On Terra Incognita: Crutzen’s “Geology of mankind” (part 1)

As I write, Paul Crutzen’s “Geology of mankind” has 1727 citations on Google Scholar. There have been eighteen new citations already this month. If anything, they’re appearing with increasing frequency, fourteen years after the paper was published. “Geology of mankind” has become the essential point of reference in debates about the Anthropocene.

Two of the positions that Crutzen takes there have become famous, or in some circles notorious, among writers on the Anthropocene. Firstly, that the start of the Anthropocene might be placed “in the latter part of the eighteenth century,” a choice that has something to do with “James Watt’s design of the stream engine in 1784.” Secondly, that one appropriate response to the new conditions might be “large-scale geo-engineering projects.” Those two (far from dogmatic) proposals aside, Crutzen’s paper is most often cited, I think, simply as the representative source for the concept of the Anthropocene in general. It’s become a landmark, an indispensable part of the ancestry.

As far as I know, none of those 1727 publications that cite “Geology of mankind” provide an extended examination of the text itself. Crutzen’s text must have done an enormous amount—directly and indirectly, consciously and by fostering vague underlying presuppositions—to mould the way in which “the Anthropocene” is understood. But I’ve never come across anything that interrogates it in detail.

In the book, I spent some time re-reading another landmark essay about the Anthropocene, Dipesh Chakrabarty’s “The Climate of History.” I suggested that there was a hitherto neglected dichotomy between the living and the non-living running through Chakrabarty’s essay, and that complicating that dichotomy makes it possible to put the analysis of the Anthropocene epoch on a new track. Going all the way back to Crutzen’s paper, to the headwaters of the contemporary discourse on the Anthropocene, might likewise turn out to be productive. So in this post and some (non-sequential) following ones, I’m going to explore what a close reading of the “Geology of mankind” might yield.

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The setting. “Geology of mankind” is a very short paper. It takes up one page, page 23, of the January 3, 2002 issue of Nature. The issue is the first part of volume 415, or issue no. 6867. The main text runs to 674 words, in six paragraphs and thirty sentences. In addition there’s a title, an illustration, a pull quote, an author affiliation, and a nine-item list of “further reading.”

All this goes with the form in which Crutzen was writing. At that time, Nature ran a more or less weekly feature called “Concepts,” just after the book reviews and just before “News and Views” (it sometimes alternated or cohabited with a feature called “Words”—a series in which Crutzen’s paper might almost have belonged instead). Each “Concepts” feature was a similar-looking one-page affair, likewise with a single illustration, a short list of further reading, and so on. The series usually called for a brief review of an existing concept, however, rather than the virtual creation of a new one (the “Concept” the week after Crutzen’s was a discussion of whether or not there are universal human characteristics).

Inevitably, I’ve found myself wondering—and perhaps other writers who’ve had things to say about the Anthropocene should wonder too—what I’d come up with under those same conditions. Suppose you were asked to prepare your own introduction to the Anthropocene, for absolute beginners, 650–700 words long, with a single-digit list of further reading, a picture in the bottom left corner and a thirty-word pull quote in the top right. What would it be? (And would it still be getting cited once a day in the scholarly literature come 2030?)

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The title. I don’t know if the title is Crutzen’s own, or the work of a Nature subeditor, but it’s an intriguing one. I think there are two different ways of reading it, and those two interpretations already seem to contain, in embryo, two contrasting traditions that have descended from Crutzen’s paper.

On the one hand: “Geology of mankind” in the sense of a geology or geological formation that arises from, or belongs to, or is possessed by, human beings. “Our” geology. In contrast to the old geology, in which humankind was only an observer, this is a new geology of which we are also the producers. A state of the physical world produced by the human species collectively. The earth subordinated to humanity. This is the “geology of mankind,” broadly speaking, as it is now understood by the ecomodernists.

On the other hand: “Geology of mankind” in the sense of the geological aspect or dimension of humankind. The experiment of studying human beings geologically—as distinct from studying, say, the biology of mankind. The human species observed through its interactions with the material world. Here, “geology” mainly means “the branch of science concerned with the physical structure and substance of the earth” (OED sense 2a), rather than, as it does in the first reading, “the rocks, structures, processes, etc., with which this science is concerned” (OED sense 2b). Humans seen geologically, with all the strange effects of scale, distancing, and ghostliness that that must entail. This is the “geology of mankind,” I like to think, as it is being elaborated in the stratigraphic analyses of the Anthropocene Working Group.

The first of those senses is implicitly universalist, difference-trampling, we’re-all-in-it-together-ish. The second is not. That same question of universalism or the suppression of difference comes back in the title’s handling of gender, about which there’s less productive ambivalence. “Geology of mankind.” At least that’s better than “Geology of Man.” But it could have been “Geology of humankind,” or “Geology of humanity.” Here already were the seeds of Kate Raworth’s critique of the “Manthropocene.”

A third thing worth noting about the title: the consequently unexpected absence of geology, in the narrow sense of that word, from the article that follows. Crutzen does write about climate change and about ice layers, but there will be nothing about rocks or about fossils in his 674 words. Instead, he is concerned with present-day anthropogenic modification of the Earth system, and the future time during which “mankind will remain a major environmental force.” He writes about perturbations of the carbon, water, nitrogen, and sulphur cycles; about population, biodiversity, and dam building. But the issue of stratigraphy, of the very long-term geological traces of those perturbations and ecological changes, is scarcely taken up in what he writes, even though it’s so strongly implied by his title.

The great exception, of course, is the term Anthropocene itself, which he proposes as—in some sense—a new “geological epoch.” But what exactly is the status of that proposal in “Geology of mankind”? I’ll return to that question.

It’s the stratigraphic version of the Anthropocene that’s always interested me the most. The stratigraphers’ Anthropocene is the one that I’d like to credit with having the potential to renovate ecological politics for the decades ahead. I’ve always traced the real origin of that Anthropocene to another essay, “Are we now living in the Anthropocene?” That essay was not written by Crutzen (who’s an atmospheric chemist, not a geologist), and it was published six years after “Geology of mankind.” It took up the quite distinct and novel question of whether or not “the effects referred to by Crutzen” would produce “a distinctive stratigraphic boundary” in the geological record “from the perspective of the far future.” It took inspiration from Crutzen’s work, but it opened up a whole new set of issues. That sharp difference between Crutzen’s Earth-system concerns in 2002 and the stratigraphic concerns of the AWG is hardly ever adequately appreciated by commentators.

It’s still startling to go back to “Geology of mankind” and to remember just how little concerned it actually was with geological formations. That suggests the possibility of a fascinating counter-factual. If the title was in fact chosen by an anonymous sub-editor rather than by Crutzen himself, and if that editor had happened to make a different choice, how differently might the debate about the Anthropocene epoch subsequently have developed?

More to follow!

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