Of Form and Formalization

I spent the middle of this week at an exceptionally thought-provoking conference. I wanted to say something here in oblique response to one of the most interesting papers I heard.

My account of the Anthropocene puts a great deal of emphasis on the prospect of stratigraphic “formalization”: on the possibility that a new epoch-level unit called the Anthropocene might be added to the chronostratigraphic chart maintained by the International Commission on Stratigraphy. Why?

I think that in the debate about the Anthropocene, the idea of geological “formalization” is often taken to be equivalent to the idea of official ratification. It’s thought that to be interested in the Anthropocene being formalized as a geological epoch is the same as being interested in the Anthropocene being approved, confirmed, or endorsed by the scientific establishment. What’s at stake is the possibility that the new epoch will succeed in gaining the imprimatur of the highest relevant authorities (in this case, the ICS, acting on the commission of the International Union of Geological Sciences, a massive transnational scientific body). For nearly everyone, that’s what “formalization” seems to mean.

If you make that assumption, then there’s at least one fairly good reason and one very bad reason for hoping that the Anthropocene gets formalized.

  1. A fairly good reason: admiration for the scientific process. The IUGS is the world’s repository of geological expertise. If its rigorous multi-stage peer review process can end in the official addition of the Anthropocene to the geological time scale, that tells us a good deal about the extent and nature of change in the Earth system and hence in the developing stratigraphic record. So the degree of progress towards ratification gives non-specialists useful information about the current state of scientific knowledge on the topic.
  2. A perhaps naïve reason: the possibility of public impact. If “geology textbooks must be rewritten,” as they say, to include the Anthropocene, that might be a useful alarm bell or wake-up call, drawing public attention, putting pressure on policymakers, crystallising popular understanding about human societies’ place within the Earth system, etc.

If it really did have those effects, that would certainly be a great advantage to formalizing the Anthropocene. But I’m not sure that it would. There’d be a flurry of interest at the time, no doubt. But would it last for more than a day’s news cycle? Would formalization actually enhance public understanding, or instead get incorporated within all the pre-existing popular prejudices and widely known half-truths about the planet’s workings? Would it really contribute meaningfully to policy agendas, given that climate scientists and biological scientists have already provided far more disquieting scientific information than international policymakers have proved remotely able to digest or respond adequately to? There have already been innumerable Facebook shares of countless news stories saying “it’s official! scientists announce new human-made epoch has begun!” That story gets written every third or fourth time the AWG put out a press release (which isn’t the AWG’s or the press releases’ fault), because the distinction between a poll amongst the AWG and ratification by the IUGS is meaningless to most people.

  1. A deplorable reason: hoping to gain an argumentative advantage. That is, believing that formalization would in some sense prove my version of the Anthropocene right and prove others’ versions (not to mention all the Capitalocenes and Technocenes) wrong, or ill-informed, or anti-scientific, or something. It wouldn’t do anything of the sort, of course: there’s nothing that the ICS or IUGS can do that would still the debate about the Anthropocene.

But what if the geological or stratigraphic “formalization” of the Anthropocene epoch isn’t equivalent to official endorsement or ratification by the scientific community after all? Mightn’t formalization mean something else as well? To make the Anthropocene formal is precisely to give it distinct form. And that’s really what I’m interested in.

I think that the arguments for ratifying the Anthropocene as a new entry in the geological time scale are better than the arguments against. I’d like to think that perhaps it will be ratified some day. But what I’m much more invested in is the full working-out of the arguments on either side, because that’s what gives form and complexity to this version of the debate about the Anthropocene.

The controversy over the dating of the Anthropocene is a way of staging an argument about global environmental history: when and how the planet changed from its Holocene condition to something new. The debate about the hierarchical level of the new unit (age? epoch? period?) is a way of setting that change in the context of Earth history as a whole. The search for a GSSP/golden spike is a way of thinking synecdochically about the specific component parts of that change. And so on. The formalization project gives rigorous form to the idea of the Anthropocene.

Approaching the Anthropocene epoch stratigraphically is like playing tennis with the net up. It’s an invitation to think about the Anthropocene as a temporal form: to formulate a rigorous and well-defined account of it. It’s the Anthropocene not as a slogan or a buzzword or an intuition, but as a well-fashioned concept with nuance and analytic coherence. Do the sedimentological traces of the proposed new epoch have the form of a geologic “series”? That’s a meaningful and worthwhile question about the changing formal properties of the planet.

That’s why I’ve always been sympathetic to geologists like Stanley Finney and Phil Gibbard who are sceptical about formalization. The geologic time scale is an intricate and beautiful form, crafted by generations of scholars. They’re right to guard it jealously, and to suffer it to be modified only with the utmost circumspection. We should think aesthetically about the Anthropocene: we should think about its form.