The “Anthropocene” is a term that has become widely used since Nobel Prize Laureate Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer began popularizing it in 2000. They argued that humans had so dramatically transformed the planet that it was time to pronounce a new geological epoch. They claimed that this epoch should be named the Anthropocene—or, “the human age.”
Soon after Crutzen and Stoermer announced the concept, many scientists picked it up. It was a useful descriptor for what they were seeing in their research. Humans were altering the water cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorous cycle. They were moving more rock and soil each year than the winds, rains, and tides. Humans were clear cutting forests. Plants and animals were going extinct at a rate unprecedented for millions of years. The carbon dioxide pumped out by factories, automobiles, and houses was warming the planet at an ever-increasing rate. All of these processes were leaving a measurable mark on the planet—and they had been for quite some time.
In August 2016, a group of geologists recommended that the International Commission on Stratigraphy (the group that designates geological ages) formally adopt the “Anthropocene” to designate our current geological epoch. This was an important decision, which could have long-term implications for scientific research and public policy.
Outside geology—in fields beyond the sciences—researchers have also begun using the term. The “Anthropocene” helps explain the myriad new ways that human societies are conceiving, experiencing, and responding to changing environmental conditions. Many social scientists, humanists, and artists are providing insight into how the lived experience of the Anthropocene is more than simply geological or biological; it has complex social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions.
There is quite a bit of debate around the concept of the “Anthropocene.” Some argue over when we should date its beginning. Others debate the ethical responsibilities of the societies and corporations who have been most active in transforming the planet. There are those who focus on the issues of environmental justice—on how some people experience the environmental effects associated with the Anthropocene more severely and the inequities that result. Still others discuss what humans might do to mitigate the effects of environmental change and how economic and political systems should respond. And, some are concerned that our approaches are often too anthropocentric and that they ignore the rights of other living creatures. Work on the Anthropocene has proliferated over the past decade, and there are dozens of debates associated with it.
There is no simple definition of the Anthropocene. It is a complex phenomenon that has geobiophysical and sociocultural dimensions. For the purposes of An Anthropocene Primer, we work from the perspective outlined by Jason M. Kelly in Rivers of the Anthropocene: “humans are altering the planet to such an extent that we are leaving a permanent and irreversible mark on the earth’s biological, hydrological, atmospheric, and geological systems. Humanity has initiated an environmental “phase shift,” and formerly resilient systems have been pushed into altered states. Even if humanity were to significantly modify its behaviors, the result would be a new equilibrium, fundamentally different from the pre-industrial world.” This situation didn’t begin recently. It is the consequence of a historical process the unfolded over hundreds of years. To understand the Anthropocene we have to understand the socio-cultural conditions that made it possible — imperialism, industrialization, capitalism, urbanization, and more. And in order to think through possible futures, we need to engage across fields of expertise, across cultures, and beyond the academy.
How to Use this Primer
Created for beginners and experts alike – for teachers, self-learners, policy makers, museum directors, funders, and others – An Anthropocene Primer is a guidebook to help make sense of the Anthropocene. Readers can work through it from front to back or dip in as necessary to guide their learning or teaching. The syllabus and bibliography are color-coded for beginner, intermediate, and expert readers. And, the exercises can be completed by individuals or groups.
Finding an entry point into the burgeoning literature on the Anthropocene can be intimidating. Few texts are currently available to guide readers. An Anthropocene Primer seeks to address this gap by highlighting key themes in the literature. It provides an interdisciplinary perspective, drawing together work in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. Readers can use the primer to get a brief summary of important concepts. They can use it to brush up their understanding of emerging ideas. Or, they can use it to take a deep dive, moving from beginner to advanced readings.
This primer has three main sections: (1) An Anthropocene Syllabus; (2) Activities (including Anthropocenoscapes, A Deep Time Timeline, and Framing the Anthropocene); and (3) An Anthropocene Bibliography. We have designed An Anthropocene Syllabus for both self-directed and group learning. It allows for three levels of entry to each module: beginner, intermediate, advanced. The Activities Section contains a series of tactics for engaging with the Anthropocene. They encourage users to connect the global phenomenon of the Anthropocene to local conditions and personal experiences. Like the syllabus, An Anthropocene Bibliography was designed for beginner, intermediate, and advanced learners. It offers key interdisciplinary readings to guide continued learning. It also includes a Spanish language supplement, which will be expanded for the Spanish language edition of An Anthropocene Primer.