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  • Naming the Anthropocene
  • Jill S. Schneiderman

1. What’s in a Name?

In Life on the Mississippi, a memoir of his days piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi River, American writer and humorist Mark Twain wrote:

The military engineers of the Commission have taken upon their shoulders the job of making the Mississippi over again—a job transcended in size by only the original job of creating it. They are building wing-dams here and there, to deflect the current; and dikes to confine it in narrower bounds … they are felling the timber-front … and ballasting it with stones. … One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver—not aloud, but to himself—that ten thousand River Commissions … cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey … cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over, and laugh at. … But a discreet man will not put these things into spoken words; for the West Point engineers have not their superiors anywhere; they know all that can be known of their abstruse science; and so, since they conceive that they can fetter and handcuff that river … it is but wisdom for the unscientific man to keep still, lie low. … Otherwise one would pipe out and say the Commission might as well bully the comets in their courses and undertake to make them behave, as try to bully the Mississippi into right and reasonable conduct.

(Twain 1883, 206)

I love this passage in which Twain foregrounds the issue of the earth’s agency in relation to human attempts to contain it. Now, almost two centuries after Twain penned these words, we are, to use his language, “piping out” on [End Page 179] the issue of human attempts to “bully” the earth. Recognizing that we live in a geological moment that allows us to witness the earth “tearing down, dancing over, laughing at” our efforts to control it, we geologists are trying to put this recognition into words (206–07).

The term “Anthropocene” was formally proposed by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and ecologist Eugene Stoermer (2000) to denote the contemporary global environment dominated by human activity. Suggesting that modern technology began to transform earth-system behavior and substantially affect environmental processes, they presented the term “Anthropocene” to identify the time interval beginning, in their view, with the Industrial Revolution and the start of the human ability to shape earth’s environment.

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Figure 1.

Google Books Ngram Viewer of “Anthropocene” from the 1970s to Today.

Reproduced by permission from Google Books Ngram Viewer:

However, the notion of the Anthropocene has been expressed in the scientific literature for decades in various forms. In fact, since the early 1980s, Stoermer had been using the word “Anthropocene;” in the 1990s the Chinese scientific literature under the influence of Chen Zhirong of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences referred to the “Anthroposphere;” and in his 1992 book Global Warming, journalist Andrew Revkin utilized the terms “Homogenocene” and “Anthrocene” (Syvitski 2012, 14). Since Crutzen and Stoermer’s introduction at the beginning of the new millennium, the term and concept has captivated the imaginations of thinkers from diverse arenas. Before 2003, the term produced 416 Web hits while in 2011 that number had increased to more than 450,000 (14). The logarithmic increase in the use of the word is obvious when one types into Google Ngram viewer the word “Anthropocene.” Three scientific journals focusing on the topic have been established: The Anthropocene, The Anthropocene Review, and Elementa, and the term has been covered by an [End Page 180] innumerable number of mainstream media outlets (Ellis and Trachtenberg 2014, 122). Recently, an exhaustive review of the current state of the debate in Nature by geographers from the University of Leeds reveals the rapid escalation of engagement with the idea by the scientific community (Lewis and Maslin 2015, 171).

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Figure 2.

Geologic timescale by R. Steinberg.

Reprinted from the Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College: http://d32ogoqmya1dw8.cloudfront...


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