The End of the Anthropocene?

Timeline of epochs

 Figure 1 – Timeline of the aeons, eras, periods, and epochs (Source: World Economic Forum)

Over the last two weeks or so, the papers were full of existential issues. At the top (so it seemed) was President Biden’s advanced age. The State of the Union, Thursday, March 7th, and the Republican response showed us that age can be an important issue on the other end—you can also be too young for the job. Super Tuesday, on March 5th, was another important subject that week. Fifteen states held their votes for the two main parties’ presidential candidates for the November election. President Biden and ex-president Trump overwhelmingly won, and Nikki Haley gave up her candidacy. So, the country will have a repeat of the 2020 election between Biden and Trump. Recent polls show that the main issue that preoccupies the public is President Biden’s age, in spite of the fact that the age difference between the candidates is only four years. Some details of the poll’s findings are cited below:

Widespread concerns about President Biden’s age pose a deepening threat to his re-election bid, with a majority of voters who supported him in 2020 now saying he is too old to lead the country effectively, according to a new poll by The New York Times and Siena College.

The survey pointed to a fundamental shift in how voters who backed Mr. Biden four years ago have come to see him. A striking 61 percent said they thought he was “just too old” to be an effective president.

A sizable share was even more worried: Nineteen percent of those who voted for Mr. Biden in 2020, and 13 percent of those who said they would back him in November, said the 81-year-old president’s age was such a problem that he was no longer capable of handling the job.

The misgivings about Mr. Biden’s age cut across generations, gender, race and education, underscoring the president’s failure to dispel both concerns within his own party and Republican attacks painting him as senile. Seventy-three percent of all registered voters said he was too old to be effective, and 45 percent expressed a belief that he could not do the job.

Over the last two weeks, there were also important foreign issues to be discussed. High among them were the continuing wars between Israel and Gaza (since the unprovoked attack on October 7th, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which is now more than two years old).

However, I have heard no discussion of global issues such as climate change (only two sentences by President Biden during his more than 1 hour-long State of the Union speech). Also unmentioned have been the global consequences of the recent pandemic, including a comparison of the US’ post-pandemic economy and other developed countries. In addition, I have been following the global decline of fertility rates and the mixed consequences of immigration: facilitating a demographic transition while also sparking backlashes dangerous to democracy (such as replacement theory, which I discussed in last week’s blog).

From my perspective, however, the announcement that topped the news was one that a group of geologists decided that this is not the time to “celebrate” the planetary history transition from the Holocene to the Anthropocene epoch.

Over the last 12 years, I have written repeatedly about this discussion (just put the word Anthropocene in the search box to scan previous blogs on the topic), and I started all my climate change classes with a description of the proposed transition. I, like everybody that I chatted with, was sure that the transition would be approved. We were wrong. Below is a section of the NYT article that describes some of the background and the conclusions of the discussion:

Is it time to mark humankind’s transformation of the planet with its own chapter in Earth history, the “Anthropocene,” or the human age? Not yet, scientists have decided, after a debate that has spanned nearly 15 years. Or the blink of an eye, depending on how you look at it. A committee of roughly two dozen scholars has, by a large majority, voted down a proposal to declare the start of the Anthropocene, a newly created epoch of geologic time, according to an internal announcement of the voting results seen by The New York Times. By the definition that an earlier panel of experts spent nearly a decade and a half debating and crafting, the Anthropocene started in the mid-20th century, when nuclear bomb tests scattered radioactive fallout across our world. To several members of the scientific committee that considered the panel’s proposal in recent weeks, this definition was too limited, too awkwardly recent, to be a fitting signpost of Homo sapiens’s reshaping of planet Earth.

“Human impact goes much deeper into geological time,” said another committee member, Mike Walker, an earth scientist and professor emeritus at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. “If we ignore that, we are ignoring the true impact, the real impact, that humans have on our planet.”

That’s why several experts who have voiced skepticism about enshrining the Anthropocene emphasized that the vote against it shouldn’t be read as a referendum among scientists on the broad state of the Earth. “This was a narrow, technical matter for geologists, for the most part,” said one of those skeptics, Erle C. Ellis, an environmental scientist at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “This has nothing to do with the evidence that people are changing the planet,” Dr. Ellis said. “The evidence just keeps growing.”

The figure at the top of this blog is the same as the one that I used in a previous blog that discussed this transition (January 10, 2023). I chose this figure because it shows the full scale of our history–from the exact starting point (the creation of the Earth as a planet in the solar system) to our own, relatively minuscule epoch, the Holocene. The Holocene is usually defined in the following way:

The Holocene is the name given to the last 11,700 years* of the Earth’s history — the time since the end of the last major glacial epoch, or “ice age”.

What is often missing is how this definition came about:

In 1833 Charles Lyell proposed the designation Recent for the period that has elapsed since “the earth has been tenanted by man.” It is now known that humans have been in existence a great deal longer. The term Holocene was proposed in 1867 and was formally submitted to the International Geological Congress at Bologna, Italy, in 1885. It was officially endorsed by the U.S. Commission on Stratigraphic Nomenclature in 1969.

I was 30 years old when the US Commission on Stratigraphic Nomenclature endorsed the Holocene. If we followed the Holocene precedent, which is now confirmed to be the only epoch for humanity, the defining start time of the Anthropocene—had it been approved—would coincide with the Trinity test, the first experimental nuclear explosion, on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico (see the movie “Oppenheimer”). We should wait until the end of the Anthropocene to confirm its existence. However, there is a good chance that we will destroy ourselves by that time and nobody will be left to do that job. Maybe it’s time to take epoch-naming decisions that involve humans away from geologists by creating a more representative forum.

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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