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the Anthropocene

proper noun

the period from the 18th century until the present day, characterized by the effect of humans on geology, climate and the environment

Anthropocene

adjective

'They believe that human dominance has so physically altered the earth that the Holocene epoch has ended and we have entered a new epoch – the Anthropocene.'

Science Daily 28th January 2008

'If the concept of the Anthropocene epoch is to be formalized, scientists will first have to identify and define a boundary line, or marker, that's literally set in stone.'

National Geographic News 6th April 2010

Did you know that we're currently witnessing a transformation of the earth which is as significant as the end of the age of the dinosaurs? No? Well, brace yourself for even more uncomfortable news: the instrument of this change is not some imperceptible, unstoppable, natural phenomenon, but we humans – yes, you and me. Collectively we've kick-started a new period in the Earth's history: the Anthropocene.

brace yourself for even more uncomfortable news: collectively we've kick-started a new period
in the Earth's history, the Anthropocene

Geologists have a long tradition of dividing up the Earth's history into distinct periods or epochs, using terminology such as Triassic and Cretaceous to sub-divide changes in geological history. Conventionally, scientists have referred to the period of the earth's history we're in now (i.e. the era characterized by human civilization), as the Holocene.

Transitions between periods in the earth's history can be recognized by sharp changes in fossil records, or in the chemistry of the rocks. The different periods are thought to be the result of dramatic forces of nature or changes in the earth's core, such as the impact of an asteroid or the slow movement of the continents. In other words, these eras are the result of circumstances beyond our control – up until now. Scientists claim that we're now entering a new era, the Anthropocene, the key feature of which is that it is thought to have emerged as a direct result of the activities of human beings. Its start date is therefore linked to the industrial revolution in the late 18th century, which unknowingly kick-started a chain reaction of human influence – massive population growth, enormous sprawling cities and increased use of fossil fuels. These influences now have a tangible impact, characterized by concrete evidence of climatic, ecological and geological change.

Representing the interplay between both human and natural forces, the Anthropocene is therefore claimed to be unlike any preceding phase in the geological history of the planet.

Background – the Anthropocene

The term Anthropocene was coined in 2000 by Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, who claimed that the effect of human behaviour on the earth during the last 200 years was so significant that it should represent a new geological era. 'Anthropocene' was coined by analogy with Holocene, combining the affix -cene (from the Greek kainos, meaning 'new' or 'recent') with the Greek anthrōpos, meaning 'human being' (compare the word anthropology and its derivatives, which refers to the study of human societies).

Though the term initially provoked controversy, it has gained support in recent years, as we've seen more hard evidence of the potential consequences of human activity, such as global climate change and sharp increases in plant and animal extinctions. The term Anthropocene is as yet not officially recognized as a geological era, and it may take some years before it is formally accepted by the International Union of Geological Sciences. Meanwhile, scientists are continuing to investigate concrete ways in which the epoch could be identified by future generations. Candidate markers include the distinctive radioactive signature left by atom bomb tests which began in 1945, or permanent traces of pollution, such as lead particles released by burning leaded petrol.

Though Cruzen coined the term Anthropocene, he was not the first person to observe the potential interplay between a geological epoch and human activity. Back in 1992, in a book entitled Global Warming: Understanding the Forecast (Abbeville Press Inc), journalist and author Andrew Revkin used the word Anthrocene to refer to a very similar idea.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 15th November 2010.

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