The Anthropocene is the most popular name proposed for the current geological epoch in which human activity has fundamentally and irreversibly altered Earth’s environmental and geological systems, pushing them from the range of natural variability into “a no-analogue state” (134).
Coined in 2000 by Nobel-prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, the Anthropocene (or, the era of humans) was proposed as a new epoch after the Holocene, a period of stable climate conditions since the end of the last ice age.. Like previously named geological epochs, the Anthropocene meets criteria from the International Union of Geological Sciences to earn the designation: it is evidenced in stratigraphic materials like rock, glacier ice, or marine sediments; it is strongly correlated with specific terrestrial events; and it can be detected at numerous points across the globe. As a codified geological epoch, the Anthropocene insists that climate change be understood as a fundamental, human-caused transformation, irreducible to simple, peripheral shifts in weather patterns.
While geologists agree that humans have fundamentally altered the Earth’s strata, they continue to debate which era of human activity should constitute the Anthropocene’s beginning. Common dates include domestication of fire between 300k and 500k BCE, the first agricultural revolutions in roughly 8000 BCE) European colonization of the Americas beginning in the early 1600’s CE, the onset of intensified industrialism in 18th century Europe, and the “Great Acceleration” of post-World War Two consumerism in the West.
These debates reflect the ideological underpinnings of the climate crisis. Indigenous critiques of the term Anthropocene point out that the universal, general “anthropo” is a misnomer—the greatest responsibility for the crisis lies with the so-called Global North and West. Similarly, ecocentric scholars argue that “anthropo” naturalizes the crisis, as if the fault were with human nature rather than the exploitative and destructive social and economic systems. As of 2022, critics have put forth more nuanced terms such as Eurocene, Capitalocene, Urbanoscene, and more.
The Anthropocene should be understood as both a geological fact and a conceptual apparatus. As the latter, it is still flexible enough and big enough to accommodate the myriad developments that have occurred within it while maintaining enough specificity to prevent it becoming a catch-all term for modernity. The “Anthropocene” is thus a term with teeth, indicating the myriad causes and conditions of our current crisis: the economic and political dominance of the Global North and West, widening socioeconomic inequality, rapid digitalization and automation of labor, alienation from the land and the non-human environment, colonialism, white supremacy, extractivist capitalist economies, and unprecedented urbanization.
©2022 ClimateLit (Nick Kleese)