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In my opinion

How did the Anthropocene Working Group get so much wrong?

Failure by the group’s membership to include a wider range of voices is a serious error for an inquiry of such global import.

BY MICHAEL DAVIES-VENN | OCT 26 2020

The Anthropocene Working Group is one of the latest manifestations of the assertion that we are now living in a new period called the Anthropocene. If you have not been following the debate, here’s a recap: 20 years ago, Paul J. Crutzen, an atmospheric chemist, and Eugene F. Stoermer, a biologist, claimed that humans have transformed planet Earth to such a degree that we are now living in a new epoch they proposed to call the Anthropocene.

The main argument is that we have progressed beyond being ordinary humans to “agents” that can, and have made, unpleasant geological changes to our planet. To support their argument, in 2000 Crutzen and Stoermer noted historical evidence that they say results mostly from “the expansion of mankind.” But like all significant scientific claims, the need to know if any of it is true is crucial, especially in this case with its implied question: are we ordinary mortals or do we have powers equal to nature itself?

The crux of the issue is whether human activities are responsible for ushering us from the present Holocene Epoch to the proposed Anthropocene. To crack that kernel of truth, what is supposed to be an international group of scientists was formed. The Anthropocene Working Group sits at the bottom of the totem pole in the international framework for taking decisions on the age of our Earth, at the top of which is the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), which has the power to decide and declare whether we’re living in the Anthropocene.

Some 10 years after presentations and publications of research papers, and after twice voting on their scientific assessments, a large majority within the group concluded “yes,” there are merits to the Anthropocene claim. Now they must decide when this epoch started and where on Earth is the evidence for it? Lake Crawford, in Southern Ontario, is one of two places being considered. Normally, and like similar international scientific queries, this would have been the end of the story. Except the group got a lot wrong on this arguably uncomplimentary claim on all humans.

To start with, the Anthropocene Working Group could have benefitted from insights from an etymologist, who could have usefully noted the literal meaning of the word “Anthropocene,” which may have had an impact on the diversity of scientists in the group. The Oxford Dictionary gives its meaning, in part: “anthropo- Human; of a human being.” The centrality of human activities to the Anthropocene claim means scholars from all disciplines, ideas from outside academia, and scientific contributions from around the world should have been central to the work of the Anthropocene Working Group.

It is foolhardily to accept proof that the African continent is the origin of humans and then not deem it useful to employ, for example, the skills of anthropologists or sociologists to assess “impacts of human activities on earth and atmosphere,” which Crutzen and Stoermer say produced the Anthropocene. Fluctuation of the group’s membership from 16 at its inception in 2009, peaking at 44 by 2018, had very little impact on the diversity of disciplines. The majority of members were geoscientists and remain so. Any conclusion on the Anthropocene claim should strongly be informed by contributions from all scientists working on topics of concern to humans.

But in their summary evidence, the group claimed that, “from the beginning, the AWG represented a broader community than is typical” of such working groups. This may be the case as few besides geoscientists would bat an eyelid over discussions on dating the Jurassic Epoch. But two historians, a legal scholar, a botanist, a journalist, a biologist, an archaeologist and an epistemologist hardly reflect a “broad” community suitable and sufficient for studying an epoch of which human activities are claimed to have changed the geology of this planet. Any scientist whose work touches on humans should have been part of the group.

This is simply because one immense implication of the Anthropocene claim is that transformation of our planet by human activities has serious geopolitical implications – as has climate change, for example. The assessment of the Anthropocene hypothesis provides a unique opportunity for science to depart from research in silos and to reflect the complexities that characterize reality.

Until 2018, there were only eight women scientists in the Anthropocene Working Group and even fewer now. This gender inequity reflects the group’s leadership, which since 2009 until today remains dominated by male scholars from the United Kingdom. This failure is not for lack of direction on diversity from the group’s parent body, the IUGS, which claims to promote education, awareness and participation in the geosciences without regards to “race, citizenship, language, political stance or gender.”

The Anthropocene Working Group is a mostly “Global North” club populated by scholars from Europe and the U.S. The African continent – the birthplace of all humanity and therefore of human activities, the second largest continent by population and where some one billion people are projected – was represented by only two scientists. This failure wasn’t for a lack of scientists in Africa, not with the IUGS boasting membership from more than 100 countries.

Failure by the group membership to seriously reflect scientists worldwide must not be repeated in an inquiry of such global import if we are to maintain the assumption with any measure of credibility that science is of service to humanity. Africa aside, the largest continent, Asia, had a single scholar from China, and the rest of the Global South contributed two from Brazil, one of whom also left.

In the history of planet Earth, the Anthropocene is a unique claim. Voices of traditional and religious leaders from developing regions, sociologists, ecologists and political scientists, among others, should have factored into the work of the Anthropocene Working Group. From Africa to Asia through South America, these voices are missing in the evidence assembled.

After eight years and since submitting their conclusions, rules of the group’s parent body requires that the AWG “dissolve.” But important work on the Anthropocene claim remains. The newly reconvened group now has fewer members and is unfortunately a shadow of the old. Since one of the start dates of the Anthropocene being considered is the Industrial Revolution, these continuing failures could contribute to silencing voices on the unresolved issue of climate change justice. Crutzen and Stoermer used climate change impacts extensively to support their Anthropocene claim.

A recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change argues that “human influence has become a principal agent of change on the planet.” If we take global warming as an example, we must conclude that the evolution of our status from mere mortals to “agents of change” on our planet is not a compliment. The Anthropocene, if confirmed, makes a sad statement on the influence and scope of our destructive capacities and thus should be of concern to all, not just a few.

By most accounts, the Anthropocene seems destined for adoption as a new epoch, pushing the Holocene into history. It is not unreasonable to then expect that we must now be at a juncture of modern civilization wherein global voices are no longer missing from scientific discourse, and particularly so on topics with clear global implications such as the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene concept pertains to all humans, from all over the world. The science that justifies it must, at a minimum, reflect that fact. It may not be too late.

Michael Davies-Venn is a guest researcher at the Institute for Environmental Studies at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. He was formally a 2019 Junior Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Ethics of the Anthropocene. His most recent research, co-authored, is published in The Anthropocenic Turn: The Interplay between Disciplinary and Interdisciplinary Responses to a New Age (Taylors & Francis, 2020).

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  1. carolina cambre / October 27, 2020 at 18:10

    There is merit to this position. However, I am surprised scientists are still supporting this theory given its Eurocentricity and tendency to universalize human impacts on climate change as if the majority of damage over time has had little to do with the oversized ecological footprints of the countries in the so-called “North.” Simply, in terms of the “West” and the “Rest” – the majority world indicated by ‘Rest’ and generally speaking at the receiving end of a matrix of coloniality, which includes a capitalist extractivism by the West, would give the lie to this White concept of Athroposcene, invented by Europeans and sustained and argued by privileged Western scholars, as the impact on change has much more to do with the West’s pillaging of the Rest than a human impact more broadly writ. The industrial revolution in the UK and Europe, to which this era traces its beginnings, was made possible through colonial piracy. Perhaps the politics of the so-called “Anthroposcene” is signalled by the stratified and homogenous membership of the Working Group, their burden of responsibility is diluted. It would be best to lay this whitewashing term to rest once and for all.

  2. Nicola Koper / October 28, 2020 at 15:10

    Great article – just wanted to thank you for taking the time to write this.

  3. Ron / October 29, 2020 at 17:07

    I don’t understand why all this fuss about names. Who cares if this is the new Anthropocene or the old Holocene? What matters is whether we are in a secular warming trend, if we are – when is it going to stop, and can Civilization cope with it and continue to live as it has lived in the past 11,000 years.
    We can decide on the name in a couple of thousand years from now.