What was the Anthropocene?

by | 8 Mar 2024

Apparently, we might no longer live in the Anthropocene. Such was the result of a formal vote by the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (SQS), issued on the 5th of March 2024, who oversee and administer 4.5 billion years of sedimentary accumulation on Earth. They came to this conclusion through a review of a proposal, submitted by the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), who were commissioned in 2009 by the Subcommission to determine whether the term ‘Anthropocene’, as initially espoused by Paul Crutzen & Eugene Stoermer (P. Crutzen and Stoermer 2000; P. J. Crutzen 2002), had any merit or validity as a formal unit of the Geologic Time Scale. It took the Working Group almost fifteen years to conclude that: yes, the Anthropocene theme did merit consideration as a formal geological unit. Their submission to the Subcommission was less ‘impartial analysis’, more an ‘impassioned proposal’. In addition to identifying material characteristics, such as traces of human activity that will obtain on a palaeontological register (the term used is technofossil, i.e. the fossil potential of the technosphere); the AWG also combed through previous decisions issued by the Subcommission to identify patterns in their decision-making habits positioning their proposal accordingly.  And indeed there was some merit to the AWG’s claim, as the vote against the Anthropocene Series/Epoch show.  The vote was not unanimous, rather, the vote was split as follows: two abstentions, four votes in favour of formalising an Anthropocene Epoch/Series in the Geologic Time Scale, and twelve votes against such formalisation. ‘The proposal,’ concludes in the internal ballot receipt in large, underlined font, ‘not having received at least 60% of the YES votes, is not approved.’

Does this mean that all geologists are climate-change deniers? Although there is an uncomfortable kinship between geology and fossil fuels, to attribute rejection of the Anthropocene Series/Epoch proposal solely to patronage would be too simple. The rejection of the Anthropocene is not that significant, if we acknowledge the theme as one more example in a history of well-branded, or carefully marketed, scientific discourses (such as tipping points or planetary boundaries). Rejection of the AWG’s proposal does not mean that there are no longer adequate grounds to argue that humans play a significant role in climate change. Indeed, rejection of the term may be beneficial, insofar as the Anthropocene theme was woefully inadequate when it came to the differentiation and distribution of culpability and suffering. ‘Anthropos’ was simply too problematic and ambiguous a term: obscuring violence, histories, and epistemological conundrums that had to be carefully re-told by scholars both within and beyond the geosciences.  

So, what would the Anthropocene accomplished had it been approved? At the very outset, it is worth noting how strange it is that the Anthropocene was rejected by a popular vote. That is to say, the proposal was not necessarily rejected on the basis of ‘bad science.’ I have spoken to several members of the SQS in the run up to this vote. They acknowledge that the AWG put together a sound proposal from a scientific perspective which means that it included extensive accounts of rock sections that were sampled from across the Northern and Southern hemispheres analysed using techniques ranging from palaeontological to radio-isotopic. However, the SQS is not a purely scientific organisation. They do not simply fact-check or verify scientific truth-claims. Rather, they administer geological time and space: the past 2.58 million years of sedimentary accumulation on Earth, to be precise. Administering geological time requires more than scientific verification. It is also a legal process. Their task is constituted through interpretating evidence in such a way so as enforce normative practices of characterising the relationship between planetary time and space. They solicit testimony from sediments is subsequently  verified by a committee who exercise an authority on the basis of presumed neutrality and soundness of judgement vis-à-vis existing precedent of decisions concerning previous amendments to the Geologic Time Scale.

This is a truth that is reflected in the manner with which the AWG went about their formalisation effort. On the one hand, it entailed translating artefacts into generalised truth claims. Material remnants of human activity, ranging from plastic bottles to discarded chicken bones, were cast on the register of geo-history: the palaeontological record that will appear as of obvious geological significance on the level of other Series/Epochs. It also involved an equally paradoxical translation of narrative into artefact. Nuclear weapons detonation has covered Earth in a blanket of plutonium, specifically, Pu239/240, which are otherwise incredibly rare in Earth’s rock record. To illustrate, consider a case that the AWG often cite in their advocacy for an Anthropocene Series/Epoch: dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteorite strike that sprinkled Earth’s surface with iridium, an element that appears practically nowhere else on Earth prior to that impact event. Pu239/240, in other words, provides a material correlate of a particular episode in human history. Significantly, for the purposes of the AWG, this example provided a way to pattern their proposal as consistent with the decision-making procedure that have characterised the formalisation of other units of the Geologic Time Scale (the appearance of iridium being a key component of the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary).

The formalisation effort was also, perhaps even primarily (at least in terms of hours spent by Working Group members), a rhetorical and textual practice. One unlikely benefit of the AWG’s initial absence of funding (they eventually received one million euros from the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, but that is another story altogether) is that they spent more time studying previous unit formalisation decisions than what one might expect of geologists, i.e. retrieving rock samples from field sites. As the majority vote process indicates, voting members needed to be persuaded by a specific practice of determining the relevant factors (ignoring everything else) toward the constitution of a particular narrative about the relation and administration of planetary time and space. Several voting members who I spoke to in the weeks leading up to the AWG’s proposal submission made clear that while they did not necessarily have a problem with the AWG’s methods, they were very sceptical about granting Epoch/Series status (thereby ending the Holocene) to a unit that would be of such small duration as to be less than the margin of error on most geological units preceding it. The start date of most geological units often have a margin of error many thousands of years, whereas the Anthropocene Series/Epoch would have been approximately 71 years in total duration to date.

Geo-jurisprudence?

What does this mean for law? The failed effort to formalise an Anthropocene Epoch/Series is an example of the peculiar sources of normativity in an era of climate change. In simple terms, the Anthropocene is indicative of science, which deals with the distinction between true and false, thereby thought to provide provisional truth values, being conflated with law, which deals in the distinction between legal and illegal, thereby providing norms, rules, or standards. The purpose of the Anthropocene was always to facilitate a normative horizon, rather than to confirm what was already known to be scientifically valid, namely: the long-lasting effects of anthropogenic climate change. The method of formalisation particular to amending the Geologic Time Scale, which requires a single inaugural point in the rock record (represented by a chosen stratal layer) and in time (represented by an event: in this case, the onset of Pu239/240 resulting from nuclear weapons detonation), has always been illicit; an over simplification and compression of the diversity of events, phenomena, and relations that characterise all that falls under the umbrella of the ‘Anthropocene’.

In its place, several geologists, some of whom were once members of the Anthropocene Working Group before resigning, propose that the Anthropocene be recognised as an event rather than a Series/Epoch (Gibbard et al. 2022; Edgeworth et al. 2023). What’s the difference? As already mentioned, a Series/Epoch requires the identification of a single stratal layer and correlate event to designate the beginning of the Anthropocene. The AWG wanted to set that in 1952, because various rock samples extracted from across the world indicates that rock from 1952 marks the onset of significant change in the chemical composition of rock, primarily in terms of its content of a particular kind of plutonium that results from nuclear weapons detonation. Accordingly, any rock below that layer would not be of the Anthropocene Series/Epoch. Archaeologists, historians, anthropologists, and anyone with even a passing appreciation for the significance of anthropogenic planetary interventions prior to the mid twentieth century were justifiably stunned by the ignorance this gesture entailed. A geological event, by comparison, acknowledges diachronous and multiple, simultaneous, regional episodes that collectively articulate what cannot be reduced to a singularity.

What made the Anthropocene theme interesting was the geoscientific elaboration of the term unfolded as a structural coupling between science and law, which could provide a (legal) ‘norm’ that was (scientifically) ‘true’. But norms are not scientifically true. The aplomb with which fifteen years of work from the AWG is now dropped by the decision of an obscure group of voting geologists (i.e. a quasi-democratic or deliberative procedure) suggests the emergence of both legal norm and scientific truth not so much as relative, but more accurately, as habitual; or to be more explicitly pragmatist (or as Peirce put it, pragmaticist) about it, as that conclusion which is arrived at by a community of inquirers on the basis of shared, practice based, conditions of association. I, for one, am relieved to read of the news that popular discussion of the Anthropocene theme can decisively untie itself from conditions of association practiced by a group of geologists whose lack of diversity is reflected in their composition as a group, and on their insistence on reducing the complexity of relations and phenomena that coalesce under the ‘Anthropocene’ umbrella to a singularity.

Authentic geology / stratigraphic sincerity

What does the rejection of the Anthropocene term mean for geology? An interesting way to observe the significance of the AWG’s failure for geosciences is via the distinction of ‘authenticity’ and ‘sincerity’ as it appears in Hans-Georg Moeller’s account of profilicity. Whereas sincerity refers to the construction of identity ‘through a firm commitment of the self to its social roles’, authentic identity is ‘constructed through the creation of a social persona on the basis of one’s unique and original self’ (Moeller and D’Ambrosio 2019, 575). Critical discussion of the Anthropocene theme from ‘outside’ geology has often remained indifferent to arguments occurring between geologists themselves. Consequently, critical theorists have missed an opportunity to appreciate how some geologists sought to articulate normative programs on the register of geo-scientific fact.

As one geologist fiercely opposed to an Anthropocene Series/Epoch put it, ‘Earth sciences, through the International Commission on Stratigraphy… continue to define precise global boundaries, which in turn allows scientists to communicate with each other and with the public alike’ (L. Edwards, Harper, and Gibbard 2017). What is interesting about this comment is that it makes clear the connection between a particular way of enforcing standards in geology, and the substance or possibility, of communication. Edwards et al. indicate that the practice of unit standardization is an administrative procedure that unfolds as a medium of communication. ‘This Working Group is not asking the appropriate question,’ explains Edwards, ‘should such a series and epoch be so defined?’ (L. E. Edwards et al. 2022). Edwards argues that the Anthropocene, when figured as a diachronous event that can accommodate a plurality of viewpoints, rather than enforcing a single layer and event in the form of an Epoch/Series, ‘serves science better.’

Here, the sincerity/authenticity distinction is pertinent. Edwards’ comments implies that any attempt to enforce a particular normative account of the role of a generalised and ambiguous ‘anthropos’ departs from the social function of science in the provision of ‘truth’ values. For any doubt as to the normative aspirations of the Anthropocene Working Group, consider their inheritance: an account of the Anthropocene as indicative of ‘a daunting task… for scientists and engineers to guide society towards environmentally sustainable management… [which] will require appropriate human behaviour at all scales, and may well involve internationally accepted, large-scale geo-engineering projects, for instance to ‘optimise’ climate’ (P. J. Crutzen 2002).[i] In entertaining Crutzen’s political opinion as a possible geological fact, the Anthropocene Working Group has overseen the positioning of geological observation as political and legal technique. Perhaps the starkest example of this is the AWG’ technofossil: an appropriation of the fossil, an age-old medium of geological interpretation (and ‘testimonialisation’), to refer to objects of contemporary consumer society. The fact of these artefacts is undeniable. Their interpretation as indicative of a generalised and undifferentiated Anthropos, however, is purely speculative entailing a normative position that is utterly contingent. In conflating these two aspects, the Anthropocene Working Group sought to distinguish themselves from the role they were initially committed to by the SQS, applying incumbent techniques of geological observation toward speculative and normative enunciations.

This is something that should concern us because it points to a more concerning trend in geosciences. Niklas Luhmann once pointed out, with his trademark irony, that anxiety is ‘the modern apriorism – not empirical but transcendental; the principle that never fails when all other principles do’ (Luhmann 1989, 128). One of the commitments of critical theory is presumably to attend to the construction of power, of truth, and of norms as always already contingent and partial. Yet anxiety resists critique. It cannot be regulated legally nor contradicted scientifically. Attempts to clarify the complex structure of risk and uncertainty only provide anxiety with further nourishment: the rejection of the AWG’s proposal may precisely confound some people’s anxiety that geology is too indebted to petro-fossils to legitimately intervene in public discourse on climate change. But it is precisely the overreach of the Anthropocene Series/Epoch proposal that we should find problematic in the face of the AWG’s rejection, shifting their gaze from 4.5 billion years of deep time planetary history to oracular predictions (what will be seen from the perspective of some life form armed with the techniques of geological observation in a deep future). For the most part, journalistic accounts of the Anthropocene theme took the premonitions of those geologists involved in the formalisation process as a matter of scientific truth. The AWG, for their part, folded anxiety arising from the spectacle of mass-media reporting on climate change into the narration of geological time. In doing so, the AWG’s predictive rhetoric came close to self-prophecy, confirming Luhmann’s insight that ‘the intensity of ecological communication is based on ignorance’ (Luhmann 1998b, 78).

To be clear, I do not wish to imply that members of the Anthropocene Working Group are ignorant. Ignorance, in the sense of (un)intentional selection is inherent to any observation, including the one I am making right now. Rather, what I want to get at with these last reflections is that the Anthropocene was not simply a passive observation of Earth. It was an active effort to shape a normative trajectory that journalists, policy makers, and eager scholars (myself included) could sign on to. It may be more accurate to say that the AWG signed onto media sensationalism. Now that the Anthropocene Series/Epoch has been rejected, the more interesting work of revealing the way in which this black box was constructed can finally begin. ‘Concepts of time are concepts of history’ (Luhmann 1998a, 63). The Luhmannian theme of anxiety of ecological communications corroborates Moeller & D’Ambrosio’s thesis on profilicity because anxiety unfolds as a process of selection: highlighting some features (as constitutive of ‘anthropos’) while failing to attend to the implications of those selections. Yet, precisely because the Anthropocene was observed as attending to the urgency of climate catastrophe, it was popularly observed as morally justified, insofar as whoever suffers anxiety is morally justified, even if the resulting predictions end up being wrong. The Anthropocene theme, therefore, unfolded as an instance of geologists observing themselves as law-makers, insofar as they became warners, infusing scientific communication with a morality that, given the ignorance of their discourse to the distribution of culpability and suffering, we should be glad to move beyond.

References

Crutzen, Paul J. 2002. ‘Geology of Mankind’. Nature 415 (6867): 23–23. https://doi.org/10.1038/415023a.

Crutzen, Paul, and Eugene Stoermer. 2000. ‘The “Anthropocene”’. The IGBP Global Change Newsletter, no. 41: 17–18.

Edgeworth, Matthew, Philip Gibbard, Michael Walker, Dorothy Merritts, Stanley Finney, and Mark Maslin. 2023. ‘The Stratigraphic Basis of the Anthropocene Event’. Quaternary Science Advances 11 (July): 100088. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.qsa.2023.100088.

Edwards, Lucy E., Andrew Bauer, Matthew Edgeworth, Erle Ellis, Stanley Finney, Philip Gibbard, Jacquelyn L. Gill, et al. 2022. ‘The Anthropocene Serves Science Better as an Event, Rather than an Epoch’. Journal of Quaternary Science 37 (7): 1188–1188. https://doi.org/10.1002/jqs.3475.

Edwards, Lucy, David Harper, and Philip Gibbard. 2017. ‘Anthropocene: Keep Communicaiton Clear.’ Nature 541 (January): 464.

Gibbard, Philip L., Andrew M. Bauer, Matthew Edgeworth, William F. Ruddiman, Jacquelyn L. Gill, Dorothy J. Merritts, Stanley C. Finney, et al. 2022. ‘A Practical Solution: The Anthropocene Is a Geological Event, Not a Formal Epoch’. Episodes 45 (4): 349–57. https://doi.org/10.18814/epiiugs/2021/021029.

Luhmann, Niklas. 1989. Ecological Communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

———. 1998a. ‘Describing the Future’. In Observations on Modernity, 63–74. Redwood City: Stanford University Press. https://doi.org/doi:10.1515/9781503617230-005.

———. 1998b. ‘The Ecology of Ignorance’. In Observations on Modernity, 75–114. Redwood City: Stanford University Press. https://doi.org/doi:10.1515/9781503617230-006.

Moeller, Hans-Georg, and Paul J. D’Ambrosio. 2019. ‘Sincerity, Authenticity and Profilicity: Notes on the Problem, a Vocabulary and a History of Identity’. Philosophy & Social Criticism 45 (5): 575–96. https://doi.org/10.1177/0191453718799801.

Moeller, Hans-Georg, and Paul J. D’Ambrosio. 2021. You and Your Profile: Identity after Authenticity. New York: Columbia University Press.


[i] I call this their ‘inheritance’ insofar as it was on the basis of Paul Crutzen’s initial articles defining the Anthropocene term that was the impetus for the commission of the Anthropocene Working Group, precisely to investigate further the geological validity of the term.

This post has been edited to rectify typographical errors.

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