The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives
By Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Series A, March 2011, 842-867
[available on line]
There is much to learn from this paper, on, for example, the concept of the Anthropocene and its emergence, the Great Acceleration, peak oil and phosphorus, geo-engineering and planetary boundaries, among other perspectives.
As the introduction asserts: ‘Climate change has brought into sharp focus the capability of contemporary human civilization to influence the environment at the scale of the Earth as a single, evolving planetary system.’ ‘But climate change is only the tip of the iceberg’, the authors go on to say, adding that humans are significantly altering other biogeochemical cycles such as nitrogen and sulphur as well as phosphorus, strongly modifying Earth’s water cycle and probably driving its sixth major extinction process. Thus, ‘humankind has become a global geological force in its own right’ and a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – is evolving. (842-3)
Among other antecedents of the concept of the Anthropocene enunciated by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, the eminent French philosopher Henri Bergson’s assertion of 1907 is quoted: ‘A century has elapsed since the invention of the steam engine, and we are only just beginning to feel the depths of the shock it gave us.... In thousands of years, when, seen from the distance, only the broad lines of the present age will still be visible, our wars and our revolutions will count for little, even supposing they are remembered at all; but the steam engine, and the procession of engines of every kind that accompanied it, will perhaps be spoken of as we speak of the bronze or of the chipped stone of pre-historic times: it will serve to define an age.’ (844-5) Nit-picking no doubt to point out that when Bergson wrote it was two centuries since Newcomen patented an early version of the steam engine in 1705. More substantially however, given the significance of James Watt’s improvement of the steam engine in the early Industrial Revolution from 1763 to 1784 as noted by Crutzen and Stoermer in their paper, it might be appropriate to mention the context of James Watt’s contribution. This context includes the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and other works from the Scottish Enlightenment. Moreover, in retrospect, do the wars and revolutions of the twentieth century appear to count for little?
The third section of the paper (845-7), devoted to the history of the human-environment relationship, includes a consideration of ‘the early Anthropocene hypothesis’ concerning the impact of the agrarian revolution, which appears implausible to the authors. There is an interesting discussion of the early use of coal from the Song dynasy (960-1279) in China, but the authors do not believe that the human use of coal and other fossil fuels made much impact before the beginning of the Anthropocene, the subject of the paper’s fourth section (847-9). Among the perceived important developments are the intensive use of fossil fuels leading to wide application of fertilisers, in turn promoting the extension of agriculture and increase in population. Noting that by 1750 the Industrial Revolution had barely begun but had spread thoughout Europe and North America, the authors suggest that ‘the year AD 1800 could reasonably be chosen as the beginning of the Anthropocene.’ This is a few years later than the 1784 chosen by Crutzen and Stoermer, but much earlier than that favoured by other analysts.
Some of these have opted for the years of the paper’s sixth section (849-53), ‘The Great Acceleration’ from 1945 to 2000, when ‘the growth imperative rapidly became a core society value that drove both the socio-economic and the political spheres.’ Impressive tables, which cannot be summarily described and merit close attention, amply illustrate the widespread increase in the pace of the advanced Industrial Revolution. Just one comment here. Noting that the embryo of The Great Acceleration was clearly evident in the years 1870-1914, the authors claim that ‘the acceleration of these trends was shattered by World War I’ and its sequel. There is at least a case for maintaining that, in some aspects such as the improvement of transport by land and movement by air, the war acted as an accelerator, while the accompanying Russian Revolution and post-war settlement helped to set the scene for both World War II and the Cold War, which also promoted technological innovation as well as steeply increasing exploitation of the world’s resources. Environmental problems were also intensified by warfare, and neglected partly because to draw attention to them could incur charges of disloyalty to a cause. Certainly, the making and use of materiel should be added to the indicators of the Great Acceleration.
Section 6 (853-60) shows how the Great Acceleration not only continues but also spreads to the previously so-called Third World, particularly India and China (both of which, it should be added in paratheses, not only achieved rapid economic growth but also acquired nuclear weapons). The concepts of ‘peak oil’ and ‘peak phosphorus’ both emerged. At the same time, possibly, the drive to understand the genetic basis of life, even to subject it to synthesis, and the beginnings of geo-engineering, could lead towards some alleviation of the intensifying predicament, the authors suggest, but they also warn that ‘the near inevitability of unforeseen consequences should give humanity pause for serious reflection before embarking on any geo-engineering approaches.’ The mere thought of the synthesis of life has aroused widespread alarm. The authors also stress that ‘legal, ethical and societal issues, not to mention the challenges of global governance..., will need to be thoroughly explored and solved before deliberate human modification of the climate system can be undertaken.’
They go on in the seventh and final section (860-2), ‘Societal implications of the Anthropocene concept’, to remark that ‘the belief systems and assumptions that underpin neo-classical economic thinking, which in turn has been a major driver of the Great Acceleration, are directly challenged by the concept of the Anthropocene.’ This reinforces the case for a serious consideration of The Wealth of Nations, still a ‘classic’ source for ‘neo-classical thinking’. It cannot be emphasised enough that Smith wrote when the commercial-manufacturing stage of economic development was under way (as in his famous example of pin-making) and he could not comment therefore on the industrial stage or have any idea of the Great Acceleration.
Of course, a paper such as this cannot hope to be all-inclusive. Other works by its authors need to be taken into consideration: to give just two examples bearing on historical perspectives, Jacques Grinevald, La biosphere de l’Anthropocène: climat et pétrole, la double menace: Repères transdisciplinaires (1824-2007), Genève: Georg Editeur, 2007 and John McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century, London: Penguin, 2000.
More generally, to understand the Anthropocene more fully, some attention might be given to academic disciplines not mentioned in the paper, including the history and analysis of literature. See, for example, Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, London: Penguin, 1986, 24-5, 58-60, 107-8, 123, 150, 205, 446, 572, where some of the sources of inspiration are given for Leo Szilard, Nils Bohr, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi. It would be pertinent to discover which literary works have influenced researchers on the Anthropocene.This consideration reinforces the case for pandisciplinarity, the use of every discipline in aid of understanding.