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The Power of Telling Geological Time: A case for the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene: The State of the Planet because of Human Activities V.S Without. Image is AI-generated

The ‘Anthropocene’ is used to signal the start of a proposed geological epoch in which humans have become the most dominant geological force on the planet (Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000). The establishment of this proposed epoch would suggest that our anthropogenic activities are so great that we have left a permanent mark on the geological record, on par with mass extinction events and glacial-interglacial transitions. I say ‘proposed’ because it still has not been formally recognised by the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), the non-governmental scientific body responsible for authorising the naming and defining of epochs in the geologic time scale. This might come as a shock, considering the proliferation of the term in pop culture, mass media, and even environmental decisions. So how is this possible when it has not yet been ratified in any official capacity? Well, the process of defining geological time is epically complex. It has a lot of moving parts. Geoscientists understand, now more than ever, that “telling time…is a profoundly political act.” (Swanson, 2016:158).

Approval Process for Defining the Epochs of Geologic Time. Source: Original

To formally establish an epoch, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), a sub-body within the IUGS, must determine the boundary that signals its beginning (Lewis & Maslin, 2015) (see details of relevant bodies and approval process on the right). A boundary that separates epochs is scientifically termed ‘Global Standard Stratotype Section and Point’ (GSSP). In a GSSP, the ‘stratotype section’ is a section of material (sediment, rock, glacier ice) that develops over time. Within this section, geologic markers are accumulating. These markers are the ‘points’ or locations of signals of global change which are detected by geoscientists (Lewis & Maslin, 2015). This includes, for example, a rapid increase in carbon dioxide emissions or a surge in atmospheric temperature anomalies. These signals, in layman's terms, are known as ‘golden spikes’, which are then detected in other sections around the world indicating widespread changes to the planet happening around the same time (Gradstein et al., 2012). A series of correlated golden spikes then make up the content of the GSSP, and a formal boundary is established to denote the dawn of a new epoch (Finney & Edwards, 2019).

Now, why is all this geology jargon relevant to our discussion? Because it shows that telling geological time is a complicated process. Adding to this challenge, geoscientists most often tell time ex situ i.e. offsite to the event, and usually with millions and even billions of years separating them from the observed signal. With the dawn of the Anthropocene, for the first time, geoscientists are having to perform in situ — on site, and at the same time that the observed signals, i.e. anthropogenic ‘golden spikes’, are happening (Gale & Hoare, 2012). Geologists must tell time by going backwards, but the dawn of the geologically recent Anthropocene doesn’t exactly give them much content to work with. Especially considering that other, older epochs have at least 400 million years worth of evidence in comparison (Finney & Edwards, 2019). Talk about pressure! Frankly, if it wasn’t for the politics of it all, the IUGS would have probably shelved the proposal a long time ago. This is simply not how geoscientists tell time.

Within the ICS, the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), which came together in 2008 to establish the GSSP for the start of the epoch, is still squabbling over the appropriate start date. The proposed start dates, broadly speaking, can be subdivided into four boundaries of consideration (refer to the timeline below) (Brauch, 2021). But in getting bogged down in the details of when, exactly, humankind became the Earth's most significant geological force, they are neglecting the fact that scientifically speaking, the breadth of content of a GSSP is often more significant than its start date (Finney & Edwards, 2012). This just shows that recognising the Anthropocene in any official capacity is challenging not just because of the science. The decision is, in fact, highly politically motivated. In the time since, these motivations have taken a life of their own, permeating mass media and public imaginaries all over the world. The term was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2014, and now search engines churns out an unprecedented amount of websites containing it (Bińczyk, 2019). Geoscientists have had to tread very carefully, in a minefield of which they know nothing about. The IUGS is classified as a non-governmental entity, and choosing any one date over the other is the same as inevitably strong-arming them into taking political sides. Let’s consider how.

Timeline of proposed boundaries/GSSPs signalling the start of the Anthropocene. Source: Original. Images are AI-generated

Now, regardless of the validity of the scientific evidence for each case, each GSSP has profound political ramifications. Advocates for the first date at 12,000 years before present caution that choosing this event could normalise global climate change (Lewis & Maslin, 2015). If climate change is a result of early human pre-industrial practices, then it could depict climate change as being a normal part of our human evolutionary process (Malm & Hornborg, 2014). This minimises the alarming climate change projections we see today, and could take away from global efforts to hold ourselves accountable for recent global warming (Lewis & Maslin, 2015). In the same vein, the other three start dates dangerously imply that everything that came before European imperialism was “natural”, and places imperialism on a pedestal above everything that came before it (Braje and Erlandson, 2013:119). The whole thing screams colonialism, which, in an ideal world, should have no place in a scientific discussion. To be more specific, the later start dates link changes to the earth system to various forms of colonial domination (Swanson, 2016). The Columbian Exchange is a legacy of Spanish and Portuguese imperialism. The Industrial Revolution is a product of British colonialism. The Nuclear Era and Great Acceleration are offsprings of American imperialism, capitalism, and the powerful military-industrial complex of the post-war era (Swanson, 2016). While the first GSSP recklessly generalises the picture to the entire human species as causing the Anthropocene, the other three GSSPs can be used to assign historical blame to a select few, most of the perpetrators being Global North countries and the systemic injustices they run on (Lewis & Maslin, 2015; Swanson, 2016). Now, knowing all this, can we imagine the political uproar it will cause if one GSSP is chosen over the other? We can’t exactly blame the IUGS for dragging their feet.

We now know how epically divisive the term “Anthropocene” can be. So why is the debate still ongoing? Because geological time unites people. If we keep the debate on a strictly planetary and geological level, however challenging that may be, the “Anthropocene” can be universal to all. It won’t matter which country or culture we come from if we see ourselves as equal inhabitants of a rapidly destabilising planet (Bińczyk, 2019). Despite all the apocalyptic headlines, we are still in a risk society, where there’s space for some form of damage control (Beck, 2018). But, the scientific forecasts have shown we are teetering on the edge of a catastrophic society, where whatever leeway we previously had would not even matter (Bińczyk, 2019). It will already have been too late (Foster, 2016). The dawn of a new epoch underscores a loss of the one before it. Loss can be an incredibly powerful driver. A loss of time. A loss of futures. A loss of survival prospects. Although no formal date has yet, or may ever be, established, the Anthropocene is still incredibly significant with its symbolic power alone. It represents a call to action, urging Homo sapiens to answer it and unite in the face of a universal problem, or take irreparable damage if ignored (Bińczyk, 2019).



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