So I guess we’re (sort of) officially in the Anthropocene?

When our “Making Sense of the AnthropoceneDavies Forum Seminar at USF met for the first time on Aug 29 it happened to be the exact same day that we officially–or at least “sort of” officially–entered the Anthropocene. Wow, that’s a loaded statement. Before I even unpack who the “we” is in such a claim, let me take a step back. On August 29, after roughly seven years of analysis and discussion, the Working Group on the Anthropocene (AWG) (under the auspices of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which is itself a subgroup of the even larger International Union of Geological Sciences) announced its recommendation at the 35th International Geological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa.

And what did it recommend? A few more years of analysis.

Actually, the AWG unanimously (34 “yes” votes and one abstention) concluded the following:

The Anthropocene concept, as articulated by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, is geologically real. The phenomenon is of sufficient scale to be considered as part of the International Chronostratigraphic Chart, more commonly known as the Geological Time Scale. (Media Note: Anthropocene Working Group)

Wow. What does that mean? How do we even begin to make sense of such a proclamation? Well, that’s sort of the point of the seminar.

So, for starters, we discussed some of the proposals the AWG considered for the “golden spike.” A golden spike, or what geologists more formally call a Global Stratigraphic Section and Point (GSSP), “is a single physical manifestation of a change recorded in a stratigraphic section, often reflecting a global-change phenomenon” (Lewis and Maslin 2015). The start of the agricultural revolution, 1610 (the Orbis hypothesis), the start of the industrial revolution, detonation of the first atomic bomb, and the “Great Acceleration” (among others) have all been proposed as possible golden spikes marking the start of the Anthropocene.

What did the AWG conclude?

Human impact has left discernible traces on the stratigraphic record for thousands of years – indeed, since before the beginning of the Holocene. However, substantial and approximately globally synchronous changes to the Earth System most clearly intensified in the ‘Great Acceleration’ of the mid-20th century. The mid-20th century also coincides with the clearest and most distinctive array of signals imprinted upon recently deposited strata.

“Majority opinion,” the AWG continues in its Media Note: Anthropocene Working Group, “is to seek and choose a candidate GSSP, as this is the most familiar and widely accepted method of defining geological time units.”

The 35 members of the AWG will now spend the next several years determining which signal or signals are so indelible that future geologists hundreds or even thousands of years from now will see them in the geological record and draw the same conclusions: that the signal represents a change significant enough to represent evidence of the start of a geological epoch. Next they will identify the GSSP. In other words, they will place the golden spike in “an exact location—latitude, longitude and height/ depth—because a GSSP can be located at only one place on Earth” (Lewis and Maslin 2015).

The domestic chicken is a serious contender to be a fossil that defines the Anthropocene for future geologists.

“The domestic chicken is a serious contender to be a fossil that defines the Anthropocene for future geologists.” Photograph: Alamy in The Anthropocene epoch: scientists declare dawn of human-influenced age, The Guardian, Aug. 29, 2016

At the end of this process, the AWG will submit its analysis, in the form of a proposal, to the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS). A supermajority vote of the SQS is required for the proposal to go to the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) where a favorable vote would then need ratification by the Executive Committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS).

And then? I guess then we’d officially be in the Anthropocene. Which brings us back to some big questions: What does that mean? How do we even begin to make sense of such a proclamation? Oh, and there’s still the question of who the “we” is when claiming that “we” are officially in the Anthropocene.

To say that we’re in the Anthropocene feels big and important and meaningful. But in what ways? In good ways or bad ways (and good/bad for whom)? As Rob Nixon writes, “We may all be in the Anthropocene but we’re not all in it in the same way.” What does it mean for how we conceive of ourselves and all of our identities (racial, ethnic, place-based, species-based, etc.)? And what are the ethical, political, moral, and other implications for how we answer these questions? What does all this mean, in other words, for our future?

Our discussion on the first day of class covered a lot of territory (some notes from the class are here) in scratching the surface of these questions. But at its core was an exploration of the importance of when and where the golden spike of the Anthropocene is placed. This decision will inculpate specific people and ways of life, it will open up spaces for rewriting certain histories, and it will inspire new stories to carry us into the future.  In fact, even before the golden spike has been placed, the concept of the Anthropocene has already begun to do these very things.

Good and Bad? Complexities of the Anthropocene: Future home of the Bay Area’s largest publicly owned solar project in partnership with Chevron and adjacent to its Richmond refinery where a “modernization” project is underway to upgrade systems to be able to handle “sour crude” (oil with sulfur level greater than .5%) as world supplies of “sweet crude” diminish.    

Maybe in this regard the Anthropocene is big and important and meaningful in both good and bad ways. It’s bad in an objective and nonjudgmental sense: regardless of who or what brought us here, the fact that geologists now agree that irreversible shifts to the Earth system–recorded in the Earth’s strata at a geologically significant scale marked by accelerated rates of erosion and sedimentation; large-scale transformations of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and other cycles; unprecedented shifts, including extinction rates not seen since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, in the distribution of species; and the rise of sea levels triggered by alteration of the earth’s climate–suggest that unlike the last 10 to 12 thousand years our near term, not to mention long term, future will be anything but stable and predictable.

So we will have to adjust and adapt. No big deal, right? But there are more than 7 billion of us on the planet with vastly unequal access to the types of resources that might be needed to adapt successfully. This inequality is already an ugly embarrassment seen by some as evidence of failed humanist aspirations.

But herein lies the “good.” The Anthropocene is big and important and meaningful in the following good way: acknowledgment of the Anthropocene seems to suggest a civilizational, if not a special (as in the adjectival of ‘species’ ), inflection point. In other words, the Anthropocene seems to make assailable, perhaps even in ways that terrorism has not, the unassailable democratic, capitalist, and other foundational ideals of the dominant modern western belief system.  Something has shifted.

Even if we refute the persistence of global inequality, human suffering from disease and war, or the slow violence that local environmental destruction wreaks (see Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, 2011) as evidence of our failure to achieve the humanist goals enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (e.g., life, liberty and security of personnel), there is still a lingering problem: our ability to achieve our humanist goals will be greatly constrained within this new geological epoch brought about by our very pursuit of these goals. The sense of a linear path of human history (no matter how unevenly developed) leading to a future of greater human development (i.e., freedom, liberty and security of person) is ruptured by the Anthropocene.

What’s good about (dis)rupture? Well, despite the fact that it will likely exacerbate all of the aforementioned problems and especially those linked to inequality, it also opens up new spaces. And it is within these spaces that we can explore new types of identities, new systems of meaning, new inter- and intra-species relationships, new ways of life and new ways of being. In fact, the conceptual and physical spaces newly opened by the Anthropocene are far more than mere opportunities for these sorts of explorations. As old identities, old ways of life and old ways of being become increasingly problematic or even meaningless in the Anthropocene, we will be compelled–and, yes, I mean we will have no choice–to create new meanings in these spaces. Humans, if nothing else, are powerfully skillful and artful meaning-makers. The ultimate question, then, is what meanings will we make in these new spaces of the Anthropocene?


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