It’s all over for the Anthropocene, the official geologic period of human-caused climate change

A committee of experts voted down a proposal to officially declare the start of a new interval of geologic time, one defined by humanity’s changes to the planet.

By doing so, the two dozen or so scholars brought to an end nearly 15 years of debate about whether to declare that humans had transformed the natural world so thoroughly as to have sent the planet into a new epoch of geologic time called “the Anthropocene.”

The Anthropocene Epoch was a proposed geological epoch that dates from the commencement of significant human impact on Earth until now. It was characterised as the time in which the collective activities of human beings began to substantially alter Earth’s surface, atmosphere, oceans and systems of nutrient cycling. The name “Anthropocene” is derived from Greek and means the “recent age of man.”

The term Anthropocene was coined in the 1980s.  Some argued that it should follow the Holocene Epoch, which began 11,700 years ago, and begin in the year 1952. The marker was radioactive fallout from hydrogen bomb tests.

The grandly named chapters of our planet’s history are governed by a body of scientists, the International Union of Geological Sciences (“IUGS”). The organisation uses rigorous criteria to decide when each chapter started and which characteristics defined it. The aim is to uphold common global standards for expressing the planet’s history.

In a 2018 article, Mark Sagoff explained how the concept of the Anthropocene began.  Paul Crutzen is credited, along with Eugene Stoermer, with introducing the concept of the Anthropocene and advocating its adoption by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (“ICS”), a commission of the IUGS which is responsible for naming and dating geologic periods, eras and epochs.

In 2002, Crutzen published an article in Nature titled ‘Geology of Mankind’ which called on geologists “to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present in many ways human-dominated, geological epoch, supplementing the Holocene – the warm period of the past 10-12 millennia.”

“The idea of the Anthropocene, which Earth system scientists initiated and advocated, landed like a meteor, setting off a stampede among academics,” Sagoff wrote.  “Nature followed with an editorial that urged that the Anthropocene be added to the geologic timescale.”

In response to the clamour, Sagoff said, the ICS convened an eclectic Anthropocene Working Group, including Crutzen and many other Earth system scientists, to present a recommendation. However, the working group struggled to agree on a demarcation between the Anthropocene and the current Holocene.

The emergence of Earth system science and the declaration of the Anthropocene that goes with it salve and soothe the human ego from the distress of deep time and Darwinian descent. Earth system science also restores humanity to its rightful place at the centre of the cosmos. [It should be noted that Sagoff’s berating article is titled ‘Welcome to the Narcisscene’.]

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