The Anthropocene: Too Serious for Post-Modern Games

In his post “Against the Anthropocene”, Kieran Suckling makes two main arguments. The first is that the choice of “Anthropocene” as the name for the new epoch breaks with stratigraphic tradition; he feels uncomfortable with a change in tradition, not least because he suspects the break reflects a hidden political objective. The second is that similar names have been invented for the era of industrialism in the past, names that have gone out of fashion, and the Anthropocene will go the same way.

Many scientists and social scientists have entered the debate over the Anthropocene. Each of them seems to want to impose their own disciplinary framework on it. Thus one respondent to Kieran’s post wrote that it is “difficult to get a handle on the term ‘Anthropocene’ because it means very different things to different people”. This is true, but it is true because most people have not bothered to read the half dozen basic papers on the Anthropocene by those who have defined it, and therefore do not know what they are talking about.

The problem is that those who want to colonise and redefine the Anthropocene completely miss the central point being made by Earth system scientists like Paul Crutzen, Will Steffen and Jan Zalasiewicz. I have elsewhere explained why those who have not made the gestalt shift to Earth system thinking cannot help but get the Anthropocene wrong. The Earth system scientists are saying that something radically new has occurred on planet Earth, something that can be detected from the late 18th-century and which is due predominantly to a serious disruption to the global carbon cycle. This disruption has set the Earth system on a new, unpredictable and dangerous trajectory.

Ecologists who have not made the leap to Earth system thinking have been the worst offenders. But a few social scientists and humanities people have been joining the fray, bringing their constructivist baggage. Kieran, I fear, is one of them

In response to Jan Zalasiewicz’s comment that Paul Crutzen came up with the term at the right time, Kieran misunderstands him, asking: “Why was the time right? Is there something about western psychology and history that made this time right?” So he treats the development of a body of scientific evidence as if it were merely an emanation of social and psychological conditions. It’s a reading that has all of the epistemological and political faults of the “social construction of science”, an approach that today is deployed most effectively by climate science deniers.

Kieran’s disquisition on the historical use of terms like “the age of man” compounds this mistake. It suggests that he has missed the fundamental point – the fundamental point – about the new epoch: that the functioning of the Earth system has changed, and that it changed at the end of the 18th century; or, if we want to be absolutely certain, in the decades after the Second World War. I sense that Jan Z’s gentle reminder was lost, so let me stress it. He wrote: “The Anthropocene is not about being able to detect human influence in stratigraphy, but reflects a change in the Earth system” (my emphasis). The core of the problem, I think, is that most participants in the debate do not actually understand what is meant by “the Earth system”.

So whatever historical interest it may have (and personally I find it fascinating), the fact that Cuvier, Buffon, de Chardin and several others have deployed terms like “the age of man” has no bearing whatsoever on the current debate, which is about a physical transformation, a rupture, that has actually occurred. Arguing that it’s all been said before – “I can show that your claim to have come up with something decisively new is historically inaccurate” – is a standard rhetorical strategy known as deflation. But it carries the same danger we were warned of as children when our parents read us the story of the boy who cried wolf. Whatever historical precedent, and whatever environmental alarm bell may have been rung in the past, the wolf has arrived.

Deflationary moves that characterise the Anthropocene as merely the latest attempt by anthropocentric westerners to impose an “age of man” frame on the world – that it is a fad that will wane as all the others have – betray an essential failure to grasp what the Earth scientists are telling us is now happening in the Earth system. When the IPCC tells us we are heading for a doubling or, more likely, a trebling of CO2 concentrations it is not a fad. When the world’s scientific academies warn we are heading into a world of 4°C warming, changing the conditions of life on the planet, they are not saying it because it’s fashionable. And if the Anthropocene is another example of western linguistic imperialism, changing the name will not exempt the poor and vulnerable of the South from its devastating effects.

No, I’m sorry, this is serious now. After all the attacks on climate science and the well-funded, systematic campaign to discredit climate scientists, people of good will have an absolute obligation not to play around with the science. The constructivist games of the 80s and 90s are an intellectual luxury we can no longer afford.


Let me now comment on Kieran’s argument that the Anthropocene is wrongly named because it deviates from naming tradition. He writes that epochs are never named for the causes of change but for the changed composition of the species present in each epoch, era or period. When we examine the helpful lists he provides linking eras, periods and epochs to their characteristic biota, the word that appears uniformly is “appear”. Eukaryotes appear, reptiles appear, fish appear, mammals appear, and so on.

When he calls for consistency in naming, then, we should name the Anthropocene not after the cause of the new epoch (techno-industrial anthropos) but after the new forms of life that have appeared. The problem is that no new forms of life have yet appeared. It seems very likely they will, but it would be impractical to wait 100,000 years before we knew what to name the latest epoch. By then all of the members of the International Commission on Stratigraphy will be dead (they who already in my imagination are like the wizened judges of the Court of Chancery hearing Jarndyce v Jarndyce in Bleak House).

So we are stuck with an anomaly; why this should cause anxiety, except to those wedded to tradition, I do not know. We are practical people; if we cannot apply the old principle to naming a manifestly new and important geological epoch then we must choose a new principle.

Kieran’s solution to the problem is to name the epoch after the radical homogenization of the planet’s species (along with the extinction of many). He suggests the “Homogenocene”. But here he only smuggles in a new criterion, replacing the appearance of new species with a change in the distribution of existing ones. If we were to accept Kieran’s argument then, as Jan points out, why not name the epoch after the overwhelmingly dominant feature of homogenisation, the spread of humans across the globe. According to Vaclav Smil, humans and their domestic animals now account for a breath-taking 97 per cent of the biomass of all terrestrial vertebrates. On Kieran’s own criterion, we would name the new epoch … the Anthropocene.

Finally, it will help if I tell the story of the naming of the Anthropocene, for an innocent reader of Kieran’s piece may draw the conclusion that there was some kind of secret meeting at which a group of western scientists committed to an anthropocentric worldview conspired to promote their ideology by choosing a name that embodies it. Kieran asks: “What belief system(s) drive the shift … to a name based on the power of one species, a species that happens to be us?”

The answer is more prosaic and goes like this. In 2000 Paul Crutzen was at a scientific meeting in Mexico. As the discussion progressed he became increasingly frustrated at the use of the term “Holocene” which he felt no longer described the state of the Earth system, which he knew had been irreversibly disrupted and damaged by human activity. Unable to contain his irritation he intervened, declaring to the meeting: “It’s not the Holocene, it’s … it’s … it’s … the Anthropocene.”

That was it. He just blurted it out; and it stuck. Paul Crutzen is an atmospheric chemist. Given his training it is no surprise that as his brain struggled for the right word it would come with one that linked the state of the Earth to the activities of humans, anthropos. If there had been a savvy sociologist sitting at the table, she might have said: “Wait a minute Paul. It’s not humans in general who got us into this mess, but western industrial ones. So let’s call it the Capitalocene or the Technocene.”

Who knows, perhaps that intervention would have changed the course of history right then. But it didn’t happen, and we have the term we are now debating. Crutzen and his various co-authors would agree with the savvy sociologist that it has been techno-industrialism with its origins in Europe that brought on the new epoch. They have argued persistently that the Anthropocene began with the growth of industries powered by fossil energy towards the end of the 18th-century and accelerated with the hyper-consumerism of the post-war decades.

The real adversaries here are not Crutzen et al. but those scientists, mostly ecologists who do not ‘get’ Earth system science, who are making all sorts of erroneous and confusing claims about the Anthropocene’s origins lying in the distant past, thousands of years before European industrialisation. If anyone is trying to displace responsibility for the mess we are in then they are the culprits. It is they who want to blend the Anthropocene into the Holocene and thereby make the anthropos of the Anthropocene a neutral, blameless, meaningless cause, so that the radical transformation that we now see is the result merely of humans doing what humans do, which nothing can change. No wonder political conservatives are drawn to the early Anthropocene hypothesis.

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© Copyright Clive Hamilton