When was the Anthropocene?

Although the term dates back to the 1960s, it has caught the imagination of a number of intellectuals in a very wide range of disciplines since the atmospheric chemist and Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen popularized it around 2000. The art world, too, has not been slow to embrace the idea.

The name seeks to identify the latest geological epoch as one in which humans have dramatically altered the Earth’s ecosystem causing not only climate change but also ocean acidification, reduction of biodiversity, depletion of soil minerals, and other possibly irreversible ecological damage. But there are many differences among scientists (mainly stratigraphers, those who study the evidence provided by rock layers) and others about how to date it and even about whether a new epoch following the Holocene has really begun. Indeed, it is reasonable to ask whether it is merely a useful slogan to rally people to the obvious dangers of continuing along our societies’ current suicidal paths. Some have even felt that it obscures the true source of our problems, namely, capitalism.

A key distinguishing feature of this epoch, if it is one, is that its starting point will need to be determined not just by pure scientific standards but also by social ones. This is because the right demarcation may enable humans to correctly diagnose their condition and act to save themselves and the biosphere from possible extinction. The stakes have never been higher and so social theorizing is mandatory. In other words, while scientific inputs are necessary, they are not sufficient.

Before I consider possible dates for the Anthropocene, I want to suggest a useful analogy that will enable us to approach the task in a rigorous way. The epicenter is the point on the Earth’s surface directly above the hypocenter, the point where an earthquake originates. Thus, the epicenter may be seen as its proximal point or cause and the hypocenter may be seen as its distal point or cause. Both concepts, the epicenter and the hypocenter, are spatial.

Ordinarily, when epochs are dated, a single point in time is broadly determined. For example, the most recent epoch, the Holocene, is said to have started about 11,700 years ago and is equated with the current warm period and can be considered an ‘interglacial’ in the current ice age (Wikipedia). Notice, incidentally, that no social purposes except for purely scientific ones are involved in this definition. The Anthropocene is different. There are both purely scientific and larger social motivations. So perhaps a dual way of dating the proposed human epoch can be justified.

I will use the terms ‘epicenter’ and ‘hypocenter’ temporally to analogically stand for the proximal and distal origins of the Anthropocene. Thus, instead of one point in time, I will pick out two, the epicenter corresponding to the scientifically meaningful and immediate cause and the hypocenter corresponding to the socially meaningful and mediate cause. This double starting point will enable both scientific and social purposes to be fulfilled.

Much of the current discussion has been about possible epicenters in my sense of the term. Three primary epicenters proposed are, in decreasing order of popularity, the Industrial Revolution starting around the 1800s, the atomic era starting around 1945 involving the detonation of nuclear weapons, and the Agricultural Revolution starting around 10,000 years ago. There are other proposals but they are held by small minorities.

It is easy to see some prima facie plausibility to each of the nominated epicenters because all of them advanced the anthropic stamp on the planet in some measure. I will not try to adjudicate between them as the decision rests at least partly upon stratigraphic evidence. But it is instructive to establish the corresponding hypocenters for each of the three epicenters.

The Industrial Revolution was the result of the birth of modern science, perhaps with Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, although its antecedents lay in classical Greece, especially with figures such as Thales and Aristotle, not to mention Euclid and Archimedes, and the transmission of their thought through medieval Islam and Christianity. (Classical Indian thought, too, was partly rationalistic and could have inspired modernity but it was too concerned with soteriology and salvation.)

Though Heidegger was right to discuss technological ‘Enframing’ in The Question Concerning Technology and could be said to have anticipated this account of the Anthropocene, he was wrong to sever modern science from its applications. Right since prehistory practical needs have prompted theoretical inquiry and vice versa, though each sphere has its own internal dynamics. Archimedes’s famous ‘Eureka’ story about the discovery of the principle involved in the displacement of volumes of water by solids had a very practical motivation, as is well known.

In any case, the hypocenter corresponding to the Industrial Revolution is the emergence of modern science, probably best pegged to the 1600s.

The next hypocenter, corresponding to the atomic era, occurred when nuclear and non-classical physics arose in the early 1900s. Just as Newtonian physics is qualitatively different from classical physics, so twentieth century non-classical physics is qualitatively different from Newtonian physics. So this second epicenter-hypocenter pair could also plausibly lay claim to being a turning point in geological time.

Upon reflection, it appears that the first pair is the more fundamental, as the Industrial Revolution is a larger and more comprehensive phenomenon than the detonation of nuclear weapons, even though both undoubtedly affected the planet in very long term ways. And the corresponding hypocenter of modern science provides deeper insight into how the impact came to be.

This is where a critic of capitalism may object that it is the dynamic of capital that leads to the Anthropocene, not the nature of modern science per se. But a counterargument may be that modern science and technology are what give capitalism its bite without which it would be toothless or possibly even nonexistent. That is, it seems that modern science and technology are necessary for full-fledged capitalism to emerge and are the more basic phenomena. Secondly, even if capitalism were to give way to socialism and communism as Marx envisaged, there is no guarantee that we would be saved from the Anthropocene. So capitalism may be sufficient but isn’t necessary for the Anthropocene and so isn’t of its essence.

The third suggested epicenter, the Agricultural Revolution, is in some ways the most interesting, as it is so remote from us. It is harder to discern its hypocenter, too, but I would submit that it is the emergence of a symbolic consciousness and, in particular, language about a hundred thousand or more years ago. Keep in mind that we are working with a geological timescale so long periods of prehistory should be no deterrent.

It is arguable that without language no agricultural revolution could have occurred because it required significant cooperation and communication among members of settled communities. If this is right then one is led to the startling conclusion that the Anthropocene was more or less inevitable given the development of language. From this perspective, the Anthropocene recedes into being a mere geological term of no wider interest for humanity’s modern-day predicament than the Holocene.

Of the two contending epicenters — the Industrial Revolution or the Agricultural Revolution — and correspondingly the two hypocenters — modern science or language — which pair is to be preferred on scientific and social grounds? Socially, the former is the obvious choice as it alerts us to the ecological havoc we are wreaking. But the scientific evidence may rule otherwise. It may also turn out, after all, that no new epoch has begun and we continue to live in the Holocene.

The following disturbing question remains: whether or not we are in the Anthropocene, the degradation of the ecosystem is a real thing. We really are teetering on the edge of an abyss. While the deeper cause of this may lie in the nature of modern science and technology, it is undoubtedly greatly exacerbated by the logic of capitalism. The specter of the Anthropocene looms on a planetary scale and seems more encompassing than capitalism. But the nuts and bolts of the former’s dynamic depend entirely on the latter at present. Earlier, I said that capitalism is not essential to the Anthropocene. This may be true but one could turn the observation around and say what matters is capitalism and the problems it creates, including those involving the ecosystem. The Anthropocene and the issues it raises are a small but crucial part of capitalism, not the other way around. And the current discussion appears to have obscured this basic insight with the many problems of capitalism also being ascribed to the Anthropocene as if they were being recognized for the first time.

Another way of expressing this is to say that the planetary frame of geology is deeply misleading in this context. It deludes one into thinking that one is addressing all there is to address. The relevant totality is that of capital. The easiest way to see this is to try to solve any of the problems of the ecosystem. One is immediately led to tinkering with capitalism. That is, while capitalism sits inside the Anthropocene in a physical, geological sense, the latter sits inside the former in a social sense. And it is the social sense that is the driving force.

Undoubtedly, the problems of the ecosystem are the most pressing because the very survival of the biosphere is at stake. But, so far, I have only described the Anthropocene in negative terms. The Enframing that Heidegger lamented has a deep point to it but one has to be an incurable amnesiac to forget that, prior to modern science, life for everyone was ‘nasty, brutish, and short.’ Arguably, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century may without exaggeration be called the single most important event in history based on its staggering transformative power. It is because it happened in the West and not in the East that the former could colonize the latter.

What lessons can the art world draw from these observations? The first is to avoid being seduced by the idea of the Anthropocene. And the second is to invent a new orientation to Enframed nature. As Heidegger saw clearly, once the Rhine is challenged to deliver hydroelectric power, the Romantic conception of nature is irrevocably lost. The task for art then becomes, to paraphrase Wallace Stevens, to see nature — and therefore the world — again with fresh eyes.

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