Sunday, October 12, 2014

Anthropocene: bad name for a good thing

The Age of Man: humanity as a global culture; our cities a new environment, a new ecology, an invented eco-system.  It is inspiring.  But it is wrongly named. 

Recent articles from popular scientific literature delineate the problem.  “Is Civilization Natural?” by Adam Frank aired on NPR, September 26, 2014.  That is how I first learned the word in my car the following day.   

Reading the blog transcript, I followed the links and searched on my own.  I found a National Geographic story from 2011, “Enter the Anthropocene-Age of Man” by Elizabeth Kolbert.  In its January 2013 issue, Smithsonian Magazine asked rhetorically, “What is the Anthropocene; and are we in it?” by Joseph Stromberg. 

First, is the presence of human civilization remarkable in geologic time?  Second, if so, what is the proper name?  The second problem is only hinted at.  No one seems to have offered a better label.  As for the first, it depends on whom you ask. 
Earth from Space. Apollo 8.
No indication that it is inhabited.
According to National Geographic, the word “anthropocene” was invented spontaneously by Paul Crutzen, a Nobel laureate chemist. 
The conference chairman kept referring to the Holocene, the epoch that began at the end of the last ice age, 11,500 years ago, and that—officially, at least—continues to this day. "'Let's stop it,'" Crutzen recalls blurting out. "'We are no longer in the Holocene. We are in the Anthropocene.' Well, it was quiet in the room for a while." When the group took a coffee break, the Anthropocene was the main topic of conversation.”
 In truth, Crutzen has been thinking about this for about 40 years.  His first listing in JSTOR is “SST’s – A Threat to the Earth’s Ozone Shield” in Ambio, vol. 1 no. 2, April 1972.  SST refers to the Concorde supersonic transport, a commercial experiment that ran for 27 years, from 1976 until 2003.  Only 100 were ordered, 20 built, and seven put into service.  When Crutzen wrote in 1972, they were four years in the future.

Crutzen continued to research atmospheric chemistry, and was honored with a Nobel prize, in 1995, along with Mario Molina, and F. Sherwood Rowland, for his work on ozone depletion.  But he is not a geologist.

The –cene words all mean “recent.”  From the Tertiary Period through the Quaternary Period, the Epochs are called (oldest first):  Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene.  They mean: oldest recent, dawn of the recent, slightly recent, more recent, most recent, and wholly recent.  (Idaho Museum of Natural History here.)
Earth at Night
Evidence is where you find it.
Stratigraphers define geologic layers by the rocks, of course, but also, more accurately, and precisely by the fossils.  (See The Map that Changed the World reviewed here on NecessaryFacts.) Some stratigraphers were not happy with the neologism “anthropocene” that popped up in the scientific literature.  Others may have settled themselves to it. It depends on whom you ask.  
“Many stratigraphers (scientists who study rock layers) criticize the idea, saying clear-cut evidence for a new epoch simply isn’t there. “When you start naming geologic-time terms, you need to define what exactly the boundary is, where it appears in the rock strata,” says Whitney Autin, a stratigrapher at the SUNY College of Brockport, who suggests Anthropocene is more about pop culture than hard science. The crucial question, he says, is specifying exactly when human beings began to leave their mark on the planet: The atomic era, for instance, has left traces of radiation in soils around the globe, while deeper down in the rock strata, agriculture’s signature in Europe can be detected as far back as A.D. 900. The Anthopocene, Autin says, “provides eye-catching jargon, but from the geologic side, I need the bare bones facts that fit the code.”  (Smithsonian Magazine.)
“At first most of the scientists using the new geologic term were not geologists. [Dr. Jan] Zalasiewicz, [University of Leicester] who is one, found the discussions intriguing. "I noticed that Crutzen's term was appearing in the serious literature, without quotation marks and without a sense of irony," he says. In 2007 Zalasiewicz was serving as chairman of the Geological Society of London's Stratigraphy Commission. At a meeting he decided to ask his fellow stratigraphers what they thought of the Anthropocene. Twenty-one of 22 thought the concept had merit.” (National Geographic)

(See, also, “The Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time?” by Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, Alan Haywood, and Michael Ellis. Philosophical Transactions: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, Vol. 369, No. 1938, (13 March 2011), pp. 1056-1084, by The Royal Society.)

Geologic stages are shorter than epochs and they tend to be named after the places where the layers were first explored, even if similar layers are found elsewhere: Piacenzian, Gelasian, Calabrian …  But the margins of error are still given as ± 0.005 million years, which means ± 5000 years, the time span of the so-called Anthropocene. 

Geologic time is not the only long wave.  The 1954 reference Earth as a Planet, edited by Gerard P. Kuiper, has no index entries for humans, animals, or plants.  About halfway through the 744-page work, in a chapter by G. E. Hutchinson of Yale, "The Biochemistry of the Terrestrial Atmosphere", is this passage:  “The carbon cycle, as it is commonly understood in biology, consists of the photosynthetic reduction of CO2 by green plants and a certain number of purple and green bacteria and the subsequent respiratory release by plants, bacteria, and a to a less extent of animals, of Co2 to the atmosphere.” (p. 379).

Man is the measure of all things.  But measurements must be appropriate.  The Moon is 384,403 km away, center to center, even though we do not travel from the center to the center.  Knowing that in millimeters does not give you much more information. 
Stars that have been touched by our
television signals
Anthropocene means “Man recent”.  It violates the rules of nomenclature and is gendered.  Why not call this the Gynocene?  The word “people” ultimately comes from a doubling for intensity of the first syllable of “poloi” which means “many.”  (Pepper is another example: achoo!)   Linguists who theorize a common source for all Afro-Asiatic languages use the word “Nostratic” ultimately from the Latin nos for “we” and, so, “nostras” for we-folks, countrymen, natives, etc.  Homo-words carry too many other meanings. We have enough problems with homo erectus.  Civilization may be sine qua non of who we are.  It is not clear when, measured by paleontology, we became rational and self-aware, versus just being smarter apes.  And those may be two different events.  The recent discovery of cave paintings  in Indonesia that are 40,000 years old and similar to equally old works in Europe suggests much, but answers little. 

We have been radiating electromagnetic signals into space since 1840.  Voyager 2 has been on an “interstellar mission” since 1990.  Even though the sun will expand and burn the planet, some of our descendants may witness that.  And, just as we know Paleozoic millimeter-sized plants from their fossils, they too, may have evidence of our having been here now.  


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