Are We in the Anthropocene Yet?


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Man’s effect on the earth. Image By Doc Searls

Officially, we are living in the geological epoch called the Holocene, but there is a movement to change the name of our current epoch to the Anthropocene, due to the effect that mankind is having on the planet.After 11,700 years of Holocene living, this is a major change and is not being entered into lightly.The International Commission on Stratigraphy is responsible for deciding and defining the divisions of geological time, and are under some pressure from members of the scientific community to make a decision.

The proposal

The Holocene (meaning ‘recent whole’) marks the period since the last ice age. It includes the current period of human expansion, agricultural advances, and more recently some major changes to the earth’s surface, biota and climate.The more recent developments are the factors behind the push for an official Anthropocene.The word was first used by Paul Crutzen in his 2000 proposal that we describe a new epoch.The Holocene was only adopted as an epoch name in 1885, though suggested in 1833, so this type of name-change is not without precedent.It also isn’t the first time a new human-oriented era has been suggested.In 1873, the Italian geologist, Antonio Stoppani, wrote of the human actions upon the earth and talked of the anthropozoic era. His ideas were ignored for over a century, until the term was adapted by Crutzen in a newsletter published by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.

Widely used but not official

The term was picked up by scientists and used in speech and print to describe a more human-centric geological epoch. In February, 2010, Crutzen, along with fellow scientists Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams and Will Steffen authored a paper called The New World of the Anthropocene.In the article, they detail the reasons why this is the human era. They included aspects of pollution, the “built” environment, agricultural changes to the earth, species extinction and species invasion due to man.The proposal is being formalized (in May 2011) but we shouldn’t expect an answer from the International Commission on Stratigraphy very soon.Geologic time scale is the phrase that comes to mind when considering the speed at which they work.

University of California Museum of Paleontology. The Holocene, The last ~10,000 years.  Accessed May 19, 2011.

Jones, Nicola, (2011), Human influence comes of age, Nature 473, 133, May 12, 2011.

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