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)”

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Treptichnus

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”

New papers from the Anthropocene Working Group (part 2)

Part 1

The second of the new AWG articles is Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene,” online-only as yet in Anthropocene.

The paper’s aim is to put “current knowledge about the environmental behaviour of plastics into a general geological perspective,” write the 17 authors. So how do you think about plastic waste not so much as litter or as pollution, but as a geological phenomenon? By fading out on a foreground image of plastic bags flapping in hedgerows, and tuning in to something deeper and wilder and stranger: by another one of those vertiginous changes of scale that are so characteristic of thinking about the Anthropocene. Thinking geologically about plastics means considering them both as a single huge global stockpile and as trillions of tiny threads, sun-decayed, wave-shredded, and surviving for geological ages in beaches and deltas and seabeds. Continue reading “New papers from the Anthropocene Working Group (part 2)”

Disproportional Representation

Timothy Clark, Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept (London: Bloomsbury, 2015)

The word Anthropocene can mean lots of different things. One of the many good things about Timothy Clark’s new book is that he spells out exactly what he means by it. This isn’t another of those books called Such-and-such in the Anthropocene where “in the Anthropocene” just means “recently (and I’m interested in the environment).” Ecocriticism on the Edge is a crucial book for thinking about the relationship between artistic representation and the theme of the Anthropocene, because for Clark the Anthropocene is nothing if not a problem of representation.

Here’s Clark’s “Anthropocene”: Continue reading “Disproportional Representation”

November 1, 1952

Another preliminary: the image that appears above, and on the cover of the book, needs explaining. It’s the Ivy Mike nuclear test shot, the first thermonuclear explosion. Mike and its successors left a tracery of plutonium-239 in sediment layers around the world, and for a mass of reasons that I discuss in the book, I think that that spike in plutonium levels might be the most appropriate symbolic marker for the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch.

Ivy Mike was detonated on a Pacific coral atoll on the morning of Saturday November 1, 1952 (local time; for most of the world it was still October). The transition between any two geological epochs is of course a lengthy process, but 1952, the first year of the H-bomb era, might be a good point at which to fix the nominal end of the Holocene epoch and the equally nominal beginning of the Anthropocene epoch. Alternatively, the switch-over could be located with even more specificity at the very moment of the Ivy Mike explosion. That moment is an emblematic one and nothing more, of course. But what an emblem! Continue reading “November 1, 1952”

New papers from the Anthropocene Working Group (part 1)

Colin N. Waters et al., “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene,” Science 351 (January 2016)

Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “The geological cycle of plastics and their use as a stratigraphic indicator of the Anthropocene,” Anthropocene (online January 2016)

Mark Williams et al., “The Anthropocene: a conspicuous stratigraphical signal of anthropogenic changes in production and consumption across the biosphere,” Earth’s Future 4 (online February 2016)

There’s only one place to start this blog, really. Since I finished drafting the book, there have been three big review articles published by members of the Anthropocene Working Group. (The AWG is the panel set up within the International Commission on Stratigraphy to consider whether or not to recommend that a new epoch with the name Anthropocene be added to the geologic time scale.) Continue reading “New papers from the Anthropocene Working Group (part 1)”

Preliminaries

Imagine a birth with the force of an explosion, far out in the middle of the ocean. Altogether new, like nothing ever recorded by human hands. An opening, incalculable, to a dream of the remotest future. And yet a birth that is also a burial, to life as a fossil, enmeshed in stone. A turn in which the whole sequence of planetary time returns to view, to call for reckoning. The birth of the Anthropocene.

This is a blog about how to take the measure of the environmental crisis. I’ve spent the last couple of years writing a book on that same topic, The Birth of the Anthropocene, coming out in May with the University of California Press (it’s available for pre-order now, and you can read the first few pages on Amazon). The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological epoch—very new, as geology goes: you could say that it started in 1952. The book explores how the idea of the Anthropocene epoch can help to make sense of the world’s ecological crisis, by putting that crisis in the context of the earth’s distant past.
Continue reading “Preliminaries”