Anthropocene doesn’t exist and species of the future will not recognise it


We are living through a period of unprecedented environmental breakdown which is increasingly being referred to as “the Anthropocene”. As the term becomes more and more pervasive, I want to explain why, as a psychologist and a committed environmentalist, I think it is a highly problematic way of framing our predicament.

Originally proposed by atmospheric scientists and then geologists, the Anthropocene has come to the fore as a powerful if perplexing way of talking about our current era. This is a period in which, for the first time in its history, the Earth is being deeply transformed by one species – humans. The word Anthropocene refers to the idea that the Earth’s geological record has been transformed by humanity: Anthropos is Greek for human and -cene is a substantial geological time period within the current 65 million year old Cenozoic era.

It is remarkable how quickly this idea has become ubiquitous. It is now the subject not just of academic texts and conferences, but artfictionmagazinestraveloguespoetry, even an opera.

While I agree that this is an important and timely provocation, I want to pause here for a moment, and consider whether the Anthropocene narrative really does capture our predicament and our prospects.

There is already plenty of criticism of the Anthropocene idea. Alternative terms like Capitalocene (which attempts to highlight the detrimental forces of capitalism), and Plantationocene (which emphasises the role of colonialism, the plantation system and slave labour) have been offered as a way of doubling down on the elements of human history responsible for environmental crises, rather than lumping all humans, and their responsibility, together. But I want to concentrate on the idea of time itself.

Deep time

Deep time” is the concept of geological time that is used “to describe the timing and relationships between events that have occurred throughout Earth’s history”. That’s a 4.54 billion year history. We struggle to grasp the huge scale of a sense of time that is so, well, deep. There are numerous analogies for helping us comprehend this enormity, like the 24-hour clock – that humans have only been on the planet for 19 seconds of it. I like the onebelow, as you can visualise it simply enough by holding out your arm.

If the Earth formed about 4.54 billion years ago at the shoulder, animals of any kind appear within the palm, and more familiar (to us) lifeforms originate at the first knuckle. Movement along the fingers represent the periods that followed, incorporating, for example, the Jurassic. And humans? The 11,700-year-old Holocene marks the start of a global spread of homo sapiens – “a microscopic sliver at the tip of a fingernail”. The beginning of the proposed Anthropocene, whether we go with a starting point of a mooted 400 years, 70 or somewhere in between, is a tiny speck within this sliver.

So, have homo sapiens created a new geological era? In simple terms, there is something of a case here – there’s plenty of evidence for human impact in the geological record, from signatures of human-induced climate change, atomic testing, and much more. But a fuller appreciation of deep time should actually make us wary of the Anthropocene label, maybe even shift our image of ourselves and what it means to inhabit the Earth at this time. Here’s why.

Mass extinction

Around 66m years ago, a mass extinction event took place, wiping out around three quarters of all species. This was most likely the result of an enormous asteroid impact – a conclusion reached after the discovery of a thin but distinct layer of sediment in the geologic record from this time, containing elements abundant in asteroids.

Mass extinction offered an opportunity for the rise of mammals as dominant lifeforms – ushering in the Cenezoic (“new life”) era. This thin layer of comet dust in the rock record represents a brief but vital transition between much thicker preceding and subsequent layers. But no one refers to what followed the mass extinction event as the “Cometocene”. That just wouldn’t make sense – the impact was a one-off event, significant in the context of deep time only in that it ushered in new foundations for life that then stretched out for millions of years into the far future.

What if the same could be said of our influence? What if, even with the well-documented effects of an Anthropocene still accumulating, we are talking about human impacts as a mere blip in the context of deep time? This is likely true. The spread of industrialism has aggressively and rapidly extracted and used up a finite supply of resources. The fact of finiteness, coupled with unprecedented environmental breakdown, fundamentally circumscribes the long-term viability of any possible era of human dominance.

This is what the American writer John Michael Greer claims when he says that all forms of industrial civilisation combined, in the context of geological time, are unremarkably short-lived and “self-terminating” – simply a transition between eras. This is why he considers the Holocene-Neocene transition, H-N transition for short, as a more accurate term, with Neocene being a placeholder name for whatever emerges next.

Our geological legacy will probably be like the comet dust – “a slightly odd transition layer a quarter of an inch thick”. As a remarkably adaptive species, humans may find ecological niches to survive and flourish in this far future, but we will not be dominant.

A new psychology

This does not mean we are heading towards some kind of one-off cataclysm – another extinction event. It means we are already living through one. But rather than being remembered as something grandiloquent and portentous – like the Anthropocene – it is more likely that some far future species would think of us as what historian Stephen Kern calls “a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity”. In the context of deep time, the Earth will continue to meander on without us, and it will hardly notice we’re gone, just as it hardly knew we were here.

This sojourn into deep time is not intended to be depressing or defeatist, certainly not to rule out hope, or to avoid acknowledgement of the damage humans can do. I think its psychological relevance is to offer a reminder of life itself as something to approach with reverence and awe; our species as interdependent and interconnected, not somehow apart; and to chip away at any residual hubris in the idea of the Anthropocene.

Locating humanity in an even deeper story can seem scary. But it might also be liberating. For countless cultures around the world of course, this is nothing new – many Indigenous worldviews embrace nature, have a reverence for it and a deep sense of time and place. While being historically displaced from those places by the forces of colonialism and industrialism, these voices are often neglected.

The history of our far future, if we have one, will be one where we learnt to recognise interdependence with nature, with other species. In the end, it is about what it means to be human. As the late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood warned: “We will go onwards in a different mode of humanity, or not at all.”

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Matthew Adams, Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Brighton. You can read the original article here

More Stories

  • India’s cyclone Fani recovery offers the world lessons in disaster preparedness


    Fani, a rare summer cyclone in the Bay of Bengal, hit eastern India on May 3. It is one of the strongest cyclones to have hit India in the last 20 years, according to the Indian government’s meteorological department. Storm surges and powerful winds reaching 125mph blew off roofs, damaged power lines and uprooted countless trees.

    But the worst-affected state, Odisha, has been successful in keeping the loss of life and numbers of affected people to a minimum. This is the result of a very effective strategy of disaster preparation and quick responding.

    The United Nations office for Disaster Risk Deduction (UNISDR) and other organisations have hailed government and volunteer efforts that have ensured the levels of destruction have been kept to a minimum. According to official estimates, 64 people lost their lives due to the devastating cyclone Fani. But considering the power of the cyclone, it is remarkable that more lives have not been lost.

    To put the death toll in perspective, the 1999 Odisha cyclone (which had 155mph winds) killed 9,658 people and caused US$2.5 billion in damages in the state. It was this super cyclone in 1999 that led the state to become better prepared for future cyclones.

    The government’s “zero casualty” policy for natural disasters and the near accuracy of the India meteorological department’s early warning system have helped reduce the possibility of deaths from cyclone Fani. A record 1.2m people (equal to the population of Mauritius) were evacuated in less than 48 hours, and almost 7,000 kitchens, catering to 9,000 shelters, were made functional overnight. This mammoth exercise involved more than 45,000 volunteers.

    The statistics are striking when compared to the impact of recent big weather events around the world. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017 with wind speeds of 175mph, it caused a death toll of 2,975. The same year, Hurricane Harvey struck Texas with winds of 130mph and caused devastating flooding. There was US$125 billion in damage and at least 68 direct storm-related deaths reported in Texas. Most recently, cyclone Idai hit Mozambique on March 14 and ripped through Madagascar, Malawi and Zimbabwe, with more than 1,000 people feared dead.

    So the Indian state of Odisha’s ability to put such an effective disaster management plan in place and save thousands of lives is a template that the world can learn from. This, after all, is a state where the average income is less than US$5 a day. We identify four key takeaways from Odisha.

    1. Build a relief infrastructure

    Until 1999, Odisha didn’t have a well laid out plan for disaster management. Two months after the cyclone hit, the Odisha State Disaster Management Authority was set up and plans put in place. Around 900 cyclone shelters have been built in vulnerable pockets of the state, with systems in place for the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people. By 2001, Odisha Disaster Rapid Action Force was also set up to conduct rescue operations and distribute relief.

    There is a clear command and control structure for disaster relief and there are clear protocols in place for carrying out relief operations. These were successfully used in managing cyclone Phailin in 2013 (a storm five times the size of hurricane Katrina), cyclone Hudhud in 2014 and cyclone Fani.

    2. Accuracy of early warning systems

    The India Meteorological Department has built an effective service to predict accurate timings of cyclone formation in the Bay of Bengal and when it will make landfall along India’s coastline. This early warning system enables the state to be disaster ready and minimise loss of lives. It’s then crucial that people follow the protocols in place when the warnings come in.

    3. Clear communication plan

    Roughly 2.6m text messages were sent to locals in clear language before cyclone Fani hit, keeping those potentially affected alert. Regular press briefings were made by officials to update people of the approaching cyclone. People were repeatedly advised over all forms of media not to panic and given clear “do and don’ts”. This helped in the record evacuation of 1.2m people to safe buildings.

    4. Effective co-ordination of groups

    Preparations to fight the onslaught of Fani involved a number of government agencies, as well as local community groups and volunteers working together. The government’s disaster response forces were pre-positioned in vulnerable locations, food packets for air-dropping were made ready for air force helicopters to drop to people. Senior state officials and police officers were sent to the affected districts to co-ordinate efforts of various agencies.

    Cyclone Fani has, however, left a fury of damage to properties and public infrastructure. The post-cyclone recovery will be a daunting challenge to the administration in Odisha, demanding a lot of resources. In the aftermath of the 1999 super cyclone, the state relied on a number of community-based groups and volunteers to help rebuild communities. The same goes for today, but they are in a much better position thanks to the disaster preparedness and risk mitigation followed before the storm hit.

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Manoj Dora, Reader in Operations & Supply Chain Management at Brunel University London and Arabinda Kumar Padhee, Director of Country Relations and Business Affairs at New Delhi, ICRISAT, CGIAR System Organization. You can read the original article here.

    Read more
  • Young activists assemble to discuss the state of the world and how to save it


    When policy consultant Vandita Morarka co-founded a social reform initiative to work around marginalized communities including slum-dwellers and street children in India six years ago, she was stunned at the lack of youth leadership to address crucial developmental issues in Asia's third-largest economy, India.

    Now, six-years-later, Morarka runs a feminist youth leadership organization 'One Future Collective' from India's financial capital, Mumbai and mentors other youth leaders to run programs around South Asian feminist literature, a queer resource center and a mental health awareness initiative.

    "OFC is based on the idea that there is transformative power in each person that can lead to larger societal transformation. We zeroed in on a couple of thematic areas which was gender, mental health, legal reform, and policy and we felt that many issues were not addressed by other organisations," 24-year-old Morarka, a policy consultant and lawyer said.

    Morarka is not alone. Around 80 youth leaders from across 45 countries and working in civil society spaces including gender-based violence, mental health, inclusivity, and LGBTQ issues joined hands for a two-day 'Youth Assembly' in Serbia's Novi Sad. The sessions involved sharing lived experiences and fighting against abuses in oppressed regimes, and creating a thematic framework to address crucial human rights issues in the global south.

    "[T]here is transformative power in each person that can lead to larger societal transformation."

    The event that preceded the 'International Civil Society Week' held in Belgrade, Serbia in April held engaging discussions on the state of civil society globally. Issues pertaining to human rights violations in India-administered Kashmir, Palestine, and censorship and threats in various parts of the world to activism and journalistic work were highlighted.

    For Renata Thakurdyal from Madagascar, conducting workshops around sexual health for school children and dismantling the country's 'taboo' outlook on sexual health and reproductive rights is crucial.

    Thakurdyal is a program development officer at Madagascar's 'Projet Jenue Leader' that runs sexual health and leadership classes in schools across Madagascar who believes that creating conversations among youngsters is the only way to sensitise them.

    "Educators work in pairs of a male and a female teacher. Male educators talk about the menstrual cycle, showing the entire class how to put on a pad and the importance of menstrual hygiene. The female educator could also do it but the role reversal takes away the stigma and there's a transformation in students," Thakurdyal adds.

    In Madagascar's Malagasy language, menstruation is referred to as 'taboo part of the month’, highlighting how little awareness on menstrual hygiene, access to healthcare or generally on the topic there is.

    "Both boys and girls need to know about sexual health and a culture of open information is very transformative. Talking about sexual health is taboo in Madagascar and teachers often end up inserting their own opinions or ideas," Thakurdyal adds.

    The youth assembly was hosted by Johannesburg-based civil society alliance CIVICUS and brought together more than 850 delegates from around the world including Morarka and Thakurdyal to join the discussions on how to build movements for change.

    Armed with posters and drawing broads, Amanda Segnini, a Brazilian climate justice activist and founder of non-governmental organization Engajamundo holds discussions on how political situations have resulted in the killing of a record number of human rights defenders worldwide.

    "In the Amazon rainforest, we run a project with Brazilian youth and build leadership around climate justice to enable community leaders to protect their local eco-systems. We have around 100 young people as part of the pilot project from different traditional communities," Segnini, co-founder of Engajamundo said.

    Regarding threats faced by activists due to the dangerous political situation in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, she adds Brazil has killed the biggest number of human rights defenders and most of the vulnerable communities in the country are under threat due to climate change.

    According to Soledat Kenzhebulatova and other ICSW organizers, Segnini, Morarka, and Thakurdyal represent a growing movement of youth activists fighting for the defense of civil and gender liberties and seeking government action on important issues including climate justice, sustainable development, and gender equality.

    "I can see the transformative power of bringing youths together at this summit as decision-makers. This is no longer lip-service. This is about giving youngsters the power to enable change."

    "We work with young lesbian, gay, intersex, bisexual, queer, gender non-conforming and othered individuals who have shared experiences of systematic discrimination, hate, and violence. Our work focuses on vulnerabilities. It is clear that in the context of citizenship some freedoms are exclusive to certain demographics only," Gatsha, one of CIVICUS 26 accelerator program goalkeepers said.

    Meanwhile, for 39-year-old Nyaradzo Mashayamombe, Zimbabwe's record on women’s rights and gender-based violence against young girls and children led her to establish Tag a Life International Trust (TaLI) after facing persecution growing up in a marginalized community.

    "We engage with leaders locally, nationally and through regional and international platforms to advocate and advance the rights of girls. We have a flagship young women's Leadership Programme designed to raise young women as young leaders in their communities where they are trained about their own self-awareness," Mashayamombe said.

    Speaking about the recent internet shutdowns due to fuel price hikes and reports of sexual assault allegedly carried out by government officials, Mashayamombe said human rights defenders had to play it low-key and as women human rights defenders were forced to protect themselves amid government crackdowns, advocacy spaces shrunk completely.

    "We need to ensure that women have an access to platforms where they can easily report cases of rape without fearing for their lives and that women human rights defenders themselves are able to assist victims without feeling vulnerable and constrained to help," she added.

    Most of the youth leaders, including Gatsha and Morarka, echoed similar sentiments on the need for more spaces for youngsters where they can engage besides the ‘tokenism and symbolism that is not meaningful’ in terms of grassroots impact.

    "I can see the transformative power of bringing youths together at this summit as decision-makers. This is no longer lip-service. This is about giving youngsters the power to enable change," Morarka concludes.

    This article was originally published on Open Democracy and was written by Vishal Manve. You can read the original article here.

    Read more
  • Researchers, set an example: fly less


    The world is warming and ecosystems are dying. To avoid disastrous climatic change, massive reductions in CO2 emissions are required in all sectors, reaching net-zero globally no later than 2050. This requires an unprecedented and rapid change in our ways of life.

    In this, the world of research is challenged for two reasons. First, researchers are the source of the increasing number of warnings about the state of our climate and biodiversity, and their credibility would be damaged by not setting an example. Second, because researchers have the training and tools to critically appraise their colleagues’ conclusions, they’re well placed to understand the seriousness and urgency of the situation, and act accordingly, by reducing their own CO2 emissions.

    The carbon footprint of aviation

    Air traffic currently accounts for about 3% of global emissions, which is three times more than the total emissions of a country like France. Traffic is growing by 4% per year and is projected to double by 2030. This is in complete contradiction with the objectives of the Paris agreement, which will require halving current greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030. With the growth projected, by 2050 the aviation sector alone could consume a quarter of the carbon budget for the 1.5°C target, i.e., the cumulative emissions from all sources that cannot be exceeded to limit global warming to this target.

    Technical progress toward more efficient planes and better organised airports will have only marginal impact at best. Real change can only be achieved by a massive transition toward biofuels or a dramatic reduction in demand. The first solution would be to the detriment of food security and biodiversity, and providing better nutrition to a growing population while remaining within planetary boundaries already presents a huge challenge. We are left with the second option: flying significantly less.

    Researchers on the move

    For better and for worse, researchers have been flying for a long time. The benefits include scientific and human exchanges, and the creation of larger networks with broader scope, giving more robust results. The cost is the international “meeting mania”, which consumes time, energy and money, and whose carbon footprint is enormous.
    “A researcher isolated is a researcher lost,” as the saying goes. Today, unless scientists are advanced in their careers, those who give up flying are marginalised. They transgress the rules of an environment that values frequent exchanges and hyperactivity. In doing so, they miss opportunities to make contacts for new collaborative projects, and run the risk of not being “in the loop”.

    This observation is not specific to research: it concerns all competitive environments, which in our globalised world is a very large number of professions. To emit less CO2 is to reduce one’s activities; to reduce one’s activities, when one is alone in doing so, is to exclude oneself from the competition. If the first to act loses, it’s no surprise that governmental climate commitments are far from sufficient, and even unmet.

    By reducing its emissions voluntarily, the scientific community would be exemplary for two reasons. First, it would show that the science – the severe warnings of climatologists and ecologists – must be taken seriously. Second, it would prove that a professional sector can overcome the fatal “first to act loses” attitude and collectively change its behaviour.


    The first project to change the situation could be addressing scientific conferences. Historically, they allowed important results to be shared quickly, at a time when communication with journals took place by post. Publishing an article was necessarily a slow process, and once published, its circulation was limited by journals existing only on paper. Today it is possible to publish in record time, and articles are instantly available online.

    Conferences have essentially become areas for collective brainstorming, where a mixture of the official programme and informal encounters produces fruitful exchanges. However, they can also be a source of significant carbon emissions.

    There are three ways to limit the carbon footprint of conferences.

    • Go to fewer of them. Major world scientific meetings emit tens of thousands of tons of CO2. However, under the pretext of human contact but also of communication (even of “buzz”), they multiply without real justification. It is not rare to have three, four or even more conferences of global significance each year on the same theme, each with separate organisers.

    • Organise events that preserve social interaction while limiting travel, and therefore CO2emissions. This is the concept of multiple-site conferences, where regional hub sites are linked together with videoconferencing. In this case the choice of central locations (relative to the expected audience), instead of pleasant but often remote places, would reduce the total distance travelled. Shorter distances also make trains increasingly practical, and in countries where trains operate on low-carbon electricity, they produce much less CO₂ per passenger and kilometre than planes.

    • Virtualise encounters: “no-fly conferences” to which everyone can connect from home. Pilot experiments have been encouraging, and technological developments should allow increasingly sophisticated formats including both official programs (easy to virtualise, including for questions and answers) and informal scheduled or improvised discussion sessions. The latter are less easy to organise, but they will need to be preserved because they contribute to the interest of these events.


    While it might be hoped that teleconferences will gradually replace face-to-face meetings, the two are in fact growing in parallel. This is similar to what is happening with energy: production from renewable sources is rising rapidly, yet fossil-fuel consumption continues to grow.

    The importance of making and maintaining good relationships through direct human contact, and also of efficiency – we work better when we know each other – are good reasons to travel. But not to the point of ignoring the reality of our environmental situation.

    The carbon budget beyond which we risk falling into an uncontrollable climate situation is now estimated at about 800 billion tons of CO₂, a little more than 100 tons for each of the 7.5 billion inhabitants of the planet. Spread over 30 years, this gives an average of 3 tons per year per person. Two transatlantic round-trips in economy class are enough to consume this budget, which we drastically exceed already since the average European emits 9 tons of CO₂ per year.

    The question is no longer just whether to travel less. It is to quantify the carbon footprint of travel, to set reduction targets (which should be transparent regardless of how ambitious they are), and to verify that these are met.

    Better now than later

    The net-zero world soon awaiting us requires carbon abstinence. Air travel is just one aspect; information and communication technology (ICT) is another. This should be organised and adopted without delay, at the risk of being forced upon us later on by worsening conditions. Meeting physically with colleagues who live thousands of miles away is not an inalienable right. Ignoring the science of greenhouse gases and the resulting threat posed to humanity would be irresponsible.

    To continue to emit CO2 that future generations will then have to capture from the atmosphere to guarantee their own survival would be inexcusable. Many research institutions already have policies in place to encourage their members to adopt good practices for occupational risk prevention, data protection and ethical decision-making. Now is the time for institutions to also embrace policy for flight reduction or carbon abstinence. Our collective future depends on it.

    In addition to flying less, you can also fight climate change by donating to Cool Earth, a Kinder-vetted non-profit that is working to protect rainforests 👇

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. It's written by Xavier Anglaret (Université de Bordeaux), Chris Wymant (University of Oxford), and Kévin Jean (CNAM). You can read the original article here. 

    This story features:
    Read more