Facing the ‘age of humans’: Should a new epoch, the Anthropocene, be initiated to reflect human impact on Earth?

By Tom Litwin for the Gazette
January 26, 2024

United Nations Secretary-General António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres. PHOTO BY MANUEL ELIAS

As I concentrated on the computer screen, the news played in the background. A story about the environment got my attention, causing me to sit back and listen more carefully. I played the piece again to be sure I heard it correctly.

In summer 2023, the earth experienced the hottest temperatures in recorded history. There had been months of reporting — record heat, drought, mega-fires, floods, extreme storms — so this wasn’t breaking news. What was unsettling was United Nations Secretary-General António Manuel de Oliveira Guterres’ alarming tone: “Our planet isn’t just warming, it’s boiling. We’re in the midst of a climate collapse … Climate breakdown has begun.” Career diplomats are typically staid, measured and understated. His comments were not that; he meant to be alarming.

Decades of research, reports, projections and warnings were brought to bear in summer 2023.

An environmental inflection point has been reached; humans have been altering the earth’s life sustaining systems for centuries. The results are dramatically clear.

Vast areas of natural lands have been converted for agriculture, industrialization, urbanization and resource extraction.

Burning fossil fuels have released unchecked amounts of methane, carbon dioxide, ash and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere.

In 1800, the human population was 1 billion, and today it is 8.1 billion.

The results of human activity are so profound that they are appearing in the Earth’s rock layers, once the sole domain of natural forces. In 2000, atmospheric chemists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer concluded that humankind “will remain a major geological force for many millennia, maybe millions of years, to come.” They proposed that this unfolding period of human-impacted geologic history should be named the “Anthropocene” and be included in the Geologic Time Scale that depicts the Earth’s 4.5 billion-year stratigraphic history.

A committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) is debating the issue: should the Geologic Time Scale be modified, ending the current Holocene Epoch, which began at the end of the last ice age, 11,000 years ago? Should a new epoch, the Anthropocene, or the “age of humans,” be initiated to reflect the impact we are having on the Earth?

The newest water cycle diagram released in 2022 from the U.S. Geological Survey. It depicts the global water cycle along with human water use and how it affects where water is stored, how it moves, and how clean it is. IMAGE FROM U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY

At the core of the debate is assigning a start date for the Anthropocene Epoch that is identifiable in the rock record. Does it begin when Indigenous people began clearing land for agriculture, or with the start of the Industrial Revolution? Or is it the mid-20th century, when world population and powerful technologies rapidly expanded? Should the definition of Anthropocene be based only on quantifiable geological facts, or is it a concept that joins human-environment interactions?

While the IUGS has been deliberating, the term “Anthropocene” has taken on a life of its own.

Beyond geology, it’s a useful term for unifying and summarizing the wide variety of complex human-environment interactions that face our global society. It unequivocally places human activity at the center of Secretary General Guterres’ alarm call. Humankind’s activity is now a measurable force, impacting and shaping natural processes.

Earth provides the natural capital — air, water, soils, plants, minerals, animals — we need to exist. As the Anthropocene unfolds, that natural capital is in jeopardy. The challenges are enormous, solutions can be elusive. Under current conditions we will pass, within the decade, the 1.5 degree Celsius warming threshold set out in the 2016 Paris Accords.

Although time is short, the Anthropocene as a catastrophic failure of stewardship can be avoided. Globally, there are many significant initiatives driving a clean energy transition. It is projected that by 2050 solar power will be the dominant electrical power source. The electric vehicle market is expanding. Climate awareness and activism among Gen Z, Millennials, and Gen X exceeds older generations, as younger generations move into leadership roles. Ongoing environmental education is essential — reinforcing the reality that humankind’s needs and the environment are inextricably linked parts of a larger earth system.

What does that look like? The U.S. Geological Survey provides an excellent example linking humans and the environment in its recently revised curriculum and diagram, The Water Cycle. There is nothing more fundamental to life on Earth than water; the human body is 60% water. Yet in previous depictions of humankind’s role, in the Earth’s water cycle has been greatly underrepresented, despite the fact that we are depleting our underground water supplies by 75 trillion gallons a year. Major areas of human impact on the earth’s water, including domestic, industrial, municipal and agricultural water use, and urban run-off, are now recognized in the revised diagram.

If we are to correct the Anthropocene’s unsustainable course, we have to account for and integrate humankind’s role in the Earth’s systems. To that end, there are many corrective opportunities in technology and policy available to the governmental and private sectors. Entrepreneurial and financial opportunities abound, rivaling those of the Industrial Revolution.

The question looming before us is: Will our decisions and choices made in the coming decade achieve the goals of the Paris Accord, and establish a sustainable path for the Anthropocene? Time will tell.

Tom Litwin (he/him) is a conservation biologist and former director of the Clark Science Center at Smith College. He is retired from the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine and Farmington, Connecticut, where he served as the vice president for education, and continues as a visiting scholar.

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 14 years. After more than three years of the Covid-19 pandemic, the center’s doors and trails are once again open at 845 West St. in Amherst. To learn more, visit hitchcockcenter.org.

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