The idea of the “Anthropocene” was first proposed in the 1970s, and came into widespread use in the early 2000s. Scientists began to argue that there had been a seismic temporal shift, from the geological epoch inhabited by humans, known as the Holocene, to one in which humankind had itself become an agent of geological change. Initially, the term was adopted by the “global change” research community: natural and social scientists studying global warming, climate change, and other planetary “symptoms” of the Anthropocene era. By the late 2000s, the idea had been taken up by geologists, who look to stratigraphic evidence—rocks, glacier ice, marine sediment—to measure the chemical composition of the global atmosphere and chart the impact of human activity on it. Later this year, the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy will meet to decide whether enough evidence exists (and, if so, whether it would be scientifically useful) to designate the Anthropocene as an official geological epoch.
Among scientists, and for those across the humanities—particularly environmental historians, who have taken up the idea over the last decade—the question of exactly when the Anthropocene began is still up for grabs. Some date it to the introduction of fire, many others to the development of agriculture or the Industrial Revolution; still others, for reasons less immediately obvious, insist on the start of the Cold War. The chemist who introduced the idea tied its origins to the geological changes (such as increased atmospheric CO2, methane, nitrate, and lead concentrations) that occurred following the surge in coal and other fossil-fuel use by the 1780s, but since then other, even more specific dates have been fielded as geological markers—“golden spikes,” in stratigraphic terms—denoting when atmospheric changes significant enough to warrant a break in geological time took place.
One of these is 1610, when atmospheric CO2 decreased abruptly as a result—scientists claim—of the meeting of the Old World with the New, which caused the cross-continental movement of plant and animal species and a massive decline in population as the inhabitants of the Americas were decimated by war, enslavement, famine, and exposure to unfamiliar diseases, leading to a reforesting of much of the two continents. Another is July 16, 1945, when a nuclear weapon was first detonated. There is also a broad consensus that the combination of the nuclear age and the three decades of economic growth after 1950—dubbed the “Great Acceleration” for their increase in human activity, and evidenced by a golden spike in stratigraphic deposits in 1964—at least mark the second stage of the Anthropocene, if not its beginning. Which of these dates, if any, is officially recognized, will bring with it considerable implications. If the Anthropocene era is said to have begun with the Industrial Revolution, it will be tied to climate change. If its origins are in 1610 (or the end of the last ice age), the political ramifications are less clear.
Even if the debate about the Anthropocene’s geological origins is set aside, the politics of the idea looks increasingly controversial. Because the term assigns responsibility for the transformation of nature to the human race, it has become as much a call to collective responsibility as the name of a geological period. Some environmentalists see the label as repeating the Enlightenment mistake of anthropocentrism: To speak of the Anthropocene is to assume, wrongly, that human beings, with their mastery of nature, are exceptional. For those who care more about ecological and planetary life in general than the impact of climate change on humans in particular, the very idea of the Anthropocene puts us on the wrong footing (whether or not human beings are in fact most responsible for environmental degradation). Others worry that although the idea of a collectively responsible humanity could, in theory, prompt an earnest call to arms against global warming, in practice it invites political fatalism. We might all be collectively responsible for the mess we’re in, but politics isn’t exactly stopping climate change, and the lesson of the Anthropocene seems to be one of resignation to an impending apocalypse: We can do little more than wait, learn to care for one another, and put our faith somewhere other than politics—most likely in technology.