The Anthropocene as Process: Why We Should View the State of the World through a Deep Historical Lens

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DOI: 10.31501/repats.v1i1.9927
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Abstract
The geological community and the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) are moving ever closer to formalizing a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. First proposed to raise awareness for planetary stewardship, the Anthropocene will likely be defined, according to the AWG, based on patterns of near-synchronous anthropogenic change that place its boundary marker in the mid-twentieth century during the Great Acceleration. While a number of anthropologists, archaeologists, sociologists, and other social scientists have argued against such a designation, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) mandates the process and criteria for evaluating potential formal units of the geological timescale; and, the Anthropocene, with a recent boundary maker, likely will be ratified by the Executive Committee of the Internal Union of Geological Sciences. In light of this, I review biotic, atmospheric, and stratigraphic evidence offered by the AWG for a mid-twentieth century Anthropocene and demonstrate how failing to consider deeper historical processes may result in resource management policies and environmental science actions that exacerbate, rather than alleviate, future anthropogenic impacts.
Planetary Boundaries and Governance Mechanisms in the
transition to the Anthropocene
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Todd J. Braje*
REPATS Journal of Studies and Advanced Researches on Third Sector
Abstract
The geological community and the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) are moving ever closer to
formalizing a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene. First proposed to raise awareness for planetary
stewardship, the Anthropocene will likely be defined, according to the AWG, based on patterns of
near-synchronous anthropogenic change that place its boundary marker in the mid-twentieth
century during the Great Acceleration. While a number of anthropologists, archaeologists,
sociologists, and other social scientists have argued against such a designation, the International
Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) mandates the process and criteria for evaluating potential formal
units of the geological timescale; and, the Anthropocene, with a recent boundary maker, likely will
be ratified by the Executive Committee of the Internal Union of Geological Sciences. In light of this,
I review biotic, atmospheric, and stratigraphic evidence offered by the AWG for a mid-twentieth
century Anthropocene and demonstrate how failing to consider deeper historical processes may
result in resource management policies and environmental science actions that exacerbate, rather
than alleviate, future anthropogenic impacts.
Keywords: Ecodynamics, Historical Ecology, Archaeology
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____________________________
* Irvine Chair of Anthropology and Associate Curator - Institute for Biodiversity Science and Sustainability. California
Academy of Sciences San Francisco, CA 94118 (tbraje@calacademy.org).
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Introduction
The proposed new geological epoch in earth history, the Anthropocene, has been a
lighting rod for discussions centered on the nature of human-environmental interactions. In a
geological blink of the eye, human activities have profoundly impacted earth systems, resulting
in, for example, accelerated extinction rates (Barnosky et al. 2011), alterations to atmospheric
records (Crutzen and Steffen 2003), and land surface transformations (Ellis 2011; Ellis et al. 2013).
First proposed by the geological sciences community as recognition that human action has, in
many cases, destabilized planetary systems and as a call for greater environmental stewardship
(e.g., Crutzen 2002; Crutzen and Stoermer 2000; Steffen et al. 2007; Zalasiewicz et al. 2008), the
Anthropocene has been discussed extensively in a variety of disciplines including the natural
sciences (e.g., Ellis and Haff 2009; Waters et al. 2015; Zalasiewicz et al. 2015), the humanities and
social sciences (e.g., Latour 2015; Lövbrand et al. 2015; Malm and Hornborg 2014; Solli et al.
2011; Visconti 2014), and the historical sciences (e.g., Braje 2015; Braje and Erlandson 2013;
Erlandson and Braje 2013; Lewis and Maslin 2015; Ruddiman 2013; Smith and Zeder 2013),
among others. The Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) was formed and tasked with
determining whether the Anthropocene stratigraphic record meets the requirements for formal
definition of a new epoch and, if so, when the Anthropocene began (Steffen et al. 2016;
Zalasiewicz et al. 2015). On August 29, 2016, the AWG recommended to the International
Geological Congress to formally design the Anthropocene as a new geological time unit added as
a subdivision of the Geological Time Scale (GTS), with a boundary date of 1950 linked to the
spread of radioactive elements across the planet resulting from nuclear bomb testing.
To define a geological time unit, formal geological criteria must be satisfied (Finney 2014).
The AWG had to determine if global-scale changes have been recorded and can be identified in
geological stratigraphic materials, such as glacial ice, rock, or sediments. If it can be, the new
geological unit is defined by its lower boundary marker or inception, and boundaries typically are
indicated by Global Stratigraphic Section and Points (GSSPs) or “golden spikes” (Simon and Maslin
2015:172; Zalasiewicz et al. 2008:4). GSSPs are reference points with well-preserved geologic
sections, many of which historically have been based on paleontological changes. When an
appropriate GSSP cannot be defined, a Global Standard Stratigraphic Age (GSSA) is designated.
GSSAs have been used to designate boundaries prior to 630 million years ago due to challenges
associated with finding well-preserved sections for very ancient intervals.
The Holocene boundary is the only geological unit less than 542 million years old defined
by a GSSA. The ICS has plans to designate a GSSP for the Holocene and bring it in line with other
boundary divisions within the current geologic eon, and the golden spike likely will be placed in
the North Greenland Ice Core Project ice core at the “beginning of an interval at which deuterium
values (a proxy for local air temperature) rise, an event rapidly followed by a marked decrease in
dust levels and an increase in ice layer thickness” (Zalasiewicz et al. 2008:4). Zalasiewicz et al.
(2008:4) argue it is important “that the [Holocene’s] GSSP is a tangible horizon within a
stratigraphic sequence, a ‘time plane’ marking an elapsed, distinctive, and correlatable geological
event rather than an arbitrary or ‘abstract’ numerical.” Zalasiewicz et al. (2008:7) argue that the
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same logic need not be followed for the subdivision or elimination of the Holocene and
designation of the Anthropocene, and a GSSA may be appropriate for its lower boundary marker.
For years, the AWG has been building towards a recommendation that the Anthropocene be
added to the GTA with a mid-twentieth century starting date (Zalasiewicz et al. 2015), sometime
during the “Great Acceleration” (Steffen et al. 2007). Zalasiewicz et al. (2015) argue that the a
Great Acceleration, characterized by exploding human populations, massive increases in carbon
dioxide, intensification of agriculture, rapid globalization, and associated anthropogenic
environmental transformations, boundary maker would offer a globally synchronous and
commonly understood GSSA or golden spike.
The Anthropocene proposal and complications regarding its designation have spurred
considerable interdisciplinary debate over what markers should take precedence, when the age
of humans began, and whether or not we even need an Anthropocene. Unlike other geological
time units, the Anthropocene designation has implications far beyond geology. An early start
date may give climate change deniers a platform to argue that humans have been altering
climatic systems for centuries to millennia, so modern atmospheric and other changes are
nothing to worry about. A late start date may suggest that the thousands of years of human
impacts on the earth are simply part of natural variation and we need only worry about more
recent, post-Industrial Revolution impacts. The political and social implications of scientific
nomenclature rarely have been so explicit.
One of the major issues with a strictly defined, mid-twentieth century boundary maker is
that it neglects the anthropogenic elements that created the Anthropocene deep human
histories and socio-cultural processes (Braje 2015, 2016; Malm and Hornborg 2014) , along with
a variety of other critiques levied at the Anthropocene narrative (e.g., Bonneuil 2015; Clark and
Gunaratnam 2017; Crist 2007, 2013; Malm 2015; O’Brien 2010; Solli et al. 2014; Visconti 2014).
Most concerning, however, is that a recent Anthropocene may communicate to scientists and
the public that human influence began sometime in the last 100 years. We risk overlooking the
deep historical processes and long-term human-environmental dynamics that created the
present and making environmental management and stewardship decisions that neglect deep
history, a stumbling block that scientists and resource managers have only recently recognized
(e.g., Braje and Rick 2013; Foster et al. 2003; Rockham 1998; Rhemtulla and Mladenoff 2007; Rick
and Lockwood 2013; Swetnam and Allen 1999). We now have countless examples of how ancient
human influences have helped shape the present in surprising ways, ignoring these lessons or
relegating them to a pre-anthropocene (Steffen et al. 2007) or a paleoanthropocene (Foley et al.
2013) potentially undermines their importance for shaping modern environmental management
policy.
While an exhaustive review of the proposed criteria for designating a recent
Anthropocene Epoch by the AWG is beyond the scope of this manuscript, I provide examples
using the three major lines of evidence, biotic, atmospheric, and stratigraphic (soil), for
determining GSSPs or golden spikes that suggest an Anthropocene began long ago. These
examples demonstrate how human action has resulted in globally recognizable earth system
changes over centuries to millennia in complicated and discontinuous ways. I also present
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scenarios under which modern conservation management policy can be negatively impacted by
ignoring these long-term anthropogenic processes in favor of more recent, post-Industrial
Revolution human impacts. I believe these examples demonstrate why it is important to forgo
debates over stratotypes, golden spikes, and boundary markers and focus on the deep historical
processes that created the anthropogenic world and how to address the challenges of our
Anthropocene future.
Biotic Markers of the Anthropocene
Applying biotic markers to define the Anthropocene makes inherent sense;
paleontological criteria have been the most common method for defining boundary markers of
geological eras, periods, epochs, and ages (Figure 1). The extinction or appearance of species or
classes of animals has been critical in making geological ages and stages in many cases, especially
for deep geological time periods. Every epoch and every stage of the Cambrian (dating
approximately 485 to 541 million years ago), for example, has been defined using
palaeontological criteria. The same can be said for the Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous,
Permian, and Jurassic.
Figure 1. Figure depicting geological time periods from 570 million years ago to the present (moving
clockwise). The three geological eras are labeled along the border, the twelve periods along the interior,
and pictures represent major paleontological markers of each period (save the Quaternary). Ages for
geological periods are labeled with their boundary dates as millions of years ago (mya).
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The University of California, Berkeley, palaeontologist Anthony Barnosky (2013) has been
a leading advocate for defining the Anthropocene using palaeontological criteria following
common biostratigraphic practices in geology. Enhanced rates of change in the biosphere across
strata, rather than simply observed differences, have been effective in defining biotic boundary
makers for other geological time divisions. This is clearly illustrated with extinction events.
Extinctions are a natural and constant part of earth evolution. When extinction rates rise to at
least ten times above background rates, however, geologists have designated mass extinction
events and linked them to geologic boundaries. Extinction rates today are at least ten times
above background rates (perhaps even 1000 times background rates) and a number of
palaeontologists argue that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction event (Barnosky et
al. 2011, 2012; Ceballos et al. 2015, 2017; McCallum 2015; Pimm et al. 2014). Projections suggest
that the problem might only worsen and that humans could drive one of every three species on
the planet to extinction within the next 200 years (Cafaro 2015), a rate that outpaces the last
mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous Period 65 million years ago. (Raven et al.
2011).
Anthropogenic climate change has forced the movements of plants and animals and
shifted their biogeographic ranges, in many cases exceeding similar shifts documented at the
beginning or the end of the Pleistocene (Diffenbaugh and Field 2013). Future climate projections
suggest that future shifts will be even more dramatic, “an order-of-magnitude faster” than those
that occurred during the last glacial-interglacial shift (Steffen et al. 2016:335). Adding to the
impacts, the translocation of plant and animals species around the globe due to massive
increases in intercontinental shipping and air travel have mixed native and non-native flora and
fauna, creating novel marine and terrestrial ecosystems and new biostratigraphic zones
(Barnosky 2013; McNeeley 2001; Williams et al. 2015). Based on this evidence, Barnosky (2013)
proposed an AD 1950 boundary marker for the Anthropocene, in line with the larger AWG.
While a mid-twentieth century Anthropocene may seem appropriate based on biotic
evidence, the sixth mass extinction event, in fact, has grown from a longer trajectory, beginning
at least with an initial wave of megafaunal extinctions during the terminal Pleistocene and
accelerating into the Great Acceleration (Braje and Erlandson 2013). In addition, declines in plant
and animal biodiversity became a global pattern long before the twentieth century. European
colonialism from about AD 1400 to the early 1800s transformed floral and faunal communities
as transoceanic trade, commercial agrarian systems, fur trading, hunting, and whaling
enterprises, and the movements of commodities and people around the globe resulted in the
spread of non-native species and the concurrent disruption of ecosystems (Lightfoot et al. 2013).
At more local or regional scales, this was happening well before the Columbian Exchange.
Prehistoric humans have long transported plants and animals, creating novel communities of
mixed native and non-native species. Agriculturalists were doing so at least 10,000 years ago, but
hunter-gatherers did much the same (albeit at a smaller scale) long before this. The global human
colonization of islands is an excellent means of understanding these processes and their effects,
and archaeological research demonstrates that, in many cases, human colonization of islands and
island groups hundreds to thousands of years ago resulted in the introduction of a variety of
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plants and animals and, often, sudden reorganizations of marine and terrestrial ecosystems (see
Braje et al. 2017; Rick et al. 2013).
A recent Anthropocene suggests to conservation managers, policy makers, and the public
that the most important impacts of humans on the biosphere occurred recently. This would, in
many ways, be business as usual. Environmental conservation and restoration policy traditionally
have focused on recent datasets and overlooked the longer, coupled human-environmental
histories of plants and animals. On California’s Channel Islands, for example, sea mammal
biologists and the National Park System have worked diligently to protect and increase seal and
sea lion populations since their near extinction from the 18th and 19th century fur and oil trade.
Most biologists view their recovery as a wildly successful one, as tens of thousands of these
animals have repopulated island beaches and rocky shores in recent years. Zooarchaeological
data suggest, however, that their recovery has not followed a “natural” trajectory. At least 1500
years ago, Guadalupe fur seals (Arctocephalus townsendi) were the focus of prehistoric hunting
and widely abundant in coastal California (Rick et al. 2009). Elephant seals (Mirounga
angustirostris), on the other hand, are rare in archaeological sites and likely were not abundant
prehistorically (Rick et al. 2011). Today, the situation is reversed. Recovery of these animals, then,
resulted in a biogeographic reversal and their present distributions are a byproduct of modern
management and conservation. The lesson is that our management efforts must continue and
we need to better understand why Guadalupe fur seal recovery has lagged behind other species,
a perspective that would be lost if not for understanding the deeper human-environmental
history of these animals.
Atmospheric Markers of the Anthropocene
Following criteria that defining a new geological epoch requires a synchronous, global
marker, the AWG has proposed a number of atmospheric indicators that meet criteria for a mid-
twentieth century boundary date. The two most commonly cited are the burning of fossil fuels
since the Industrial Revolution, which has produced an ~120 parts per million (ppm) increase in
atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (Waters et al. 2016; Zalasiewicz et al. 2015) and the detonation
of atomic weapons over the last 70 years, which has spread artificial radionuclides (Hancock et
al. 2014; Wolff 2014; Zalasiewicz et al. 2008). The AWG has explored other potential atmospheric
markers such as the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815, which resulted in the “year without
summer” in the Northern Hemisphere (Zalasiewicz et al. 2008). Although an aerosol sulfate spike
is visible in both Greenland and Antarctic ice cores and a distinct signal has been identified in
dendrochronological records, this natural maker seems to have fallen out of favor with the AWG
for more anthropogenic ones (e.g., Waters et al. 2016; Zalasiewicz et al. 2011, 2015).
Ruddiman (2003; Ruddiman and Thomson 2001; Ruddiman et al. 2008; see also Fuller et
al. 2011) has argued that increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas accumulations began long
before the Industrial Revolution. His paleoclimatological research identified significant increases
in atmospheric methane beginning 5000 years ago, likely the combined result of increases in
human and animal waste, breeding of domesticated livestock, and landscape burning to clear
agricultural fields. Ice cores dating between 6000 and 4000 years ago contain a ten-fold increase
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in methane levels compared against previous millennia. Ruddiman (2013) contends that a post-
Industrial Revolution boundary marker for the Anthropocene, based on atmospheric criteria,
makes little sense as his data suggest that preindustrial anthropogenically-driven temperature
increases were at least twice those of the industrial era and, instead, proposed a two-phase
Anthropocene with an early period that began thousands of years ago.
Beyond these complications, some scholars argue that atmospheric criteria may not be
the best Anthropocene marker for two primary reasons. First, air bubbles in ice cores, the means
by which atmospheric accumulations of greenhouse gasses and other such indicators are
measured, are transitory. The long-term viability of ice cores is particularly vulnerable as
anthropogenic warming threatens their continued existence (Certini and Scalenghe 2011:1270-
1273). In addition, atmospheric gasses or radionuclide accumulations fail to capture the range of
human activities that has resulted in human domination of the earth, including domesticated
animal grazing, deforestation, agricultural production, road and harbor construction, and a
variety of other anthropogenic activities, which began millennia ago.
A recent Anthropocene, when considering atmospheric criteria, may seem to offer few
conservation or policy management concerns. Atmospheric climate scientists nearly always
present long-term records of greenhouse gas accumulations to contextualize post-Industrial
Revolution spikes in atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane, and other indicators (see Waters et
al. 2016). Modern spikes are readily identifiable and dramatic when compared against earlier
fluctuations. Atmospheric carbon dioxide is now at 400 ppm, for example, and accumulation
rates were 100 times faster in the first decade of the twenty-first century than at any time during
the Holocene (Wolff 2011). Modern carbon emissions are at their highest rates ever recorded in
the last 65 million years (the Cenozoic era; Rubino et al. 2013; Waters et al. 2016). If the goal of
designating an Anthropocene epoch is to guide effective environmental stewardship (Crutzen
2002:23), however, we need to carefully consider earlier human impacts that drove fluctuations
in atmospheric gasses. Understanding the causes of human-driven pre-Industrial changes in
carbon dioxide and methane, even if they were at significantly lower rates than post-Industrial
Revolution increases, can help us plan and predict modern and future actions to address
anthropogenic climate change.
Ruddiman (2003), for example, identified a 20 to 25 ppm increase of carbon dioxide 8000
years ago. Similar to Dull et al. (2010), Ruddiman (2003) argued that this signaled wide scale
clearance of tropical forests by anthropogenic burning for agricultural fields demographic
pressure that increased through the Holocene until its peak in the late-fifteenth century,
coinciding with the spread of European colonialism. The introduction of Old World diseases,
indigenous population crashes, and the regrowth of tropical forests all resulted from the
Columbian encounter and are linked to significant decreases in atmospheric carbon dioxide from
about AD 1500 to 1750 resulting from terrestrial biospheric carbon sequestration. Although
controversial (Elsig et al. 2009), understanding these patterns can provide insights into what
outcomes we might expect and target from modern strategies to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions. In particular, when properly scaled and modeled, careful consideration of deep
historical patterning can help us envisage the impacts of forest management strategies around
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the world. A recent Anthropocene, one that overlooks the longer-term human-climate interface,
may lose sight of these important lessons and baselines.
Stratigraphic Markers of the Anthropocene
Anthropogenic soil makers have been the most widely discussed potential golden spike
for the Anthropocene, and AWG members have proposed a wide variety of candidates. Nearly
all fall within the Great Acceleration. Some of the proposed signals are globally synchronous,
while others rely on a rapid, global spread of technologies, pollutants, or other signals from
multiple points of origin. The invention and global dispersal of modern artifacts (so called
technofossils such as cell phones, ballpoint pens, and other artifacts of modernity) in the
environment has been particularly popular (Ford et al. 2014; Haff 2014; Zalasiewicz et al. 2014).
Others include discarded plastic (Corcoran et al. 2014; Zalasiewicz et al. 2016), environmental
waste and deposition of new forms of human-created metals and materials such as aluminum,
concrete, and synthetic fibers (Waters et al. 2016; Zalasiewicz et al. 2013), dispersal of
carbonaceous particles from the anthropogenic burning of fossil fuels, plastics, and other
materials (Zalasiewicz et al. 2016), and massive increases in surface nitrogen from fertilizer runoff
(Wolfe et al. 2013). Potential markers also include human activities that are currently shaping
landforms such as artificial deposits associated with urbanization (Ford et al. 2014),
anthropogenic alternations to fluvial deposition from large dams (Zalasiewicz et al. 2014), and oil
and deep-sea drilling that have altered natural stratigraphic sequences (Zalasiewicz et al. 2014).
Scholars have challenged many of these markers as only considering very recent human
activities that have altered global soils and stratigraphy. Modern technologies and post-Industrial
human impacts are given precedence over similar, more ancient ones. Soil scientists Certini and
Scalenghe (2011), for example, argue that repeated human activities dating back thousands of
years have created anthrosols. The outcomes of regular and millennia-long plowing, fertilizing,
terracing, contamination, and artifact deposition are distinctive geological boundaries that, in
many cases, have spanned the Holocene. Edgeworth (2013) contends that tells, plaggen soils,
sedimentation behind dams, earthworks, and occupation debris date back thousands of years in
many places around the globe and constitute anthropogenic pedosheres. Erlandson (2013)
references shell midden soils as distinctive makers of human activity in worldwide coastal and
aquatic regions beginning at least 8000 to 10,000 years ago.
Rather than a significant, global impact only felt during the later half of the twentieth
century, humans have been altering land surfaces for thousands of years in profound ways, both
as part of hunter-gatherer activities but, more significantly, as part of agrarian systems. These
alterations have resulted in ecosystem fluctuations, along with human demographic regime and
socio-political system shifts. One of the best examples of a conservation pitfall we might stumble
into with a recent Anthropocene comes from the Amazon Basin.
Greater Amazonia contains nearly one half of the world’s tropical forests, includes nearly
a quarter of the world’s fresh water, produces about one-third of the world’s oxygen, shelters
over one-third of the known species on earth, and is one of the world’s most important
biodiversity hotspots (Heckenberger et al. 2003, 2007). As such, the area has become a lighting
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rod in sustainability debates as an important “tipping point” for the future of earth’s climate and
ecology (Laurance et al. 2001). For millennia ecologists, conservationists, and other scholars and
activists have viewed the Amazon as a pristine forest sparely populated by small and dispersed
indigenous communities until the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century.
The construction of the Amazon Basin as virgin tropical rainforest treaded only lightly
upon by primitive peoples, however, turns out to be an ahistorical fallacy. Archaeological and
ethnohistorical research over the last twenty years have demonstrated that numerous regions
along the Amazon River and throughout Greater Amazonia supported large pre-European
occupations; and ancient forest and wetland environments were transformed by human
activities (Heckenberger et al. 2007). The most dramatic and enduring ancient human imprint is
the creation of extensive black-stained anthropic paleosols (e.g., Eden et al. 1984; Smith 1980).
Dubbed terra preta (black soil in Portuguese), these deeply stratified anthropogenic soil horizons
were created through indigenous soil management practices that included low-temperature
burning as part of a slash-and-burn agricultural system and the mixing of charcoal, organics, and
manure to enhance relatively infertile Amazonian soil. Over thousands of years, these activities
created Amazonian dark earth soils, which bind and retain minerals and nutrients and supported
large pre-Columbian population centers (Glaser and Birk 2011; Roosevelt 2013; Smith 1980).
Often associated with Amazonian dark earth soils are cultural or oligarchic forests,
dominated by only one or two tree species that are important sources of fruits, seeds, or oils
(Balée 2013; Peters et al. 1989). Tropical forests typically are very taxonomically diverse, but
Amazonian anthropic forests are dominated by tree species that tend to be highly valued and
activity managed by Amazonian people today. While not true domesticates, the proliferation of
these tree species is encouraged by human planting, clearing, protection, and fertilization, that
has been ongoing for thousands of years (Roosevelt 2013). Many of these oligarchic forests
persist with few to no signs of depletion, even under heavy human exploitation pressure (Peter
et al. 1989).
Roughly 40% of the remaining tropical forest in the world is found in the Brazilian Amazon.
These forests exist under critical threat due to the expansion of agro-pastoralism and other
development (Goulding et al. 2003). Efforts to save and protect this critical resource often
employ predictive models and conservation interventions based on post-1950s data, and
especially post-1990s data when satellite imagery became widely available data from the
AWG’s Anthropocene (Heckenberger et al. 2007). These efforts would be greatly improved by
understanding the long-term human-environmental ecodynamics that created the soils, biomes,
and biodiversity of Greater Amazonia. As Heckenberger et al. (2007:205) argue, we need to be
“looking at the way certain cultural and biological patters are mutually constituted” and how this
process unfolds over deep time.
Conclusions
Now that the AWG made their recommendation to formally designate a mid-twentieth
century Anthropocene, they will spend the next several years determining what indicators best
signal the age of humans and selecting a location for a golden spike. It seems inevitable now that
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the GTS will be amended in record speed (usually such alternations take decades to centuries).
The Holocene will be subdivided, and we will be officially living in the Anthropocene. Given the
current state of the world and unchecked human population growth, rampant pollution,
accelerating anthropogenic warming, and the serial collapse of resources and ecosystems, this
probably comes as little surprise. The most important next step, I believe, is for scientists across
disciplines to consider carefully how we discuss the Anthropocene with the public. Now, more
than ever, we need to focus on the Anthropocene as process. Significant human impacts that
resonate in the modern world did not begin in 1950, a fact not lost on the AWG (e.g., Steffen et
al. 2016; Waters et al. 2016; Zalasiewicz et al. 2015).
I maintain the belief that scientific and public discourse would best be served by
combining the Anthropocene with the Holocene, as a combined Anthropocene/Holocene Epoch
(Braje 2015, 2016; Braje and Erlandson 2013). The Holocene Epoch, Greek for “entirely recent”
and marked as beginning 11,650 years before present, was designated out of practicality rather
than following strict geological taxonomy (Zalasiewicz et al. 2011:837). What makes the Holocene
different from previous Pleistocene interglacials is the influence of Anatomically Modern
Humans, who for the first time occupied every continent on earth (save Antarctica), had begun
to domesticate plants and animals, and were making the transition to agrarian systems in several
regions. It makes logical sense to connect the Anthropocene with the Holocene, as human
influence is already connected to the Holocene’s designation (Gibbard and Walker 2014).
Subdividing the Holocene Epoch into a smaller geological time unit to make room for the
Anthropocene undermines the Holocene of its most tangible feature humans. A
Holocene/Anthropocene Epoch would recognize the growing influence and impacts of humans
on earth systems, which accelerated after the widespread domestication of plants and animals
and the transition to agricultural systems (Figure 2).
Figure 2. A ball-and-cup model of the current state of the earth depicting the importance of viewing the
Anthropocene as process. The Holocene/Anthropocene basin of attraction is represented as a signal unit,
demonstrating the linkages of ancient, historical, and modern human actions that have created the
current state of the world. Restoration and conservation biology efforts must consider deep historical
processes to build a more stable, sustainable earth system (after Steffen et al. 2016:Figure 4).
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14
It would also frame critical scientific inquiry to understand and long, complex, and
dynamic role humans played in shaping earth’s biosphere (Smith and Zeder 2013). The way
forward, to me at least, is clear. We must embrace the Anthropocene as a valuable public
communication tool to combat anthropogenic climate change and effectively communicate,
explain, and package the modern environmental crisis. The Anthropocene needs to be more than
simply a new temporal subdivision of geological time. The reason to designate an Anthropocene,
an age of humans that is still taking shape and likely will look very different in a million years from
now, should be to demonstrate the importance of building sustainable systems, reducing our
footprint on earth, and rallying a global scientific and public community to the cause. Lost on
many who study climate and the state of the world is that our most effective tool for confronting
and meeting environmental challenges is with sustainability science.
Studying and documenting the impacts of humans on earth and the anthropogenic
climate change is only a starting point for a movement towards environmental sustainability. At
its core, sustainability science attempts to understand and characterize the complex interactions
between nature and society (Kates et al. 2001). Data regarding climate change is useless until it
is coupled with human action. Scientists, resource managers, and activists must work together
to build a better world, and we must not shy away from connecting sustainability science with a
political agenda for future sustainable development. The Anthropocene, and particularly the
Anthropocene as deep historical process, is poised to take center stage in rallying the world to
this clarion call.
The Anthropocene as Process:
Why We Should View the State of the World through a
Deep Historical Lens
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15
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    • Yasmin Gunaratnam
      Yasmin Gunaratnam
    Responding to claims of Anthropocene geoscience that humans are now geological agents, social scientists are calling for renewed attention to the social, cultural, political and historical differentiation of the Anthropos. But does this leave critical social thought’s own key concepts and categories unperturbed by the Anthropocene provocation to think through dynamic earth processes? Can we ‘socialize the Anthropocene’ without also opening ‘the social’ to climate, geology and earth system change? Revisiting the earth science behind the Anthropocene thesis and drawing on social research that is using climatology and earth systems thinking to help understand socio-historical change, this article explores some of the possibilities for ‘geologizing’ social thought. While critical social thought’s attention to justice and exclusion remains vital, it suggests that responding to Anthropocene conditions also calls for a kind of ‘geo-social’ thinking that relates human diversity and social difference to the potentiality and multiplicity of the earth itself.
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    • William Balee
      William Balee
    Cultural Forests of the Amazon is a comprehensive and diverse account of how indigenous people transformed landscapes and managed resources in the most extensive region of tropical forests in the world. Until recently, most scholars and scientists, as well as the general public, thought indigenous people had a minimal impact on Amazon forests, once considered to be total wildernesses. William Balée's research, conducted over a span of three decades, shows a more complicated truth. In Cultural Forests of the Amazon, he argues that indigenous people, past and present, have time and time again profoundly transformed nature into culture. Moreover, they have done so using their traditional knowledge and technology developed over thousands of years. Balée demonstrates the inestimable value of indigenous knowledge in providing guideposts for a potentially less destructive future for environments and biota in the Amazon. He shows that we can no longer think about species and landscape diversity in any tropical forest without taking into account the intricacies of human history and the impact of all forms of knowledge and technology. Balée describes the development of his historical ecology approach in Amazonia, along with important material on little–known forest dwellers and their habitats, current thinking in Amazonian historical ecology, and a narrative of his own dialogue with the Amazon and its people.
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    • Philip Cafaro
      Philip Cafaro
    A preponderance of evidence suggests humanity is causing a mass extinction event: the sixth mass extinction since the rise of complex life on Earth. This paper takes this empirical conclusion as given and asks a philosophical question: what is the meaning of the sixth mass extinction? How should we think about it, what should we do about it, and what does it tell us about humanity and our place in the world? Conservationists typically see mass extinction as an immense loss, as does most of the general public. But how best to characterize this loss is not immediately clear, and how we do so has important practical implications. This paper focuses on three common and plausible ways to think about the sixth mass extinction: as a loss of important resources (a mistake); as interspecies genocide (a crime); and as evidence that humanity is a cancer on the biosphere (as an inevitability). Considered together, these three approaches clarify the meaning of the sixth mass extinction and suggest how humanity ought to respond to it.
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    • Jan Zalasiewicz
    • R. Kryza
    • Mark Williams
      Mark Williams
    The Earth has shown a systematic increase in mineral species through its history, with three 'eras' comprising ten 'stages' identified by Robert Hazen and his colleagues (Hazen et al. 2008), the eras being associated with planetary accretion, crust and mantle reworking and the influence of life, successively. We suggest that a further level in this form of evolution has now taken place of at least 'stage' level, where humans have engineered a large and extensive suite of novel, albeit not formally recognized minerals, some of which will leave a geologically significant signal in strata forming today. These include the great majority of metals (that are not found natively), tungsten carbide, boron nitride, novel garnets and many others. A further stratigraphic signal is of minerals that are rare in pre-industrial geology, but are now common at the surface, including mullite (in fired bricks and ceramics), ettringite, hillebrandite and portlandite (in cement and concrete) and 'mineraloids' (novel in detail) such as anthropogenic glass. These have become much more common at the Earth's surface since the mid-twentieth century. However, the scale and extent of this new phase of mineral evolution, which represents part of the widespread changes associated with the proposed Anthropocene Epoch, remains uncharted. The International Mineralogical Association (IMA) list of officially accepted minerals explicitly excludes synthetic minerals, and no general inventory of these exists. We propose that the growing geological and societal significance of this phenomenon is now great enough for human-made minerals to be formally listed and catalogued by the IMA, perhaps in conjunction with materials science societies. Such an inventory would enable this phenomenon to be placed more effectively within the context of the 4.6 billion year history of the Earth, and would help characterize the strata of the Anthropocene.
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    • Todd J. Braje
      Todd J. Braje
    Abstract A proposal to designate a new geological epoch of our own making— the Anthropocene—is being considered by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), part of the International Union of Geological Sciences. Based on a set of formal criteria, there is growing consensus for a Holocene–Anthropocene boundary set at some point in the last 200 years. A number of scientists have questioned the utility of such a designation because it overlooks the millennia-long history of human impacts on the planet and fails to focus on the causes of human domination of the Earth in favor of the effects. I review these debates and synthesize a variety of proposals for an Anthropocene beginning 10,000 years ago to as little as 50. I then review a number of parallel debates focused less on the geosciences and more on the political, social, and institutional implications of the Anthropocene. I demonstrate how and why formal ICS criteria for the designation of geological time units may be inadequate for effectively meeting the underlying rationale for designating a human-induced geological epoch and the role it is currently and, potentially, will continue to play in the court of public opinion.
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    • Malcolm L. Mccallum
      Malcolm L. Mccallum
    The human race faces many global to local challenges in the near future. Among these are massive biodiversity losses. The 2012 IUCN/SSC Red List reported evaluations of *56 % of all vertebrates. This included 97 % of amphibians, mammals, birds, cartilaginous fishes, and hagfishes. It also contained evaluations of *50 % of lampreys, *38 % of reptiles, and *29 % of bony fishes. A cursory examination of extinction magnitudes does not immediately reveal the severity of current biodiversity losses because the extinctions we see today have happened in such a short time compared to earlier events in the fossil record. So, we still must ask how current losses of species compare to losses in mass extinctions from the geological past. The most recent and best understood mass extinction is the Cretaceous terminal extinction which ends at the Cretaceous– Paleogene (K–Pg) border, 65 MYA. This event had massive losses of biodiversity (*17 % of families, [50 % of genera, and [70 % of species) and exterminated the dinosaurs. Extinction estimates for non-dinosaurian vertebrates at the K–Pg boundary range from 36 to 43 %. However, there remains much uncertainty regarding the completeness, preservation rates, and extinction magnitudes of the different classes of vertebrates. Fuzzy arithmetic was used to compare recent vertebrate extinction reported in the 2012 IUCN/SSC Red List with biodiversity losses at the end of K–Pg. Comparisons followed 16 different approaches to data compilation and 288 separate calculations. I tabulated the number of extant and extinct species (extinct ? extinct in the wild), extant island endemics, data deficient species, and so-called impaired species [species with IUCN/SSC Red List designations from vulnerable (VU) to critically endangered (CR)]. Species that went extinct since 1500 and since 1980 were tabulated. Vertebrate extinction moved forward 24–85 times faster since 1500 than during the Cretaceous mass extinction. The magnitude of extinction has exploded since 1980, with losses about 71–297 times larger than during the K–Pg event. If species identified by the IUCN/SSC as critically endangered through vulnerable, and those that are data deficient are assumed extinct by geological standards, then vertebrate extinction approaches 8900–18,500 times the magnitude during that mass extinction. These extreme values and the great speed with which vertebrate biodiversity is being decimated are comparable to the devastation of previous extinction events. If recent levels of extinction were to continue, the magnitude is sufficient to drive these groups extinct in less than a century.