Humans first appeared during the Pleistocene epoch and have been in existence all through the current epoch, the Holocene, which began roughly 11,500 years ago. Dutch chemist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzenis leading the charge to create a new geologic time period to follow hot on the heels of the Holocene. Crutzen has suggested the new epoch be named the Anthropocene to characterize how humans have played such a dominant role in changes to the Earth in recent history. This new epoch may have begun during the Industrial Revolution, which marked the beginning of drastically increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Another starting point for the new epoch could be around the beginning of the Holocene as humans began changing landscapes with agriculture – which allows the option of simply renaming the Holocene.
But is this just another example of humans naming natural processes after ourselves? Looking at the reasons for naming a new epoch the Anthropocene would seem to disappoint most people. Impacts from our activitieshave the potential to drastically change Earth systems for millions of years to come. Probably the most well-known example is the concentrations of carbon dioxide increasing in the atmosphere, but there are many other examples of the huge changes human activity is bringing about.
The question remains, have we caused enough change to warrant a new epoch? As I stated earlier, mass extinctions have sometimes been trigger points to bring about new epochs. The case that a mass extinction event is occurring right nowis gaining momentum, and the cause has generally been because of human activity.
So lets say that this new epoch is accepted, which is by no means a sure thing. What happens after the Anthropocene? A post-Anthropocene world would require the affects of the human population to have declined. This raises the question, will humans still be present in a post-Anthropocene world? With all the ways we are impacting the Earth, continuing to live during the Anthropocene is going to become more and more difficult. It is a scary thought that this may be the last epoch humans experience.
While there has been more attention paid to creating the Anthropocene epoch, it still leads some to wonder what’s the point? Whether or not the Anthropocene began a few hundred years ago, or nearly 11,000 years ago, it is simply a name. Crutzen has made the claim that naming a new epoch after ourselves is a warning to the world. I can’t help but feel this is an empty agenda for Crutzen and others leading the drive to create the new epoch. People already know about climate change, greenhouse gases, unsustainable agricultural practices, overconsumption, etc… Creating a geologic time period named the Anthropocene doesn’t seem to trigger the reaction that other, more literal arguments for sustainability have achieved.
Go ahead and create a new geologic time period – I understand the importance and the science behind it. But don’t kid yourself that creating a human-centered geologic time period is going to change many minds on how we need to become more environmentally sensitive.