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The Anthropocene

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The Anthropocene concept is an unprecedented opportunity to promote the unique relevance of geology to societal and environmental needs, says Emlyn Koster*

Geoscientist 21.09 October 2011

In their recent review of the Anthropocene concept, geologists Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, climatologist Will Steffen, and chemist Paul Crutzen noted that ‘over a century ago, terms such as ‘Anthropozoic’, ‘Psychozoic’ and ‘Noosphere’ were conceived to denote the idea of humans as a new global forcing agent’. A decade before Crutzen introduced ‘Anthropocene’ , cultural historian Thomas Berry proposed the term ‘Ecozoic’ .

The 1960s became a pivotal decade for initial actions. Astronomer Fred Hoyle had predicted in 1948 that: ‘Once a photograph of the Earth taken from the outside is available – once the sheer isolation of the Earth becomes plain – a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.’ This moment came in 1969, by which time zoologist Rachel Carson had emerged as a poignant influence on a rising environmental movement.

The Long Now Foundation considers that ‘Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span’. The opening premise in Humanity’s Meltdown struck a similar chord: ‘Our world, our old world that we have inhabited for the last 12,000 years, has ended, even if no newspaper in North America or Europe has yet printed its scientific obituary’. Earlier this year, the U.S. National Academies opined : ‘Our actions … to reduce or increase greenhouse gas emissions will determine whether the Anthropocene is a relatively mild event or a severe transition extending over many thousands of years.’



Surely one of the largest of all questions facing us all today is whether we are destined to continue ignoring an escalating agenda of ‘inconvenient truths’. As the encompassing ‘science of the Earth’, how can geology play its maximum part in achieving the vital goal of sustainability? Geology uniquely brings big time and space perspectives to the planning table as an essential frame of reference. In his refreshing perspectives on leadership, Richard Barker summarizes Aristotle’s philosophy that its purpose is ‘the harmonious pursuit of positive consequences in the world’. In 1990 when the Royal Society of Canada published Planet under Stress , contributing physicist Ursula Franklin advocated: ‘The task of the future is to build knowledge and understanding among and between citizens and scientists, so that the distinction between the two groups vanishes – so that both become citizen scientists, potentially able to solve our problems together’. Citing Franklin and others, my 1997 presidential address to the Geological Association of Canada advocated fashioning one collective view about how to chart the next chapter of the human journey.

Thanks in large part to a highly successful meeting convened by GSL and the british geological Survey under the leadership of Dr Mike Ellis (Head, Climate Change Science, BGS), the Anthropocene has recently gained an unprecedented coverage for a geological subject, including a cover story in The Economist , an editorial in The New York Times , and articles in The Guardian , The Independent , and on BBC News . The concept has surely caught the media’s attention because it evocatively captures the scope of human impacts in the geologically very recent past, the present, and the foreseeable future.

Rapa Nui


The pivotal question of whether the Anthropocene is enshrined in the geological timescale is now before a working group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. Meanwhile, during 2011, The Geological Society of London has held another conference, The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time? while the Geological Society of America’s annual conference theme this autumn is to be: Archean to Anthropocene; The Past is the Key to the Future. If the ICS does indeed decide that the Holocene ended and the Anthropocene began with the start of the Industrial Revolution, or the detonation of the first atomic bomb, or some other recent global marker, I would urge that an urgent, concerted and widespread communication strategy be brought immediately into action.

Living in the Anthropocene will require new attitudes, dedicated resources and new ‘more-than-the-sum-of-parts’ partnerships. With the Quaternary research community at the helm, the entire profession of geology should make common cause with astronomy, chemistry, climatology, ecology, physics, zoology, and cultural history, as well as anthropology, archaeology, biology, civil engineering, education, geography, meteorology, philosophy, psychology, and urban planning.

That geology’s holistic perspective should become integral to many important societal and scientific issues is long overdue. For the geological profession to become germane to these issues with maximum efficiency and effectiveness will require the advice of other professional disciplines specialising in how people engage with unfamiliar and complex subjects and make up their minds . The required ‘mental repositioning’ in the geosciences has a parallel in the current search for greater relevancy in science museums and exploratories . Although there is great urgency to adapting the mind-set of adult generations to long-term collective thought and action, forging a sustainable future also requires that we provide abundant opportunities to rekindle what child development research has shown to be our naturally inquisitive nature . In future, we have to do more than increase teachers’ knowledge of Earth history. There will be many more, higher ‘levels of need’, at which we must demonstrate the relevance of geology - both to gauging human impacts, and tackling future societal and environmental challenges.

The Anthropocene presents, in my view, geology’s best chance to take its rightful place as a core contributor to the harmonious, multidisciplinary pursuit of positive consequences in the world. Thomas Berry has labeled the momentous road ahead as The Great Work . In geological and educational terms, the opening decades of the 21st Century are surely presenting the biggest teachable moment in the modern history of the world.


My thanks go to Professor Philip Gibbard (Cambridge University) for a stimulating discussion on the Anthropocene and his encouragement. I also thank Dr Ted Nield, Editor of Geoscientist.

* Emlyn Koster (BSc Sheffield, UK, PhD Ottawa, Canada) initially a university teacher and researcher became Chief Executive of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology and Ontario Science Centre in Canada and Liberty Science Center in the USA. His honours include Chevalier de l’Ordre des Palmes Académique.


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