Updated: Mar 24
Humans may now be living in a new geological epoch known as the Anthropocene. The term Anthropocene (from Greek: Anthropos for human, and cene for new) signifies a new chapter in Earth’s history wherein human actions started to become the main driver of changes in the global ecology. According to scientists, this informal geological epoch began in the mid-20th century when dramatic growth in population, energy usage, and resource consumption happened or what is called the Great Acceleration. As a result, greenhouse gas emissions spiked more than ever before, laying out the path toward global warming. Plastic pollution becomes widespread and deforestation is wiping out species around the world.
The initiation of the Anthropocene as a new epoch
Geologists divide the earth’s history into units of chronological time known as the geologic time scale. The official period of time that we are in right now is called the Holocene epoch. It began 11,700 years ago after the end of the last glacial period. But some scientists believe we may have left the Holocene and entered a new epoch, the Anthropocene or the “New Age of Humans”.
Paul J. Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist, coined the term Anthropocene in 2000. He argued that human impacts had been so great to the extent they altered the Earth’s system, pushing the planet into an entirely new epoch. The idea quickly gained popularity and stimulated discussions among scientists. In 2009, the geologist Jan Zalasiewicz assembled the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) to investigate the topic deeply, especially in the matter of stratigraphy or evidence contained in the rock layers that differentiate this epoch from the Holocene and to determine the starting date of the epoch.
Some scientists believe the Anthropocene began with the industrial revolution that took place in the 18-19th century when greenhouse gas emissions rose due to the combustion of fossil fuels. While others say it began in 1945 when nuclear weapons testing happened, casting radioactive elements across the planet. But in 2016, the AWG agreed that 1950 was the optimal beginning of the epoch when the Great Acceleration took off.
What is The Great Acceleration?
The Great Acceleration refers to the sharp increase the global human population has undergone since 1950. Along with population growth, human energy consumption and economic productivity have been rising with no sign of decline. These situations are becoming the major driver of changes in the planet such as below:
Fossil fuels have become the most important source of energy. They account for 75% of human energy use, which allows for more economic activity but it also brings undesirable impacts such as excessive carbon emissions.
The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen at alarming rates, peaking at 419 ppm in 2021.
Nuclear weapons testing that intensified between 1952 and 1980 has dispersed radioactive elements over the entire planet.
Debate on the Anthropocene
While the Anthropocene has gained much attention in scientific and public media, some are still skeptical of the idea. Hence there has been much debate on whether or not to formalize the epoch. In 2012, geologists Whitney Autin and John Holbrook questioned the practicality of the concept in geological science. “Anthropocene provides eye-catching jargon, but terminology alone does not produce a useful stratigraphic concept,” they said. And they argue it is more of pop culture.
In 2016, geologists Stan Finney and Lucy Edwards argue that the concept is becoming a political statement rather than a scientific decision. Indeed the formalization of the Anthropocene would likely set actions for creating goals on reducing human impacts and achieving a more sustainable planet. But they question whether it is the role of the geological community to make such policy recommendations.
Other scientists argue that it is too early to declare a new epoch. It will take centuries or longer to know the lasting impact of human activity on the Earth system. And declaring a new epoch now would be premature.
Nevertheless, the AWG is still continuing on pushing to formalize the Anthropocene. They have gathered some evidence over the past few years to back up the proposal. One is the starting date of the epoch which is 1950. And now the remaining task of the group is to pick the “golden spike” of the epoch, which is a geological marker in the fossil record that could differentiate this epoch from the Holocene.
The Anthropocene calls for a reflection
Scientists have yet to decide on whether to formalize the Anthropocene or not. Nevertheless, it is clear from a geological perspective that human activity has significantly impacted the Earth. Our impact since the industrial revolution has largely been negative but it does not need to stay that way. If we can re-evaluate the current foundation of our economy and build a culture of coexistence and sustainability, we may be able to achieve a better future and make sure our geological impact on the Earth remains a small blip in the planet’s 4.5 billion-year history.
Writer: Kemas Saddam
Editor: Stevenson Ramsey