Long Live The Good Anthropocene

A victory for science over scientism

Earlier this spring, the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy rejected the Anthropocene Working Group’s (AWG) recommendation that the International Union of Geological Science (IUGS) formally declare an end to the Holocene epoch and the beginning of the Anthropocene, the so-called “Age of Humans.” Now this may sound to some readers like so much esoteric gibberish. But given the ideological slant that advocates of the proposed new epoch brought to the deliberations, the decision represents some welcome restraint by the IUGS. Too often in the past, the institutions of science have overstepped their responsibilities, seeking not only to inform our politics but to police them. The decision not to formalize the Anthropocene as proposed amounts to a decision to prevent an anti-industrial ecological politics from being laundered through physical science.

We at the Breakthrough Institute have long had a dog in this fight.

In 2014, the journalist Elizabeth Kolbert tweeted “2 words that probably should not be used in sequence: ‘good’ & ‘anthropocene.’” She was reacting to an essay in which Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton impugned the journalist Andy Revkin and the rest of the “Breakthrough crowd” for suggesting that humanity’s dominant place in the ecological order might present opportunities as well as losses. This was a major subject of our 2015 Dialogue, under the theme “The Good Anthropocene,” which relied substantially on the work of the environmental scientist and Breakthrough Senior Fellow Erle Ellis, a former member of the AWG.

Hamilton’s essay, and Kolbert’s endorsement of it, made abundantly clear the view that the Anthropocene can be neither “good” nor a neutral geologic categorization like the eons and epochs that came before it, but rather a scarlet letter “A” on the human species’ chest. “I think those who argue for the ‘good Anthropocene’ are unscientific,” wrote Hamilton, “and live in a fantasy world of their own construction.”

Wielding the Anthropocene concept in this way would not be the first time environmental scholars used the language of science to justify all manner of social engineering. EO Wilson and Paul Ehrlich ported lessons from their study of ant and butterfly population dynamics, respectively, to make the case for human population control. The school of ecological economics, founded by luminaries including EF Schumacher and Herman Daly, imagined the economy as a thermodynamic system, perpetually bound not by knowledge or innovation as the neoclassicists and Schumperterians held, but by the fixed availability of ecosystem services. More recently, a critical mass of Earth scientists have argued that hard biophysical “planetary boundaries” exist to constrain human activity and ambitions.

Formalizing a moral indictment of our species into the geologic record was not, officially, the goal of the AWG, the committee of mostly stratigraphers which launched in 2009 to determine whether and when the Earth had shifted from the Holocene to a new epoch. But it is clear that moral clarity is precisely the work many on the committee were hoping “The Anthropocene” would do in the discourse.

“When taken seriously,” wrote AWG member Naomi Oreskes, the formalization of the Anthropocene “means we must rethink core assumptions about how we build our economies and our infrastructures, how we travel, how we plan for global pandemics, and even how we eat.” Kolbert, for her part, recently called herself “an Anthropocene partisan,” making the term’s ideological implications explicit.

Over the last few years, the AWG zeroed in on 1952 as the proposed start date of the Anthropocene. But in February, fifteen years after the AWG was first assembled, the IUGS, in a surprise to many, rejected their proposal.

This was the right decision. As the ecologist and Breakthrough Senior Fellow Erle Ellis, a former member of the AWG, has explained for years, the Anthropocene is better thought of as a geologic “event,” similar to the Great Oxygenation Event that occurred over 2 billions years ago. What’s more, as Ellis and many others have pointed out, the very debate about the Anthropocene revealed the impossibility of establishing a hard stratigraphic demarcation of humanity’s footprint. The proposed inciting incidents for the Anthropocene spanned, literally, a million years, from homo sapiens’ unique mastery of fire to the dawn of agriculture (which coincides with the start of the Holocene) to the Columbian Exchange to the Industrial Revolution to the dispersion of radioisotopes and microplastics in the postwar twentieth century.

When considered within this vast historical and anthropological scope, the final proposed start date and site for the Anthropocene—1952 at Crawford Lake in Ontario, a place with uniquely clean accumulation of sediment—seems arbitrary and, frankly, a little silly. How could anyone argue conclusively that 1952 more obviously marks the dawn of humanity’s planetary influence than the other remarkable milestones in our species history? More to the point, why would anyone argue this?

Hamilton, for one, made his intentions clear in his 2014 essay. “Things are bad,” he wrote, “and if we carry on as we are, things will be very bad.” The purpose of the stratigraphic Anthropocene, to its partisans, was explicitly to advance an anti-consumerist and anti-industrial ecological politics. Some credit is due to Hamilton for laying his cards on the table, and coming to the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue to debate the subject with “Ecomodernist Manifesto” co-author Mark Lynas. Much less credit is due, however, to the scientists and advocates who attempted to smuggle a political agenda through the formal but opaque institutions of scientific deliberation.

Fortunately, albeit at the very last minute, in this case the responsible institution got wise to the con. Making note of the significant substantive disagreement over the AWG proposal, the IUGS concluded that “the Anthropocene as a concept will continue to be widely used not only by Earth and environmental scientists, but also by social scientists, politicians and economists, as well as by the public at large.”

The scholars who advocated a hard end to the Holocene did so relying on shabby science for a transparently political agenda. One or the other might be excused—science is alway messy, and never totally apolitical. But the combination gave good reason for the IUGS to reject their recommendation. The rest of us, meanwhile, should breathe a sigh of relief, as this decision marks a break with the long history of outsourcing sociocultural questions of value to the ideological scientism of naturalists, ecologists, and conservationists. Because at the end of the day, the question of whether modern humanity’s existence is a good thing or not—whether we can make a Good Anthropocene—is a question for society, not stratigraphy.