Happy New Year and Back to the Anthropocene

Timeline of epochs

Source: Economic World Forum

The Anthropocene is back in the news:

“For Planet Earth, This Might Be the Start of a New Age” by Raymond Zhong

The official timeline of Earth’s history — from the oldest rocks to the‌ dinosaurs to the rise of primates, from the Paleozoic to the Jurassic and all points before and since — could soon include the age of nuclear weapons, human-caused climate change and the proliferation of plastics, garbage and concrete across the planet. In short, the present.

The working group’s members on Saturday completed the first in a series of internal votes on details including when exactly they believe the Anthropocene began. Once these votes are finished, which could be by spring, the panel will submit its final proposal to three other committees of geologists whose votes will either make the Anthropocene official or reject it.

Sixty percent of each committee will need to approve the group’s proposal for it to advance to the next. If it fails in any of them, the Anthropocene might not have another chance to be ratified for years.

… Still, the knives are out for the Anthropocene, even though, or maybe because, we all have such firsthand familiarity with it.

Stanley C. Finney, the secretary general of the International Union of Geological Sciences, fears the Anthropocene has become a way for geologists to make a “political statement.”

Within the vast expanse of geologic time, he notes, the Anthropocene would be a blip of a blip of a blip. Other geologic time units are useful because they orient scientists in stretches of deep time that left no written records and sparse scientific observations. The Anthropocene, by contrast, would be a time in Earth’s history that humans have already been documenting extensively.

“For the human transformation, we don’t need those terminologies — we have exact years,” said Dr. Finney, whose committee would be the last to vote on the working group’s proposal if it gets that far.

Put “Anthropocene” into the search box above to see earlier entries. The last two related entries were in 2018 (October 23rd and 30th). In 2023, I will follow any new developments. When my Fall 2022 semester ended, it opened a month without teaching for me and gave me time to consider the ramifications of the human-centric reality of the physical world, beyond the change to the name Anthropocene. For me, the academic environment is a convenient place to start.

My teaching in the Fall 2022 semester all focused on climate change on various levels. One course in particular focused on the various changes that our campuses have been making in the last few years and how we can productively incorporate these changes into the curriculum of various courses. This effort reflects the idea of a “Campus as a Lab,” which I discussed in multiple blogs that spanned the second half of 2022. Students in that course were asked to go over the specific courses that are being offered and suggest ways to incorporate campus-required changes in the curriculum. Their results are summarized on this website. I tried to distribute their work among other faculty and administrators and ask for help to assess the incorporation of the effort on a broader scale.

It is starting to be clear (at least to me) that if the world is entering the period of the Anthropocene in which humans control reality, academic disciplines have to follow. This is urgently needed in my own areas of expertise in the sciences (physics and chemistry), that for generations tended to exclude humans from the physical world. The mirror image of this exclusion can be found in some social studies that focused only on the studies of human behavior. This “two society” jargon (with and without humans) became a cornerstone of human knowledge that got reflected in the structure of academic institutions. A sense of the debate can be found in publications such as this Boston University paper.

Historically, probably the most focused part of the debate can be viewed in terms of historical changes in the field of philosophy. Since I had a month free of teaching and no travel plans, I had some time to read and think. I browsed through my own books and noticed that I had Philosophical Explanations by Robert Nozick, one of the most celebrated American philosophers. I don’t remember how I got the book (maybe through my wife), but I decided that going through it might be a good way to start. The book starts with two chapters that focus on metaphysics; one chapter discusses “the identity of self” while the second chapter discusses “Why is there Something Rather than Nothing.” The chapters, which reflect the two extremes of the “two societies,” are a good place to start. This next semester I am scheduled to teach cosmology on an introductory level (part of our General Education program). Since the chapter “Why is there Something Rather than Nothing” deals with the start of the universe (known in physics as the “Big Bang”) I have some prerequisites for understanding it (see the blogs from January 26, and July 26, 2022). I tried to find Einstein’s or Hubble’s names in the chapter, but I failed. It was obvious to me that physics and philosophy have different perspectives about the origin of our universe. Physicists and philosophers have weighed in on the matter: Stephen Hawking and Ludwig Wittgenstein both declared that philosophy is dead. An interesting discussion about the issue can be found in an article in the Times Higher Education. Considering that in earlier times we referred to almost every “academic” as a “philosopher,” the change is stunning. Now, in almost every academic institution, philosophy is part of the humanities, completely separate from the sciences. The timing of the separation was gradual. A Quora post by Joshua Engel explains:

The way I see it, science is still “natural philosophy,” and it’s an error on the part of both scientists and philosophers to see their fields of study as separate disciplines.

They began to separate in the 19th century, when the term science was coined, and over the course of the 19th century, it replaced “natural philosopher.” The two had begun to branch out earlier than that with the development of the hypothetico-deductive model, which locks science into a particular epistemology, beginning with Galileo and really becoming formalized by Descartes in 1637.

There are, of course, a great many other names, and it was a long, slow process. But I’d say that the split really began in the 16th century and was largely complete by the 19th. People identified a particular mode of acquiring knowledge by forming hypotheses and testing them against experiments, replacing earlier philosophical modes of trying to explain the world in terms of introspective models and references to sacred texts.

Newton, Descartes, and Galileo are all names associated with the introduction of math to describe physical reality. Not accidentally, when I teach either cosmology or climate change within the concept of teaching science, I start with a short “reminder” about the history of science, starting with Aristotle and Ptolemy, and immediately jump to Copernicus and Galileo. The main jump is quantification through mathematics and the exclusion of the unique role that man plays in the process.

Now the Anthropocene completes the circle. Man is back in.

Stay tuned.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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