What is the Anthropocene?

Just as we divide our lives into months and years to help us keep track of passing time, scientists divide the history of our planet into geological eras. We met some of these eras in the previous post: the Permian, the Triassic, the Cretaceous, the Paleogene.

The last post also mentioned the Holocene era. The Holocene has been going on for 10,000 years now, and it’s been very important in the history of our species. While humans essentially identical to those of us living today have been around for 200,000 years or so, human civilization – in the form of cities and farming – only arose about 8,000 years ago. Why is this?

For most of our planet’s history, living conditions have been wildly unstable. Continents moved around. Sea levels rose and fell dramatically. Glaciers advanced and retreated. Nobody could stay in one place for too long.

But all that changed in the Holocene. For thousands of years – a long time for living things, even if not much more than a blink for a planet – the climate was remarkably stable. The weather changed in a predictable way from season to season, and humans were able to learn these patterns and time their farming activities to greatly increase their chances of a successful crop. Once we were able to produce food from fixed locations, we could start living in the same place year-round – and because the oceans remained at consistent levels, we were able to build our cities along reliable shorelines.

Now, though, the stable conditions that defined the Holocene are changing. They’re changing so much that scientists have proposed labeling the present day as a brand-new geological era: the Anthropocene, the Age of Man.

A period of time gets marked off as its own geological era when it is distinctly different from surrounding time periods. Our own time is not in the geological record yet, but scientists are certain that when it is, our own activities will be clearly visible – if, several million years in the future, there is anyone around to look.

The record of our time will include evidence of the mass extinction that is already underway. It will preserve signs of increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and of rising global temperatures caused by this increase. It will contain the remains of human garbage. And it will bear the imprints of how we changed the landscape by building vast cities, engaging in industrial agriculture, and destroying ancient forests.

Although the Anthropocene is not really an official geological era yet, there is no turning back from the changes that it represents. Human-scale time is cyclical: we know that March and spring will come again. But geological time goes in only one direction. The Holocene is never coming back.

What is the Anthropocene?

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