What is the Anthropocene?
The Anthropocene is the idea that the Earth is entering a new epoch in its geological history, in which human beings have for the first time become the primary agents of change on a planetary scale. This gives the new epoch its name. Anthropocene is derived from the Greek for ‘human’ and stands alongside other geological epochs, such as the Holocene which began at the end of the last Ice Age around twelve thousand years ago.
When and where did the Anthropocene begin?
Although various origins have been suggested for the Anthropocene, the emergence of the Industrial Revolution in Britain during the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries is one of the most widely accepted by historians.
The Anthropocene and the Industrial Revolution
The Industrial Revolution saw the appearance of the world’s first fossil-fuel economy through its exploitation of Britain’s coal reserves, and a huge intensification in the mechanisation of work and transport thanks to the development of a more efficient steam-engine by James Watt and Matthew Boulton from 1769.
North-eastern coal barons like George Bowes of Gibside developed their mines to fuel the booming metropolis of London after 1700. Cotton mills like Quarry Bank started using water power, but by the early-nineteenth century were increasingly converting to carbon-hungry steam.
The Anthropocene and the environment
The period saw the beginning of widespread pollution of land, air, and water as factories pumped out smoke, effluents, and other waste products. Meanwhile, urban areas began to grow fast, adding to the environmental problems.
As the numbers of humans expanded rapidly, species of animals, fish, birds, and plants began to decline. New evidence suggests that by the mid-nineteenth century the burning of coal to power the industries that were spreading across Europe and the United States had already begun to nudge global temperatures upwards.
The Anthropocene today
Humans have likely used more energy since 1900 than in all of previous human history combined. By the end of the twentieth century a scientific consensus emerged that due primarily to the burning of fossil fuels, global warming of the atmosphere was taking place at an accelerating rate.
This has affected the polar regions most immediately, but there is today a growing understanding of the links to rising sea-levels, extreme weather events and desertification. Meanwhile, the use and continued testing of nuclear weapons from 1945 provided a new global marker (sometimes referred to as a 'golden spike') for the Anthropocene. The world-wide presence of radioactive fallout, which will remain detectable in the earth's soils for at least 100,000 years, is favoured by some geologists as marking the definitive transition out of the Holocene.
A human age?
The concept of the Anthropocene has been strongly criticised by some scholars for appearing to suggest that humanity as a whole is responsible for the environmental damage caused. In fact, it is a highly unequal process, with western societies accounting for the vast majority of energy use, industrial production, and pollution in the past, present, and foreseeable future. Nevertheless, the Anthropocene has begun to inspire a new generation to understand more clearly who and what is responsible for the ecological changes going on around us.