If the Anthropocene is a Joke, It’s a Useful One

Last week, my colleague Stefan Vriend had published an article explaining the concept of the Anthropocene – the proposed name for the epoch that started when humans had a noticable impact on the earth’s geology. Two days beforehand, an article appeared in the Atlantic proclaiming that the Anthropocene was a joke. The basic tenet of the article was that because our impact on the planet has taken place over such a short period of time, the fact that we’ve seen fit to name a new geological epoch (the Anthropocene) after the short timespan that we’ve been wreaking havoc on the planet is incredibly self-centred and arrogant.

A couple of important qualifiers before I start disagreeing (well, sort of). One, the article by Peter Brannen is excellent. I kind of have a love/hate thing for it. If you did read Stefan’s article last week and wanted more detail on geological epochs and such, then you should dive in to Peter Brannen’s. Both articles are linked below.

The Anthropocene: A Human-Dominated Age on the Horizon
The Arrogance of the Anthropocene

Secondly, I’m no geologist. I learned a lot from both articles, and I obviously do not have any disputes with Brennan’s comprehensive summary of geological epochs.

But I am an avid scientific communicator, and I think that Brennan misses a crucial point.

The article’s main contention is that naming a time period – one which amounts to the tiniest of glitches on the grand geological scale – after our own impact is anthropocentric (basically humans placing too much emphasis on humans). Yet to me it seems that our very naming of time periods of any sort is anthropocentric. Modern names of geological periods are created by humans, for humans. And (importantly) for modern humans.

To future geologists, the modern debate about whether the Anthropocene started 10 minutes ago or 10,000 years ago will be a bit like arguing with your spouse on your 50th wedding anniversary about which nanosecond you got married.

I agree with this 100%. But what is the point of this scenario? Why consider what geologists will think of the Anthropocene in the future? Concerns of the scientific community should be focussed on what’s happening now. As reef biologist at the Smithsonian Institute Nancy Knowlton puts it, “one of the biggest mistakes climate scientists made was to paint the picture of what was going to be happening in 2100”. Which brings me to the next point that I inherently agree with, but see in a different light.

The idea of the Anthropocene is an interesting thought experiment. For those invested in the stratigraphic arcana of this infinitesimal moment in time, it serves as a useful catalog of our junk.

Exactly. By declaring the epoch as the Anthropocene, it sends a message. It says “hey, we’ve now started damaging the planet to the extent that we’re in an age named for that damage”. The reminder that the whole of human history boils down to a five feet in a marathon shouldn’t be an argument against the Anthropocene, it should the the next line in that message (“And look how little time we’ve managed to do it in!”).

It should be obvious by now that I regard the official recognition of the Anthropocene as a great tool for promoting transformative action on climate change and land degradation. Yes, it’s anthropocentric, but so is all science to a degree. We create labels like Pleistocene, Jurassic, Cambrian, to further our own understanding of geology. And this is an age where understanding our impacts on the globe are more crucial than ever. Science is bound to become more anthropocentric.

But why not just refer to it casually as the Anthropocene? Why make it official?

Official naming of an epoch can help give the impression of scientific consensus. The scientific community coming together and delivering a message as one is important. Look at the issues we’ve had convincing the population of climate change, even with the vast majority in agreement. Casual referencing of the modern day as the Anthropocene doesn’t create a sense of urgency.

Brennan suggests its naming as an event, and proposes a few alternate names, including the Mid-Pleistocene Thermal Maximum, the Pleistocene Carbon Isotope Excursion,  Quaternary Anoxic Event and the End-Pleistocene Mass Extinction. These shroud the event in a layer of vernacular that won’t be easily adapted by people outside of science. The anthropocene might be a name that’s by humans, for humans, but these alternatives sound like they’re by scientists, for scientists.

I agree (of course) that under normal circumstances, 75 years would be too short a time for any geological epoch. Hell, as Brannen points out, the Holocene (the epoch that started at the end of the last ice age) barely deserves epoch status. But these aren’t normal circumstances. And the term Anthropocene is a great way to remind the public that we’re changing the planet, permanently (at least from our perspective).

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