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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