Anthropocene: is this the new epoch of humans?
Geologists, climate scientists, ecologists – and a lawyer – gather in Berlin for talks on whether to rename age of human life
Ian Sample, science editor
Thursday 16 October 2014 01.00 EDT
A disparate group of experts from around the world will meet for the first time on Thursday for talks on what must rank as one of the most momentous decisions in human history.
The question confronting the scientists and other specialists is straightforward enough, even if the solution is far from simple. Is it time to call an end to the epoch we live in and declare the dawn of a new time period: one defined by humanity’s imprint on the planet?
The 30-strong group, made up of geologists, climate scientists, ecologists – and a lawyer for good measure – will start their deliberations in a room at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, or House of the Cultures of the World, a contemporary arts centre in Berlin.
Like many things in the world of geology, little moves fast at the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), the body that decides the time period we live in. But the arrival and informal adoption of the word “anthropocene” to mean a new epoch of humanity has somewhat forced their hand.
The word came into common usage after Paul Crutzen, a Dutch chemist and Nobel prize winner, used the term in 2000. He argued in an academic newsletter that the current geological epoch should be awarded the new name to reflect the major and ongoing impact of human life on Earth.
The official arrival of the Anthropocene would mark the end of the Holocene, the geological time we live in now. Identified by a geochemical signal in Greenland ice cores that marks the onset of warmer and wetter conditions at the end of the last ice age, the Holocene defined a time when humans colonised new territories and the population swelled.
Though many scientists are happy with the Holocene, the Anthropocene was quickly picked up on. It entered the lexicon of archaeologists, historians, climate scientists and environmentalists. For the ICS, which balks at terms being bandied about without them being properly defined, the rise of the Anthropocene posed a problem.
The ICS responded the way any large and conservative organisation might. Its subcommission on quaternary stratigraphy set up a working group on the Anthropocene, filled it with a diverse range of experts, and handed the problem to them. The working group has given itself until 2016 to bash out a proposal for the ICS to consider.
[ For the graphic of “Geological periods 570m years ago to the present” please see: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/oct/16/-sp-scientists-gather-talks-rename-human-age-anthropocene-holocene ]
“Crutzen, who is not a geologist, but one of the modern great scientists, essentially launched a small hand grenade into the world of geological time scales,” Jan Zalasiewicz, chair of the ICS’s anthropocene working group, told the Guardian. “The word began to be used widely, well before geologists ever got involved.”
The secretary of the working group, Colin Waters, a principal mapping geologist at the British Geological Survey, said the term has come to mean different things as it has spread to different groups, a situation that can only end in headaches. “It’s so widely used now that there are at least three journals using the term Anthropocene in their titles, yet no-one knows what is meant by the term. It’s like having a set of publications on the Jurassic without anyone knowing what the word Jurassic means. We need a common understanding,” he said.
The history of the Earth is divided up according to the geological time scale, which is set by the International Commission on Stratigraphy. The longest units of time are periods, such as the Tertiary period, which spans from around 2.5 million years ago to 66 million years ago. Epochs are shorter, such as the Eocene, which ran from 56 million years ago to 34 million years ago. Shorter still are ages, such as the Messinian, which spanned the past 7 to 5 million years.
The working group must first thrash out a definition of the anthropocene and then work out whether it wants the ICS to make the term official and at what level. Crutzen proposed it as a new epoch – as the suffix “cene” suggests – and the working group will use this as a starting point.
In the past, the ICS has looked to rocks to define different time periods in Earth’s history. The Cambrian period, which began more than half a billion years ago, marks the moment when major groups of animals first appeared as fossils in rock strata.
This time, the signals may be less wondrous. One marker for the start of the Anthropocene that the group will consider is the sudden and global arrival of radionuclides left over from atomic bombs in the 1940s and 1950s. One advantage is that plutonium, caesium, strontium and other substances can be linked to a specific date in time as well as a clear line in rock, called a golden spike, in the business. “The boundary might be set at 1945 when that started,” said Zalasiewicz.
Other options are the widespread use of plastic, the release of polyaromatic hydrocarbons from the burning of fossil fuels, and lead contamination from petroleum, which all leave stark traces in the Earth. Crutzen argued for the late 18th century as the start of the industrial revolution.
But some scientists are completely against the idea. Phil Gibbard, a geologist at Cambridge who set up the working group in the first place, is one. “ I’m not in favour of this being defined formally as a division of geological time. I think it’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to do,” he said. “We are living in an interglacial period and there’s no question we’re still within that period, and it’s called the holocene.”
Mike Ellis, a member of the working group and head of climate change at the British Geological Survey, disagrees: “The principal process of change on the planet is us, so the name of our epoch should reflect that. It’s as simple as that.
“It acknowledges that humans and the human process is as much a natural process as any other natural process that we are used to thinking about, such as volcanoes and earthquakes. The things we do and the things we make; the rules and legislation we come up with to control the way we live, they are a natural process and it emerges out of this thing called the Earth.”
• This article was amended on 16 October 2014 because an earlier version referred to the ICS as the ISC in several places.
Capitalism is to civilization what AIDS is to the human body. The injustice of injustices is that our fundamental human needs must be earned through labor and purchased with income. Human existence does not have to be subservient to the flow of money. When the needs of humanity are met unconditionally (without first having to earn the right for survival) then we, as a people, as a community, will be free to turn the creativity within our minds and hearts to higher concerns.
04 APRIL 1990, DENVER, COLORADO: “If we did not keep to socialism, but instead, as some people advocate, turned back to take the capitalist road, . . . degeneration . . . inherent in a society of exploiting classes, would spread unchecked.” Chinese Premier Li Peng spoke these words on March 20, 1990, to the Chinese legislature. Although blind to the greater oppression of socialism, Premier Peng, when observing capitalism, sees with notable clarity.
Capitalism invites a degeneration of human compassion and desire; it calls for an inhalation of profit, gain, goods, and services; and it demands a plunge to the lower depths of human potential. Within the system of capitalism, people make choices in life while contemplating the pitch-black abyss of unemployment, hunger and homelessness.
For a view of these lower depths, one has only to look to the cast of characters in the recent events in Eastern Europe: the American capitalists who are rushing in for opportunity; the Eastern Europeans who are embracing the West with wild intoxication (as documented by American journalists); and finally, the Eastern Europeans who are worrying with a sober fear of an uncertain future that approaches like an avalanche.
On November 9, 1989, East Germany conceded to the rupture of its population that had begun September 12, with the opening of the East German – Hungarian border. The Berlin Wall had opened for travel into the west.
As if a dam had burst open from the pressure, refugees, like tons of water, flooded through. With the Christmas season rapidly approaching, Hyman Products, Inc. of St. Louis, Missouri, responded to the event with salivating urgency. Fifty tons of the Berlin Wall were quickly dismantled and quietly shipped to Missouri, where the concrete slabs were reduced to chunks the size of golf balls. The mementos, symbolizing the western democratic freedom to be found beyond the wall (and moderately priced at $10.00 each), reached the shelves of stores such as Bloomingdales and May D&F in the nick of time for Christmas shoppers who had mistakenly thought they had everything.
Arriving in West Berlin nine days after the wall was opened, the aging acoustic-rock trio Crosby, Stills & Nash performed a twenty-minute set of music to an enthusiastic audience with the Brandenburg Gate portion of the Berlin Wall as a backdrop. A CBS Evening News film clip captured the trio singing “Chippin’ Away,” a fortuitously appropriate song from one of their recent albums. Their record company, Atlantic Records, no doubt, insured that music stores throughout West Berlin had an adequate supply of the Crosby, Stills & Nash vinyl.
SHORT TAKES : Crosby, Stills and Nash Sound a Positive Note at Berlin Wall
November 21, 1989|From [LA] Times Staff and wire service reports
WEST BERLIN — Crosby, Stills and Nash, whose rock music roots reach back to the early years of the Berlin Wall, sang to several hundred chilly fans today in front of the Brandenburg Gate, telling them to keep chipping away at the wall.
Stephen Stills said the 20-minute performance with sidekicks David Crosby and Graham Nash was arranged on short notice, with help from the West Berlin police.
There might have been no hint of an intent to market except for the telltale evening news clip. How could the performance have truly been spontaneous and heartfelt when it was a mere twenty minutes in length, but long enough for CBS to grab a film clip of the song, “Chippin’ Away?” Compassion and marketing walk hand-in-hand along the capitalist road.
On December 29, Vaclav Havel was elected President of Czechoslovakia after its population had also ruptured the borders of its communist regime. Frank Zappa, American rock guitarist and self-avowed capitalist, wasted no time announcing that he was planning to interview Havel in a film documentary for FNN (Financial News Network on cable television). The documentary would cover Havel’s rise from the oppression of socialism to his role in Czechoslovakia’s current alignment with the economy of the West.
Jane Fonda, the movie actress, had a similar light bulb flash in her mind, according to a March 21, 1990, Denver Post column by Liz Smith:
“People are talking about Jane Fonda’s recent trip to Europe. She’s been moving fast since the tumultuous events over there and plans a big movie which would co-star – the fall of the iron curtain! Fonda recently spent time with Czechoslovakia’s new president, playwright Vaclav Havel, and sees his life story – especially the five years he spent in jail for dissident activities against communism – as a heady brew for film. Fonda herself would portray Havel’s wife, Olga.”
It’s debatable that Fonda’s desire would go any further than the boundaries of her heart without the profit motive of the film company that dictates her vocation. Honest compassion, present though it may be, is hard to find in the news stories emanating from these recent events. Honest compassion is associated with the poor and the lower class – those who are the polar opposites of capitalists. An example would be Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who does not accept money for the continuation of her work. She accepts only unconditional offerings of food, medical supplies, and service. Compassion that turns a profit, however, makes the news and adds definition to life at the lower depths.
Captured by American journalists, the eyes and voices of the refugees flooding through the borders express a consuming desire for the goods and services of the West. A CBS reporter for the Sunday Morning with Charles Kuralt program on November 12, 1989 commented that refugees pouring into West Berlin would mostly stop in front of toy stores with “crazy-big smiles” while looking at stuff for their children.
One television image focused on a large sign held by children in a crowd near the Brandenburg Gate, at the entrance to West Berlin, which proclaimed Krenzman, “Batman.” One journalist wrote in a November 12 front-page Denver Post article that a large Woolworth’s outlet in the heart of West Berlin was literally under siege by thousands of East German consumers “buying food, cassettes, clothes, anything affordable and in short supply in the east.”
According to an article from the same paper, East Germans “waded past dazzling showcases of oysters, caviar, lobsters, champagne, and oranges on their first visit to the West. So it went in thousands of West Berlin department stores and bars, bookstores and movie theatres, hamburger joints and even pornography shops.”
The article continues, “outside the Wertheimer department store, a crowd gathered around a glass case to ogle an elaborate toy train display that seemed as marvelous to them as the Mercedes sedans clogging the nearby side street.” According to a March 18, 1990 Denver Post article, there are now open-air markets in Weimar, East Germany with signs over much-coveted blue jeans and bananas that read “deutsche marks only.”
This intoxication with Western goods and services affected the results of the March 19 free elections in East Germany, after which one East German man (interviewed on the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather) concluded “East Germany is finished. Fifty percent of the people voted for money, not for their own country.” A professor from Humboldt University in East Berlin concluded “My fellow countrymen have betrayed me and my nation for the promise of riches. They voted for bananas, chocolate, and a better life.” In nearby Czechoslovakia, when the borders were opened to the west, one Prague teenager (interviewed on the CBS Evening News) said “I think for young people it makes no sense, because we won’t have the money to go [to the West] anyway.” This degenerative focusing of human desire upon the acquisition of products characterizes life at the lower depths of capitalism.
The elderly and the soon-to-be unemployed of East Germany are fearful of the insecurity that capitalism will bring. Under socialism, the East Germans have “cradle-to-grave” social benefits that provide secure employment, as well as subsidized food and housing.
On December 31, 1989, a journalist for CBS Sunday Morning reported “Most East Germans want the benefits of a free economy, but are afraid of losing the benefits of socialism.” An East German lady (being interviewed) agreed, “Not only a free economy, but on the other side the social things should not be lost: the right for work; everyone has a house; nobody is so poor they have to be hungry.” A March 13, 1990 Denver Post article reported:
“Economic reforms will leave 100,000 auto workers without jobs, an industry official said yesterday in the most concrete sign that East Germany’s radical changes could mean widespread unemployment. Dieter Voigt, the general manager of East Germany’s IFA Automobile works, said layoffs of between sixty percent to seventy percent were expected in the automobile industry and related production facilities.”
On the March 19, NBC Evening News with Tom Brokaw, Gerhard Petri (interviewed in East Germany) said “I am scared that my apartment will cost four or five times more, and my pension will not be raised. I am 78 years old and I don’t see a rosy future.”
According to a December 14 Rocky Mountain News article by Peter Tautfest (an American writer and editor who has lived in West Germany for the last twenty years), West Berlin residents, prior to the building of the Berlin Wall, would exchange their strong mark on the free market for the weak East German mark and cross over to East Berlin to buy such heavily subsidized food items as bread, milk, potatoes and meat at a fraction of the price they had to pay in Western supermarkets. “Today,” he writes, “many fear the same prospect could draw West Berlin’s growing population of homeless, unemployed and social dropouts to buy cheap basics in East Berlin.” He adds:
“An even greater worry is that a poor and weak East Germany could wind up as an economic colony of its rich and powerful Western cousin. Some wealthy West Germans are already speculating in real estate in East Germany, . . . As go basic food items and real estate, so would go industrial assets. . . . In no time flat, large parts of East Germany could be bought up by West German investors.”
Fear and insecurity, already being felt by East Germans, are at the heart of the lower depths of capitalism.
Soon, capitalism will be the only economic system of significant strength. Then, all other systems will be slight in comparison. Eyes will turn away from the tangible oppression of the socialist regimes that created symbols of division such as the Berlin Wall and rulers such as Nicolai Ceaucescu. As the refugees flood to the capitalist west and socialist regimes crumble into obscurity, eyes will turn to the oppression of capitalism that degenerates the compassion and desire of humanity into a narrowed focus upon earnings, acquisitions, and basic hand-to-mouth survival. It is an oppression that cannot be shattered into pieces with a sledgehammer, like the Berlin Wall, or assassinated with a firing squad, like Ceaucescu, yet it seeks to divide, control, and submerge life with the same authority.
by S.A. Bort / 1 August 2013 (4 April 1990)
1). Associated Press. The Denver Post. 18 March 1990. 2), 3). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Wall 4). eBay. 5). http://www.bridgemanart.com/asset/328143/Children-holding-a-banner-reading-‘Krenzman’-duri 6). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/10/berlin-model-railroad-birds-eye-view-in-miniature_n_1505832.html#slide=960847 7). eBay. 8). http://media.photobucket.com/user/julierhodes7/media/playgroundcemetary.jpg.html?filters[term]=cradle%20to%20grave&filters[primary]=images&filters[secondary]=videos&sort=1&o=19#/user/julierhodes7/media/playgroundcemetary.jpg.html?filters%5Bterm%5D=cradle%20to%20grave&filters%5Bprimary%5D=images&filters%5Bsecondary%5D=videos&sort=1&o=19&_suid=1375402521143003213963459371233 9). Amazon.com.
I originally wrote this April 4, 1990, five months after the Berlin Wall fell. After twenty-three years, I thought I would tune it up a bit and publish it here on the blog, along with the two accompanying essays.
I sent these three essays to Burlington, Vermont’s Brautigan Library, named for Richard Brautigan and initiated by his daughter, Ianthe. The essays were among the first (in 1990) accepted, bound and placed on the shelves under the “Mayonnaise System Catalog Number” of: “Social/Political/Cultural: SOC 1990.007.” My accompanying certificate states: “LET NO MAN block the light of wisdom and inspiration found therein.”
See: http://dtc-wsuv.org/brautiganlibrary/?s=Stephen+Bort , http://www.cchmuseum.org/research/the-brautigan-library/ , http://www.thebrautiganlibrary.org/Blank.html , http://www.brautigan.net/responses-library.html , http://brautigan.cybernetic-meadows.net/tiki-index.php?page=The+Brautigan+Library and https://www.facebook.com/BrautiganLibrary for current information on the library.
Shortly after I was added to the shelves, I was contacted by Lawrence Ingrassia of the Wall Street Journal, who was writing an article on the opening of the library. He had seen the above foreward to this essay and was curious about the concept of “abolishing money.” He asked if I was a socialist. I answered no. He asked other questions, but in the end, his article of May 28, 1991 did not mention me. His article can be found here: http://brautigan.cybernetic-meadows.net/tiki-index.php?page=Ingrassia+1991+Fictional+Library+Becomes+a+Real+Place