Future Tense

The Anthropocene: Great Marketing, Wrong Product

Are we living in a new geological epoch? Not exactly.

It was in 2011 that the Economist, a publication usually known for arcane speculation on geopolitics and economics, welcomed its readers to the Anthropocene and warned that humans had “changed the way the world works.” The drumbeat behind the concept has continued, recently receiving new momentum with the release in the Jan. 8 issue of the journal Science of a report by the Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy of the International Commission on Stratigraphy with the catchy title “The Anthropocene Is Functionally and Stratigraphically Distinct From the Holocene.” News outlets such as the BBC provided extensive coverage.

If you’re not up on your geology, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. It’s deceptively simple. The term Anthropocene comes from the Greek human (Anthropo-) and new (-cene). With the support of many scientists, it is being proposed as an appropriate name for the geologic epoch we are now living in (which, in case you wondered, is already known as the Holocene, which began about 11,700 years ago, and which under the proposal would end when the Anthropocene is determined to have started). The suggested name change is intended to reflect a new reality: that human effects on the Earth are so pervasive and fundamental that they represent a new geologic epoch. It is also meant to draw attention to those changes and in doing so increase environmental awareness and public concern. While Anthropocene may be new, the idea here is not; similar terms have been floating around for at least a quarter-century. As long ago as 1873, for example, Antonio Stoppani used the term “anthropozoic era,” and Soviet scientists used similar terms in the 1960s. 

As well they should be. It is increasingly clear that the first planet to be terraformed won’t be Mars. You can read the Science article, or you can simply look out your window. While most people fixate on only a few indicators of the planet’s status as a design space—usually climate change or changes in biodiversity—you can also see it when you look at the Earth at night, glowing with millions of electric lights. The Earth has become a design space, and new fields such as “Earth systems engineering and management” are springing up in response. And if the term Anthropocene helps us understand this dramatic change, so much the better. It is evocative, and it is effective—it is, in short, great marketing.

Nonetheless, there are good reasons to be skeptical of the attempt to label the geologic epoch we live in as the Anthropocene. Some of these are technical and of little interest except to the expert. It is a relatively minor matter, for example, that we really don’t know when the period began—with the radiation signature that nuclear weapons and civilian technology created? With the Industrial Revolution? With large-scale fossil fuel use? With the beginning of major human use of metals, whose traces show up in lake sediments around the world? Your preferred beginning point might differ by a couple of centuries from someone else’s. But most people are pretty clear that at the least the Anthropocene was in full swing with the dramatic increase in economic activity and population levels, and significant signatures of relatively new major technologies across natural systems, that characterize the modern world. The Anthropocene Working Group, for example, suggests somewhere in the mid-20th century. Since the atomic bomb was the first technology system that truly gave humans the ability to disfigure the Earth (and their civilizations) at planetary scale, and since technologies, from cars to energy production to information systems, are so important to the continuing re-engineering of the Earth, it is an appropriate recognition of the powers of technology systems as well.

But there’s the rub. With every other geologic epoch, we have the stones in front of us: The strata tell us where it began and where it ended. And those epochs were long—the Pliocene lasted from about 5.33 million years ago to about 2.58 million years ago. It was followed by the Pleistocene, which lasted until about 11,700 years ago, when the current epoch, the Holocene, began. With the Anthropocene, we’re at the very beginning of the book—50 years isn’t even noise in geologic time—and we’re already claiming the status of a geologic epoch. Talk about human hubris. A couple of years and a little technology and we’re willing to call ourselves a geologic epoch.

But aren’t the changes that the scientists see real, and determinative, you ask? Real, yes; determinative, no. The changes that scientists and others rightly point to in fact clearly demonstrate that humans at current scale are not an epoch, but an event, the equivalent of a meteor. The changes we’re introducing are so major, and so fast, that the appropriate mental model is not a new geologic epoch, but an existential, essentially instantaneous, impact across all Earth systems. In geologic time, we’re discontinuous—and given current rates of change, it is highly unlikely that we’re headed for a million years of stability.

Perhaps more importantly, there’s nothing stable about the “anthro” part of the concept, either. Just as the planet has become a design space, so has the human. The combination of foundational technologies—nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communication technology, robotics, and applied cognitive science—that are accelerating evolution across the entire technological frontier are now being turned by humans on themselves, with the result that human evolution no longer moves at biological speed (generation to generation) but at technology speed (much, much, faster). Indeed, our planet is today increasingly populated by complex adaptive systems that integrate human and natural components. And as humans increasingly integrate with the technology around them, and as the evolution of that technology continues to accelerate, it is questionable that what we will have in 50 or 100 years will still be anything like “anthro.” We are trying to tie geologic time to a windstorm.

The concept of Anthropocene is good marketing: It might even make some people look around them and think about how they propose to live on a terraformed planet. But it is profoundly misleading and runs the risk of making us far too comfortable, for it suggests long time periods of stability—that’s what geologic epochs are, after all. But that’s not where we are. The changes noted by scientists, most of which are within a century of our present time, tell us that we are unleashing change at a rate that is a flash across the sky, not marked in the slow deposition of rock. And that we would name an epoch after ourselves just as we turn ourselves into a design space only illustrates our lack of foresight, and how ill-prepared we are for the terraformed planet we have already created. Whatever is here at the end of this epoch, whether we call it the Holocene or the Anthropocene, it will not be human version 1.0, or Earth version 1.0. It will not be us.

And the different framing matters, for if we are an event and not an epoch, we don’t have the luxury of time that Anthropocene suggests. Rather, we have the challenge of a rapidly and unpredictably changing planet, with a dominant species that is itself evolving ever more rapidly and unpredictably in an auto-catalytic frenzy. The implicit comfort of an Anthropocene is a siren call to a species trying to hold the boat together on rough seas that they, in fact, created. It is not an Anthropocene. It is a singularity. And we don’t have the spare time to adjust our game plan that the Anthropocene, unfortunately, suggests.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, follow us on Twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.