Chapter 2

Chapter 2: THE ANTHROPOCENE

To assign a more specific date to the onset of the ‘Anthropocene’ seems somewhat arbitrary, but we propose the latter part of the 18th century, although we are aware that alternative proposals can be made (some may even want to include the entire Holocene). However, we choose this date because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable. This is the period when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several ’greenhouse gases’, in particular CO2 and CH4. Such a starting date also coincides with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784.1

 

  • Paul Crutzen—Atmospheric chemist and Nobel Prize winner for work on depletion of the ozone layer.

The term “anthropo” refers to man and the Anthropocene is a proposed geological
epoch that would begin from the time that human activities affected the climate and
ecosystems of Earth. “Anthropocene” is the title of a new academic journal launched in
2013 and has become a common term used in contemporary scientific literature. The
Nobel Laureate and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen is among the notable advocates
of a formal declaration of the Anthropocene Epoch. Recently, an expert working
group on the Anthropocene within the International Union of Geological Sciences
recommended that the IUGS recognize and declare a formal end to the Holocene and
the beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch.2

In the 4.56‐billion year history of Earth, up until the Anthropocene, bacteria and
plants were the only living organisms that altered the planet to any significant degree.
Blue green algae oxygenated the atmosphere leading to a 300‐million year ice age,
and facilitated the evolution of land‐based life forms. A massive Azolla bloom over
the Arctic Ocean 49 million years ago drew down atmospheric CO2 and triggered the
transition out of an extreme Greenhouse Earth. Since oxygenation of the atmosphere,
the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and thus the surface temperature of
the planet, has been influenced by variations in carbon fixation by the global biomass
of plants.

The onset of the Anthropocene marks the emergence of an animal species with inherent
capabilities to alter the atmosphere, and thus influence the climate and ecosystems of
the planet. The difference is that, in theory, the actions of mankind are conscious and
deliberate. From the time that James Watt advanced the design of the steam engine,
mankind embarked on a path toward large scale industrialization and disciplined
scientific discovery. The Industrial and Scientific Revolutions during the Anthropocene
have led to a 9.2‐fold increase in world population in combination with accelerated
per capita energy use, implementation of intensive agricultural practices, and changes
in forest biomass. The actions of man have altered and will continue to alter the
climate and ecosystems of the planet. Science provides man with an understanding
of how industrialization has changed the planet, and a powerful predictive tool for
understanding the consequences of options for future industrialization.

  1. Crutzen, P.J., & Stoermer, E.F. (2000). The Anthropocene. International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. Newsletter 41. Retreived from http://www.igbp.net/download/18.316f18321323470177580001401/1376383088452/NL41.pdf.
  2. PhyOrg. (2016, August 29). The Anthropocene is here: scientists. PhyOrg. Retrieved from
    https://phys.org/news/2016-08-anthropocene-scientists.html.