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

Kiln Time

Nigel Clark, “Fiery Arts: Pyrotechnology and the Political Aesthetics of the Anthropocene,” GeoHumanities 1, no. 2 (2015), 266-84

A decent rule of thumb: in anthropogenic ecosystems, the angels are on the side of pluralism and diversity, as against monoculture and industrial uniformity. Instead of miles of genetically homogeneous wheat and corn, or thousands of near-identical pallid pigs crammed into a feedlot, a genuinely functional food- or resource-producing landscape needs something more layered: multiple pollinators, multiple varietals, mosaics of planting, an element of mess. That’s the most basic principle of agroecology, and something like an article of faith for the green movement. In fact, I’ve argued that that instinct for pluralism can make a good starting point for green politics as a whole. Clark’s lovely essay draws attention persuasively to another, minor realm in which that same pluralist instinct is wanted. If we need plural ecosystems, we need plural pyrotechnic systems too. Continue reading “Kiln Time”

On Fossilization

Roy E. Plotnick, Felisa A. Smith, and S. Kathleen Lyons, “The fossil record of the sixth extinction,” Ecology Letters 19 (2016), 546–53

I’d like to go back to the thought experiment that’s at the heart of the stratigraphic Anthropocene: if alien geologists arrived to study the earth in some tens of millions of years, what traces of present-day ecological upheavals might they find? One of the most evocative characteristics of contemporary strata—albeit not the most immediately visible thing about them—would be the last-ever appearances of some species in the fossil record, the indicators of their extinction. But how many species would even leave such a record behind, and how many would simply vanish without a trace? Continue reading “On Fossilization”


The Birth of the Anthropocene comes out on Tuesday. You can read the first 17 pages on Google Books. If you’re tempted, and you’re in North America, you can buy it direct from the publisher for $30. Here in the UK, it looks as if prices start at just under £17 at the usual place the Book Depository has it at £16.56 inc. postage, with quicker delivery than Amazon proper, as of this writing. Enjoy!

Graham Harman says at the start of Prince of Networks that he “normally avoids ‘acknowledgments’ sections in books from fear of making his readers feel bored or excluded.” I think that attitude has a lot to be said for it. Even so, I’ve written an acknowledgements section on both of the occasions when I’ve had a chance to do so. But I kept both of them brief.

The internet, though, gives you room to stretch. So this seems like a good chance to say, a bit more fulsomely than on the first page of the book itself: thank you very much indeed to the many people who’ve helped to bring The Birth of the Anthropocene into the world. Continue reading “Thanks”

New papers from the Anthropocene Working Group (part 3)

Part 1; part 2.

The third of the new AWG articles is a long review essay with a colossal scope, by Mark Williams and 24 others: “The Anthropocene: a conspicuous stratigraphical signal of anthropogenic changes in production and consumption across the biosphere.” It’s open-access in Earth’s Future.

The title refers to the Anthropocene as a signal, not as an epoch. To think about the current catastrophe as the emergence of a new geological epoch is to credit it with a pretty huge scale: the catastrophe would have to be something unprecedented for thousands, maybe millions, of years. But this article is an invitation to think about the Anthropocene as an even more radical novelty. That’s not (necessarily) as an alternative to the Anthropocene-as-a-new-epoch way of looking at things: many of these 25 authors have been to the fore in proposing the idea of an Anthropocene epoch. But discussions of golden spikes take a back seat here. Maybe, in order to really understand the ecological presence of human modernity, you have to interpret it as something “more fundamental” still. Continue reading “New papers from the Anthropocene Working Group (part 3)”


Treptichnus pedum was a soft, wormlike creature, not necessarily an “animal” in any conventional sense of the word. The traces of existence that it left behind have been picked out to represent one of the most important turning points in the geological time scale, between Precambrian time and the Phanerozoic eon. The Precambrian is the entire interval from the formation of the earth to the emergence of macro-scale life (it divides into three geological eons, Hadean, Archean, and Proterozoic). The Phanerozoic eon is the rest: the eon of “visible life,” the last 541 million years. T. pedum, the bearer of the distinction between the two, can be a way to think about the meaning of geological time divisions as such. Geological intervals—the Anthropocene among them—should be understood as figures of difference, not as a series of essences. Continue reading “Treptichnus”