensity.

This article was published in the April 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

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