Module 1: What is the Anthropocene?

Summary of Module

The challenge in defining the Anthropocene is as complex as humans themselves. As more fields embrace the use of the word, it has become a real challenge to use it in any meaningful way. This module introduces readers to the history of the term and shows the ways in which it is commonly used both within the scientific community and beyond.


Anthropocene, Holocene, anthropogenic, climate change, sustainability, global warming, resilience, hyperobject, process, framework, systems, ecology, theory, applied knowledge, climate indicators, sociocultural, biogeophysical, environmental baseline, pristine, geological epoch

Learning Outcomes (beginner, intermediate, advanced)

After completing this module, readers will be able

  • to summarize the various arguments about when the Anthropocene began
  • to identify the environmental indicators that scientists have associated with the Anthropocene
  • to outline the basic history of the Anthropocene as a scientific concept
  • to explain how the Anthropocene concept differs from other environmental concepts (e.g. climate change)
  • to contrast the ways in which different fields of expertise have come to understand and apply the Anthropocene concept
  • to categorize the key debates about dating the Anthropocene and summarize their relevance to multiple fields of expertise
  • to summarize the ways in which different human communities have contributed to anthropogenic environmental change and reflect upon the ways in which different individuals and groups could (or should) respond


Beginner Questions, Readings, and Activities
  • When did researchers start using the Anthropocene as a scientific concept and why?
  • What are the indicators of the Anthropocene at both global and local levels?
  • When did the Anthropocene begin? And why does it matter?
  • Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 369, no. 1938 (2011): 842–867.
  • Rockström, Johan, Will Steffen, Kevin Noone, Åsa Persson, F. Stuart Chapin, Eric F. Lambin, Timothy M. Lenton, et al. “A Safe Operating Space for Humanity.” Nature 461, no. 7263 (2009): 472–75.

Create a timeline that illustrates the key moments when the Anthropocene has developed as a scientific concept.

Intermediate Questions, Readings, and Activities
  • In what ways does the Anthropocene concept differ from the other environmental concepts (e.g. climate change or extinction)?
  • What is the difference between anthropogenic environmental change more broadly, and the environmental changes associated with the Anthropocene more specifically?
  • How is the Anthropocene as a concept being applied in fields related to the sciences, humanities, arts, and social sciences?
  • Lewis, Simon L., and Mark A. Maslin. “Defining the Anthropocene.” Nature 519, no. 7542 (2015): 171–80.
  • Steffen, Will, Åsa Persson, Lisa Deutsch, Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams, K. Richardson, C. Crumley, et al. “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship.” AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment, 2011, 1–23.
  • Swanson, Heather Anne. “The Banality of the Anthropocene.” Dispatches, Cultural Anthropology website, February 22, 2017. 

The table below provides several potential periods for dating the beginning of Anthropocene. Fill in the table by noting the defining features of the period and the pros and cons for choosing the date


~50,000-10,000 yr BP      
~11,000-8,000 yr BP      
1760 to present      
1945 to present      
Advanced Questions, Readings, and Activities
  • How does the meaning of the Anthropocene change if we define it as either a: hyperobject, process, concept, framework, or something else entirely?
  • Given that human communities have historically contributed to anthropogenic environmental change at different rates, how can/should individuals and communities respond to the Anthropocene?
  • Boyer, Dominic. “Anthropology Electric.” Cultural Anthropology 30, no. 4 (2015): 531–39.
  • Brondizio, Eduardo. S. and James Syvitski. 2016. The Anthropocene. Special issue of Global Environmental Change: Human and Policy Dimensions
  • Gonzalez, Carmen G. “Global Justice in the Anthropocene.” Seattle, WA: Seattle University School of Law, March 7, 2017.
  • Boulton, Elizabeth. “Climate Change as a ‘Hyperobject’: A Critical Review of Timothy Morton’s Reframing Narrative.” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 7, no. 5 (2016): 772–85.
  • Malm, Andreas and Alf Hornborg. “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative.” The Anthropocene Review 1, no. 1 (2014): 62-69.

Create a concept map that illustrates the multiple approaches to environmental justice that you have encountered in your readings. What concepts are missing and how would they alter the interpretation in the texts that you have read?