Anthropocene is the Wrong Word
Has the human impact on Earth “cut to the very bone” of deep time, as some have claimed, effectively ending the Holocene Epoch and ushering in what should be called the Anthropocene?
Yes – and then No.
Yes, we are bringing the Holocene Epoch to a dismal end, and we need to face the full horror of what we are doing. We are recklessly destroying the ecological and geophysical conditions under which our lives and the lives of countless other creatures evolved, making us all suddenly maladapted. Even as we doom ourselves, we destroy the prospects of other beings, from the shining little lives in the seas to the fierce lives in the trees. Plants and animals die and die and die. No one entirely knows who they are; no one knows what will replace them. This is moral monstrosity on a planetary scale.
That situation merits its own name, and so something like the Anthropocene makes sense. But we should use words cautiously. Words are powerful, magical, impossible to control. With a single misguided phrase, they can move a concept from one world into another, altering forever the landscape of our thinking. It’s essential that we get this straight now.
So no, not the Anthropocene. That name completely muddles the message. We don’t name new epochs after the destructive force that ended the epoch that came before. The International Committee on Stratigraphy didn’t name the Tertiary Period the “Asteroidic,” even if an asteroid is suspected of having ended the Cretaceous. The period after the Permian isn’t the “SuperVolcanonian.” The end-Cretaceous asteroid did its damage and sank into the earth, and the future sailed on. The volcanoes did their work and then unraveled into the oceans. And so, too, will humans’ impacts crash into the earth and sink away.
The next epoch, if it has a name at all, should be named after rock bearing the evidence of what comes next. That will not be us.
Given human impacts on the planet, everything will change – true. But human fossils will not dominate the fossil record for the next geological epoch. Nor will the future be built to a human blueprint. Proud, solipsistic creatures that we are, we can convince ourselves that we are shaping Earth and, for a blink in time, it may be so. We have drawn perfect lines across the landscape, fence-rows parceling out property boundaries and delineating poisoned fields of corn and soybeans. But what we are sowing in those squares are the seeds of the destruction of our proud visions. How long will it take the whirlwinds to sweep them away, and along with them the chances of our children? And now, the very notion that humans have become the “deciders,” the shapers of Earth, makes Earth guffaw in swirls of violence. If we are shaping anything at all, we are shaping climate chaos, and chaos in the ocean and on the land. If there is a voice in that whirlwind, it is not the voice of man.
So what is the right name for this new epoch? Tradition has it that periods are named after the place where geologists found the boundary between two assemblages of fossils – the lower rocks holding the squashed remains of the extinct species and the rocks above holding the remains of the species that swept in to take their place. Thus the Devonian Period is named after rock layers found near the village of Devon, in England. Some epochs are named after a prominent feature of its fossil record. Thus the Oligocene is named for the few (oligo-) fossils found above the Eocene/Oligocene boundary. And some periods are named after the characteristics of the layers laid down during that expanse of time. Thus, the Cretaceous: creta, chalk, after the extensive chalk fields where geologists dug into the depths of that era.
So it would seem that we have some choices. Name the onrushing epoch after a place where the boundary between the rubble of the old era and the new is clearly seen? Then perhaps we are entering the Dubai-cene, for that mirage city built of petroleum. Or name it after a characteristic of the dividing layer? Then we’re probably in the Unforgiveable-crimescene. If we name it after the layers of rubble that will pile up during the extinction of most of the plants and animals of the Holocene – the ruined remains of so many of the living beings we grew up with, buried in human waste – then we are entering the Obscene Epoch. It’s from the Latin: ob- (heap onto) and -caenum (filth).
Kathleen Dean Moore, philosophy professor at Oregon State University, is the co-editor of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril and the author of Wild Comfort, Holdfast, Riverwalking, and other books. Learn more at her website: www.riverwalking.com.