It’s Official: Humans are major geological event
05.18.2010, 12:14 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

FOP’s Geologic TIme Viewer in action last weekend

Human activity, the group wrote, is altering the planet “on a scale comparable with some of the major events of the ancient past. Some of these changes are now seen as permanent, even on a geological time-scale.” – Elizabeth Kolbert, The Anthropocene Debate: Marking Humanity’s Impact

There’s breaking news at the top edge of the geologic time scale today. An article by Elizabeth Kolbert in Yale Environment 360, “The Anthropocene Debate: Marking Humanity’s Impact,” discusses the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s (the keepers of the official geologic time scale) recent deliberations that the current epoch (the Holocene) be renamed the Anthropocene.  If accepted, their suggestion will move on to the International Union of Geological Sciences and potentially become a formally designated epoch within the official geologic time scale.

Changes to the geologic time scale aren’t taken lightly and this one could take years to be approved. For a new epoch to qualify for consideration, planetary impact of that epoch must extend through millions of years. In the past this has only been accomplished by monumental geologic events such as mass extinction or the waxing and waning of continent-sized glaciers. It seems that more and more geologists are agreeing that humans have now achieved a similar degree of influence.

Kolbert’s article draws on the concise paper, “The New World of the Anthropocene,” published recently in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. This piece was co-authored by a group of geologists, including Paul Crutzen who coined the name Anthropocene in 2000.  It discusses the extent of human impact in scientific detail and shows how, for the first time in the planet’s history, these changes warrant an epoch whose name refers to human forces (Gk. anthropos: “man, human being”) rather than  geologic forces.

For now, the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy has been established to take up the task of contemplating this possibility. We look forward to learning if and when the Commission is ready to formally acknowledge that the very fabric of the earth will include materials of the human/geologic connection for all deep time to come.


*This Thursday-Saturday FOP’s Geologic Time Viewer will be available to visitors at MIT’s Digital + Visual Interpretations conference. The Viewer offers users a chance to vividly experience the Anthropocene both as the present epoch surrounding us, and as an era that enculturates all previous geologic eras and epochs through products and forms of human design.

6 Comments so far
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I disagree most emphatically to the useage of “Anthropogene”!
In fact I disavow even the Holocene! Why? Because we have been
and are still in the Quaternary Period’s Pleistocene Epoch
for the last 2.y mayrs! Are we becoming so self centered that
we must always attempt a change or replace the time honor Stratigraphic
Code just because we want to be heard and recognized? Hey! Wait
another million years letting future geologist add anothe Epoch! Leave it
alone and let us still honor the time honored procedure that has given us
our present geological knowledge! How about the BP’s Gulf oil spill? Think
is it as monumental as the Burgess Shale Site…future geologist may uncover
it long after the next ice age??????????

Comment by Roy C. Wolf

Hi Roy,
Thanks for reading and commenting on the post. What we find most interesting about the Anthropocene discussion is that the renaming might help humans realize that geologic time is still in progress and subject to change. Who knows what might result if more people knew they were in the midst of creating and leaving behind an unprecedented impact – one that can be measured geologically. If this name change makes the geologic time scale seem more “alive” and applicable to daily human life, it can’t be bad for those who care most about the time scale and the histories that it honors. Maybe humans could learn something from this change – if not about our impact, than at least about ourselves within a much longer geologic story. Though it seems unlikely from here, perhaps the new title could be a step towards reversing the need for an era/epoch to be named after us in a few hundred/thousand years.

Comment by FOP

From one perspective (the human), we seem to have a large impact on how the earth is shaped; from dams, to nuclear reactions, to resource extraction. However, is that impact enough to change the geologic time scale? According to Wendell Berry, “No family or community has ever called its home place an ‘environment.’ None has ever called its feeling for its home place ‘biocentric’ or ‘anthropocentric'” (35). Berry, goes on to say that these words are important in the discussion of human interaction with its places. However, he deems, “the terms themselves are culturally sterile. They come from the juiceless, abstract intellectuality of the universities which was invented to disconnect, displace, and disembody the mind” (35). Berry concludes that, the names of places, “rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes, roads, creatures and people,” are the real names of the abstract term, environment (35).

Yes, there is no doubt that humans impact their places. But, is it ego-centric to assume that humans are now the driving force in geologic terms? Yes, we can move mountains: it takes decades. Where, earth can move a mountain in an instant. Having the capacity to contemplate our existence has led humans to separate themselves from the realm of animal. Since we can think we are clever enough to trick nature that we have it beat. This cannot be true. Equilibrium is the state of nature. We have contrived against that. Nature will reign humans back in. We will be humbled in the presence of the power of Earth. Humans can assume we are the driving force of climate change and other impacts on Earth systems. However, that is human pretentiousness.

Berry, Wendell. Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. New York and San Francisco: Pantheon, 1993.

Comment by Robert

[…] the Anthropocene—Age of Man”, published in the March issue of National Geographic. We wrote about Kolbert’s initial sighting of the debate, and growing acceptance, of the term Anthropocene last year. In her May 2010 piece, […]

Pingback by Anthropocene goes Mainstream: Elizabeth Kolbert in National Geographic « Friends of the Pleistocene

we are the index fossil

Comment by Greg

my comments will probably never be read by anyone, but here’s my 2 cents none-the-less. the geo time scale and divisions in it are based on extinctions and major changes in the complexion of life. we most definitely are causing a mass extinction, one that is under way and accelerating. a geologist from another planet (we will most likely be long gone) who studies the stratigraphy 10 m.y. hence will undoubtedly draw a line at the present. it will be a very obvious distinction between before homo sapiens and after. has there ever been a better index fossil than humans and our debris? as i recall from college, the best index fossils are common (7 billion), widespread (we are everywhere except Antarctica), and short lived (one can hope we are not…)

Comment by Greg

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