The Anthropocene Is a Joke
August 14, 2019 10:40 AM   Subscribe

"The idea of the Anthropocene inflates our own importance by promising eternal geological life to our creations. It is of a thread with our species’ peculiar, self-styled exceptionalism—from the animal kingdom, from nature, from the systems that govern it, and from time itself. This illusion may, in the long run, get us all killed."
posted by brundlefly (31 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
I mean... burning down a building doesn't make you an architect but it does make a lasting impact on the neighborhood.
posted by French Fry at 10:46 AM on August 14 [23 favorites]


OH FFS. Let's pretend the Anthropocene isn't a thing and act like we actually DON'T have global effects due to the modern industrial system which "nature" has never seen. We are the only species that can create the AGW. If AGW wasn't a thing then yeah, I'd agree. We're a bunch of dweebs who inflate our self importance.

But this sure sounds like a "rational" excuse to deny AGW: Oh look at you anthrocentrists.

It's odd how this author makes it sound like we're the only ones affected by our effects, as if we aren't literally witnessing a mass extinction event.

But I guess Mass Extinction events don't count in *-cene divisions. Oh wait, yes... yes they do. OK, so go ahead and don't attribute it to modern industrial society -whats your logic then.

I mean this is the same old George Carlin - why do we care, we're just gonna be here a short while and mother earth will keep ticking.

Blah. Sorry. I'm hopping out now. But this sure irks me the start of the article. I'll read more tonight when I'm off break/at home and see if there's more to the point than the intro leads me to believe.

(or if others have some interesting insight that I'm clearly not getting).
posted by symbioid at 10:47 AM on August 14 [33 favorites]


How about Anthropocalypse?
posted by No Robots at 10:49 AM on August 14 [23 favorites]


I had the same sense of frustration, and I read it all the way through. The author doesn't seem to acknowledge that an era can be initiated (and labeled) before it is completed. The "signals in the rocks" will continue to accumulate because of all the irremediable changes we are already making to countless species. This isn't even a very good contrarian #SlatePitch piece...
posted by PhineasGage at 10:53 AM on August 14 [5 favorites]


Our creations won't have "eternal geological life", but our destructions very well might.
posted by jamjam at 10:54 AM on August 14 [4 favorites]


OH FFS. Let's pretend the Anthropocene isn't a thing and act like we actually DON'T have global effects due to the modern industrial system which "nature" has never seen. We are the only species that can create the AGW. If AGW wasn't a thing then yeah, I'd agree. We're a bunch of dweebs who inflate our self importance.

But this sure sounds like a "rational" excuse to deny AGW: Oh look at you anthrocentrists.


That is not what the article is getting at at all. The writer is clearly not an AGW denier.
posted by brundlefly at 10:57 AM on August 14 [7 favorites]


The article wants to say that labeling the Anthropocene an "epoch" smacks of the same hubris that put us in this mess.

I'm not sure that:

A) it's an idea that deserves to be dismissed as easily as others in this thread have done,

and also, at the same time,

B) that it's a necessary idea; i.e., an idea that helps us get out of this mess.

I mean, yeah, "event" is probably nomenclature that more accurately describes us in the context of geological time. But also, does the ability to more accurately describe the transience of all human things really help us, as a species, to take action? I don't know.
posted by what does it eat, light? at 11:05 AM on August 14 [3 favorites]


The first emotion that strikes me is just being utterly aghast at how utterly ignorant this person is of science and scientists that they would think to call the "anthropocene" label hubris.

The "anthropocene" label is scientists from all sorts of disciplines who study the Earth, coming to the realization that by merely studying what is, are no longer primarily studying the effects of natural processes, but the effects of human processes and human industry.

It is not a sense of triumph, it is a sense of terror.
posted by Zalzidrax at 11:19 AM on August 14 [19 favorites]


I mean, yeah, "event" is probably nomenclature that more accurately describes us

It's best not to think about the event. REMAIN INDOORS
posted by sfenders at 11:21 AM on August 14 [15 favorites]


It is not a sense of triumph, it is a sense of terror.

It ought to be, but there is no shortage of people who value fame more than their own and others' lives, who would happily commit atrocities simply to be notable. And, given how things are going, it's hard not to get the impression that some of these people are right at the top, and would unflinchingly drive our civilization into a prolonged suicide if it would make the whole Earth our mausoleum. So I think it is worth pushing back against that idea, to point out that if we destroy ourselves we will leave no beautiful ruins and feet in the sand, that the geological record will not be our epitaph, that over mere millions of years we will be utterly forgotten.
posted by Pyry at 11:47 AM on August 14


This is kinda click-baity framing for an otherwise interesting article about the nature of geologic time.

But is it hubris of us to name this epoch the anthropocene? We, who named all the other epochs? We, who named the stars?
posted by gwint at 11:53 AM on August 14 [20 favorites]


I think this could have been much better if it were just slightly reframed:
Saying "anthropocene" is wildly optimistic, because it assumes we can find a way to keep this planet livable for ourselves over a geologically measurable period of time. But on our current course we are going to wind up an "event" and our historical legacy will be akin to an asteroid strike.
Because as Zalzidrax points out, "anthropocene" is a scientific term providing explanatory power, and nothing in this article comes close to addressing it in that context.

What this article is arguing instead is about the political effectiveness of using the term when discussing human influence on the planet.

Which is important, but doesn't lend itself so well to the "hurr hurr let me blow your little mind by laying down this Mighty Truth" style of contrarianism that was clearly the hook for this story.
posted by bjrubble at 11:53 AM on August 14 [8 favorites]


symbioid: OH FFS. Let's pretend the Anthropocene isn't a thing and act like we actually DON'T have global effects due to the modern industrial system which "nature" has never seen. We are the only species that can create the AGW. If AGW wasn't a thing then yeah, I'd agree. We're a bunch of dweebs who inflate our self importance.

Agreed. But then he goes out of his way to outline & focus on the very aspects of the "event", like climate change, which made people think we should name this the Anthropocene in the first place. The article is at cross purposes with itself. Maybe he's as frustrated as the rest of us...
posted by sneebler at 12:22 PM on August 14




tl;dr
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:27 PM on August 14 [6 favorites]


I mean, I sort of agree with the author, but I sort of disagree.

Geologists divide time into eras, which are in turn subdivided into periods, and which are further divided into epochs. Eras are really big chunks of time. Think of the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras. Roughly speaking, the time of pre-dinosaur multi-cellular life, the time of the dinosaurs, and post-dinosaur/mammal time.

The Mesozoic era ended and the Cenozoic era began about 65 million years ago when something big hit the Earth and caused a mass extinction event. This event resulted in the disappearance of dinosaurs and almost all other large animals from the fossil record.

When the Mesozoic era ended, so did the Cretaceous period, the last period of the Mesozoic era. When the Cenozoic era began, so did the Paleogene period, the first period of the Cenozoic era.

Getting even more nitty-gritty into the pattern that you by now have figured out: When the Cretaceous period ended, so to did the Late Cretaceous epoch. When the Paleogene period began, so too did the Paleocene epoch.

The mass extinction following the impact event was relatively rapid. The extinction-causing impact event itself is recorded in rocks across the world. It is represented by a very, very thin layer of sediment that is rich in iridium. Iridium is rare on Earth but more abundant in rocky/metallic space objects. Its barely noticeable presence in certain rocks across the planet is a telltale clue as to the cause of the mass extinction. In and offshore of the Yucatan Peninsula, the event is marked by the faintly perceptible remains of the Chicxulub Crater.

But the effects of the event echo through all subsequent rock layers. Countless species suddenly disappear from the fossil record. Over millions of years, new forms of life proliferate.

Within the Paleogene period, there is a boundary between the first two epochs, the Paleocene and the Eocene. The rocks at this boundary record evidence of the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum. There are a variety of changes in the sedimentary and fossil record around this time. These changes are associated with a 5-8°C rise in global average temperature and corresponding ocean acidification.

In the deep future, sedimentary rocks across the planet will contain a thin layer formed from sediment originating in or around our time. This thin layer of rock will contain chemical clues about our presence — us, the cause of a planetary-scale mass extinction. If we disappear tomorrow, human civilization would eventually be about as obvious as that barely noticeable layer of iridium-rich rock from 65 million years ago. But the effects of our presence will be reflected in a loss of biodiversity with permanent consequences for the fossil record. Here's what we've already lost in North America.

Scientists have identified nine boundaries for life on Earth as we know it. We are exceeding some of those boundaries, and, absent major behavioral changes, are likely to exceed more of them. How many more species will disappear? After the current mass extinction concludes, what will the long, multi-million-year process of speciation look like? How dramatic will the changes ultimately be?

Humans are unquestionably the cause of major changes in Earth's future fossil record. The question in my mind isn't whether modern human civilization marks a new epoch in geologic history. The question is whether our thin but widespread signature in the sedimentary rock record will mark a boundary between epochs, periods, or eras. It's not whether we're living in the Anthropocene. It's whether the Cenozoic era will end. It's whether or not the next major chapter is the the Anthropozoic era.

Which, yeah, I guess that makes about as much as calling the Cenozoic era the Chicxulubozoic era. I agree with the author in the sense that I think Anthropocene, Anthropogene, and Anthropozoic are not the best of all possible names. But the self-centered name is not the cause of humanity's failure to adequately address the current mass-extinction event.

The author suggests that "Mid-Pleistocene Thermal Maximum" is a better name for what we're witnessing. I disagree. The Pleistocene is over. Human beings have permanently ended the Pleistocene. Many if not most of its characteristic megafauna will be absent from the fossil record in the future. Anthropic Thermal Maximum is a better term for what we're witnessing, but it still falls short.

If anyone feels strongly on the nomenclature issue, please feel free to write the relevant committee. Personally, I think that maybe we could all just agree to call it the Avoidable Giant Crisis (AGC) and move on to discussing solutions.
posted by compartment at 12:59 PM on August 14 [29 favorites]


Loved it. Very cool article and analysis, thank you!
posted by agregoli at 1:07 PM on August 14


I tend to be suspicious of geologists after I found out that, as a discipline, they're much more likely to disagree with anthropic climate change than other scientists.

But I note that, if the anthropocene is an event and not an epoch, they're not going to need a name for what comes after.
posted by Merus at 3:32 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Where is this said about geologists? I'm curious if there's a breakdown somewhere among types of scientists.
posted by agregoli at 4:24 PM on August 14


My personal experience is that Engineer's Disease is worse than Scientist's Disease, but engineering doesn't have a Nobel Prize, so the readily available data is skewed.
posted by sjswitzer at 4:35 PM on August 14


I guess I'm personally in favor with framing it as "the ongoing anthrocaust" but at some point you just gotta hew to the nomenclature the rest of the world is using.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:07 PM on August 14


In a hundred million years the Anthropocene stratum, when investigated, will be little more than a quarter inch of single-use sex toys with the Pokemon logo on them. Well done everybody!
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:27 PM on August 14 [5 favorites]


You need to employ a fair number of geologists to find and extract oil, and that does have the expectable effect on geologists' opinions about global warming.
posted by jamjam at 6:33 PM on August 14 [4 favorites]


Still searching for some sort of breakdown or whether that bit about geologists is true, will post if I find something.
posted by agregoli at 7:17 PM on August 14


You need to employ a fair number of geologists to find and extract oil, and that does have the expectable effect on geologists' opinions about global warming.

Yeah, this what I'm referring to. I've seen a reference that, 10 years ago, 47% of "economic geologists", geologists who work in extractive industries, agreed that climate change was real and caused by humans. Here's the scientist's website.

Anecdotally, 100% of the one (1) economic geologists I know have managed to derail a party by mentioning that they didn't believe that humans could have such a strong impact on the climate. She is very nice but we discount her opinion on this issue.
posted by Merus at 7:35 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


I look forward to Brannen's followup articles for the Atlantic explaining that astronomers have established that it is not in fact a long way down the road to the chemist's and that mathematicians find The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to be really short compared to pi.

Humankind is the measure of all things. If we use words like "event" and "epoch" to refer to spans of geological time, we do so in the first instance metaphorically, imagining them on the model of events like a storm or a festival and epochs like the reign of a ruler.

It was informative and entertaining to see the author slowly crush these metaphors under the weight of the incomprehensible because inhuman literal scale of geological time, I admit.

Also this.
posted by sy at 8:05 PM on August 14


> It is of a thread with our species’ peculiar, self-styled exceptionalism

True that. OTOH, if the near-future world (c. 3000) spawns truly intelligent lifeforms, they have a cuss word they can share, followed with bitter laughter at the raging loonies who, while chanting 'Growth! Growth!' consumed everything, leaving -nothing- for the future. But plastic.
posted by Twang at 8:18 PM on August 14


I dislike the blanket implication that geologists are climate change deniers. Just as one can use plastics and drive gas-powered cars and still believe in climate change, one can certainly work for an oil company and believe in climate change. And, there are many geologists who don’t work for oil companies. Geologists love to point out the difference between geologic time and human time, and on a geologic scale humanity is a blip. But as geologists are humans, on a personal level this stuff still matters. Perhaps some of you have been taking some bitter geologic jokes out of context.
posted by Secretariat at 9:40 PM on August 14


If anyone has the chance, I highly recommend seeing whatever exhibitions you can from Edward Burtynsky & colleagues' anthropocene project, which mainly uses very large scale photography and cinematography, from many places and settings in the world that most western viewers don't usually get to see. It won't convince you about whether it is an event or an epoch*, but I think it will convince you (a) that whatever it is, it isn't something that has happened on our planet before, and (b) it being "just an event" is about the worst case scenario because that means it is an event that ends with us, probably soon. This does seem to agree with what the (somewhat frustrating) article is aiming at in the end, but I didn't really find myself very inspired by the geologist flag-planting that concealed this point, to be honest. Despite being the kind of thing I suspect this article is taking aim at, Burtynsky & colleagues' work is, I think, a much better path towards thinking about these issues.

* side note, this ontological distinction is a bit dubious IMO.
posted by advil at 5:36 AM on August 15 [2 favorites]


The book we use in Intro to Environmental Science refers to our combustion of fossil fuels as something like "our brief, unrepeatable biogeochemical experiment", language that I've always appreciated.

(I'm a biologist. I don't have an opinion on epochs vs events or the rate of climate change denial among geologists. It's certainly higher than it ought to be among biologists.)
posted by hydropsyche at 9:58 AM on August 15 [2 favorites]


Waiting for the punchline.

Waiting.

It was a bad joke.
posted by aspersioncast at 12:24 PM on August 15


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