The Anthropocene, or Not

  • Experts have declined to acknowledge “Anthropocene” as an official name for our current geological time;
  • And how to some extent the decision was political, if not in the obvious sense;
  • And wondering why Republicans continue to nominate candidates like Mark Robinson in North Carolina.
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NY Times, Raymond Zhong, 5 Mar 2024: Are We in the ‘Anthropocene,’ the Human Age? Nope, Scientists Say., subtitled “A panel of experts voted down a proposal to officially declare the start of a new interval of geologic time, one defined by humanity’s changes to the planet.”

The term “anthropocene” has been around for a couple decades, at least, and was proposed to describe the current state of Earth based mostly, I’ve gathered, on the human impact on the rest of the planet and especially the so-called “sixth extinction,” in which so many animal species, especially large ones but also many small ones, have gone extinct. (See the Elizabeth Kolbert book THE SIXTH EXTINCTION, which I reviewed back in 2015.) Currently geologists define our time as the Holocene, the geological epoch that has existed since the end of the last ice age, just 12,000 ago or so, and thus a tiny tiny sliver in the history of the planet, though marking the time humanity spread across the planet. The Anthropocene would represent a still smaller sliver, given that it can’t have begun more than a century or two ago.

A committee of roughly two dozen scholars has, by a large majority, voted down a proposal to declare the start of the Anthropocene, a newly created epoch of geologic time, according to an internal announcement of the voting results seen by The New York Times.

So what would be their reasoning? Well, I might have thought, the potential record in the geological strata of the absence of all those species that humanity has killed during this “sixth extinction,” though of course this would take… millions of years to become evident in the rocks, and presuming that someone else other than humanity, not likely to survive so long, would perceive that record.

The NYT piece offers some other reasons. First, the practical consequences, like when you move and change your address.

The declaration would shape terminology in textbooks, research articles and museums worldwide.

OK, fine. What else?

They also had to consider when, precisely, it began.

By the definition that an earlier panel of experts spent nearly a decade and a half debating and crafting, the Anthropocene started in the mid-20th century, when nuclear bomb tests scattered radioactive fallout across our world. To several members of the scientific committee that considered the panel’s proposal in recent weeks, this definition was too limited, too awkwardly recent, to be a fitting signpost of Homo sapiens’s reshaping of planet Earth.

This is a valid point, to me; humans like to make clean divisions in every possible issue, thinking in terms of black and white, and of course there’s no precise point at which the Anthropocene can be seen as beginning. The transitions between past geological epochs, eras, and eons were marked by period millions of years long. No crisp dates.

Under the rules of stratigraphy, each interval of Earth time needs a clear, objective starting point, one that applies worldwide. The Anthropocene working group proposed the mid-20th century because it bracketed the postwar explosion of economic growth, globalization, urbanization and energy use. But several members of the subcommission said humankind’s upending of Earth was a far more sprawling story, one that might not even have a single start date across every part of the planet.

This is why Dr. Walker, Dr. Piotrowski and others prefer to describe the Anthropocene as an “event,” not an “epoch.” In the language of geology, events are a looser term. They don’t appear on the official timeline, and no committees need to approve their start dates.

Yet many of the planet’s most significant happenings are called events, including mass extinctions, rapid expansions of biodiversity and the filling of Earth’s skies with oxygen 2.1 to 2.4 billion years ago.

I suppose I’m in agreement here; it’s human presumption to suppose that their very recent activities mark a significant change in the history of a 4.5 billion year old planet.


At the same time… you can see how politics might have played into this decision.

Vox, Sigal Samuel, 7 Mar 2024: Why did geologists reject the “Anthropocene” epoch? It’s not rock science., subtitled “The battle proves that time is political, any way you cut it.”

Can we guess? Conservatives want to deny human impact on the planet… and so on. I’m guessing before reading the article.

…the fight over “Anthropocene” is much more. It’s a deeply political fight over how to make meaning of what we humans are doing to the planet.

Noting that story about Crawford Lake, in Ontario. And argument about when it might have begun. “Are the planetary changes wrought by industrial and colonial nations before 1950 not significant enough to transform the planet?”

Concluding — it’s not the conservative objects I was expecting —

Now that the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, the body in charge of recognizing geological time units, has rejected “Anthropocene” as a new epoch, some scientists are at pains to emphasize that humans are still screwing up badly.

“We are in the Anthropocene, irrespective of a line on the time scale,” said Francine McCarthy, an earth scientist at Canada’s Brock University who participated in the AWG. “And behaving accordingly is our only path forward.”

So it’s not about conservative objections; my suspicion was wrong. It’s about scientific quibbling, and understanding that our current era is just a tiny slice in the history of Earth.


I continue to be amazed that Republicans nominate people like this guy. I guess it’s like that saying, when people tell you who they are, believe them. This seems to be what Republicans are. In the big picture: why is it, that in this era of advanced scientific achievement and advanced moral standards (in which modern society has renounced slavery and advanced equal rights to racial minorities, women, and gays), are there still people who would deny these things, and so many voters who approve of them? A base, tribal, Savannah, morality lingers among the uneducated, is my provisional answer. And I don’t see this problem ever going away.

NY Times, Frank Bruni, 6 Mar 2024: ‘Martin Luther King on Steroids’? Meet a Perfect MAGA Mirror. [gift link]

This is about Mark Robinson, currently the lieutenant of North Carolina, who just won the Republican primary for the state’s governorship. And how he’s reactionary on every possible measure. (Again, notice how these attitudes align. Anti-science, anti-gay, anti-abortion, and so on; this suggests to me something about psychology, not a legitimate position on independent issues.)

Robinson had no real public profile when, at a meeting of the Greensboro City Council in 2018, he made an impassioned speech in favor of gun rights that went viral and made him an instant darling of the right. In 2020 he ran for lieutenant governor and won. Ever since, concerned Democrats and even many aghast Republicans have taken a more careful look at him.

And they have found florid homophobia, shocking antisemitism and an alarming contempt for science — all of which I described in this newsletter early last year. But that’s just his ideological bent, which also extends to a stated desire to outlaw abortion or at least get as close to that as possible.

Not only that — again, like so many other Republican candidates, he’s a hypocrite:

His life outside politics contradicts his rants against what he sees as excessive government charity and his styling of himself as a poster boy for gumption and resilience. As a devastating article by Jeffrey Billman in the North Carolina publication The Assembly detailed in January, Robinson has been delinquent on taxes and repeatedly filed for bankruptcy, and his wife, Yolanda Hill, has prospered from the acquisition — and then forgiveness — of Covid-era Paycheck Protection Program loans from the federal government.


Two more about Robinson. Headlines and subtitles say enough.

Media Matters, 6 Mar 2024: MAGA extremists are celebrating Mark Robinson’s antisemitism and extremism. Mainstream outlets are downplaying it., subtitled “The North Carolina gubernatorial candidate has denied the Holocaust, called abortion murder, and made numerous other antisemitic and anti-LGBTQ remarks”

Joe.My.God, 6 Mar 2024: Robinson: Women Shouldn’t Have The Right To Vote


Time’s up for today; music tomorrow maybe.

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