SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 202 October 2016

The Anthropocene: an epoch in the making

The impact of modern society is comparable to an ice age, or the events that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. In the far future, this will be detectable in fossil records in the same way as comet strikes. In this new epoch, how the Earth functions will be significantly different from the entire period of human history since the widespread use of agriculture. These are the implications of the arguments, presented at the recent International Geological Congress: that we are living in a new geological epoch.

Reporting on several years’ research, a group set up to study the question recommended that the Anthropocene epoch be added to the geologic time scale, which groups together the distinct periods in Earth’s four-and-a-half billion years. The term Anthropocene refers explicitly to the impact on the Earth of humanity and its successive forms of social organisation. Industrialisation and the burning of fossil fuels have led to changes in the composition of the atmosphere, especially increases in the concentration of carbon dioxide.

As a consequence, global warming has changed ocean currents, icecap melting leading to rising sea levels, the geographical spread of different lifeforms, among others. This change is further impacted by long-range travel, introducing new species into previously alien environments. The rapid urbanisation worldwide has completely changed local conditions. In addition to the direct extinction of species by humans, the indirect consequences of the ongoing changes are likely to be much wider, again with consequences for the processes that unfold on the planet.

While change is part of the ongoing nature of the Earth and its systems, what is currently underway is a more fundamental unbalancing of nature and of the planet. These qualitative changes can be traced back to the qualitative change in the relationship between humans as the dominant species, and the rest of the planet: animal, vegetable or mineral.

Declaring a new epoch would also draw a line under the Holocene epoch, in which modern society developed and flourished. From the end of the last ice age over 12,000 years ago, society has transformed from small isolated groups to huge, tightly packed conurbations of millions of people. Through increasing mastery of nature, humans have developed technology to such a point that we are able to venture beyond the planet, planting flags on the moon and sending robots to Mars. Recognising the new Anthropocene epoch would be a recognition that the conditions which nurtured modern society were over.

The identification of a geological epoch with humanity’s impact forces geologists to look at our history. The Anthropocene Working Group discussed the impact of "colonisation, agriculture, urbanisation and global warming". The proposed start dates of the epoch vary. Some look as far back as the Neolithic revolution. Others argue that it should be measured from between 1610, coinciding with the development of British settlements in North America, and 1945.

But, in gathering evidence of the geological epoch, there has not been a similarly clear identification of the social epoch that humanity is living through, that of capitalism. It was the advances in the means of production and the development of capitalism that made possible and drove colonisation, wide-scale agricultural development, urbanisation and global warming. The fact that many of the tipping points under discussion are key dates in the development of capitalism is no coincidence.

The debate over the starting period of the Anthropocene has serious implications for the discussions around climate change. One of many sticking points in the annual United Nations climate change conferences is the question of when should global warming be measured from. If taken from the industrial revolution, then the responsibility for it lies primarily with the European countries where that took hold first. As these industries developed, and capitalism created a world in its image, many big polluting industries shifted away from Europe.

At present, China is the world’s biggest emitter of CO2. The closer we get to today, the more the wealthy western governments can shrug off responsibility and demand that countries like China, Brazil and India foot the bill. If geologists were to set in stone a start date for the Anthropocene epoch, this conclusion of academia would be used as a weapon by the battling polluters’ governments in their quest to stop their own rich and wealthy elites from paying the price for climate action.

That is why the discussion around the start date has been a feature from the beginning. Atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on ozone depletion and the impact of fertilizers in this process, popularised the idea of the Anthropocene. He co-authored an article in 2000 which said: "To assign a more specific date to the onset of the ‘Anthropocene’ seems somewhat arbitrary, but we propose the latter part of the 18th century, although we are aware that alternative proposals can be made (some may even want to include the entire Holocene). However, we choose this date because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable… Such a starting date also coincides with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784".

The Anthropocene Working Group is itself divided, with 26 of the 38 members (including Crutzen), publishing a paper in 2015 arguing that the epoch began with the Trinity nuclear test, the first detonation of a nuclear bomb by the United States. They argued that the change in radiation was a measurable and identifiable difference, and coincided with other changes, including the widespread use of plastics, concrete and different metals. This would also coincide with the post-war upswing and a series of social and political changes.

However, only a few days later, a different paper was published by six other members of the working group. This minority report argued that the use of human-modified soils would be identifiable and useful as a demarcation between the Holocene and Anthropocene. This would place the boundary much earlier, potentially with Justus von Liebig’s advances with fertilisers in the early part of the 19th century.

The division and debate over the start date for the Anthropocene will continue, as will discussion about the necessity of designating a new geological epoch. Following the working group’s report, a whole series of scientific bodies will have to reach decisions before the epoch is ratified and makes its way to textbooks and classroom walls. This process will take years, most likely decades. Meanwhile, global warming will continue to impact on the lives of millions, if not billions, and the already urgent need for environmental action will become more pressing. While the pressure on politicians to act will mount, weak economic growth can also mean they are more determined to defend big business and big polluters’ interests.

Capitalism is wedded to the big polluters and, often, economic growth comes with increased trashing of the environment. But it would be wrong to say, as Crutzen did during the 2007-08 crisis: "It’s a cruel thing to say… but if we are looking at a slowdown in the economy, there will be less fossil fuels burning, so for the climate it could be an advantage… we will have a much slower increase of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere… people will start saving [on energy use]". Records show that global fossil fuel carbon emissions have continued to soar, with the crisis a brief dip on a near-vertical rise.

More fundamentally, capitalism is a phase of human society – though not its final form. Alongside the huge destruction it has wrought, huge advances have been made possible under capitalism, ranging from the geologic time scale itself to renewable technologies to supercomputers capable of modelling complex systems, such as those interplaying across the Earth. Capitalism also created billions of workers with united interest in opposition to that system – workers who have the potential power to scrap it and build a new, green, socialist future. That will not be achieved by welcoming economic crises that have devastated those workers’ living standards.

The effects of capitalism’s environmental damage will continue and deepen over the coming decades. The Anthropocene could, in its earliest phases, see vast tracts of once-vibrant areas turned into wasteland. But it could also be the epoch of humanity reaching its full potential, of production reorganised to serve the needs of humanity and the environment, and scientific advances unleashed and used to help rebalance the Earth systems we come from and are part of.

Ben Robinson

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