The team argues that the current manmade geological period must be acknowledged to protect planet.
The so-called Anthropocene is unofficially the current geological period which began when human activity started to have a major effect on the global environment. A relatively new concept, its advocates believe that it is necessary to mark a break with the current official period, the Holocene, in order to acknowledge humankind’s profound disturbance to the earth which is recognised as having begun during the Industrial Revolution. However, the term Anthropocene has only been recently used to describe a new period in the geological timeline and there has yet to be consensus on when the period began or whether it actually exists.
Professor of Global Ecology and Sustainable Development with the Institute’s Development Studies Unit, Jacques Grinevald has been carrying out research on the Anthropocene concept since before the term was first coined in 2000 and has been examining man’s impact on the Biosphere for over 30 years. Most recently in the paper The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives, in the Royal Society’s spring 2011 edition of its journal Philosophical Transactions, Dr Grinevald and his three co-authors argue that it is now time to officially declare the new manmade period. In the paper, the interdisciplinary team of two geoscientists and two global historians write that the Industrial Revolution is a logical start date for the new epoch and they explore recent trends in the evolution of the Anthropocene, focusing on the profound changes to mankind’s relationship with the rest of the living world. They also look at early attempts and proposals for managing the human relationship to the global biogeochemical cycles that drive the Earth’s climate system.
The paper comes ahead of the next meeting of the world’s top geologists, the International Geological Congress in Brisbane in August 2012, where Professor Grinevald said that the decision to officially declare the current period the Anthropocene could, in theory, be made. However, “It is like Copenhagen”, he pointed out. “The institutions and individuals involved are very conservative and the procedure is not simple”, he said. But he will not be there to find out first hand because he stopped taking airplanes years ago due to ecological concerns.
While many can agree on the fact that the world is now in the Anthropocene, coming up with an agreed upon start date was not an easy task even among the four authors of the “The Antropocene”. All of them were able to acknowledge that a logical point is the beginning of the Industrial Revolution but the debate on when that actually began is still heated. Jacques Grinevald believes that it was the thermo-industrial revolution in the mid-19th century that marked the start of the modern geological period pointing out that humankind’s major impact on the Biosphere did not begin with the mere invention of the steam engine but with its widespread use in many countries.
Professor Grinevald said that the significance in recognising the Anthropocene would amount to acknowledgement that since the advent of the Western economic model and accompanying lifestyles, mankind has become a new geological force with its physical activities leaving permanent traces on the earth. One of the goals of his and his colleagues’ work on the Anthropocene, he said, is not only to make people aware of the changes that have taken place since the Industrial Revolution but also to make them aware that we face even further accelerated changes in the future. The importance of geology is underestimated in the discourse on the environment according to Dr Grinevald. “So far the debates have often been high-jacked by climate scientists who neglect the effects of urbanisation within the Biosphere”, he said.
“Many people still have not recognised man’s enormous influence on the earth but if we were to disappear tomorrow, traces of our society would be left for millennia to come”, he concluded.
Member of the faculty of the Institute and its predecessor, the Graduate Institute of Development Studies, since 1974, Jacques Grinevald’s research and teaching focus on climate change and the Biosphere, history and epistemology of scientific development and technology as well as the basis of ecological economics. He is a member of the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s Anthropocene Working Group and is one of the few historians who are members of the Geological Society of London. In 2007 he published the French-language book, La Biosphère de l'Anthropocène; climat et prétrole, la double menace. Repères transdiciplinaires (1824-2007).
The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives by Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill is available on the Royal Society’s spring 2011 edition of Philosophical Transactions and on the website Biospherology.com.
Jacques Grinevald discussed the Anthropocene in the French newspaper le Monde on 5 February 2011.