Clastic Detritus

What do you think of the ‘Anthropocene’?


I was sitting here reading this and thinking to myself — ‘I wonder what other geoscientists think about this?’ — at which point I remembered I could just ask you all through this blog!

The question of whether or not we need to formalize a new geological time period (or, I guess ‘epoch’, in this case) that reflects the significant influence of human activities on the planet’s processes comes up every now and again these days. Numerous proponents of establishing an ‘Anthropocene’ authored an article in GSA Today in 2008 (pdf), which resulted in some discussion on geology blogs.

This latest press release refers to another paper by the same authors, J. Zalasiewicz*, M. Williams, W. Steffen, and P. Crutzen, in the April 2010 edition of Environmental Science and Technology called “The new world of the Anthropocene”. This is one of several essays in a special issue marking the 40th anniversary of the first Earth Day in the U.S.

I won’t go over their arguments here — you can read it for yourself if you haven’t already. What I’d like to know is if anybody is using this term? I haven’t seen it formally used — that is, I haven’t seen it in print in a technical paper. But, I have seen it popping up in talks here and there in the last year or so. And I don’t mean a presentation about whether or not we should use the term ‘Anthropocene’, but a talk that simply uses it just like any other time period. I suppose that makes sense — most authors steer clear of using ‘unofficial’ terms in their papers — or, if they do, the peer-review process catches it. But, in a talk, people are a bit more free to use such terminology.

Then there is the whole problem of where to put the Holocene-Anthropocene boundary. While many think of the industrial revolution and its effects on the global climate as an obvious starting point, others, like Ruddiman in his book Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum, argue that an earlier revolution — the agricultural revolution had a significant influence on climate patterns through land use changes. This would push the beginning of the Anthropocene to several thousand years ago. While such issues with the placement of the boundary would obviously have to be reconciled if it were ever to become a formal term we can still ponder and debate the utility of the term ‘Anthropocene’.

I’m trying to think if I have used ‘Anthropocene’, even just in casual conversation. If I did I’m sure I said it with a look on my face like “yeah, that’s right, I just said ‘Anthropocene'”. The term I do use for my Holocene research is ‘pre-anthropogenic’. For example, if discussing the history of sediment flux of a river during the Holocene it is useful to know at which point there is significant anthropogenic influence (e.g., building a dam).

So, what do you all think? Do you think formalizing this would be valuable? Does the whole affair make you want to throw your computer out the window in frustration? Are you apathetic? Note: I’m mostly asking those who would actually use the term as part of their research, writing, or reporting.

Even if we don’t establish formal terminology with the ICS and don’t actually use this particular term it seems to me that the entire exercise gets us thinking and talking, which is always a good thing.

* As an aside, I read Zalasiewicz’s popular book The Earth After Us last year and enjoyed it immensely. It’s whimsical, thought-provoking, and a pleasure to read — I definitely recommend it.