The Anthropocene: the meaning and ambiguity surrounding a controversial term

Editorial by Luca Savarino Associate professor of Moral Philosophy and Bioethics, Translational Medicine Department, University of Eastern Piedmont, RSF Scientific Committee Member

The news, first published in the ”New York Times” on the 20th of March and then, with greater relevance, in ‘’Science’’, follows an almost 15 year discussion: The international Union of Geological Science confirmed there is not sufficient proof to consider the anthropocene the most recent geological epoch used to divide the history of the earth. 

Does that mean we still live in the Holocene? Moving past questionable media outrage, this issue deserves serious consideration. To consider what it means for the anthropocene to be ‘’held back’’ by the geologists it is important to remember the history of the words themselves: Anthropocene is a term coined by geologists, one that contrasts Holocene (a term that was not coined in a geological context). The first formulations of this concept happened in the beginning of the new millennium, in the context of Earth System Sciences, to indicate the complex changes, described from a scientific point of view, that had an impact on the balance of the earth. From this moment on, anthropocene became an extremely frequently used (and sometimes abused) term, both within scientific and academic debates and in the public sphere: mainly in environmental discussions to indicate the era in which humans have developed the power to transform the entire earthly habitat with an impact so great it hinders its complex functions. 

Furthermore, if the geological definition is the least useful amongst the existing ones (the anthropocene does not indicate an era that can be inserted within a geological timeline and thus it isn’t up to geologists to identify its indicators and define its span), then the question persists: what type of epoch is the anthropocene? It could be considered a historical period, like ‘’the victorian era’’, ‘’the renaissance’’, or ‘’modern time’’? However even in this case, a complicated issue remains, because the anthropocene is somewhere in between: a historical-geological epoch that doesn’t rely solely on evidence from human history or solely on natural history, but rather allows an intertwining of both. The Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty noted how materialist historians in the past – like Marx or Braudel – acknowledged the essential influence of environmental factors on human issues but viewed nature as a stable, repetitive, and cyclical phenomenon, where change happened very lowly with respect to the historical or social changes they focused on. What the notion of ‘’anthropocene’’ implies today is, rather than seeing the role of humans in today’s world as a biological one to see it as a geological impact (even though the issues of today are more connected to the biosphere than the geosphere: in this case terminology doesn’t help) able to significantly impact the balance of life on the planet. 

The Anthropocene should still have a place within scientific and public discussions, but more as a heuristic than as a truly defined concept/concrete time period, mainly to refer to the radical change and the causes of it: a massive environmental crisis with anthropic origins.

Taking responsibility for this change means putting certain accepted knowledge schemas into doubt. Most importantly, the separation between natue and culture as well as the concept of responsibility. The environmental crisis highlights the fact that we can no longer think of man as an active subject that interacts with a static nature. The impact of human actions on the planet, reversed, frees natural forces that react to human activity putting their achievements in danger. The anthropocene is the era in which men gain potential but lose control: right at the peak of our technological development, we are at the precipice of a disaster that would transport us back to ancient times where our primary objective reverts back, from being protectors of nature to taking on an active role in placating it. Taking the anthropocene seriously means coming to the understanding that its no longer enough to safeguard the existing balance of nature, we need to actively restore a balance we have lost: adding the concept of regeneration to the existing concept of sustainability. 

Picture Source: Marci Jozwiak/Pixabay