Kieran Suckling’s post Against the Anthropocene, originally posted here on July 7 and subsequently shared with the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s Anthropocene Working Group by Andy Revkin, has elicited a round of emailed back-and-forths from some noteworthy individuals, including paleobiologist Jan Zalasiewicz and paleoecologist Anthony Barnosky.
As this debate would be of interest to readers of this blog (and because it hasn’t been shared elsewhere), I’ve decided to share some of that conversation by permission of the individuals involved.
Tony Barnosky first sent around his article Palaeontological evidence for defining the Anthropocene, referring to it in a response to Suckling as follows:
“Interesting read, but I disagree, for reasons explained in the attached. Short version: the same sorts of paleontological criteria that were originally used to define the Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene differentiate the Anthropocene.”
To this, Kieran replied:
“Tony, I don’t see any disagreement between your paper and my post. Regarding whether we have entered a new geological epoch, my post notes that the geological record will show a marked, rapid global homogenization of biological diversity due to the combination of extinctions and invasive introductions. Indeed, I think the preferred anchor for the new epoch is paleontological, because as you point out, this will make it consistent with the methodological determination of prior epochs. It would also counteract the unwarranted mushrooming of the Anthropocene idea to the point where it is coextensive with civilization or even humanity, rather than focusing on large-scale, global anthropological impacts.
“My complaint is not with the idea of a new epoch, it is with the proposal to name it the “Anthropocene.” There has been much debate about the existence, timing and marker of the Anthropocene, there has been very little about its name. This is problematic because as Adrian points out in the post I was responding to, naming is a profoundly sociological act. The naming[s] of geological epochs are semanticly rich, overdetermined events in which names are not simply neutral monikers for pre-existing objects, they profoundly influence the meaning, direction and acceptance of the naming event. If the proposed name of current epoch were the Homogenocene, for example, the cultural discussion would be much less anthropocentric, even laudatory (the God Species, etc.), and much more focused on what has happened to other species.
“As you examine how past epochs were determined, finding them predominately differentiated by biostratification, I examine how these epochs were named, finding them predominately focused on species composition. In this regard, the Anthropocene is anomalous. None of the epochs in the Cenozoic era were named after the cause of the epoch change. There is no Bolidocene. They were all named after the relative newness of the resulting species composition. Thus I ask, why this departure from the geological naming tradition? Why now? How does it relate to the history of informal epoch names going back to the first moment scientists determined the earth had ages at all? Is it an accident that from the very beginning (i.e. Buffon’s seven stage earth history in 1770s) geologists have always informally named the current time the Age of Man? How does it relate to the two thousand year long tradition of western anthropocentrism which in one way or another has always defined the earth as of/by/for humans? Why does the relative popularity of Age of Man terms (Human Epoch, Periode Anthropeian, Era of Man, Epoque Anthropique, Duration of Mankind, Dynasty of Man, Anthropozoic, Anthropolithic, Psychozoic, Terrain Humain, Période Homozoïque, Anthropogene, etc. (I’ve found over two dozen separate terms)) follow a statistically significant sine wave pattern with new terms arising as the popularity of old terms declines?
“My thesis is that the formal naming convention anomaly represented by “Anthropocene” is due to the unacknowledged and un-thought-through crossover with the consistent informal anthropocentric naming convention. As in the past, the crossover causes both intellectual confusion and excitement. As in the past it is causing many researchers and pundits to focus less on the effect of human actions, than on the detectability of impact, indeed with the sheer presence of humans, making the idea unworkably expansive and unscientific. And, as it has consistently happened since the 1770s, this broad sense of the Age of Man seamlessly blends in a valorization and naturalization of human dominance.”
To this, Jan Zalasiewicz replied as follows:
“Interesting debate here. Names are tricky things – and loaded, too, as Kieran points out. In stratigraphy I think they’re most often quirky: the Quaternary, for instance, that is most decidedly archaic now that the Primary and Secondary have gone and the Tertiary has been abolished (though it is geologically undead, and is still in so much use in practice that it may well return). There are names that are have been wonderfully and logically thought through – the Orosirian and Statherian periods of the Precambrian – but that have almost never been used in anger (and will probably fade and disappear).
“Geologists (and wider communities) tend to vote with their feet, and here the Anthropocene has won through in practice from among a clutch of candidates (Andy’s own Anthrocene, the Homogenocene, the Myxocene) largely I think because Paul Crutzen, as one of the (deservedly) most widely respected and influential scientists in the world, was there to give it a critical push, at exactly the right time. When the Geological Society of London made the first stratigraphic analysis of the term a few years later it was simply reacting to events – the term was out there and being widely used as though it was formal. It was already a fact on the ground.
“Yes, the term can have, or can imply, some resonances that are non-ideal. The Anthropocene is not about being able to detect human influence in stratigraphy, but reflects a change in the Earth system (of which the most important and long-lasting is the change to the biological system). Still less should it be used in any triumphalist sense. It just happens to be humans that are currently driving the current global changes: a few millennia on from now it may well be the big secondary positive feedbacks that are dominant, such as polar albedo, methane etc. These kinds of things do need to be emphasized in the characterization of the phenomenon.
“But the ‘anthropo’ effect of the word has its good sides too – it has genuinely brought the humanities (history, philosophy, economics and so on) into the debate in a very big way – and with that has come a genuine interest by this very large community into the geological context of global change in general and in the methodologies of stratigraphy in particular (for me at least, this has been a unique and rather wonderful consequence). I doubt if that would have happened if a more neutral name had emerged.
“Re analogies – well, the Carboniferous reflects the rise of woody plants, and the Cretaceous that of a calcifying microplankton. There isn’t a Bolidocene, because that particular discovery came well after that particular part of geological time had been codified (though I suspect it might well have been proposed if Sedgwick, Murchison or Lyell had found the iridium layer and put two and two together). The Anthropocene doesn’t seem too far out on a limb as regards the history of geological neologisms – humans ARE currently the major driver of global change – and, incidentally, we are currently about one-third of terrestrial vertebrates by biomass, so something of a biostratigraphic marker in ourselves.
“In the end, I suspect we will have to be pragmatic. Trying to rename the Anthropocene would cause a very great deal of confusion, in geology and beyond, if the history of previous attempted changes to popular and widely used stratigraphic names is anything to go by. Even though the Anthropocene has only been around for 15 years, it has developed surprisingly deep – or at least widespread – roots.
“So, the point made by Kieran is good – and important. But, not least for pragmatic reasons, I tend to side with Tony and the reasoning he puts forward in his Geol Soc volume paper. We have a term that, warts and all, is here and that has the potential to be a functional part of the Geological Time Scale. But for sure it is of real value to explore and explain what this word ‘Anthropocene’ really means (and what it should not mean) in terms of Earth process.”
The debate continues. Kieran has sent in a long-ish response to Jan (shared with the AWG), some of which comes from his manuscript-in-progress, and I suspect there will be more discussion.