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?
- Smithsonian Digital Studio, “What is the Anthropocene?,”
- 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.
- “Corn Belt Farmers Respond to Climate Change.” Union of Concerned Scientists, January 15, 2014.
- DeWeerdt, Sarah. “If Climate Mayors Ruled the World.” Anthropocene, June 6, 2017.
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.
- Haraway, Donna, Noboru Ishikawa, Gilbert Scott, Kenneth Olwig, Anna L. Tsing, and Nils Bubandt. “Anthropologists Are Talking – About the Anthropocene.” Ethnos 81, no. 3 (2015): 535-64..
- Howe, Cymene, and Anand Pandian. “Introduction: Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen — Cultural Anthropology.” Cultural Anthropology, January 21, 2016.
- Crist, Eileen. “Beyond the Climate Crisis: A Critique of Climate Change Discourse.” Telos 2007, no. 141 (2007): 29–55.
- Haus der Kulturen der Welt. “The Anthropocene Project.” HKW. Accessed June 6, 2017.
- Heartney, Eleanor. “Art for the Anthropocene Era.” Art in America (February 2014).
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
DATING THE ANTHROPOCENE
|PROPOSED DATES||DEFINING FEATURES||PROS||CONS|
|~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?
- Zalasiewicz, Jan, Colin N. Waters, Mark Williams, Anthony D. Barnosky, Alejandro Cearreta, Paul Crutzen, Erle Ellis, et al. “When Did the Anthropocene Begin? A Mid-Twentieth Century Boundary Level Is Stratigraphically Optimal.” Quaternary International 383 (2015): 196–203.
- Waters, Colin N., Jan Zalasiewicz, Colin Summerhayes, Anthony D. Barnosky, Clément Poirier, Agnieszka Gałuszka, Alejandro Cearreta, et al. “The Anthropocene Is Functionally and Stratigraphically Distinct from the Holocene.” Science 351, no. 6269 (2016): aad2622.
- Environmental Justice Atlas.
- 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.
- UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), and Brookings. “Guidance on Protecting People from Disasters and Environmental Change through Planned Relocation.” Brookings and INHCR, October 2015.
- Chancel, Lucas, and Thomas Pikkety. “Carbon and Inequality: From Kyoto to Paris: Trends in the Global Inequality of Carbon Emissions (1998-2013) & Prospects for an Equitable Adaptation Fund.” Paris: École d’Économie de Paris, November 3, 2015.
- Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation. “Climate Change Strategic Plan,” September 2013.
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?