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Anthropocene: the vital challenges of a scientific debate


The Vitruvian Man in copper. The crew of the Greenpeace icebreaker Arctic Sunrise help artist John Quigley recreate da Vinci's iconic sketch of the human body on the Arctic sea ice, 800 km from the North Pole.

The term Anthropocene was coined to take into account the impact of the accelerated accumulation of greenhouse gases on climate and biodiversity, and also the irreversible damage caused by the over-consumption of natural resources. But do we need to turn this into a new geological epoch? While the debate continues among scientists,  solutions have yet to be found. We are, in effect, witnessing a collective form of denial – the result of a naive faith in progress, consumerist ideology and powerful economic lobbies.

Liz-Rejane Issberner and Philippe Léna

The term Anthropocene appears in the titles of hundreds of books and scientific articles and in thousands of citations. Its use in the media also continues to grow. Defining Earth’s most recent geological epoch in which human actions have started to provoke biophysical changes on a planetary scale, the word was coined in the 1980s by American biologist Eugene F. Stoermer and popularized in the early 2000s by Paul Crutzen, the Dutch atmospheric scientist and winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1995. The scientists noticed that these changes were leading the Earth system away from the relative equilibrium it had known since the beginning of the Holocene, 11,700 years ago. They proposed that the beginning of this new epoch should be symbolically set at 1784, the year in which Scottish inventor James Watt substantially improved upon the steam engine with new inventions – it also corresponded to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the use of fossil fuels.

From 1987 to 2015, a vast, multidisciplinary research project, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), collected a mass of data on anthropogenic changes to the Earth system. Other research, started in the 1950s and based on samples of ancient ice from the Antarctic and the present composition of the atmosphere – analysed at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, United States – have revealed an accelerated build-up of greenhouse gases (GHG), essentially carbon dioxide (CO2). In 1987, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was set up to evaluate the impact of these phenomena on climate.

The Great Acceleration

By pooling this data, in 2009 and again in 2015, environmental scientists Johan Rockström (Sweden), Will Steffen (US) and their colleagues at the Stockholm Resilience Centre drew up a list of the nine planetary boundaries that it would be dangerous to cross. Four of these boundaries have already been crossed – climate change, vegetation cover, biodiversity loss and extinctions (the Sixth Extinction) and biogeochemical flows – with phosphorus and nitrogen cycles playing a particularly crucial role. They also showed that all available indicators on the consumption of primary resources, energy use, population growth, economic activity and biosphere degradation, skyrocketed after the Second World War. This period was dubbed the Great Acceleration. Other observers have even spoken, since the 1970s, of a period of hyper-acceleration. These trends are believed to be unsustainable.


Bad Dreams, part of a series by photographers Guillaume Bression and Carlos Ayesta in the no-go zone around Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, in 2013.

Metaphor or real geological epoch?

There seems to be a consensus that several parameters of the Earth system have recently started to develop beyond the spectrum of the natural variability of the Holocene – it is now more or less accepted that the term Anthropocene be used, to specify changes that are of human origin. A handful of scientists have nevertheless decided to go beyond using the term metaphorically or as a practical, interdisciplinary reference tool. They have proposed that the Anthropocene, just like the Holocene and the Pleistocene, should be elevated officially to the rank of geological epoch.

An Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) has been set up to present this proposal to the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS). But for a new epoch to be named by stratigraphers, there has to be an observable and universal rift between the sedimentary layers of two epochs. Although the presence of anthropogenic carbon has been noted in sediments since the 1850s, this is not considered to be sufficient. The AWG is therefore suggesting that the change of epoch should be in 1950, the year in which various chemical constituents and plastic particles of anthropogenic origin began to appear in sediments. This is also the beginning of the Great Acceleration. In any event, a possible failure to recognize the Anthropocene as a geological epoch would in no way invalidate the scientific use of the term as it stands today.

The concept of the Anthropocene has sparked several controversies in spite of its brief existence – the term itself has been queried. Historians and anthropologists have questioned the reference to anthropos, the generic human being. After all, who’s responsible for crossing the biogeophysical boundaries if not Western humans and a particular socio-economic system? This has led to several alternative proposals – Occidentalocene, Capitalocene, etc. Others, such as specialists in global or environmental history, feel that there is no ontological discontinuity and that the exceptional nature of Western growth (the Great Divergence) will have to be repositioned in the longer term.  

According to them, humans have always – or at least for the last 40,000 years – had an increasing impact on their surroundings. They have contributed, for example, to the disappearance of  American and Australian megafauna. Some researchers are thus arguing for a long Anthropocene, with sub-periods, such as capitalist industrialization (1850-1950) and the Great Acceleration. Most, though, recognize the need to abandon a linear and deterministic vision of historical time.

Since the end of the Second World War, several scientists have warned of the non-generalizable and unsustainable character of the Western economic model. No boundary had yet been crossed, and humankind had consumed less than one planet. But the process had been set in motion. In the early 1970s, the situation worsened, the warnings multiplied, and the scientific data accumulated. On both these occasions, a historical change of course would have been possible. It has become more difficult today.  

WHERE? – No one wears a watch, a visual interpretation of the journeys plastics make, the time it takes for them to degrade, and their impact on the environment.

Collective denial

Why are we refusing to see this? There could be a number of reasons: a blind faith in progress and development – in other words, in a system which increases available wealth indefinitely – and a belief in the capacity of science and technology to solve all problems and negative externalities (like pollution, for example); powerful interests that benefit from this process and carry out intense lobbying; the media takeover of the minds of consumers, creating a hunger for individual consumption, as much for comfort as to set oneself apart and be recognized.

It is surprising that the human and social sciences have avoided this issue for so long, given that it will determine the future of humanity. Besides being anthropocentric by definition, these disciplines believe that the field belongs to the natural sciences, par excellence. The emergence of the concept of the Anthropocene confers upon them the responsibility of explaining how human societies have been able to provoke changes of such magnitude to the modus operandi of the planet, and what differentiated impacts they will have on the world map. The social sciences and humanities should be developing and acquiring new subjects and knowledge to respond to the questions raised by this new epoch – including natural disasters, renewable energy, the depletion of natural resources, desertification, ecocide, widespread pollution, migration, social and environmental injustice.

The slow and feeble reactions of politicians – and of societies in general – to climate change, is also astounding. A mathematical analysis of networks of citations has shown that in scientific articles on the subject, there has been a consensus, since the early 1990s, that climate change exists. Given that the crisis is worsening, it is hard to understand why efforts to reduce GHGs have been so half-hearted. What obstacles are preventing international negotiations from being more effective? Besides the intentionality of these so-called obstacles, there is no doubt that communications between science and society are sluggish, at least when it comes to the climate question. To address this, the IPCC has adopted a new approach for its Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), designed to raise awareness among  the general public, not just decision-makers.  

Aerial photograph documenting deforestation in the northern area of Pará State, Brazil (2013).
According to the French newspaper Le Monde, Brazil reduced deforestation by 84 per cent between 2004 and 2012 before it started to increase again.

Overcoming deadlocks

One of the stumbling blocks of the Anthropocene is that to tackle it, the delicate subject of environmental justice has to be addressed. Climate change will amplify the existing risks, and create new ones, for natural and human systems. Yet these risks are not distributed equally, generally affecting disadvantaged individuals and groups the most. But it is not easy to find a satisfactory solution to this problem, given the heterogeneity of countries in terms of their level of development, size, population, and natural resources, etc.

What’s more, the human ecological footprint has already overtaken, by fifty per cent,  the planet’s capacity for regeneration and absorption, and eighty per cent of its population lives in countries whose biocapacity is already smaller than its ecological footprint. A country like Brazil (and other countries on the American continent) still possesses a large biocapacity surplus, even though it consumes 1.8 planets. But twenty-six per cent of its GHG emissions are due to deforestation. A significant part of its ecological footprint comes from exporting primary products, which is the reason for a large proportion of this deforestation. The competitive globalized system tries to find supplies at the least cost, encouraging extractivism in many countries, and land-grabbing in others. 

Even if it were possible to suppress all carbon dioxide emissions in high-revenue countries right now, it would still not be enough to reduce the global carbon footprint and meet the limits imposed for the biosphere until 2050. In other words, in spite of the considerable differences in the size of their economies and their reserves of natural resources, all countries need to try to remedy the most pressing problem of the Anthropocene – by drastically reducing their GHG emissions.

This is exactly what leads us to the deadlocks that usually arise in  international negotiations – the search for culprits that then dissuades countries from making commitments, for fear of compromising their economic growth and their jobs, or antagonizing powerful interests. The solution that was reached in the Paris Agreement, signed on 22 April 2016, was to ask countries to make voluntary commitments, rather than impose criteria established on a planetary scale. This means each country commits to meet targets for reducing its emissions in line with what it considers to be viable.  

This approach has helped to overcome deadlocks and to make action possible. But it has also created a tangle of assessment criteria that complicates comparisons between national efforts.  Also, in spite of its universal character, the Paris Agreement does not provide for sanctions against countries that default on their commitments. This is a sign of the weak governance of the climate question which, in the absence of an institution mandated to carry it out, is incapable of prevailing over the economic interests of countries and enterprises.

Submerged under contradictions, dilemmas and ignorance, the extremely serious environmental issues of the Anthropocene are not getting the required level of priority on national and social agendas. It seems as though humanity is being lethargic – waiting for the end of the film, when the heroes arrive to sort everything out, and we can all live happily ever after.

Learn more:

Progress, risk and responsibilities, UNESCO Courier, May 1998

Photo illustrations: 

Philippe Léna

Geographer and sociologist, and emeritus researcher at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development (IRD) and the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN), Paris.

Liz-Rejane Issberner

An economist and senior researcher at the Brazilian Institute of Information in Science and Technology (IBICT), she is also a professor at the Postgraduate Programme in Information Science (IBICT with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro).