Are We Really Living in the Anthropocene?3 min read

All of us will have heard of the term by now: the Anthropocene, or the ‘Age of Humans’. It’s the controversial idea that the current geological era we live in is defined by the unprecedented and sometimes irreversible human influence on the planet. Or more accurately: it often describes the feelings of despair that followed the collective realisation that we are ruining the planet by messing up the global climate. Though most experts agree on the disastrous consequences of climate change, not all scientists agree that we should be using the term at all. But why shouldn’t we, and are we then really living in the Anthropocene at all? I decided to do a bit of research to finally get things straight.

Where did the ‘Anthropocene’ come from?

With our species now collectively reaching the 7.5 billion mark, the idea of calling the current epoch the Anthropocene doesn’t seem as outlandish as it might have only a century ago. Every year, the term seems to become more and more suitable to describe our lives on planet Earth. With the extinction rate through the roof, uncontrollable wildfires and destructive floods becoming more common, climate change isn’t just a dystopian, future scenario anymore; it’s already here.

Are we really living in the Anthropocene, or the Age of Humans?
Photo: Joseph Chan

Though experts generally agree on the disastrous consequences of climate change, not all scientists agree that we should be using the term ‘Anthropocene’ at all.

But who first came up with the word ‘Anthropocene’? Splitting the word in two doesn’t tell us that much: ‘anthropo’ (human) and ‘cene’ (new). This ‘-cene’ ending is added to all epochs within the Cenozoic Era, such as the Pleistocene and Holocene, the previous and most recent geological time periods.

The word ‘Anthropocene’ was reportedly first used by Soviet Scientists in the 1960s, but was later coined by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer in the 1980s. It was then popularised by Paul Crutzen in 2000, an atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate. Nonetheless, the term still hasn’t been formally recognised within the field of geology. Have a look at the evolution of the use of the word in the table below.

Why is the Anthropocene controversial?

Although the term is now widespread on the internet (and beyond), the Anthropocene is still a controversial, even problematic topic within academic debates. Most experts consider it a term from pop culture rather than a proven geological phenomenon. And if it really just is a cultural concept, one might wonder, isn’t the Anthropocene also an ideological decision? From one angle, the emphasis on the human element would arguably make people more aware of their impact on their surroundings. And ultimately, it might promote more environmentally-conscious behaviour.

There are scholars, however, who argue that the term may actually do more harm than good. Sociologist Eileen Crist, for example, stresses that naming an epoch after ourselves only perpetuates an anthropocentric (human-centred) worldview. Many agree that it is this exact, arrogant attitude that has led us towards human-induced climate change.

Some scholars fear the term may do more harm than good. If we continue to see ourselves as the dominating power on Earth, how will we change our problematic worldview?

If we name ourselves as the ‘dominating power’ over the planet, this argument claims, we’re hardly moving towards a much-needed change in perspective. Besides, the ‘collectiveness’ in the ‘Anthropos’ could be misleading. Should each human being carry an equal amount of responsibility on their shoulders? Or should we stop ignoring the fact that certain countries and privileged classes consume much more than those in developing regions?

The Anthropocene is a term that describes our destructive influence on planet earth, including the forests and oceans.
Photo: Bjørn Tore Økland

What term should we be using instead?

Well then; how about an alternative term that could replace the Anthropocene? This is another question we haven’t quite agreed on either. There have been a few popular suggestions, however. Human geographer Andreas Malm has recently suggested the ‘Capitalocene’. This term puts much of the blame on the industrial revolution as a precedent to the current economical-political climate; a system which prioritises constant production and excessive profit over durability and sustainability.

Donna Haraway, a prolific post-humanist philosopher, introduced another option: the Chthulucene, derived from the Greek ‘chtohnos’ (‘of the earth’). This term would completely deny anthropocentric thinking and place humans, or perhaps us ‘earthlings’, on the same level as all other, fellow beings on the planet.

So, are we living in the Anthropocene?

So, are we really living in the Anthropocene? Clearly, it’s a valid question that deserves some introspection. Can we individually separate ourselves from the destructive force of the ‘anthropos’? Or are we all undeniably accountable by our birth into the species? In the end, it all depends on your attitude and perspective on your own position in the ecosystem.

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