The Anthropocene

To understand earthquakes in Oklahoma, the earth’s sixth mass extinction, or the rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet, we need the Anthropocene, – an epoch that acknowledges humans as a global geologic force. The Holocene, a cozier geologic epoch that began 11,700 years ago with climatic warming giving us conditions that, among other things, led to farming doesn’t cut it anymore. The Holocene is outdated because it cannot explain the recent changes to the planet: the now 400-parts-per-million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels, the radioactive elements present in the earth’s strata from detonating nuclear weapons, or that one in five species in large ecosystems is considered invasive.

Humans caused nearly all of the 907 earthquakes in Oklahoma in 2015; they were the result of the extraction process for oil and gas, part of which involves injecting saltwater, a by-product, into rock layers. The Anthropocene is defined by a combination of large-scale human impacts and, as a concept, gives us a sense of both our power and our responsibility.

Whether the geologic experts anoint it as an official epoch, enough of society has already decided that the Anthropocene is here. Humans are a planetary force. Not since cyanobacteria has a single taxonomic group been so in charge. Humans have proved that we are capable of seismic influence, of depleting the ozone layer, of changing the biology of every continent, – but not, at least so far, capable of living on another planet. The more interesting questions may not be about whether the Anthropocene exists or when it began but about whether we are prepared to take this kind of control.

The Anthropocene
Jennifer Jacquet
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, New York University