The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

May 18, 2010


let it cycle. the simplest narratives harbor the greatest truths.

re/testure mappings and the thesaurus of problematic skin

within1: the interior action resolutely mirrored in the textural byplay
within2: with the addition of lights and water, womb or mouth warmed in
within1&2: between flesh and machine, real and virtual, completing and
following the possibilities of real flesh, virtual machines, virtual
flesh, and real machines
adding: the texture of war in virtual worlds, bustling with energy and,
in all good graces, fecundity

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Tue, 18 May 2010 19:50:04
From: moderator@PORTSIDE.ORG
Subject: The Anthropocene Debate: Marking Humanity's Impact

The Anthropocene Debate: Marking Humanity's Impact

By Elizabeth Kolbert

May 17, 2010, Yale Environment 360

The Holocene - or "wholly recent" epoch - is what geologists
call the 11,000 years or so since the end of the last ice
age. As epochs go, the Holocene is barely out of diapers; its
immediate predecessor, the Pleistocene, lasted more than two
million years, while many earlier epochs, like the Eocene,
went on for more than 20 million years. Still, the Holocene
may be done for. People have become such a driving force on
the planet that many geologists argue a new epoch -
informally dubbed the Anthropocene - has begun.

In a recent paper titled "The New World of the Anthropocene
," which appeared in the journal Environmental Science and
Technology, a group of geologists listed more than a half
dozen human-driven processes that are likely to leave a
lasting mark on the planet - lasting here understood to mean
likely to leave traces that will last tens of millions of
years. These include: habitat destruction and the
introduction of invasive species, which are causing
widespread extinctions; ocean acidification, which is
changing the chemical makeup of the seas; and urbanization,
which is vastly increasing rates of sedimentation and

Human activity, the group wrote, is altering the planet "on a
scale comparable with some of the major events of the ancient
past. Some of these changes are now seen as permanent, even
on a geological time-scale."

Prompted by the group's paper, the Independent of London last
month conducted a straw poll of the members of the
International Commission on Stratigraphy, the official keeper
of the geological time scale. Half the commission members
surveyed said they thought the case for a new epoch was
already strong enough to consider a formal designation.

"Human activities, particularly since the onset of the
industrial revolution, are clearly having a major impact on
the Earth," Barry Richards of the Geological Survey of Canada
told the newspaper. "We are leaving a clear and unique

The term "Anthropocene" was coined a decade ago by Paul
Crutzen, one of the three chemists who shared the 1995 Nobel
Prize for discovering the effects of ozone-depleting
compounds. In a paper published in 2000, Crutzen and Eugene
Stoermer, a professor at the University of Michigan, noted
that many forms of human activity now dwarf their natural
counterparts; for instance, more nitrogen today is fixed
synthetically than is fixed by all the world's plants, on
land and in the ocean. Considering this, the pair wrote in
the newsletter of the International Geosphere-Biosphere
Programme, "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." Two years later, Crutzen restated the
argument in an article in Nature titled "Geology of Mankind."

The Anthropocene, Crutzen wrote, "could be said to have
started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when
analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of
growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane."

Soon, the term soon began popping up in other scientific
publications. "Riverine quality of the Anthropocene," was the
title of a 2002 paper in the journal Aquatic Sciences.

"Soils and sediments in the anthropocene," read the title of
a 2004 editorial in the Journal of Soils and Sediments.

Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the Britain's University of
Leicester, found the spread of the concept intriguing. "I
noticed that Paul Crutzen's term was appearing in the serious
literature, in papers in Science and such like, without
inverted commas and without a sense of irony," he recalled in
a recent interview. At the time, Zalasiewicz was the head of
the stratigraphic commission of the Geological Society of
London. At luncheon meeting of the society, he asked his
fellow stratigraphers what they thought of the idea.

"We simply discussed it," he said. "And to my surprise,
because these are technical geologists, a majority of us
thought that there was something to this term."

In 2008, Zalasiewicz and 20 other British geologists
published an article in GSA Today, the magazine of the
Geological Society of America, that asked: "Are we now living
in the Anthropocene?" The answer, the group concluded, was
probably yes: "Sufficient evidence has emerged of
stratigraphically significant change (both elapsed and
imminent) for recognition of the Anthropocene... as a new
geological epoch to be considered for formalization." (An
epoch, in geological terms, is a relatively short span of
time; a period, like the Cretaceous, can last for tens of
millions of years, and an era, like the Mesozoic, for
hundreds of millions.) The group pointed to changes in
sedimentation rates, in ocean chemistry, in the climate, and
in the global distribution of plants and animals as phenomena
that would all leave lasting traces. Increasing carbon
dioxide levels in the atmosphere, the group wrote, are
predicted to lead to "global temperatures not encountered
since the Tertiary," the period that ended 2.6 million years

Zalasiewicz now heads of the Anthropocene Working Group of
the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which is
looking into whether a new epoch should be officially
designated, and if so, how. Traditionally, the boundaries
between geological time periods have been established on the
basis of changes in the fossil record - by, for example, the
appearance of one type of commonly preserved organism or the
disappearance of another. The process of naming the various
periods and their various subsets is often quite contentious;
for years, geologists have debated whether the Quaternary -
the geological period that includes both the Holocene and its
predecessor, the Pleistocene - ought to exist, or if the term
ought to be abolished, in which case the Holocene and
Pleistocene would become epochs of the Neogene, which began
some 23 million years ago. (Just last year, the International
Commission on Stratigraphy decided to keep the Quaternary,
but to push back its boundary by almost a million years.)

In recent decades, the ICS has been trying to standardize the
geological time scale by choosing a rock sequence in a
particular place to serve as a marker. Thus, for example, the
marker for the Calabrian stage of the Pleistocene can be
found at 39.0385??N 17.1348??E, which is in the toe of the boot
of Italy.

Since there is no rock record yet of the Anthropocene, its
boundary would obviously have to be marked in a different
way. The epoch could be said simply to have begun at a
certain date, say 1800. Or its onset could be correlated to
the first atomic tests, in the 1940s, which left behind a
permanent record in the form of radioactive isotopes.

One argument against the idea that a new human-dominated
epoch has recently begun is that humans have been changing
the planet for a long time already, indeed practically since
the start of the Holocene. People have been farming for 8,000
or 9,000 years, and some scientists - most notably William
Ruddiman, of the University of Virginia - have proposed that
this development already represents an impact on a geological
scale. Alternatively, it could be argued that the
Anthropocene has not yet arrived because human impacts on the
planet are destined to be even greater 50 or a hundred years
from now.

"We're still now debating whether we've actually got to the
event horizon, because potentially what's going to happen in
the 21st century could be even more significant," observed
Mark Williams, a member of the Anthropocene Working Group who
is also a geologist at the University of Leicester.

In general, Williams said, the reaction that the working
group had received to its efforts so far has been positive.
"Most of the geologists and stratigraphers that we've spoken
with think it's a very good idea in that they agree that the
degree of change is very significant."

Zalasiewicz said that even if new epoch is not formally
designated, the exercise of considering it was still useful.
"Really it's a piece of science," he said. "We're trying to
get some handle on the scale of contemporary change in its
very largest context."

(c) 2010 Yale Environment 360 Elizabeth Kolbert, who conducted
this interview for Yale Environment 360, has been a staff
writer for the New Yorker since 1999. Her 2005 New Yorker
series on global warming, 'The Climate of Man,' won a
National Magazine Award and was extended into a book, Field
Notes from a Catastrophe, which was published in 2006. Prior
to joining the staff of the New Yorker, she was a political
reporter for the New York Times. In her most recent article
for Yale Environment 360, she reported on a new study that
found the pace of global warming is outstripping the most
recent projections of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate


Portside aims to provide material of interest
to people on the left that will help them to
interpret the world and to change it.

Submit via email:
Submit via the Web:
Frequently asked questions:
Account assistance:
Search the archives:

Generated by Mnemosyne 0.12.