The Anthropocene, Atmospheric Chemists, Geologists and Historians


By Jim Clifford 

Paul Crutzen, who proposed the Anthropocene epoch in 2002, wasn’t a geologist. He was an atmospheric chemist. This fact might explain the decision to reject his proposed new epoch. He wasn’t thinking like a geologist when he suggested the Anthropocene. I’m not a geologist either and have no opinion on whether they got this decision right or wrong within their field. But I do know we live in a world under intense pressure from humans. Humans are changing the climate, contributing to the mass extinction of thousands of species, moving sand at a scale equal to all the rivers on the planet, spreading plastic pollution to most corners of the earth, and overloading waterways and aquatic ecosystems with nutrients. The evidence amassed by the proponents of the Anthropocene epoch confirms we live on a very different planet than our ancestors did a few generations ago.

The problem is fitting a deeply interdisciplinary concept into a geological paradigm. This was evident as the process played out, and they searched for “golden spikes” in the geological record. This is very important for geologists if they want to build a case for a new epoch. It made little sense to historians or historical geographers, who see humanity’s increased influence in shaping the global environment as a centuries-long process, not a singular event. The search for a golden spike caused the Anthropocene working group to focus on the beginning of the nuclear age after 1945 because it left a clear record in the strata (if you have the right equipment and know where to look).

As a historian of industrialization, I would look elsewhere and identify thousands of sites that record the global-scale transformation of the past few hundred years. I would try to show how their number, scale and spread increased over time. I might start with the coal fields in Great Britain and note the evidence of the absence of vast quantities of coal extracted over the past four hundred years. From there, we could map all the other subsurface locations that supplied coal, oil and gas to fuel unending economic growth. However, I would not limit it to these sites as the changing energy regimes only tell part of the global story. So, we’d want to link the coal mines with the iron foundry at Coalbrookdale, where coke was first used in place of charcoal, and the sugar plantations in the Caribbean, where African slaves used iron tools made in Britain’s fledgling industry to produce a new source of food for the English working classes. Increased global connections are central to the transformative process.

We’d also need to note the rapid spread of coal-driven industries in Europe and the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, followed by Japan towards the end of the century, creating competing nodes in the industrial economy. Railways and their global spread in the nineteenth century provide another area of focus, showing the remarkable spread of steam technology. The railways made more and more of the globe accessible to the market. They transformed ecosystems on a massive scale by extending agricultural settlements in regions like the Great Plains, the Steppe, and the Pampas.

Turning to the twentieth century, we can add the transformative power of the internal combustion engine and try to map the locations transformed by automobiles, bulldozers, chainsaws, and tractors. A global roadmap would provide a good starting place. We’d then need to layer in all the sites around the world changed by the chemical industry, starting with sites linking the Haber-Bosch process to population growth and continuing by following the complicated ecological stories of DTT and plastics. We could go on and on to identify locations changed by humans at an accelerating pace since the end of the Second World War.

No places left are entirely untouched by the industrial economy that developed in the early modern period and accelerated since the nineteenth century. I have no idea which parts of these transformations of the planet will remain in the geological record and which are more ephemeral. I don’t think it matters because I am not a geologist. So the question I’m left with is what word we should use to describe a more holistic global scale industrial transformation of the Earth now that the geologists have ruled out the Anthropocene?

Jim Clifford is an Associate Professor of Environmental history at the University of Saskatchewan.

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2 thoughts on “The Anthropocene, Atmospheric Chemists, Geologists and Historians

  1. Jim Clifford Post author

    Graeme Wynn just shared this with me. It looks like the New York Times
    might have been a little hasty in publishing the results of the vote.
    It will be very interesting to watch this process playout.

    PRESS STATEMENT re. the alleged ‘vote’ on the Anthropocene

    In our capacities as the Chair and a Vice-Chair of the Subcommission
    on Quaternary Stratigraphy of the International Commission on
    Stratigraphy, we feel responsible to react to the publication about an
    alleged voting on the Anthropocene in the Subcommission, as conveyed
    in an article published in The New York Times and, thereafter, in many
    media outlets world-round yesterday, 5 March 2024.

    The supply of this unverified information to media has exposed the
    Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, and by default its parent
    scientific bodies, to a considerable potential for reputational
    damage. The alleged voting has been performed in contravention of the
    Statutes of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. Violation of
    the statutory rules included those about the eligibility to vote and
    other vital rules for securing a due scientific process, in a neglect
    of requirements for a democratic decision-making.

    Today, an inquiry including instituting a procedure to annul the
    putative vote has been requested by the Chair of the Subcommission on
    Quaternary Stratigraphy.

    The Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy of the International
    Commission on Stratigraphy adheres to a rule-based decision-making
    process in its scientific deliberations and will undertake all the
    necessary steps to ameliorate the consequences of this voluntary

    On behalf of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS),

    Professor emeritus Jan Zalasiewicz, Chair SQS:
    Professor Martin J. Head, 2nd Vice-Chair, SQS

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