Why efforts to define the Anthropocene must be more inclusive and transparent

Erle Ellis during a recent talk on the Anthropocene. Photo: Erle Ellis
Dec 2016

In this Q&A, Erle Ellis discusses current efforts to put a start date on the Anthropocene, a new geologic epoch in the history of the planet – and why social scientists must be involved in the process.

Today, Erle Ellis and colleagues publish a commentary in Nature titled "Involve social scientists in defining the Anthropocene." In it, they argue that a rush to confirm the 1950s as the beginning of a new geologic epoch in the history of the planet is a mistake. Instead, the researchers call for deeper deliberation with a broader range of academic expertise, greater transparency and a new international institution to oversee all of this. Ellis, director of the Laboratory of Anthropogenic Landscape Ecology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, answers Future Earth’s questions about the team's proposal. 

Owen Gaffney: In your opinion, when and why do you think we entered the Anthropocene?

Erle Ellis: I am convinced that we don’t have the full range of evidence needed to answer these questions. It is too early in the scientific process and maybe even too early in the Anthropocene to arrive at a robust conclusion. I think the question of why is most interesting, and relates to the unprecedented capacities of human societies to alter the Earth system. As this capacity to alter the functioning of an entire planet is clearly social and cultural – not physical, chemical or even biological – evidence and theory relating to why human societies and no other species in Earth’s history gained this capacity is extremely important to understanding, characterizing and dating this phenomenon.   

Most importantly, the emergence of human societies capable of altering the Earth system represents the rise of human systems and the anthroposphere as novel Earth subsystems in their own right, alongside the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere and climate systems. As with the rise of the biosphere, the rise of human systems and the anthroposphere has transformed the entire Earth system. To build a science of the Anthropocene, it will be necessary to understand and characterise the long-term dynamics of human systems, with all of their heterogeneous, historically-contingent complexity, and this will require strong participation and potentially leadership by archaeologists and other social scientists with expertise in long-term social-environmental change.

A far greater research enterprise than the Anthropocene Working Group, which is currently investigating the proposal under the auspices of the International Commission on Stratigraphy, is needed to answer the question of when humans first altered "the Earth system sufficiently to produce a stratigraphic signature in sediments and ice that is distinct from that of the Holocene epoch." The full long-term record of human system emergence must be examined. Even before the Holocene began, humans altered Earth's fire regimes and drove megafauna extinct, producing globally significant changes in the terrestrial biosphere and leaving stratigraphic signatures in the form of charcoal deposits and novel species assemblages. With the rise of agriculture, humans produced even greater changes in the Earth system and left an ever more diverse and extensive array of stratigraphic signatures across Earth, from changes in atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide and potentially climate to soil erosion and the remains of domesticated and introduced species. Industrial societies gained the capacity to change Earth even more. There are many other possible signatures and associated dates. 

It is true that the most recent societies are altering Earth far, far more than earlier societies. Yet this might also be said about the societies of 2050 compared with those of today. The key to making the Anthropocene useful outside the stratigraphic community is to date the Anthropocene to the emergence of human systems capable of setting Earth systems on a new and unprecedented trajectory. When did that begin? There is a lot more work to be done before that question can be answered.

OG: What is at stake here?

EE: A formal Anthropocene epoch would confirm that humans are profoundly and permanently transforming Earth. Yet this is actually not that important at this point. The evidence for this is already quite clear and uncontroversial, at least among scientists: Anthropocene formalisation would not add much more to that evidence. 

What's at stake here, outside the domains of geology and stratigraphy, is a new story of human social relations with Earth. The Anthropocene changes the story from one in which human and natural history play out in separate theaters, to one in which humans shape Earth's past, present and future. In the Anthropocene, it really matters what humans do to Earth. By placing humanity firmly in the role of an Earth-changing force, with all of its complexities, the Anthropocene demands answers to some hard questions – what are we doing with Earth? Are we doing the right things? What can we do better? And the most challenging question of all: Who is or are "we"? Is there or should there be a "we" that can act to guide societies towards better outcomes for humanity and nonhuman nature? These questions are going to stay with us throughout the Anthropocene.

OG: You argue that choosing a 1950 start date instills a "Eurocentric, elite and technocratic narrative of human engagement with our environment that is out of sync with contemporary thought in the social sciences and the humanities.” Others argue that an earlier start date, such as the agricultural revolution, removes many of the political, social and cultural dimensions of the Anthropocene – the state of the planet can be blamed on a homogenous “humanity.” This indicates that all humanity shares responsibility for where we have arrived, rather than the wealthy in industrialised nations. Surely the 1950s is a more compelling from both an Earth system and social system perspective? 

EE: The idea that a pre-1950s start date for the Anthropocene lets wealthy industrialized nations off the hook for their environmental damages is a complete red herring. Industrial people do alter Earth far more per capita than do agricultural people – often much, much more – but this does not mean that agricultural people do not change Earth. An Anthropocene beginning before 1950 does not change any of these facts. It is also worth noting that the rise of industrial nations occurred well before 1950.

Imagining that the " wealthy in industrialised nations" are the only ones responsible for "where we have arrived" is unquestionably a "Eurocentric, elite and technocratic narrative.” Who is this "we"? Are the people who are not "wealthy in industrialised nations" a powerless group without any influence on Earth? The social world of humans is complex, heterogeneous and dynamic. There is a whole lot more going on in the Anthropocene and with human social transformation of Earth than can be explained solely by "the wealthy in industrialised nations" or by changes occurring since 1950. 

OG: You are part of the Anthropocene Working Group. Tell us a bit about how the working group works and the types of discussions you are having?

EE: The Anthropocene Working Group works primarily through email combined with occasional meetings, and operates mostly without funding on donated time. We discuss many things, including longstanding challenges and issues arising, and work together on synthesis papers addressing essential issues of Anthropocene theory, evidence and the formalisation process. Most recently, the working group has shifted to a primary focus on producing a formal proposal for the Anthropocene, including its "golden spike" –  a stratigraphic sequence with a marker or "signature" of Anthropocene transition. For the most part, the focus is on signatures arising in the middle of the 20th century. 

OG: You argue the formalisation of the Anthropocene must be more transparent and have wider input and assessment. What’s the problem with the process right now? 

EE: As far as I know, the Anthropocene Working Group is typical of stratigraphic working groups, representing a group of invited volunteers drawn through the social networks of those with an early interest in formalising a time period. There is no formal membership process or by-laws, and discussions are mostly internal to the group. If the Anthropocene was just another time period, that would be fine. But in this case, there is broad interest in the working process and the makeup of the Anthropocene Working Group. As there is no way to formally engage with the group or to understand precisely how it arrives at its conclusions, this has raised many concerns. Without a transparent and formal process of membership and conduct, it is hard to assess, challenge or even engage with the claims and proposals made by the working group, outside the group's peer-reviewed publications.

OG: When will a decision be made and what are the milestones on the journey?

EE: There are two levels of decision: the working group’s proposal and the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s (ICS) consideration of the proposal. The Anthropocene Working Group hopes to reach a decision on a formalisation proposal within the next two to three years. If the ICS confirms this proposal, there may be a formal Anthropocene within four years or so. However, given current concerns arising in the geology and stratigraphy community, it is looking like it will likely take longer. 

OG: You propose an International Anthropocene Commission. What would the aim of this be and how would it work? 

EE: The aim of an International Anthropocene Commission would be to institutionalise the Anthropocene formalisation process in a sustainable, inclusive, transparent organization that would receive sustained funding and institutional resources. This would enable the formalisation process to expand the scope of its work to include the social sciences, and to manage a much larger scientific community engagement, including regular reporting and standardised, peer-reviewed methodologies.