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Anthropocene: The Unofficial Epoch

Humanity has reached a point where virtually every living person has experienced or at least has heard about the Climate Crisis. The pervasive apocalyptic narration pictures the issue as urgent and hopeless, calling for immediate action and leaving people with a feeling of powerlessness at the same time. An effort made by an individual is said to have an impact and no impact at the same time, at least that is the contradictory message coming from the mainstream media (Fisher et al., 2012). The aforementioned contradictions are not the only ones present in the debate; if one would follow the media coverage of the Climate Crisis-related problems one might come to a conclusion that there are still many aspects of the problem that remain uncertain or disputed by the scientists, therefore there is not enough data and knowledge to determine if humans have played any role in the current situation on the planet. However, this conclusion would be wrong. Regardless of the information shared by the mainstream media, the scientific consensus on Climate Change is clear and unambiguous: “Earth's climate is being affected by human activities.” (Oreskes, 2004). The frequent and repeated inconsistencies between the opinion of the scientists and the media coverage, decreasing trust in experts’ opinions, and multiple contradictions are characteristic of the Anthropocene – the epoch of the human.

Figure 2: Darkened Cities, San Francisco

The Problem of Naming

A proposition to name the current geological epoch the Anthropocene was put forward by Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer in their article ‘The “Anthropocene”’ in May 2000 (Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000). They decided to introduce this name to “emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology”, and to recognize the unimaginable impact that human actions have on the Earth, its climate, and its atmosphere (Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000). As clarified later by Crutzen and Jonathan Williams, the name Anthropocene comes from “‘Anthropo-’ meaning human and ‘-cene’ meaning new” (Williams & Crutzen, 2013) and it is supposed to highlight the fact that humankind has become a geological force, in other words, “they have ‘written themselves’ into the rocks of the earth.” (Rickards, 2015). The name Anthropocene, however, is still not officially accepted by the International Union of Geologic Sciences (IUGS) as the next epoch in the Cenozoic era after Holocene, which technically is still the epoch we currently live in. The process of defining new epochs in geology is long, complicated, and formal: to finalize, or even propose an epoch “[g]lobal-scale changes must be recorded in geological stratigraphic material.” (Lewis & Maslin, 2015).

Regardless of the fact that Anthropocene has not yet been accepted as the official name of the epoch, it is already recognized and widely used by scholars of different disciplines, including Cultural Studies. Therefore, the Anthropocene virtually functions as the epoch’s name already, even though it is still waiting for the International Union of Geologic Sciences' official approval. However, this is not the only controversy connected to the name. As already established in the previous fragment, ‘Anthropo’ means human, therefore it puts the whole people kind in the spotlight and in the center of the discourse around the causes (and possible solutions) of the Climate Crisis, namely, who should be considered guilty and who should be held accountable. In order to focus on the particular group or a problem responsible for the current state of things, various scholars proposed different names such as Capitalocene (proposed by Andreas Malm, Jason W. Moore, and Donna J. Haraway), Necrocene (proposed by Justin McBrien), Cthulucen (proposed by Donna J. Haraway), and more (Binczyk, 2019). One thing that all the proposed names have in common is the human factor – in the end they all focus on a particular group of people, or on a system developed by them. That leads to another important problem in the Anthropocene discourse: dating.

Figure 3: Geological epochs and eras

The Problem of Dating

As written by Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, “[t]ime is divided by geologists according to marked shifts in Earth’s state” (Lewis & Maslin, 2015). Based on this, they propose two possibilities of dating the Anthropocene: 1610 (the beginning of globalization) or 1964 (Great Acceleration), but they also list other important historical events that might be regarded as the beginning of the epoch such as the Origin of farming, New-Old World Collision, Industrial Revolution, or the Nuclear Weapon detonation (Lewis & Maslin, 2015). The widely disputed problem of dating the beginning of the Anthropocene is challenging not only from the geological point of view, but also from the perspective of the cultural, political, and social consequences that such a decision would bring. As noticed by the authors, the choice of the date “would probably affect the perception of human actions on the environment,” and “highlight[s] social concerns, particularly the unequal power relationships between different groups of people, economic growth, the impacts of globalized trade, and our current reliance on fossil fuels” (Lewis & Maslin, 2015). In other words, the date would point to the event which enabled the Climate Crisis to develop, and it would suggest that, in order to successfully deal with Climate Change, humans have to go back to the way of life they lived before that event. This could be extremely challenging if the chosen time range would refer to events such as the New-Old World Collision (1492–1800), from which there is no way back. Additionally, since history already has the answers to who was responsible for the aforementioned events and for their consequences, choosing one of these historical events as the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch would indicate who is (at least partly) responsible for the current Climate Crisis. Another implication mentioned by the authors – change in “the perception of human actions on the environment” (Lewis & Maslin, 2015) was discussed even earlier by another scholar – a historian named Dipesh Chakrabarty – in his article 'The Climate of History: Four Theses' (Chakrabarty 2009). One of the most important conclusions of this article is that by becoming a geological force, people have buried the division between the natural history and human history. There is only one history now, and human fate has become inseparably linked to nature’s. There is no place anymore to think about human actions without considering nature and vice-versa.

Figure 4: Freeman Island, Long Beach, California, USA, 2017


The Anthropocene is an epoch where humans are no longer changing only their close environment – they are changing the planetary system. Human actions have an impact on such seemingly remote processes as global temperatures, oceans acidity, or the procreation of turtles. By becoming a geological factor humans have acquired power comparable to the forces of nature. The responsibility for such a state of things can be expressed not only through the choice of the epoch’s name but also through the choice of its beginning. Therefore, the heated discussion around both should not be surprising.

Bibliographical References:

Binczyk, E. (2019). Epoka czlowieka (Polish Edition) (1st ed.). Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN.

Chakrabarty, D. (2009). The Climate of History: Four Theses. Critical Inquiry, 35(2), 197–222.

Crutzen, P. J., & Stoermer, E. F. (2000). The Anthropocene. Global Change Newsletter, 41, 17–18. poi/18.316f18321323470177580001401/1376383088452/NL41.pdf

Fisher, D. R., Waggle, J., & Leifeld, P. (2012). Where Does Political Polarization Come From? Locating Polarization Within the U.S. Climate Change Debate. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(1), 70–92.

Lewis, S. L., & Maslin, M. A. (2015). Defining the Anthropocene. Nature, 519(7542), 171–180.

Oreskes, N. (2004). The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. Science, 306(5702), 1686.

RICKARDS, L. A. (2015). Metaphor and the Anthropocene: Presenting Humans as a Geological Force. Geographical Research, 53(3), 280–287.

Williams, J., & Crutzen, P. J. (2013). Perspectives on our planet in the Anthropocene. Environmental Chemistry, 10(4), 269.

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Marcelina Marcjoniak

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