A is for “Anthropocene”

Anthropocene wordleToday I want to pretend that I know how to read science journals, particularly a recent Nature article by scientists Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin entitled “Defining the Anthropocene.”[1] Reading a summary about the article was provocation enough to read the article itself, which in turn sparked a more extended rumination about chronology, interdisciplinarity, and scholarly divides.

So here’s a confession: six months ago I’d never heard the word “Anthropocene.” I first learned it when someone mentioned it in reference to a grant application. The Oxford English Dictionary (my go-to for etymology) traces the appearance of the word to May 2000, and describes it as “The era of geological time during which human activity is considered to be the dominant influence on the environment, climate, and ecology of the earth.”

Here’s the rub: there’s not much agreement over when the Anthropocene begins—and the point of Lewis and Maslin’s article is to set a start date. They argue that defining the start of the Anthropocene requires “the location of a global marker of an event . . . such as rock, sediment, or glacier ice, known as Global Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP)” (colloquially, a “golden spike”), or a date “agreed by committee, known as a Global Standard Stratigraphic Age (GSSA),” which the committee would agree on after surveying the stratigraphic evidence. Scientists prefer the former method.[2] Maslin and Lewis would like to do away with the commonly-referenced start date of the Industrial Revolution because they argue that humans had “long been engaging in industrial-type production, such as metal utilization,” in addition to other pollutant-causing actions, for thousands of years before the Industrial Revolution.[3] The long spread of the Industrial Revolution (they offer an onset date from anywhere between 1760 and 1880), furthermore, makes it hard to find one “clear global GSSP primary marker.”[4] Ultimately, they end up proposing two start dates: 1610, because the event of “New-Old World collision” created a stratigraphic marker of low CO2 in glacier ice, and 1964 because “Nuclear weapon detonation” left behind radionuclides in tree rings.[5] They want to name the 1610 event the “Orbis Spike,” for “the Latin for world, because post-1492 humans on the two hemispheres were connected, trade became global, and some prominent social scientists refer to this time as the beginning of the modern ‘world-system.’”[6] They prefer 1610 because it provides evidence of change in climate, chemistry, and palaeontological signals, suggesting that this date anticipated and enabled the Industrial Revolution 150 years later. The year of 1964 provides “a good GSSP marker” in the form of a “radionuclide spike,” but “not an Earth-changing event.”[7]

Obviously, the early Americanist in me (and one who’s been only a little bit invested in the year 1610) did a happy dance upon seeing the earlier date. But then dancing gave way to so many questions: Why does 1610 matter? As a commentator below has noted, 1610 matters because it reflects increased carbon that occurred as a result of population decline in central and south America in the sixteenth century, and subsequent forest regrowth. Thus although 1610 is a very English-centric date—what sort of early Americanist begins with Jamestown rather than Spanish colonization in the 1490s, or even with Beringia?—the date actually reflects what we already know about Spanish and Portuguese involvement in the Atlantic region. But did it really take nearly 125 years for the effects of colonization to cause “collision”? If colonization was an ongoing, multi-century process, why does 1610 count as the big event? What do the authors mean by “global” trade, given the fact that historians could argue about that definition until the end of time? Why is there a wibbly wobbly gap between the two proposed dates of 1610 and 1964? Are historians operating on a much smaller scale than we think we are? Do I, as a historian who works more on food history than on environmental history (while acknowledging that these two fields are interconnected), feel informed enough to ask these questions?

I decided at that point that such questions merited a blog post, but felt as though I needed to do a bit more reading to be able to say something marginally understandable on a subject about which I knew nothing half a year ago. My searches for discussions of the Anthropocene in history journals proved revealing. In the grand scheme of citations (which, upon contemplation, I’m forced to admit is a rather small scheme as far as schemes go), to what extent does it matter that Katherine Grandjean is the only author in the William and Mary Quarterly to use the term “Anthropocene,” despite the fact that the most recent issue is all about climate and early American history? The word does not appear at all in Early American Studies—though I hear it should in the most recent spring issue (a special one on the environment co-edited by Christopher Parsons and Cameron Strang). The word does feature in a recent issue of the American Historical Review, and here’s the part of the blog post where I fell down a citation rabbit hole.

The December 2014 issue of the AHR had a roundtable called “History Meets Biology,” and one wonders what might have happened had the Maslin and Lewis article in Nature appeared a year earlier, rather than following on the heels of the AHR. The authors of that roundtable argued “for more interdisciplinary conversation with the natural sciences, on the grounds that such a conversation might be mutually beneficial.”[8] Julia Adeney Thomas’s tracing of the start of the Antropocene to the Industrial Revolution (following the lead of previous scholars, it should be noted), might have been different had the two publication dates been reversed.[9] So too might the citations in the Nature article. Lewis and Maslin’s references for the Columbian Exchange are Crosby and Charles Mann, and Wallerstein makes an appearance for the world-systems citation.[10] But what of the literature on the year 1610?[11] What of citations of Atlantic history, which have long since shifted attention away from the 1600s and toward the 1500s? What of environmental history, the scholarship with which I myself am not as familiar? If the whole point is to argue for a specific year, doesn’t it make sense to cite the literature that talks about that specific year, or about the Little Ice Age in the early 1600s? I don’t want to nitpick here; I’m sure there are approximately a bajillion things I’ve gotten wrong in my summary of their Nature article, and want to stress that I found it more exciting than problematic. What I do want to do is agree that closer collaboration could prompt better understanding of the most recent scholarship as people working in multiple fields publish on their different topics.

So what are the takeaways here? Why should the Anthropocene matter to early Americanists? Well, perhaps it should matter as we confront histories with broader chronologies in the vein of The History Manifesto—about which Karin Wulf has blogged most recently. To an extent, it seems as if some environmental historians might potentially agree with Lewis and Maslin that smaller dates are better dates. In her review of John L. Brooke’s Climate Change and the Course of Global History: A Rough Journey and Geoffrey Parker’s Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, Grandjean reminds us that Brooke’s book “insists that important climatic shifts occurred over relatively brief periods,” in decades and maybe centuries.[12] Golden spikes, in other words, can exist as single historical events, though it appears there’s some room for debate about how long these periods are allowed to be. At the same time, the spread between the two dates proposed by Maslin and Lewis suggests that historians of early America might, unexpectedly, find similarities by talking about environmental history to historians of the twentieth century. And beyond that, perhaps it’s worth trying to read more widely in the literature outside of history altogether—in our copious spare time.


[1] Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” Nature 519, no. 7542 (12 March 2015): 171-80.

[2] Lewis and Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” 173.

[3] Lewis and Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” 175.

[4] Lewis and Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” 176.

[5] Lewis and Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” 175.

[6] Lewis and Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” 175.

[7] Lewis and Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” 177.

[8] John L. Brooke, Philip Ethington, Michael D. Gordin, Kyle Harper, Lynn Hunt, Clark Spencer Larsen, Norman MacLeod, Randolph Roth, Edmund Russell, Walter Scheidel, Daniel Lord Smail, and Julia Adeney Thomas, “Introduction,” AHR Roundtable: History Meets Biology, American Historical Review 119, no. 5 (December 2014): 1496.

[9] Julia Adeney Thomas, “History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value,” American Historical Review 119, no. 5 (December 2014): 1588.

[10] Alfred Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (Greenwood: Praeger, 2003 [1973]); Charles C. Mann, 1493: How the Ecological Collision of Europe and the Americas Gave Rise to the Modern World (London: Granta, 2011); Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System I: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974).

[11] Karen Ordahl Kupperman, “Foreword,” in Robert Appelbaum and John Wood Sweet, eds., Envisioning an English Empire: Jamestown and the Making of the North Atlantic World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005); William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983); Carville V. Earle, “Environment, Disease, and Mortality in Early Virginia,” in Thad W. Tate and David L. Ammerman, eds., The Chesapeake in the Seventeenth Century: Essays on Anglo-American Society (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1979).

[12] Katherine Grandjean, “It’s the Climate, Stupid,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 72, no. 1 (January 2015): 161.

8 comments on “A is for “Anthropocene”

  1. Jared says:

    This is a good start, but you’ve missed the time lag inherent in Lewis and Maslin’s work. 1610 marked the low point in the changing CO2 output caused by the demographic collapse of indigenous populations in central and south America. The mass killings of the 1500s resulted in increased forest regrowth, and this regrowth resulted in increased carbon uptake. Far from being an English centered date, 1610 leaves North America at the margins.

  2. Dave Mazella says:

    Excellent post, Rachel. I do think that our existing chronologies operate at a different scale than a concept like “anthropocene,” though perhaps with more and better stratigraphic evidence they could be reconciled. It also seems to me that the desire to establish firm start and end dates is grounded in the human desire for narratives. Perhaps the “Anthropocene” concept works against such a narrative conception of history?

    • That’s certainly possible, Dave, but if the point of the Anthropocene is that it’s a human age, I’d suggest we’re going to continue to need narratives!

      • Jared says:

        This question of narratives is an interesting one because the Anthropocene debate is so heavily invested in a question of origins. Academics and activists of all stripes seem invested in the types of moral and political responsibility associated with different starting points and meanings for the Anthropocene. Taking the obvious analog from this blog, I have ask whether we will be writing blog posts about losing the Anthropocene in ten years?

  3. Dave Mazella says:

    Sure, but I suspect that incorporating the Anthropocene into our notions of historical narrative and chronology would substantially alter the form of such narratives, precisely because of the problem of the difference in temporal scale.

  4. […] A is for “Anthropocene” – A historian’s take on a recent Nature article […]


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