The Epoch of Humankind


On January 8th a group of scientists published a paper in the journal Science to advance their hypothesis that we are no longer living in the Holocene Epoch but rather we are living in a new and very different epoch called (unofficially) the Anthropocene (anthropo- means humankind and -cene means recent).

Before I go any further let me fill you in on some details. An epoch is part of the division of geologic time. It is longer than an age and shorter than a period. Currently we are in the Quaternary Period (the present to~2.6 million years ago) and the Subatlantic Age(the present to~2,500 years ago). These divisions are based on changes in the rock layer that indicate different conditions or events throughout the earth’s history.

Technically we are still in the Holocene Epoch (the present ~11,700 years ago) but that designation might change if the Anthropocene Working Group has it’s way. The Anthropocene Working Group is part of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. Stratigraphy is a branch of geology which studies the rock layers or strata. These rock jockeys (or stratigraphers) take the designation of geological time very seriously. Vvveeerrrryyyyy seriously

The creation of the term “Anthropocene” is credited to Dr. Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist. According to Dr. Crutzen, humankind is a major driver for change across the planet and our shift to mass production in agriculture and industry should be considered a major geological event. From the invention of plastics and the atomic bomb to large scale deforestation and intense breeding of plants and animals-we as a species have left a indelible mark during our short time on the planet. Dr. Crutzen and others believe we can no longer consider ourselves to be living in the Holocene Epoch but in an entirely new one based on the rapid and expansive changes made since the Industrial Age (or earlier).

In order to make a formal change the International Commission on Stratigraphy and the International Union of Geological Sciences (the overarching body on rocks) will need to look at the evidence and make a decision…some day. Remember we are talking about geological time here so nothing is done on Twitter time. To build a case for the Anthropocene, a working group of scientists (including Dr. Crutzen) formed to collect the needed evidence. Once that decision is made science textbooks all over the world may (or may not) need to be updated to reflect the change in designation.

This may not mean much to you but consider that by changing the geological designation we are, in way, recognizing our role in the history of the planet. And by recognizing our role we may reflect (and act) on how we shape the future ages, epochs, periods, eras, and eons for the better. Or at least the future for the next generation of Homo sapiens.

About the illustration: Watercolor, colored pencil, and pens-A simple image of a bison looking over a prairie full of hydraulic fracking platforms.

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