Chimneys emit smoke into the sky

Our economies have literally kickstarted a new stage in Earth’s history. Welcome to the Anthropocene

Nukes, plastic and chickens are just three of the things that mark what scientists are calling a new geological epoch. But what exactly is the Anthropocene?

On Monday a group of scientists at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town said that it’s time to declare a new geological epoch. Its name? ‘The Anthropocene’.

Now that definitely sounds like some kind of weird video nasty from the Eighties, which is kind of appropriate because weird video nasties from the Eighties (and the plastic they’re made of) are very much products of the Anthropocene, along with the millions of other goods we’ve created as part of the economic system over the years. And the whole thing does seem like a bit of a horror show.

The term refers to us: human beings. The idea is that we’ve had such a devastating impact on the planet in such a short time that we’ve now actually transitioned from what was called the Holocene (which refers to the 12,000 years since the last Ice Age to now) to this new stage of Earth’s history. In short, we’ve changed the planet forever. We’re now squarely in ‘the age of us’.

The scientists say the evidence for this is pretty compelling (and damning), and includes:

  • Pushing the extinction rate of other animals massively upwards. If this continues at the present rate up to 75% of species could be wiped out in the next few centuries
  • Polluting our oceans with so much plastic that it will almost certainly leave traces in the fossil record
  • Increasing the levels of climate-warming carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at the fastest rate for over 60 million years
  • Doubling the amount of things like nitrogen and phosphorus in our soil over the last 100 years with our massive use of fertilizers


A map of the world painted on a pair of hands

All this has been going on for a while, but it turns out the 1950s were when it really kicked off, so this will mark the official start of the new epoch. Since then we’ve created so much stuff, and transformed the Earth so completely, that it’s likely significant traces will be left behind to mark this change for future generations (if there’s anyone left). This includes things like radioactive residues from nuclear bombs we’ve exploded, the billions of tonnes of plastics we’ve created, and even the bones of all the domestic animals we’ve cultivated for food.

And if you really think about it what this marks is the creation and dominance of the economic system. All of these products, and all of the changes they’ve brought about are products of human economic activity. As a species, we’ve literally dug up the deposits of of fossilized animals from millions of years ago (oil) and turned them into plastic, which we’ve thrown about the place to such an extent that it will leave a permanent trace. And this, it seems, will be the legacy of the Anthropocene.

It now only only remains for the recommendation to be accepted, which, the experts think, could possibly happen within three years. If it does, that means we’ll officially be living through one of the biggest and quickest changes in the planet’s entire history. And it will all have been caused by us and the vast economic system we’ve created.

Recent articles

Reader Comments