It’s the time of year when the academic calendar starts to get long in the tooth, and I only occasionally have time to peek out from behind the curtain of campus. When I did this recently, I realized that there were a few phrases that I use regularly in my teaching and research that seem commonplace to me, but my friends outside of academia had no idea what I was talking about. This concerned me both because I was so out of touch but also because these seem, to my mind, to be crucially important concepts for today’s society. The two phrases were the Anthropocene and the Great Acceleration. I remember having similar feelings several years ago when I referred to global climate change, and I was met with either blank stares or a “you mean global warming” question. Happily, I generally hear global climate change today. I hope that soon I won’t encounter blank stares when I mention the Anthropocene.
To begin, the Anthropocene captures the idea that human society has so fundamentally altered the planet that we are no longer in the geological epoch known as the Holocene but now in a new human-dominated epoch, the Anthropocene. This is introduced by Will Steffen and others in a wonderful paper in Ambio in December 2007 (Steffen, W., Crutzen, P. J., & McNeill, J. R. (2007). The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature. Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment, 36(8), 614-621.). [Note: there are references to the Anthropocene going back several more years to 2000, but this article is 1) one of the most highly cited and 2) a really good read.]
The basic idea is that in the Pre-Anthropocene period, humans didn’t have the capacity or the technological means to dominate nature (the Earth Systems). This started to change in the Industrial Era (Stage 1 of the Anthropocene) from around 1800-1945. With the onset of industrialization, the expansion of the use of fossil fuels, and the advancements of technology, we began to transform the earth on a global scale. This shift from local effects to global was the key change.
Stage 2 of the Anthropocene (1945-present) is when things really started changing. This is known as the Great Acceleration. Pressure on the global environment intensified. Often people talk about exponential growth in population or the global economy, but the Great Acceleration goes far beyond that, as shown in the figure below.
The figure is from the very informative website: http://anthropocene.info/en/home. This website explains these ideas in much more detail with great references for further, more specific questions. This is interesting for a number of reasons. Of importance to me are a number of questions about the ramifications for social-ecological systems and what this means for changing how we govern and collectively make decisions in such an environment – in a world being altered at an accelerating pace, with increasing connectivity around the global between people and their aggregate actions. Ultimately, if humans are shaping the world in entirely new directions, can we also collectively decide the type of world that we want to live in and make decisions to get there.
I’ll end with one final comment. There is a proposal to formally adopt the Anthopocene as a geological epoch. It is currently under review with the International Commission on Stratigraphy, with a current target decision date of 2016. The question is whether geologic formations would show a distinct demarcation for when the Anthropocene began.