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The Anthropocene: Comparing Its Meaning in Geology (Chronostratigraphy) with Conceptual Approaches Arising in Other Disciplines

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journal contribution
posted on 08.10.2021, 15:56 by Jan Zalasiewicz, Colin N Waters, Erle C Ellis, Martin J Head, Davor Vidas, Will Steffen, Julia Adeney Thomas, Eva Horn, Colin P Summerhayes, Reinhold Leinfelder, JR McNeill, Agnieszka Galuszka, Mark Williams, Anthony D Barnosky, Daniel de B Richter, Philip L Gibbard, Jaia Syvitski, Catherine Jeandel, Alejandro Cearreta, Andrew B Cundy, Ian J Fairchild, Neil L Rose, Juliana A Ivar do Sul, William Shotyk, Simon Turner, Michael Wagreich, Jens Zinke
The term Anthropocene initially emerged from the Earth System science community in the early 2000s, denoting a concept that the Holocene Epoch has terminated as a consequence of human activities. First associated with the onset of the Industrial Revolution, it was then more closely linked with the Great Acceleration in industrialization and globalization from the 1950s that fundamentally modified physical, chemical, and biological signals in geological archives. Since 2009, the Anthropocene has been evaluated by the Anthropocene Working Group, tasked with examining it for potential inclusion in the Geological Time Scale. Such inclusion requires a precisely defined chronostratigraphic and geochronological unit with a globally synchronous base and inception, with the mid-twentieth century being geologically optimal. This reflects an Earth System state in which human activities have become predominant drivers of modifications to the stratigraphic record, making it clearly distinct from the Holocene. However, more recently, the term Anthropocene has also become used for different conceptual interpretations in diverse scholarly fields, including the environmental and social sciences and humanities. These are often flexibly interpreted, commonly without reference to the geological record, and diachronous in time; they often extend much further back in time than the mid-twentieth century. These broader conceptualizations encompass wide ranges and levels of human impacts and interactions with the environment. Here, we clarify what the Anthropocene is in geological terms and compare the proposed geological (chronostratigraphic) definition with some of these broader interpretations and applications of the term “Anthropocene,” showing both their overlaps and differences.

Plain Language Summary
The Anthropocene concept, that modern human impacts on Earth have been sufficient to bring in a new geological epoch, is only two decades old. In that short time, its use has grown explosively, not only in the Earth sciences but also far more widely to spread through the sciences generally, to spill over into the social sciences, arts, and humanities. This has led to welcome discussions between diverse scholarly communities, though also to some very different interpretations of the Anthropocene, when interpreted through different disciplinary lenses. Notably, the geological interpretation used as basis for a potential unit of the Geological Time Scale, of a time unit starting planet-wide and synchronously in the mid-twentieth century with the massive changes triggered by industrialization and globalization, jars with interpretations of an Anthropocene that ranges back many millennia to encompass early human environmental impacts. We analyze and compare these diverse standpoints and their effect upon evolving disciplinary practices, and discuss approaches that could make communication clearer and enhance cross-disciplinary exchanges.



Earth's Future, Volume 9, Issue 3, March 2021, e2020EF001896

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School of Geography, Geology and Environment, University of Leicester


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