Why do some leading geologists reject the term, the Anthropocene?

Why do some leading geologists reject the term, the Anthropocene?

Elizabeth Kolbert writes:

A few months into the third millennium, a group called the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (I.G.B.P.) held a meeting in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Among the researchers in attendance was Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist best known for his research on ozone-depleting chemicals, such as chlorofluorocarbons. For this work, Crutzen, a Dutchman living in Germany, had received a Nobel Prize, in 1995. In his Nobel lecture, he noted that, given humanity’s heedlessness, it had got off lightly. Millions of pounds of CFCs had been released into the air before anyone had considered the possible consequences. As a result of the chemicals’ behavior in the stratosphere, a “hole” had opened up in the ozone layer over Antarctica. But, if CFCs had turned out to behave just slightly differently, the hole would have stretched from pole to pole before scientists had even had the tools to measure it.

“I can only conclude that mankind has been extremely lucky,” Crutzen said.

At the I.G.B.P. meeting in Cuernavaca, Crutzen found himself growing agitated. His colleagues kept referring to the Holocene, the geological epoch that began at the close of the last ice age, about twelve thousand years ago. At the dawn of the Holocene, the global population was maybe four million—barely enough to fill a city like Sydney or St. Petersburg. By the time of the meeting in Mexico, there were more than six billion people on the planet, and human activity was fundamentally altering such basic Earth processes as the carbon cycle.

“Stop using the word ‘Holocene,’ ” Crutzen blurted out. “We’re not in the Holocene any more. We’re in the . . . ” He paused, searching for the right word. “We’re in the Anthropocene!” During the next coffee break, Crutzen’s neologism was the main topic of conversation. Someone suggested that he copyright the term.

As it turned out, the Anthropocene wasn’t Crutzen’s to claim. Eugene Stoermer, a biologist at the University of Michigan, had coined the word back in the nineteen-eighties, out of much the same frustration. Crutzen got in touch with Stoermer, and the two wrote an essay for the I.G.B.P. newsletter, laying out their case for a new age. Human activities, the pair argued, were altering the planet faster and more dramatically than the geological forces that had shaped it for most of its history. [Continue reading…]

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