The Anthropocene already exists in our heads, even if it’s now officially not a geological epoch

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Kevin Collins, The Open University

An international subcommittee of geologists recently voted to reject a proposal to make the Anthropocene an official new geological epoch, defined by humanity’s enormous impact on the planet. Assuming some protests do not overturn the ruling, it will now take another decade for the decision to be reviewed.

That may seem a long time given climate change concerns, but it is of course far less than a blink in planetary terms. The Earth can certainly wait, even if we can’t.

But sometimes big ideas like the Anthropocene take time to find meaning in our lives and perhaps their answer. How do I know? Let me tell you a story.

Nine years ago, I was in Munich visiting friends. We went on a family outing to the Deutsche Museum, a world class celebration of technology and engineering in a vast building on an islet of the River Isar. The entrance was framed on either side by very tall vertical banners, fluttering in the breeze.

Each blue-green banner had an image of the Earth with a thumbprint overlay. And in bold white lettering, variously: “Welcome to the Anthropocene / Willkommen in Anthropozän”. The subtitle read: “The Earth in Our Hands”.

Banner saying 'Welcome to the Anthropocene'
Kevin Collins

I had to forgo the exhibition because my family wanted to see just about everything else. But even as I stood on the steps at the entrance, with my young son clutching my hand, it struck me as a curious title.

Why would anyone welcome anyone to the Anthropocene? Who would really want to go to that party? The invitation was, well, distinctly uninviting.

Why ‘welcome’?

I have thought about this troubling invitation on and off in the intervening years. Was “welcome” being ironic or even cynical perhaps – an invitation of despair and inevitability? But that contradicted the ethos of the museum and the academic Rachel Carson Centre which co-hosted the exhibition, where insight, learning and practical science are celebrated. So my question has remained: why “welcome”?

I finally realised an answer during a recent conversation with my PhD student Houda Khayame who is building on work between myself and colleague Ray Ison to explore how systems thinking and acting in the Anthropocene might improve governance of our environment. We were talking about how geologists have been searching for a “golden spike” in the mud or soil or Earth’s geological record as evidence of the Anthropocene ever since the term was popularised in 2000.

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What the Anthropocene’s critics overlook – and why it really should be a new geological epoch

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Simon Turner, UCL; Colin Waters, University of Leicester; Jan Zalasiewicz, University of Leicester, and Martin J. Head, Brock University

Geologists on an international subcommission recently voted down a proposal to formally recognise that we have entered the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch representing the time when massive, unrelenting human impacts began to overwhelm the Earth’s regulatory systems.

A new epoch needs a start date. The geologists were therefore asked to vote on a proposal to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene using a sharp increase in plutonium traces found in sediment at the bottom of an unusually undisturbed lake in Canada, which aligned with many other markers of human impacts.

The entire process was controversial and the two us who are on the subcommission (chair Jan Zalasiewicz and vice-chair Martin Head) even refused to cast a vote as we did not want to legitimise it. In any case, the proposal ran into opposition from longstanding members.

Why this opposition? Many geologists, used to working with millions of years, find it hard to accept an epoch just seven decades long – that’s just one human lifetime. Yet the evidence suggests that the Anthropocene is very real.

Environmental scientist Erle Ellis was one critic who welcomed the decision, stating in The Conversation: “If there is one main reason why geologists rejected this proposal, it is because its recent date and shallow depth are too narrow to encompass the deeper evidence of human-caused planetary change.”

It’s an oft-repeated argument. But it completely misses the point. When Paul Crutzen first proposed the term Anthropocene in a moment of insight at a scientific meeting in 2000, it was not from realisation that humans have been altering the functioning and geological record of the Earth, or to capture all their impacts under one umbrella term. He and his colleagues were perfectly aware that humans had been doing that for millennia. That’s nothing new.

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di Mario Agostinelli,


Fonte Inchiestaonline che ringraziamo 

In attesa del saggio di Wolfgang Sachs che commento qui di seguito – “Economia della sufficienza. Appunti per resistere all’Antropocene”, ed. Castelvecchi – rileggevo un testo di Jim Baggot, acuto divulgatore scientifico, con l’intento di aggiornarmi sulle più recenti interpretazioni della storia dell’Universo. E’ mia convinzione che dovessi mettermi nella migliore predisposizione per mettere a frutto le indicazioni del testo da recensire: uno stimolo dal contenuto originale, come da sempre emana da un autore con una profonda cultura interdisciplinare, che da sempre coniuga sentimenti e intuizioni ad un rigoroso riferimento scientifico, che sa trattare con una impareggiabile leggerezza.

Condivido così con maggior consapevolezza che esistiamo solo per interazione con il resto del mondo, la cui realtà è stata percepita sotto sembianze e narrazioni diverse nei millenni trascorsi, ma che ora ci si mostra come un insieme di collegamenti che provengono da continue ricombinazioni e cosmogenesi, ad iniziare dal Big Bang di 14 miliardi di anni fa. Anche per una così aggiornata interpretazione, non più esclusivamente a matrice religiosa, l’Enciclica Laudato Si’ ha messo le ali all’ecologia integrale per credenti e no, a fronte del più brusco, repentino e drammatico cambiamento climatico a memoria d’uomo. La breve raccolta di testi che provo ora ad annotare, sta in questo solco rivolto all’intero genere umano e, attraverso i suoi comportamenti, all’intero vivente.

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La Terre à l’époque de l’Anthropocène : comment en est-on arrivé là ? Peut-on en limiter les dégâts ?

Dans un monde aux ressources finies, les effets des activités humaines sur l’environnement hypothèquent gravement le futur des générations à venir.

Victor Court, Université Paris Cité

En 2000, deux scientifiques proposèrent pour la première fois l’hypothèse que l’époque de l’Holocène, amorcée il y a 11 700 ans, était révolue.

L’emprise de l’humanité sur le système terrestre serait devenue si profonde qu’elle rivaliserait avec certaines des grandes forces de la nature, au point d’avoir fait bifurquer la trajectoire géologique et écologique de la Terre.

Il faudrait désormais utiliser le terme d’« Anthropocène » pour désigner avec plus de justesse l’époque géologique actuelle. Cette annonce a ouvert des débats considérables.

La machine à vapeur comme marqueur clé

Parmi les nombreuses polémiques soulevées par ce nouveau concept, la plus évidente porte encore aujourd’hui sur la date du début de l’Anthropocène.

La proposition initiale portait symboliquement sur 1784, l’année du dépôt du brevet de James Watt pour sa machine à vapeur, véritable emblème de l’amorce de la révolution industrielle. Ce choix coïncide en effet avec l’augmentation significative des concentrations atmosphériques de plusieurs gaz à effet de serre, comme en témoignent les données extraites des carottes de glace.

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