I’ve been curious about the term “the Anthropocene” since reading Calculating the Day Humans Began Changing the Earth Forever on the science blog Wired. Prior to reading this piece, I had not heard of this new terminology. I was instantly intrigued.
This article introduces the idea that we are in a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. If you haven’t figured it out already, the Anthropocene (“anthro” meaning human) is called as such to reflect the role of humans in changing the earth and its systems as recorded in layers of rock. I wanted to know more. Could this new language alter the way we think about our human impact? Or is it just a fancy science word?
This idea was officially introduced by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in "The 'Anthropocene'" published in the Global Change Newsletter in 2000, saying, “...it seems to us more than appropriate to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology by proposing to use the term ‘anthropocene’ for the current geological epoch.” Here we are in 2017, and I’m hearing this term for the first time.
There’s LOTS of evidence that humans are shaping the planet. If you type “evidence humans are causing climate change” (like I did) into your Google search, you’ll quickly find images like the one below, provided by NASA.
But the graph, though telling of increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, doesn’t seem to change our behavior.
In The Anthropocene Epoch: Scientist Declare Dawn of Human-influenced Age, 1950 (also highlighted in the graph above) is the year experts said the new epoch should begin. This new epoch “... was likely to be defined by the radioactive elements dispersed across the planet by nuclear bomb tests, although an array of other signals, including plastic pollution, soot from power stations, concrete, and even the bones left by the global proliferation of the domestic chicken were now under consideration.” (Image below also from article)
Could the declaration of a new time in Earth history make a difference for the future?
Words by Andy Borowitz [humor writer for The New Yorker] in Scientists Consider New Names for Climate Change seem particularly relevant here. Borowitz writes, “After a report from the Yale Center on Climate Change Communication showed that the term ‘climate change’ elicits relatively little concern from the American public, leading scientists are recommending replacing it with a new term: ‘You will be burnt to a crisp and die.’” His words are slightly jarring, but I think there’s truth in his implication… talking about climate change isn’t working. So what if we replace “climate change” with “the Anthropocene”?
The Anthropocene seems to make the causes of our changing planet a little more personal; a little less distant. I walk on concrete. I eat chicken. And my human actions are altering the earth.
Studies have been done on the difference between using “climate change” and “global warming” and results suggest that language does matter.
I want to be hopeful that the Anthropocene label, highlighting human action, will create a new sense of urgency to respond to our changing planet. Kathleen Dean Moore, in her book Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change, says this, “Now that humans have taken on the role of Earth-changer, we take on as well the responsibilities of celebration, protection, and ferocious love.” This may seem idealistic, but I think it’s a logical argument. Living in the Anthropocene is a call to change our behavior: to buy less, use less, make less of an impact on our planet. But even as I write this, I struggle with how to start.
Though I am intrigued by this new terminology, I am left feeling disappointed. I don’t think a new word for climate change will make us act differently as a society. I think we need to take a critical look at our cultural values, norms, and ways of living. Regardless, continued conversation about climate change and what humans are doing to cause it is both necessary and important, and perhaps the Anthropocene idea can help.
Borowitz, Andy. "Scientists Consider New Names for Climate Change." The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 05 Aug. 2015, www.newyorker.com/humor/borowitz-report/scientists-consider-new-names-for-climate-change.
Carrington, Damian. "The Anthropocene Epoch: Scientists Declare Dawn of Human-influenced Age." The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 Aug. 2016, www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth.
“Climate Change: How Do We Know?.” NASA, https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/.
Crutzen, Paul J., and Eugene F. Stoermer. “The Anthropocene.” Global Change Newsletter, no. 41, 2000, pp. 17-18, http://www.igbp.net/download/18.316f18321323470177580001401/1376383088452/NL41.pdf.
Kirshenbaum, Sheril. “‘Climate Change’ or ‘Global Warming’? Two New Polls Suggest Language Matters.” Scientific American, Nature Publishing Group, 15 Dec. 2014, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/plugged-in/climate-change-or-global-warming-two-new-polls-suggest-language-matters/.
Moore, Kathleen Dean. Great Tide Rising: Towards Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change. Counterpoint, 2016.
Stockton, Nick. "Calculating the Day Humans Began Changing the Earth Forever." Wired, Conde Nast, 09 Feb. 2017, www.wired.com/2017/02/calculating-day-humans-began-changing-earth-forever/.