The Manifesto “Anthropocene in Chile” brings together some of the key features of this new, still informal, concept to suggest some principles on how local human communities can consider, analyze, and respond to the major changes to the Earth system that are now taking place, and which are affecting the habitability of this planet for all species, including our own. There is much to think on in this Manifesto, with its broad multidisciplinary approach and emphasis on the forging of new forms of societal connection, but this commentary will be somewhat narrower, written as it is by a geologist who is involved in the formal analysis of the Anthropocene as a potential new unit of the geological timescale.
This formal study by members of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) is not meant to provide holistic understanding of the Anthropocene, and still less is its task to suggest ways of how human communities might adapt to the rapidly evolving world of the Anthropocene. These are both important tasks—arguably considerably more important than the geological analysis we are engaged in; but they fall outside the formal remit of the AWG. Nevertheless, in trying to describe as precisely as possible the detailed history of Anthropocene change in classical geological terms, and comparing it to previous episodes of global change in the Earth’s geological past, this formal analysis may be able to provide useful context to the wider and more societally relevant ambitions expressed in the Manifesto.
One of the key aspects of this context, as outlined in the Manifesto, is in encouraging greater awareness of the Earth and its almost unimaginably long history, both in a general sense and as part of the education of the young people who must grow up within the intensifying conditions of the Anthropocene. For the current global changes cannot be properly understood if they are taken out of their planetary and deep-time context, or it may be easy to normalize or trivialize them in the absence of this context. For this, young people need to have knowledge of our planet’s history, as well as the history of our social and political cultures. Human history is a mainstay of the educational curriculum and is studied in considerable depth, but Earth history is often neglected in education, until recently being generally regarded as “abstract” knowledge of a distant, prehistoric past, of times when dinosaurs and mammoths lived, of little or no relevance to modern society.
Earth history is no longer abstract. For instance, the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels as a result of fossil fuel burning, from 280 parts per million (ppm) to now some 410 ppm, may seem abstract and perhaps even somewhat insignificant if considered out of context. But set in the context of the geological record of this gas over the last million years, as its levels rhythmically rose and fell between ∼180 and ∼280 ppm, these changes closely coinciding with the glacial and warm phases of the ice ages, the significance of this abrupt, human-caused departure into what is in effect uncharted territory for the current Earth system takes on a different and more immediate meaning. This is especially so when it is realized that the recent change has taken place over a hundred times more quickly than the oscillations in carbon dioxide levels of the ice ages—which are themselves considered geologically rapid.
This is just one of the basic parts of the framework of evidence that is being used to build the Anthropocene concept, both in its specific geological interpretation and in its wider sense. There are many others, and all of them gain their meaning and significance from an understanding of how the Earth functioned and evolved before human impacts began to fundamentally alter its surface character. Thus, providing a deeper appreciation of the key elements of our planet’s evolution and behavior would now seem to be a useful priority in education in its widest sense.
These features of the Anthropocene, too, range across the physical, chemical, and biological domains. Thus, just within the sciences, they demand a multidisciplinary approach—another of the key features emphasized by the Manifesto.
In terms of the geological study of the Anthropocene this wide range of analysis is taken for granted. Both geology and Earth system science (the discipline within which Paul Crutzen developed the Anthropocene concept we use today) are inherently multidisciplinary. To operate within them one must be able to navigate—at least at a basic level—within the biological, chemical, physical, mathematical, geographical, and other sciences. This is another aspect that makes these Earth-focused studies relevant to the aim of the Manifesto.
With the Anthropocene, of course, the multidisciplinarity extends considerably further. Given that it is human interactions in all their complexity and emergent dynamics that have resulted in the ongoing changes to the Earth system, the social sciences, humanities, and arts are also central to this study and should intertwine with the physical sciences to engage with the phenomena of the Anthropocene. Hence philosophy, anthropology, human history, sociology, economics, law, literature, art—and many more disciplines—all have a part to play in the study of the Anthropocene.
This kind of multidisciplinarity is neither easy to accomplish nor necessarily quick and efficient in its operation. The Earth’s phenomena that we now bundle together within the Anthropocene paradigm both are highly varied and encompass great complexity—far more than can be fitted within one human brain, no matter how assiduous and gifted. This is why the different scholarly disciplines have arisen and, indeed, have split and split again over the last couple of centuries. This specialization has resulted in enormous growth in knowledge in all fields, but it has also made it harder to obtain a wide overview of major complex phenomena or to reach common understanding of them.
Nevertheless, it seems important to make the effort to reach across the disciplines and to better integrate scholarly studies with societal concerns so as to better understand the patterns of Earth system change now underway. One of the key features—perhaps the key feature—of the Anthropocene is that it represents a major change in trajectory of the Earth system from the more or less stable conditions that have seen human civilization develop and expand over the past few thousand years. Coming to terms with this change as it unfolds over the generations to come will need the kind of adventurous and inclusive thinking represented by the Manifesto.