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The Anthropocene: A primer.
The Anthropocene. We're already there. This is our time, our creation, our challenge.
Officially, this epoch does not exist. Yet. It may be added permanently to the geologic time scale in 2016. It is the International Commission on Stratigraphy that determines the denomination and the calibration of different divisions and subdivisions of geological time, which date back to the formation of the Earth, 4.6 billion years ago.
Unofficially however, the term is used more frequently in the scientific literature and, more recently, in publications dedicated to the general public.
So, might you ask, what is the Anthropocene?
First, the etymology. The Ancient Greek [anthropos] means "human being" while [kainos] means "new, current." The Anthropocene would thus be best defined as the new human-dominated period of the Earth's history.
The term was proposed in 2000 by Paul J. Crutzen, Nobel Prize in 1995 for his work on atmospheric chemistry and his research on stratospheric ozone depletion (the so-called "hole"), and by Eugene F. Stoermer in a publication (p. 17) of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. But the concept itself, the idea that human activity affects the Earth to the point where it can cross a new age, is not new and dates back to the late nineteenth century. Different terms were proposed over the decades, such as Anthropozoic (Stoppani, 1873), Noosphere (de Chardin, 1922; Vernadsky, 1936), Eremozoic (Wilson, 1992), and Anthrocene (Revkin, 1992). It seems that the success of the term chosen by Crutzen and Stoermer is due to the luck of having been made at the appropriate time, when humankind became more than ever aware of the extent of its impact on global environment. It should be noted that Edward O. Wilson (who suggested Eremozoic, "the age of loneliness") popularized the terms "biodiversity" and "biophilia."
Technically, the Anthropocene is the most recent period of the Quaternary, succeding to the Holocene. The Quaternary is a period of the Earth's history characterized by numerous and cyclical glaciations, starting 2,588,000 years ago (2.588 Ma). The Quaternary is divided into three epochs: the Pleistocene, the Holocene, and now the Anthropocene.
The Pleistocene (2.588 Ma to 11.7 Ka) was a tumultuous era, during which more than eleven major glaciations occurred. Furthermore, the Pleistocene is also the time of early humans, the exit of our ancestors from Africa, the invention of the first tools, the evolution of bipedalism, the invention of graphic arts, cultural and linguistic refinements, and the dominance of Homo sapiens on the other hominids.
The Holocene (11.7 ka until about 1800 AD) was a time comparatively smoother in terms of climate variability. At the end of the last Ice Age, 12,000 years ago, a more stable climate regime settled on Earth. The ice gave way to temperate climates, and already, humans were present on all continents. It took a few thousand years for agriculture (domestication of land by humans for food mainly) to take off in the Fertile Crescent and elsewhere in Africa, China, New Guinea and South America. Thus went human progress, managing with success to feed ever more humans.
We are officially still in the Holocene. In fact, we are in the Phanerozoic Eon, Cenozoic era, Quaternary period and Holocene epoch. But now, the Earth's system does not seem to behave the same way as, say, at the time of Hesiod, Dante or Cervantes. The Earth of the 21st century is warming, overcrowded, partly deforested, and more toxic and interconnected than ever. The comforting envelope of the Holocene, which has fostered the birth of civilizations, is now punctured.
We collectively rolled over into a new era, which includes its stakes and challenges but also its opportunities and great qualities. This page is dedicated to exploring this new world in a visual way.
Here is the definition more or less impressionistic we propose for the Anthropocene:
"A period marked by a regime change in the activity of industrial societies which began at the turn of the nineteenth century and which has caused global disruptions in the Earth System on a scale unprecedented in human history: climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution of the sea, land and air, resources depredation, land cover denudation, radical transformation of the ecumene, among others. These changes command a major realignment of our consciousness and worldviews, and call for different ways to inhabit the Earth."
Mapping the Anthropocene: first few steps.
Behind the name lie the challenges of our time. This concept illustrates and groups together the main agents that shape our planet, who literally engrave its surface—it is the anthroposphere, the human layer that grows inside the biosphere. This page is dedicated to the impressionist mapping of the artifacts from this singular moment in Earth's history. Impressionist because these maps are unlabelled and silent, giving free rein to contemplation and imagination; impressionist also because they do not follow the canons of cartography, where scales and legend are mandatory.
By locating the structures and hotspots of human activity, by acknowledging the extent of our footprints and our facilities, perhaps we will glimpse the limits of our world and the importance of redefining what it means to live in and on it.
Comments? Suggestions? Your feedbacks are more than welcomed: info [at] globaia [dot] org
NOTE: The items on these maps — cities, paved and unpaved roads, railways, power lines, pipelines, cable Internet, airlines, shipping lanes — are obviously not to scale. However, do keep in mind that these are only fraction of the artifacts that are present in reality. Roads, for example, are of such density that they would make these global visions quite opaque.
DATA SOURCE: Paved and Unpaved Roads, Pipelines, Railways & Transmission Lines: VMap0, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, September 2000. Shipping Lanes: NOAA's SEAS BBXX database, from 14.10.2004 to 15.10.2005. Air Networks: International Civil Aviation Organization statistics. Urban Areas: naturalearthdata.com. Submarine Cables: Greg Mahlknecht's Cable Map. Earth texture maps: Tom Patterson. Anthropocene Indicators: Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure, Steffen, W., Sanderson, A., Jäger, J., Tyson, P.D., Moore III, B., Matson, P.A., Richardson, K., Oldfield, F., Schellnhuber, H.-J., Turner II, B.L., Wasson, R.J.
Springer Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany, 1st ed. 2004, 2nd printing, 2005, pp. 132-133.
To purchase one of these pictures, please contact Science Photo Library.
For more maps and informations, see Erle Ellis excellent work here: Anthromes Research