What is the Anthropocene?

The “Anthropocene” is a term that has become widely used since Nobel Prize Laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer began popularizing it in 2000. They argued that humans had so dramatically transformed the planet that it was time to pronounce a new geological epoch. They claimed that this epoch should be named the Anthropocene—or, “the human age.”

Soon after Crutzen and Stoermer announced the concept, many scientists picked it up. It was a useful descriptor for what they were seeing in their research. Humans were altering the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorous cycle. They were moving more rock and soil each year than the winds, rains, and tides. Humans were clear cutting forests. Plants and animals were going extinct at a rate unprecedented for millions of years. The carbon dioxide pumped out by factories, automobiles, and houses was warming the planet at an ever-increasing rate. All of these processes were leaving a measurable mark on the planet—and they had been for quite some time.

In August 2016, a group of geologists recommended that the International Commission on Stratigraphy (the group that designates geological ages) formally adopt the “Anthropocene” to designate our current geological epoch. This was an important decision, which could have long-term implications for scientific research and public policy.

Outside geology—in fields beyond the sciences—researchers have also begun using the term. The “Anthropocene” helps explain the myriad new ways that human societies are conceiving, experiencing, and responding to changing environmental conditions. Many social scientists, humanists, and artists are providing insight into how the lived experience of the Anthropocene is more than simply geological or biological; it has complex social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions.

There is quite a bit of debate around the concept of the “Anthropocene.” Some argue over when we should date its beginning. Others debate the ethical responsibilities of the societies and corporations who have been most active in transforming the planet. There are those who focus on the issues of environmental justice—on how some people experience the environmental effects associated with the Anthropocene more severely and the inequities that result. Still others discuss what humans might do to mitigate the effects of environmental change and how economic and political systems should respond. And, some are concerned that our approaches are often too anthropocentric and that they ignore the rights of other living creatures. Work on the Anthropocene has proliferated over the past decade, and there are dozens of debates associated with it.

There is no simple definition of the Anthropocene. It is a complex phenomenon that has geobiophysical and sociocultural dimensions. For the purposes of An Anthropocene Primer, we work from the perspective outlined by Jason M. Kelly in Rivers of the Anthropocene: “humans are altering the planet to such an extent that we are leaving a permanent and irreversible mark on the earth’s biological, hydrological, atmospheric, and geological systems. Humanity has initiated an environmental “phase shift,” and formerly resilient systems have been pushed into altered states. Even if humanity were to significantly modify its behaviors, the result would be a new equilibrium, fundamentally different from the pre-industrial world.” This situation didn’t begin recently. It is the consequence of a historical process the unfolded over hundreds of years. To understand the Anthropocene we have to understand the socio-cultural conditions that made it possible — imperialism, industrialization, capitalism, urbanization, and more. And in order to think through possible futures, we need to engage across fields of expertise, across cultures, and beyond the academy.