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Wait, so what exactly is the Anthropocene?

What exactly is meant by “Anthropocene”, and what does it represent? Is it a clear cut-start of a new geological epoch? Or is it just another buzzword used by scientists? Have humans created such an impact on the planet to the point that we’ve pushed ourselves into a new epoch?

But where began the change; and what’s my crime?

This is the first line of the poem “Modern Love: X” by George Meredith. I borrow these words to allow us to think about the change we’ve inflicted on the earth and how we’re all responsible in some way. This change is so severe and evident, though some of us try to deny it, that there are proponents of the idea that we are in a new geological epoch called “Anthropocene”. The word comes from the Greek words anthropos for “man” and -cene for “new” - “age of man”.

“The Anthropocene Epoch is an unofficial unit of geologic time, used to describe the most recent period in Earth’s history when the human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems.” According to Alejandro Cearreta, a member of a research team looking at the radioactive waste left by atomic bombs in the Ría de Bilbao, Spain, “Anthropocene is the moment in which humans manage to change the life cycle of the planet when humans remove the planet from its natural variability”.

Photo by Chris LeBoutillier

The International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) is the professional organization in charge of defining the Earth’s time scale and they say we are officially in the Holocene epoch, which began 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age. But there are experts who claim that term is outdated and we are in fact living in the age of man where humans’ influence on the earth is so profound that a new geological epoch needs to be named for what we are experiencing. The Dutch chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen brought attention to the term Anthropocene at a conference in 2000.

So, what defines the Anthropocene epoch? Are we living in it? When did it start?

The start date is also the cause for much debate. One school of thought is that it began around the time of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s when human activities started causing a release of greenhouse gasses on a scale never seen before. However, there are others who believe it began around 1945. Why should the mid-twentieth century mark the start of the Anthropocene? Proponents of this start time say it’s because of the accelerated rate of global change that started around that period. “The growing interference of human beings with the Earth’s metabolism and its relation to the natural variability of the Earth system” picked up velocity around the mid-20th century.

There are some very clear markers of the Anthropocene. Some of these include the radioactive elements dispersed globally from nuclear plants and incidents involving nuclear power, elements identified in soil samples, increased CO2 emissions, rising sea levels, the global mass extinction of species, pollution in different forms, and the transformation of land by deforestation and human development. Another marker of this epoch is the significant amount of plastics in our oceans.

Photo by Stijn Dijkstra

Enjoy having a drink on-the-go from a plastic bottle? Well, we have produced so much plastic since the 1950s that it’s “forming a near-ubiquitous and unambiguous marker of Anthropocene”. Some experts argue that all these markers indicate the end of one geological time and the start of another.

Even with all this evidence, there are those who say this is not sufficient to support naming a new epoch. A key indicator of changes in geological time is the change seen in rock strata and the makeup of fossils they contain. Formally naming Anthropocene as the new epoch depends not only on all the elements previously mentioned but also on this very change in rock strata. According to Syvitski and her co-authors of the University of Colorado study “Not all of these planetary level changes may define the Anthropocene geologically...but if present trends continue, they can lead to markers in the rock record that will.”

So, what’s our crime?

“Distinct physical, chemical, and biological changes to Earth’s rock layers began around the year 1950, the research found… In the past 70 years, humans have exceeded the energy consumption of the entire preceding 11,700 years—largely through the combustion of fossil fuels.” Our excessive consumption patterns, desire for continuous advancements in science, technology, and productivity rates, (to name just a few), have been enacted largely at the expense of the natural environment. These have greatly impacted the earth’s systems and pushed it towards a new geological epoch; arguably, a crime against the planet and ultimately against humanity.


SGK Planet. FAQs about Anthropocene. Retrieved from:

Stromberg, J. (2013) What Is the Anthropocene and Are We in It? Smithsonian Magazine.Retrieved from:

Ehlers, E. and Krafft, T. Earth (edited 2006) System Science in the Anthropocene: Emerging Issues and Problems. Retrieved from:

Kelsey S. (2020) Unprecedented energy use since 1950 has transformed planetary environment and humanity’s geologic footprint. Retrieved from:

Kelsey S. (2020) Unprecedented energy use since 1950 has transformed planetary environment and humanity’s geologic footprint. Retrieved from:

Kelsey S. (2020) Unprecedented energy use since 1950 has transformed planetary environment and humanity’s geologic footprint. Retrieved from:

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