2.2 Does the Anthropocene warrant recognition in The Geological Time Scale?

Humans, society, institutions, and technology arise from, and are components of, the Earth. In principle, therefore, they lie within the scope of geology, the scientific study of the Earth.

Of course this doesn’t mean that the most appropriate way to examine these topics in detail is necessarily with the conventional tools of geology (as per university geology department or oil company). To understand any phenomenon at a fine enough level requires a store of knowledge and suite of approaches that are tuned to the specific circumstances at hand. Areas of Anthropocene knowledge and practice such as found in medicine, sports, engineering, business, art, politics, and many other domains, have their own languages, their own precepts, their own tools, and their own priority lists of what is important for their particular needs.

At the same time, phenomena such as brain scans, sporting events, sculpture, and governments are not add-ons to the Earth that appeared independently of Earthly processes, but, like rivers, mountains, forests, and clouds, are products arising from the physical development or “evolution” of the Earth through time. They are in a basic sense geological phenomena, even when not fully susceptible to analysis by established geological methods.

Figure 1 Organisms (and their fossils) and technological artifacts (and their fossils) are geological phenomena–of and by the Earth

If geology is to be a living science of the Earth, it must provide a place in its catalog of planetary processes and effects for new and surprising phenomena, like streetlights and cities, as well as for more traditional topics of study, such as graptolites and geysers.

This is no more than physics does in its assumption that all phenomena on the Earth, not to mention the universe, are subject to physical law. Of course physicists are practical enough to realize that they lack time, energy, or experience enough to “explain” all the complexities of the world, such as libraries and fast food restaurants. But they are still able to offer robust guidelines, like the laws of conservation of energy and mass, that apply to every system, be it one of crystals, books, or hamburgers.

Physicists even make progress in fields far removed from textbook physics, for example by providing insight into the relationship between size and metabolic rates of organisms and of cities. Even with no deep knowledge of organismal biology or urban transportation systems, physicists nonetheless can bring fresh perspectives to questions that would seem otherwise to fall outside the traditional boundaries of their discipline (1).

This reminds us that physics is not a shy science. It is a curiosity-driven endeavor that presses willfully against any suggestion of a limitation on its scope of inquiry. To push forward and outward is a sign of a healthy, confident, and successful science, and I would argue that geology can and should adopt a similar stance with respect to the totality of Earthly phenomena.

To push forward and outward is a sign of a healthy, confident, and successful science, and I would argue that geology can and should adopt a similar stance with respect to the totality of Earthly phenomena.

And doing so would not constitute a break from geological practice. Darwin, a geologist as well as biologist, provided the conceptual tools to link modern organisms back to more “primitive” lifeforms and by implication to abiotic chemical (geological) precursors.  Life could then be seen as a new, more organized, and more energy-intensive pattern of Earth materials.

As life became a global force it merited collectively the name of biosphere, and joined the older atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere as one of the major geological systems of the Earth. Remains of organisms from former times are now lithified in stratigraphic layers in the rock record. Much of present geologic knowledge, and almost all of the geologic history of Earth, are based on this biologically annotated rock record, so that the historical timeline of biology is now codified in an official Geological Time Scale.

However, major geological change did not stop with the appearance of the biosphere, but Earthly development continued in surprising ways. Today we have front row seats to the emergence of a new global phenomenon that has transformed and continues to modify the Earth. Humanity and technology have merged into a world-spanning network. The nodes of the network are people and technological artifacts, each in turn a reconfiguration of ancient geological materials.

This global system—energy intensive, massive, and ubiquitous—can be reckoned as a new Earth sphere, the technosphere. Its properties will be discussed in more detail in a later series of posts, but, briefly, the technosphere includes “the world’s large-scale energy and resource extraction systems, power generation and transmission systems, communication, transportation, financial and other networks, governments and bureaucracies, cities, factories, farms and myriad other ‘built’ systems, as well as all the parts of these systems, including computers, windows, tractors, office memos and humans” (2).  One can easily imagine how to extend this list.

Like the biosphere, which emerged as a novel re-organization of abiotic geological materials, the technosphere today represents a global transformation of the substance of Earth.

Like the biosphere, which emerged as a novel re-organization of abiotic geological materials, the technosphere today represents a global transformation of the substance of Earth. In the technosphere, biological and abiotic materials and systems have become linked and organized into a complex web that extends to all corners of the Earth, driving lasting planetary-scale change. Signatures of this process include scrambled and eroded soils, xenographic transplant of species between continents, a blizzard of plastic and other preservable techno-debris, plus chemical and geomorphic changes underway as the atmosphere warms and seas rise. The Anthropocene is the time in Earth history associated with this latest planet-wide transformation.

Recognition of the Anthropocene extends the traditional geological picture of the planet toward a more complete view of the trajectory of Earth through time.

Recognition of the Anthropocene extends the traditional geological picture of the planet toward a more complete view of the trajectory of Earth through time. It represents the beginning of a new chapter of Earth history that for humans may turn out to be the most decisive chapter yet. After all, Anthropocene change is more than a change in state, such as that which began almost two million years ago with the periodic glaciations of the Pleistocene Epoch. Rather, more than a new state, it represents a new global system. (I thank Mike Ellis of the British Geological Survey for this observation). Anthropocene changes are driven by the synergistic, explosive impact of human intelligence and technology which together have created an entirely new sphere, the technosphere, marked by large-scale reliance on new materials (plastics), new global structures (shipping lanes, internet), new kinds of sub-systems (universities), new energy sources (fossil and nuclear), new modes of evolution (cultural and Lamarckian), new forms of information processing and storage (from DNA to electronic bits to qubits), and new levels of power density (computer chips and A-bombs).

…even if civilization should collapse to the last man or woman tomorrow, a unique Anthropocene record would persist indefinitely into the future.

Even though most geologists do not understand the intricacies of biology, nonetheless the importance of life as a planetary process is deeply embedded in the formal geological account of Earth history. Likewise, many Anthropocene phenomena stem from techno-sociological forces whose detailed explication lies outside the expertise of most geologists. Nonetheless, these processes have already left a unique, global, and indelible mark on the Earth (2). Their imprint by now is so strong that even if civilization should collapse to the last man or woman tomorrow, a unique Anthropocene record would persist indefinitely into the future. For reasons like this the Anthropocene warrants consideration for official status in The Geological Time Scale.

In any event, classification questions aside, the driving system of the Anthropocene, the technosphere—like the hydrosphere, biosphere and other great spheres—needs to be understood as a whole-planet phenomenon with its own dynamics. The present essay aims to take some steps in this direction.

Further reading

(1) Physical relationships governing metabolic (energy-use) processes of organisms, firms, and cities have been summarized in the recent book by physicist Geoffrey West: Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies, Penguin Press, 2017.

(2) Description of the technosphere taken from: Peter Haff (2014), “Humans and technology in the Anthropocene: Six rules”, in The Anthropocene Review, Volume 1, pages 126–136.

Next up: The Anthropocene Illusion. This is the unstated assumption that humans are prime movers of the Anthropocene, an assumption I disagree with in the absence of serious qualifications.

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