What is the Anthropocene?

Panoramic view of Levant Mine near St Just in Cornwall

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.

Our places and collections

Black Beacon Orford ness

Orford Ness 

Used for military activity for much of the twentieth century, Orford Ness was part of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment until 1971. Testing for the UK's nuclear weapons programme was undertaken here from the early 1950s. Today the site is a nature reserve littered with debris and unusual buildings from its military past.

Gibside's Avenue in autumn

Gibside 

Gibside was the estate of George Bowes. In 1726 Bowes was a founding member of the Grand Alliance, at that time probably the largest coal cartel in the world. The adjacent Derwent valley was home to some of Britain’s earliest industry.

Exterior view of Quarry Bank Mill

Quarry Bank 

Samuel Greg’s cotton mill at Quarry Bank was built in 1784. Originally reliant on water power, the Gregs installed their first coal-powered Boulton and Watt engine in 1810, before making a more complete transition to steam mechanisation in the mid-1830s.

Looking out to sea at Levant

Levant Mine and Beam Engine 

Opened in 1820 to mine tin and copper, the Levant Mine is part of the industrial coastal landscape that runs south to Botallack and Cape Cornwall. The steam-powered beam engine, built in the 1840s and used to drain water from the mine, has been restored to operation.

Passenger Pigeon by John James Audubon

Illustration of a passenger pigeon by John James Audubon 

In early-nineteenth century America passenger pigeons flew in vast flocks a mile wide, with total numbers likely to have been around three billion. On 1 September 1914 the last passenger pigeon, Martha, died in Cincinnati zoo. Biologists still debate why the passenger pigeon went extinct so quickly, but the impact of humans, especially hunting and the destruction of woodland habitat for farmland, was likely the major factor. John James Audubon was an ornithologist, artist, and naturalist who was celebrated for his drawings and paintings of North American birds.

WE177A, Thermo Nuclear bomb casing

WE177A Thermonuclear bomb, Orford Ness 

The testing of thermonuclear fusion weapons during the Cold War released radioactive isotopes high into the atmosphere that then settled into the soils and sediments of the planet as fallout. Plutonium-239, used both in weapons and power stations, has a half-life of over 24,000 years and has been identified as a global marker for the onset of the Anthropocene. The existence of weapons such as WE177A demonstrates how one species on Earth, Homo sapiens, now has the capacity to extinguish not only itself but most, possibly all, life on the planet.

Photograph of the Mer de Glace, 1885

Photograph of the Mer de Glace, French Alps 1885 

As a result of global warming, many of the world’s glaciers have begun to shrink with alarming rapidity. The Mer de Glace near Chamonix in France has both retreated and thinned over recent decades, with the loss of ice accelerating after the year 2000. It is estimated that it may have retreated by at least another 1,200 metres by 2040. Old maps, drawings and photographs like this one in the Fox Talbot Museum are a valuable source in estimating how glaciers have changed over time.