Third Essay of the Weekend

  • An Elizabeth Kolbert essay about the debate about the term “Anthropocene”;
  • And Neil Finn’s beautiful lullaby “Faster than Light”.


This is Elizabeth Kolbert (author of The Sixth Extinction, one of the best nonfiction books of the 21st century; review here) about the anthropocene and the recent decision by those who decide such things that “anthropocene” is *not* an official name for our current geological age. (I covered this back on 7 March.) I just noticed she has a new book out! I’m ordering it right now.

NY Times, Elizabeth Kolbert, 20 Apr 2024: The “Epic Row” Over a New Epoch

Subtitled: “Scientists, journalists, and artists often say that we live in the Anthropocene, a new age in which humans shape the Earth. Why do some leading geologists reject the term?”

It’s about 10 screens on my big monitor. I assume the essay will appear in next weekend’s New York Times Magazine.

It opens by recalling the so-called “hole in the ozone” layer over Antarctica, back in the 1990s.

A few months into the third millennium, a group called the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (I.G.B.P.) held a meeting in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Among the researchers in attendance was Paul Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist best known for his research on ozone-depleting chemicals, such as chlorofluorocarbons. For this work, Crutzen, a Dutchman living in Germany, had received a Nobel Prize, in 1995. In his Nobel lecture, he noted that, given humanity’s heedlessness, it had got off lightly. Millions of pounds of CFCs had been released into the air before anyone had considered the possible consequences. As a result of the chemicals’ behavior in the stratosphere, a “hole” had opened up in the ozone layer over Antarctica. But, if CFCs had turned out to behave just slightly differently, the hole would have stretched from pole to pole before scientists had even had the tools to measure it.

“I can only conclude that mankind has been extremely lucky,” Crutzen said.

At the I.G.B.P. meeting in Cuernavaca, Crutzen found himself growing agitated. His colleagues kept referring to the Holocene, the geological epoch that began at the close of the last ice age, about twelve thousand years ago. At the dawn of the Holocene, the global population was maybe four million—barely enough to fill a city like Sydney or St. Petersburg. By the time of the meeting in Mexico, there were more than six billion people on the planet, and human activity was fundamentally altering such basic Earth processes as the carbon cycle.

“Stop using the word ‘Holocene,’ ” Crutzen blurted out. “We’re not in the Holocene any more. We’re in the . . . ” He paused, searching for the right word. “We’re in the Anthropocene!” During the next coffee break, Crutzen’s neologism was the main topic of conversation. Someone suggested that he copyright the term.

The writer follows the history of the word, which had actually been coined back in the 1980s. When it came to the attention of the people who decide such things, they were cautious. Scientists do not change their minds lightly.

Soon the word “Anthropocene” began popping up in scientific papers. This, in turn, piqued the interest of stratigraphers—the subset of geologists who maintain the planet’s official timetable, the International Chronostratigraphic Chart. Had the Earth really entered a new epoch, in the stratigraphic sense of the term? And, if so, when? The International Commission on Stratigraphy (I.C.S.) set up the Anthropocene Working Group (A.W.G.) to look into the matter. It was still working away last month, when, in a vote that one group member described to me as “Putinesque,” a subcommittee of the I.C.S. decided against adding the Anthropocene to the timetable. The vote might have marked the end of the story, were it not that it was probably just the beginning. As another geologist put it to me, “Voting down the Anthropocene is a bit like trying to vote down plate tectonics. It’s real, it’s there, and we are going to have to deal with it.”

The big eons, eras, periods, epochs, and ages (that’s the order) are defined by evidence from the geological record.

To mark the boundaries between the various epochs and periods, the I.C.S. relies on what are formally called “global boundary stratotype sections and points” and informally known as “golden spikes.” For the most part, golden spikes are layers of rock that contain evidence of some notable shift in Earth’s history—a reversal of the planet’s magnetic poles, say, or the disappearance of a fossilized species. …

So then…

With the exception of the Holocene, the start dates for geological ages have been determined millions of years after the fact. This means that whatever signal is being used to set them has withstood the test of time. The rocks of the Anthropocene, of course, do not yet exist. When the Anthropocene Working Group was formed, in 2009, its first task was to decide whether human impacts on the planet would still be discernible millions of years from now.

After several years of study, the group decided that the answer was yes. The carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels will leave a permanent signature in the rocks of the future, as will the fallout from nuclear testing. Novel ecosystems that people have created by moving plants and animals around the world will produce novel fossil assemblages. Meanwhile, traces of some of the trillions of tons of stuff humans have generated, from transistors to tanker ships, will be preserved, meaning that a whole new class of fossils will appear in the record—so-called technofossils. Before aluminum smelting was invented, in the nineteenth century, aluminum existed on Earth only in combination with other elements. Future geologists will thus be able to distinguish the current epoch via the remains of beer cans—the Bud Light layer.

Yes, all the trash we throw away every day is going into landfill, which is becoming a thick layer of sediment accumulating much more quickly than any typical geological sediment. Still, when would the Anthropocene have begun? This seems to have been a point of contention.

Long essay. More about Crawford Lake near Toronto; the history of defining geological time periods; and the “epic row” about declaring Anthropocene an epoch. The writer admits she as “an Anthropocene partisan,” because it’s helpful, even necessary, to communicate “a messy and profoundly consequential reality.” [[ Humanity has only been aware of the very recent changes in Earth’s history — and even over this short time, we’ve noticed. ]]

Human activity has become the major driver of change on Earth. And many of the ways in which we’re transforming the planet—by driving once-widespread species extinct or spreading microplastics around the globe—are irreversible across timescales both human and geological.


And that’s enough for today. Well, except maybe for this.

From Neil Finn’s first solo album.

This is a lullaby, about where the sun goes at night, and how some things, like love, travel faster than light.

In time you’ll see that some things
travel faster than light
in time you’ll recognize that love is larger than life
and praise will come to those whose kindness
leaves you without debt
and bends the shape of things to come
that haven’t happened yet

YouTube also has a couple live performances of this song, in which he trims those final lyrics:

and bends the shape of things to come
that haven’t happened yet

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