An Age without a Name, 1: adopting the Anthropocene

‘Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!
throughout the sensual world proclaim
one crowded hour of glorious life
is worth an age without a name’

You may have your doubts about the sentiment – a bit juvenile for my taste, but then I am no longer young – but the curious fact is that we currently live in an Age without a name.

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The previous Age, the Late Pleistocene, lasted some 120,000 years – give or take a few thousand – and its end, some 11,700 years ago, also marked the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, which lasted some 2.5 million years.

In Geochronology, an Age is the smallest unit; next comes the Epoch, then Period, Era, and ultimately Eon. Their length is not precisely defined: Ages can span millions of years, Epochs tens of millions, Periods up to a hundred million, Eras several hundred million, Eons half a billion years or more (I presume the short scale billion 10⁹ is meant, rather than the long scale 10¹²) – so the present Epoch, the Holocene, at a mere 11,700 years, is barely under way, so perhaps it is no surprise that its first Age has not been named yet.

Stripped of their Greek, the impressive-sounding names are rather dull. (As a child, coloured depictions of layers of rock coupled with the name led me to confuse ‘Pleistocene’ and ‘Plasticene’). Holocene – ‘wholly new’ – effectively means ‘recent’; Pleistocene (a touch confusingly) is ‘most new’ or ‘newest’ and succeeded the Pl(e)iocene, the ‘newer’ – from which I gather that they started naming from the oldest first, then had to squeeze in various distinctions as they reached more recent geological times.

For all its short existence, there is a body of thought that suggests that the Holocene should be superseded by a new Epoch, the Anthropocene, defined as the period when human activities started to have a significant impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems.

(The etymology requires some explanation – the ‘-cene’ ending is common to all the Epochs that make up the Cenozoic Era and means ‘New’. Cenozoic means ‘New Life’ and marks the period, beginning some 66 million years ago, when mammals superseded reptiles as the dominant form of life on Earth. The ‘Anthropocene’, then, is the ‘New Human’ Epoch – suggesting dominance not by a class of animals, but a single species – our own)

Where the Anthropocene should start is a matter for illuminating discussion. Some, following the standard geological model of an impact left on the rocks of the Earth itself, would start as recently as seventy odd years ago, when the first use of nuclear weapons left a signature that will remain legible for as long as the Earth lasts. Others, taking their cue from human impact on ecosystems, point to the Industrial Revolution, begun between two and three hundred years ago, or perhaps the Agrarian revolution that immediately preceded it and made it possible; while others trace a line all the way back to the beginnings of civilisation, around ten thousand years ago, when our species made the fundamental shift from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to living in settled communities supported by agriculture, which left its mark on the Earth not only in the form of our fields and settlements, but also in a rapid expansion of the human population.

While that last start point would effectively rub out the Holocene altogether – or reduce it to a mere 1700 years, the span from the end of the last Ice Age to the beginning of ‘civilisation’ – even the most recent option, dating it from the first nuclear explosions, would still leave it as little more than a blip on the Geological time scale.

The argument for the Anthropocene is interesting and shows a significant shift in thought. Had the Victorians – who are largely responsible for the geochronology we use today – chosen to call the latest Epoch after our own species, it would be seen as an expression of Human triumphalism; this was, after all, the time when the advent of steam power and industry had seen a small nation on the fringes of Europe establish an Empire which by 1922 held sway over one-fifth of the world’s population and one quarter of its territory.

Now, however, the urge to characterise the latest Epoch as one shaped by the human race is a warning rather than a boast: it is driven by concerns over the negative impact of our activity on biodiversity and climate change. And this is a significant shift in attitude. The motto of the Victorian geologists was ‘the present is the key to the past’, which contradicted the prevailing catastrophist view that Earth’s geology had been shaped, in a relatively short span of time, by a series of violent, widespread events, such as floods. The uniformitarian or gradualist school argued that far slower-acting processes, still in operation today – such as erosion – were the main shaping influences, so that the age of the earth must be far greater than had been previously calculated.

(I think it important to add here that no-one ever believed that the world was other than very ancient; what they had not done was quantify what being very ancient amounted to. The 5,646 years proposed by Archbishop Ussher in 1642 as the span from the moment of Creation to the present would have seemed as unimaginably distant in his day as the 4.53 billion years currently estimated to be the age of our planet does to us; it is only comparison that makes one seem absurdly short. And it is probably true to say that we have very little sense of time, for all our skill in measuring it – what, for instance, does half an hour feel like? Does it always feel the same?)

The Victorians felt secure in their position as detached observers, reading the Great Book of Nature with rational objectivity, a tradition inherited from the Greeks and reflected in their choice of Greek nomenclature for naming the Ages, Epochs, Periods, Eras and Eons of the Earth; but what has now been brought home to us is the realisation that the observers are themselves the key agents of change in what they observe, and the question that now exercises our minds is not how far back the process began, but where and how it might end; and bound up with that is another, which is ‘how should we act?’

Adopting the Anthropocene as a label for our age is a signal that detached observation is no longer a tenable position: we cannot be content to stand by and watch. The time is ripe, I think, to consider a fresh way of looking at ourselves in relation to the world; I will consider what that might be in a separate article.

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