New Papers from the Anthropocene Working Group (part 6)

Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “Petrifying Earth Process: The Stratigraphic Imprint of Key Earth System Parameters in the Anthropocene,” Theory, Culture & Society 34:2–3 (2017), 83–104

This is another paper from the splendid TCS special issue on ‘geosocial formations and the Anthropocene.’ It’s not strictly an AWG paper, in fact, but close enough. It’s signed by five key members (Zalasiewicz, Will Steffen, Reinhold Leinfelder, Mark Williams and Colin Waters), and it’s clearly continuous with the group’s project as a whole. Specifically, it complements the Steffen et al. paper I wrote about here last September. It continues to explore the question, broached there, of the relationship between the Earth System Science and stratigraphic versions of the Anthropocene.

Earth System Science: new; holistic; the Earth as an integrated system of feedback loops; continuous satellite monitoring; the centrality of anthropogenic change; threats to keystone species; policy-oriented; excited about the Anthropocene from the start.

Stratigraphy: self-consciously rooted in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; formalistic; the Earth as a stupendous sedimentary archive; the jigsaw-puzzle scrutiny of fossils and formations; the centrality of pre-human aeons; evolutionary changes to marine microorganisms; intellectually puritanical; productively divided about the Anthropocene.

“There is,” in short, “quite a difference between the research styles and philosophies of the communities that deal with formal stratigraphy and with ESS,” and even the prospect of “conflict” between them. But “the distinction between ESS and stratigraphy”—both the one with which Zalasiewicz et al. begin their paper and, still more, mine above—“is of course in part a caricature” (p. 85).

The difference is real, though, and premature integration of the two fields in the spirit of “interdisciplinarity” would be a mistake. Apart from anything else, to properly grasp Paul Crutzen’s foundational paper on the Anthropocene you have to understand the unresolved tensions between ESS and stratigraphy that run right through it.

The premise for this paper is simple. Take the two famous lists that organise much of the work in ESS: Johan Rockström and co’s nine “planetary boundaries” (about which I’ve always had reservations), and Will Steffen and co’s vectors of the “Great Acceleration.” Then (pursuing the thought experiment that partly underpins the stratigraphic Anthropocene) consider which of the items on those lists are currently generating a stratigraphic signal that would remain detectable to the notional geologists of the distant future. “Sedimentary strata (including snow and ice layers) are sensitive recorders of many environmental processes,” but “not everything can be fossilized” (p. 87).

The results of this investigation involve a certain amount of providing peer-reviewed scholarship to substantiate common sense. The depletion of the ozone layer hasn’t left a stratigraphic signal. Fossil fuel burning, chemical pollution and the comprehensive restructuring of the biosphere have done. But as always with the AWG, the assessment is marvellously nuanced and well-informed, with gleaming little details here and there. I liked the idea that the transportation of “ornamental rocks for buildings” leaves a stony record “akin (though more complex)” to the way that glacial erratics let us map the retreat of the ice sheets (p. 95).

I’ve always treasured moments like those—or like Zalasiewicz’s (it’s mainly his imagination at play here, I think) joltingly accurate redescriptions of mining as a novel kind of selective erosion, of discarded ballpoints as “technofossils,” of tube tunnels as repichnia, and the like. Zalasiewicz’s slight-angle-to-the-universe perception of civilization’s artefacts through the lens of stratigraphy repeatedly creates something beautiful: playful but scrupulously objective counter-anthropocentric perceptions of human behaviour as animal or mineral behaviour.

More pragmatically, Zalasiewicz et al. suggest that stratigraphy might help to constrain Rockström’s two as yet “unquantified” planetary boundaries, and that examining the stratigraphic significance of phenomena like aquaculture might set those phenomena in their long-term context in ways that yield implications for policymaking (p. 96).

All this is good stuff. But there’s one point at which Zalasiewicz et al. pay the price for their seeming belief that the role of “the social sciences and humanities” is to provide a sort of advertorial for the Anthropocene (or “to help articulation of humanity’s impact in leaving a lasting legacy on the planet,” p. 84). The paper at hand includes a near duplicate of something I disliked in the first AWG paper I covered on this blog (near the end of that long post):

Rapid growth of human population, closely linked with increased consumption of resources, along with accelerated technological development, represent the three driving forces for many of the anthropogenic signatures that are considered indicative of the Anthropocene. (p. 93)

No, no, and no. Demographic regimes are conditioned by relations of production and class, by economic relations; resource consumption likewise; technological change likewise. For now, this is where all the good work of the AWG still comes to an end, where disciplinary barriers come down and the trail goes cold. There’s still no serious historical analysis within the AWG’s worldview, hence no way for them to trace these three supposed “driving forces” to their actual conditions of emergence, and hence no way for them to complete the circuit and trace the path back again from relations of production to the earth system forces within which those relations are ultimately embedded.

And yet, near the end of the paper, in their discussion of the “socio-economic trends” included amongst Steffen et al.’s graphs of the Great Acceleration:

Other trends, such as those associated with finance and patterns of economic practice, even though they likely produce little that may be regarded as a direct stratigraphic signal, are eminently worth investigating for their impact on Earth System processes, as variations in their operation certainly act to strongly amplify, diminish or otherwise modulate key Earth System characters such as carbon emissions and forest cover. (p. 96)

Is that the start of something? Perhaps…