In 2000 growing recognition of the reality of the planetary scale of human impacts led Nobel laureate and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen to coin the term ‘Anthropocene’ to describe the geological epoch in which we now live. As clearly and graphically explained on this new website, The Anthropocene, from the Ancient Greek anthropos, ‘human being’ and kainos, ‘new, current’ is defined as the new, human-dominated period of the Earth’s history. The implication is that humans are now a force for planetary change on a par with solar variation and plate tectonics.
The Earth was formed approximately 4.5 billion years ago, and has changed greatly over time. The oldest fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) were formed about 650 million years ago; human life on Earth began about 5-7 million years ago; modern humans spread ‘Out of Africa’ between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago. All human culture has developed over the past 2.5 million years (from the approximate date of the first stone tools). The period of time since the ending of the last major Ice Age, from roughly 10,000 years ago to the present, is referred to as the Holocene by geologists. The earliest ‘civilisation’ began about 10,000 years ago (the approximate date of the earliest agriculture) at the start of the Holocene. Thus, almost the entire development of civilisation has taken place under relatively stable climatic and environmental conditions; conditions which have allowed the establishment and increase of human populations on almost every part of the Earth.
Industrial civilisation began about 250 years ago (around 1760) and the 19th & 20th Centuries saw exponential growth in human populations, made possible by advances in sanitation, medicine, science and technology, and the industrial-scale exploitation of natural resources and services – particularly energy-rich fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas). While some scientists argue that the Anthropocene actually began approximately 8,000 years ago with the growth of farming and its accompanying deforestation, what is certain is that human alteration of the Earth system radically grew during the Industrial Revolution, undergoing a further, startling ‘Great Acceleration’ in the period following World War 2. Such is the unprecedented scope and rapidity of these changes on a geological timescale that many scientists consider them comparable to earlier catastrophes in the Earth’s geological history, such as the K-T event of 65.5 million years ago which brought mass extinction to the dinosaurs.
The Anthropocene, though not yet officially recognised as an epoch of geologic time, is now a common term in the academic literature and is increasingly appearing in the popular media. It is rapidly becoming an important cultural signifier, providing a useful shorthand for the increasingly widespread perception that the whole Earth system is in deep crisis, a crisis for which humanity must now take responsibility. What it makes startlingly clear is that just as it was us who got us into this mess, it is now up to us to apply all our incredible ingenuity and creativity to ensure that humankind continues to develop without continuing to damage the rest of the planet in the process. As the visionary environmentalist and futurist Stuart Brand puts it: “We are as gods, and have to get good at it.”
Posted by Steven Robert Harris, 4th May 2012