Anthropocene: are humans wrecking the planet?

Saturday 17 October, 12.00 until 13.00, Conservatory, Barbican Contemporary Controversies

In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have argued that the changes made by human beings have been so great as to amount to a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. By changing the composition of the atmosphere and the world’s land surfaces, as well as the flora and fauna of both land and sea - and by increasing our population sevenfold in 200 years - it is argued that our influence has been as great or greater than that of natural processes. An international working group has been set up to settle the question of how geology should understand the current period, and is due to report in 2016. As an article in Nature in March 2015 argued: ‘The formal establishment of an Anthropocene Epoch would mark a fundamental change in the relationship between humans and the Earth system.’

Undoubtedly, human beings have started to have a significant effect on the planet. Rising levels of carbon dioxide are widely regarded as being largely caused by humans burning fossil fuels. Some researchers point to other signs of human influence, like radioactive dust from atom-bomb tests. But does this effect really overwhelm natural forces? Others point out that temperatures today may be little different from earlier periods before humans existed. Wildlife and plants have appeared and disappeared at various stages of natural history. Two critics note that while the term ‘Anthropocene’ may have some use in wider culture, ‘we are taken aback by the claim that scientists currently have sufficient evidence to define a distinctive and lasting imprint of our existence in the geologic record’. Many of those with the greatest interest in declaring a new geological epoch also believe that the effect of human beings has been a negative one. They want to send out a warning that we need to minimise the human impact on the natural world. Yet we could also proclaim such a new epoch in more positive terms - humans are finally gaining some mastery over nature, with enormous benefits in terms of our health, prosperity and longevity.

Why is this debate happening now? Does it reflect an excessive gloominess about our influence, with human progress now routinely discussed as ‘impact’? Or is it a welcome corrective to a rapacious economic system that is taking a terrible toll on the world around us, and ultimately humanity itself?

Professor Nigel Clark
chair, human geography, Lancaster University

Peter Sammonds
professor of geophysics, University College London; director, UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction

Dr Alex Standish
senior lecturer in geography education, University College London/Institute of Education

Jan Zalasiewicz
professor of paleobiology, University of Leicester; chair, Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy

Craig Fairnington
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer

Produced by
Dr Alex Standish senior lecturer in geography education, University College London/Institute of Education
Recommended readings
The Anthropocene: A manmade epoch

An anti-human agenda lies behind the advocacy of a new geological epoch.

Alex Standish, spiked, 22 April 2015

The Anthropocene: It’s Not All About Us

We humans have started the Anthropocene, and we’ve proudly named it for ourselves, yet ironically we may not be around to enjoy much of it.

Richard Heinberg, Post Carbon Institute, 9 April 2015

Anthropocene: The human age

Momentum is building to establish a new geological epoch that recognizes humanity's impact on the planet. But there is fierce debate behind the scenes.

Richard Monastersky, Nature, 11 March 2015

Anthropocene: is this the new epoch of humans?

Geologists, climate scientists, ecologists – and a lawyer – gather in Berlin for talks on whether to rename age of human life

Ian Sample, Guardian, 16 October 2014

The Anthropocene could raise biological diversity

Humanity has wrought an age of ecological transformations. It is time to rethink our irrational dislike of invading species

Chris D. Thomas., Nature, 2 October 2013

Enter the Anthropocene—Age of Man

It’s a new name for a new geologic epoch—one defined by our own massive impact on the planet. That mark will endure in the geologic record long after our cities have crumbled.

Elizabeth Kolbert, National Geographic, 1 March 2011

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