The Anthropocene: A New and Contested Concept

All around us the planet is dying – and humans are responsible. In fact, the influence that we are having on the global environment is so great that it has been suggested that we have moved into a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. 

Coming from the Greek words for human (‘anthropos’) and new (‘cene’), this term, proposed by Paul Cutzen and Eugene Stoermer, seeks to capture the impact that humans are now having on the world. However, the contours of this new and contested age have yet to be fully defined. 

Despite the Anthropocene Working Group, a subcommittee of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, deciding to use a stratigraphic signal in the mid-twentieth century as the starting date for the epoch, the origin of the Anthropocene is still widely debated. 

The requirement for the start date is a clear and defined geological marker that will stand the test of time. There are currently three proposed start dates: a dip in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations in the 1600s; a marker that is coincident with industrialisation in the early 1800s; and a radioactive signature, created by thermonuclear bomb testing, in the 1950s. Intertwined with these markers, however, are origin stories that are shaped by the violent histories of colonialism, capitalism, and racism.

In fact, Professor Kathryn Yusof, a prominent researcher of the social implications of the Anthropocene, has said that “Black and Brown death is the precondition of every Anthropocene origin story”. Further, the homogenised ‘anthropos’, which infers an equal (rather than equitable) distribution of responsibility for catastrophic environmental change, occludes the exclusionary demarcations that have been the basis of many of these human-induced changes. 

More than a geological marker, the Anthropocene is a knotted term that arises in the multiple contexts of climate change, environmental and social justice, and colonial histories. This concept is increasing being applied across the social and physical sciences, and beyond, slowly reconnecting the physical effects of environmental change with its social impacts. The Anthropocene therefore acts as a powerful imaginative tool with which to consider humans’ place within, and impact upon, the world. 

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Troy Fielder

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September 2021
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