The Anthropocene, the “Age of Man,” might also be called the Age of Capitalism.
Elizabeth Kolbert describes the origins of the term:
The word “Anthropocene” was coined by Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen about a decade ago. One day Crutzen, who shared a Nobel Prize for discovering the effects of ozone-depleting compounds, was sitting at a scientific conference. The conference chairman kept referring to the Holocene, the epoch that began at the end of the last ice age, 11,500 years ago, and that—officially, at least—continues to this day.
“‘Let’s stop it,'” Crutzen recalls blurting out. “‘We are no longer in the Holocene. We are in the Anthropocene.’ Well, it was quiet in the room for a while.” When the group took a coffee break, the Anthropocene was the main topic of conversation. Someone suggested that Crutzen copyright the word.
When did it start?
William Ruddiman, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Virginia, has proposed that the invention of agriculture some 8,000 years ago, and the deforestation that resulted, led to an increase in atmospheric CO2 just large enough to stave off what otherwise would have been the start of a new ice age; in his view, humans have been the dominant force on the planet practically since the start of the Holocene. Crutzen has suggested that the Anthropocene began in the late 18th century, when, ice cores show, carbon dioxide levels began what has since proved to be an uninterrupted rise. Other scientists put the beginning of the new epoch in the middle of the 20th century, when the rates of both population growth and consumption accelerated rapidly.
Human beings have, of course, transformed the planet from the start of agriculture and the beginnings of class society. But it is as a result of the rise of capitalism that the most significant changes—from rising carbon dioxide levels, population growth, and consumption—have been produced.
The real question for the International Commission on Stratigraphy is, should the geologic timescale be changed to include the Age of Capitalism?
Note: additional National Geographic photographs of the Anthropocene are available here.