The Anthropocene

by Jane Carruthers FRSSAf

Between 27 August and 4 September 2016 Cape Town hosted the 35th International Geological Congress (IGC), perhaps the most important scientific conference of its kind convened since 1885. The significance of the gathering was to consider the proposal from the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), under the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS), an advisory body that had, after numerous meetings and appropriate publications over many years, agreed to ask the Congress to accept the term ‘Anthropocene’ to describe the modern geological epoch. This would replace the Holocene (‘recent whole’), that had been suggested by Sir Charles Lyell in 1833 and that had been adopted by the IGC in Bologna 52 years later. The AWG comprises 35 members convened by Dr Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester and includes Prof. Mary Scholes FRSSAf of Wits University.

Professor Jane Carruthers at the opening Willkommen im Anthropozan at the Deutsches Museum, Munich

The term ‘Anthropocene’ has a long history, as does the recognition of humanity’s power over, and transformation of, the biosphere and other natural and evolutionary processes. However, it was first formally employed as terminology for our epoch at a meeting of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) in Cuernavaca, Mexico in February 2000. On that occasion, the Dutch, Nobel Prize-Winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, Vice-Chair of the IGPB, (whom I was delighted to meet in Copenhagen in 2009) became impatient with the repetition of the word Holocene by his colleagues, and expostulated, ‘Stop using the word Holocene. We’re not in the Holocene any more. We’re in the … the … the … [searching for the right word] … the Anthropocene!’ (Steffen, 2013:486). Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer (1934-2012), professor of biology at the University of Michigan who had originally coined the term in the 1980s, then co-authored the first scientific publication on the Anthropocene in the IGBP Newsletter in 2000.
Since that time, the term has gained currency and popularity as appropriate for our epoch. In terms of strict geological rigour, however, as expounded by Waters et al. (2014) referring to the contents of their book, ‘To constrain the Anthropocene as a potential formal unit within the Geological Time Scale, a spectrum of indicators of anthropogenically-induced environmental change is considered, and shown as stratigraphical signals that may be used to characterize an Anthropocene unit, and to recognize its base. This volume describes a range of evidence that may help to define this potential new time unit and details key signatures that could be used in its definition. These signatures include lithostratigraphical (novel deposits, minerals and mineral magnetism), biostratigraphical (macro- and micro-palaeontological successions and human-induced trace fossils) and chemostratigraphical (organic, inorganic and radiogenic signatures in deposits, speleothems and ice and volcanic eruptions). We include, finally, the suggestion that humans have created a further sphere, the technosphere, that drives global change … Here we review the parameters used by stratigraphers to identify chronostratigraphical units and how these could apply to the definition of the Anthropocene. The onset of the range of signatures is diachronous, although many show maximum signatures which post-date1945, leading to the suggestion that this date may be a suitable age for the start of the Anthropocene.’ Others have suggested dates of around 1750 or 1850 – relating to the industrial revolution – as the marker.
In the event, despite the careful wording, research and networking, the recommendation of the AWG to the SQS of the IGC, was not accepted in Cape Town and was therefore not ratified by the Executive Committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences. The AWG thus continues its work and is responding to critique received at the IGC. Part of the challenge is to separate the obvious and widespread anthropogenic change on earth from the determination of its signals in the stratal record. The formality is to nest a geological Anthropocene epoch within the Quaternary period, Cenozoic era and Phanerozoic eon, not only to confirm an obvious observation and provide evidence that humanity is changing many of the physical processes of the planet.
A number of aspects of the Anthropocene remain a matter of debate. For example, its precise inception, trajectory and its differential effects on different geographical regions and populations have yet to be definitively determined. Climate change is often subsumed within it, and biodiversity loss is often attributed to it, rather than to the impact of growing populations in many parts of the world and the necessity for land and resources to sustain them as might be the case – matters that are not geological. As Colin Waters of the British Geological Survey and secretary of the AWG stated in 2014, ‘… the term has come to mean different things as it has spread to different groups, a situation that can only end in headaches … We need a common understanding’ (Sample, 2014).
Initially confined to the vocabulary of earth scientists, the word has become part of the lexicon of almost all natural scientists and entered the purview of the humanities and social sciences enthusiastically. As mentioned above, it is very often used quite loosely to refer to human impact of all kinds, not only to the geological or physical. Scholarly literature on the topic is burgeoning and, as with many fields of study, C.P. Snow’s division between the two cultures – natural sciences and the humanities – remains apparent. It may be, however, that the current crisis summarised by the word ‘Anthropocene’ has the power to bring together thinking from many disciplines to attempt to control what may otherwise become an unstoppable human-induced path to the sixth extinction.
The idea of the Anthropocene has thus far resonated in the developed rather than the developing world. The term required no official approval from other academic bodies nor by the world’s cultures, and the Anthropocene has been accepted by a range of disciplines as an important period akin to the Medieval, the Renaissance or the Post-Modern. In Europe, Australia and the United States there have been museum exhibitions, readings and journal articles from the field now referred to as the environmental humanities that allow many scholars and members of the public to participate in conceptualising and understanding the significance of this new epoch and implant it in the public imagination as well as in the scientific literature. And, of course, to highlight, monitor and mitigate the deleterious effects of humanity thus enabling the species to survive, sustainably, for longer.

In South Africa, despite having been the location of last year’s IGC, the Anthropocene still has an extremely low profile, although climate change – one of its critically important aspects – is higher on the agenda and is integral to the Anthropocene sensu latu. Even well-educated members of the public are unaware of the complexities of the Anthropocene in its entirety. Issues around poverty and crime, social and political upheaval and violence, providing services, education and employment to a population of which 70 per cent are under the age of 35, grab the daily headlines, not the Anthropocene.
Part of the problem of presenting a public profile for the Anthropocene is the difficulty of giving it a ‘face’ in literature, the arts and in everyday activities in South Africa and among those for whom science, learning and careful critique is not an established way of life. A festival such as ‘Stories of the Anthropocene’, held in Stockholm in late October 2016, in which ‘scholars, artists, writers, filmmakers, and activists’ were invited ‘to propose a single story that can encapsulate the Anthropocene’ is almost unthinkable, as would be a museum exhibit such as ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’ hosted by the Deutsches Museum in Munich from 2014 to 2016, in which I was involved. A rare local contribution from the creative arts has come from South African artist Kei Lossgott, whose exhibition ‘Hunter-gatherer: redefining the human experience in the time of the Anthropocene’ was on view recently in the Absa Gallery in Johannesburg. A piece in The Conversation by John Stremlau, Visiting Professor of International Relations at Wits University, highlights the importance of Africa as a testing ground for adapting to the Anthropocene. Some of the still very scarce literature about the Anthropocene that is circulating in southern Africa is related to issues around biodiversity protection without adding any truly creative, innovative or adaptive ideas. Moreover, no school of thought or robust debate has yet emerged about humanity in the region – despite the fast-growing population and the effects of poorly planned and unsustainable development – as a significant morphological force or an instrument of profound evolutionary change.

Anthropocene Working Group, (Accessed 1 June 2017)
Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh,
Crutzen, P.J. and Stoermer, E.F., ‘The “Anthropocene”’, IGBP Newsletter 41, May 2000, pp.17-18.
Deutsches Museum Anthropocene exhibition,
Ellis, E., ‘Involve social scientists in defining the Anthropocene’, Nature 540, 8 December 2016, pp.192-193.
Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, ‘The Anthropocene Project’,
Sample, I., ‘Anthropocene: Is this the new epoch of humans?’, Guardian 30-31 October 2014.
Möllers, N., Schägerl, C. and Trischler, H., eds, Willkommon im Anthropozän: Unsere Verantwortung für die Zukunft der Erde. Munich: Deutsches Museum and Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, 2014. (Also available in English.)
Steffen, W., ‘The Anthropocene: Commentary’ in Robin, L., Sörlin, S. and Warde, P., eds, The Future of Nature: Documents of Global Change. Pp.486-501. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2013.
Steffen, W., Grinevald, J., Crutzen, P. and McNeill, J., ‘The Anthropocene: Conceptual and historical perspectives’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 31 January 2011. DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2010.0327.
Stremlau, J., ‘Africa is the perfect testing ground for adapting to the Anthropocene epoch’, The Conversation, 11 September 2016.
Waters, C.N., Zalasiewicz, J.A., Williams, M. and Snelling A.M., A Stratigraphical Basis for the Anthropocene? Special publication 395, Geological Society of London. London: Geological Society of London, 2014.
Zalasiewicz, J., Waters, C. and Head, M.J., ‘Anthropocene: Its stratigraphic basis’, Correspondence Nature 541, 19 January 2017, p.289.