Has the “Age of Humans” begun?
In a presentation to the International Geological Congress in Cape Town, South Africa, members of the Working Group on the Anthropocene (WGA) recommended that a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – be formally recognized. Humanity’s profound impact on Earth, they argue, should mark a new segment of geological time.
“The significance of the Anthropocene is that it sets a different trajectory for the Earth system, of which we of course are part,” Jan Zalasiewicz, a University of Leicester geologist and chair of WGA, told The Guardian.
Geologists estimate that the Anthropocene, which translates to “Age of Humans,” began between the late 1940s and early 1960s. At that point, industrialization and agriculture had already left a clear mark on atmosphere and soil conditions, and extinction rates for animals and plants were beginning to increase.
But it was the advent of nuclear weapons testing that finally ushered in the new epoch, WGA scientists say. Since then, humanity has become the number one force of planetary change – for better or worse.
The Anthropocene concept isn’t a new one. Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul J. Crutzen coined the term more than 16 years ago, although its usage may have originated in 1960s Soviet Russia. International committees on geological time have heard formalization proposals since as early as 2008.
But while the Anthropocene does hold scientific weight, some experts have argued that the term is most useful as a cultural concept.
“Since the planet is our life support system – we are essentially the crew of a largish spaceship – interference with its functioning at this level and on this scale is highly significant,” Chris Rapley, a climate scientist at University College London, told The Guardian. “If you or I were crew on a smaller spacecraft, it would be unthinkable to interfere with the systems that provide us with air, water, fodder and climate control. But the shift into the Anthropocene tells us that we are playing with fire, a potentially reckless mode of behaviour which we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on the situation.”
In other words, recognition of the new epoch could inspire more active changes in how we interact with Earth and its resources. But first, the name needs to be legitimized by the geological community.
WGA scientists will first have to pinpoint the “golden spike” – the exact point when humans transitioned from mere participants to global influencers. Among other methods, researchers will study boreholes in glacial ice, which show changes in atmospheric composition over time. The entire process could take three years or more.
Then, the group will present its final report to the International Commission on Stratigraphy. If the commission agrees to add the Anthropocene epoch to Earth’s official timeline, it must then be ratified by the executive committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences.