Enviro-word of the moment: Anthropocene

May 11, 2011

A word has entered the language — at least, the language of environmental concern — that may be ready for prime-time. That word is Anthropocene. It’s the epoch we’re apparently living in, roughly translated as the Age of Man. The theory behind the name is that human beings have made such an impact on Earth’s geology that we should have an era named for us that differentiates this time from the tired old Holocene period.

Holocene means “entirely new,” but it’s been some 10,000 years since it started. Scientists and others meeting in London figure it may be time to move on.

In a note about their meeting at The Geological Society, they ask: “Has humanity’s impact on the Earth been so significant that it defines a new geological epoch? In the blink of a geological eye, through our need for energy, food, water, minerals, for space in which to live and play, we have wrought changes to Earth’s environment and life that are as significant as any known in the geological record.”

They may have a point. Homo sapiens has been particularly expert at exploiting natural resources, warming up the planet by 1.3°F (0.74ºC) over the past century. But the impact goes beyond the extraction and burning of fossil fuels; increasing human appetites for land, food and water put pressure on every other species on Earth. Some scientists believe Earth is on the brink of a sixth mass extinction (the last one was 65 million years ago) and see human activities as being at least partly to blame.

Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen gets most of the credit for coining the word. Back in 2000 he reckoned that human impacts on the world, its ecosystems and the geologic record constitute a new “Anthropogenic” geological epoch (he wrote it up for the journal Nature two years later). Andrew Revkin, who runs the New York Times’ Dot Earth environmental blog, gets some points for using the term “Anthrocene” in 1992 to describe the same phenomenon.

Photo credit: REUTERS/Beck Diefenbach (Google Earth demonstration at the Google I/O Developers Conference in San Francisco, California)

REUTERS/Mariana Bazo (Tomas, an endangered Humboldt penguin, on a boat en route to a penguin colony on San Lorenzo Island, Peru, January 26, 2011)

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