Anthropocene definitions

A milestone for the broader cultural awareness of an idea is when it starts appearing in dictionaries. Here is a selection of online definitions of the Anthropocene, including the wonderfully exotic “Gangsta” definition, courtesy of Gizoogle.

Oxford dictionaries


  • relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.
  • (as noun the Anthropocene) the Anthropocene period.


The Anthropocene is an informal geologic chronological term that serves to mark the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant global impact on the Earth’s ecosystems.

The Anthropocene is a proposed term for the present geological epoch (from the time of the Industrial Revolution onwards), during which humanity has begun to have a significant impact on the environment.

Sub-commission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, Working Group on the Anthropocene

  • The “Anthropocene” is a term widely used since its coining by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000 to denote the present time interval, in which many geologically significant conditions and processes are profoundly altered by human activities. These include changes in: erosion and sediment transport associated with a variety of anthropogenic processes, including colonisation, agriculture, urbanisation and global warming. the chemical composition of the atmosphere, oceans and soils, with significant anthropogenic perturbations of the cycles of elements such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and various metals. environmental conditions generated by these perturbations; these include global warming, ocean acidification and spreading oceanic “dead zones”. the biosphere both on land and in the sea, as a result of habitat loss, predation, species invasions and the physical and chemical changes noted above.
  • The “Anthropocene” is not a formally defined geological unit within the Geological Time Scale. A proposal to formalise the “Anthropocene” is being developed by the “Anthropocene” Working Group for consideration by the International Commission on Stratigraphy, with a current target date of 2016. Care should be taken to distinguish the concept of an “Anthropocene” from the previously used term Anthropogene.
  • The “Anthropocene” is currently being considered by the Working Group as a potential geological epoch, i.e. at the same hierarchical level as the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs, with the implication that it is within the Quaternary Period, but that the Holocene has terminated. It might, alternatively, also be considered at a lower (Age) hierarchical level; that would imply it is a subdivision of the ongoing Holocene Epoch.
  • Broadly, to be accepted as a formal term the “Anthropocene” needs to be (a) scientifically justified (i.e. the “geological signal” currently being produced in strata now forming must be sufficiently large, clear and distinctive) and (b) useful as a formal term to the scientific community. In terms of (b), the currently informal term “Anthropocene” has already proven to be very useful to the global change research community and thus will continue to be used, but it remains to be determined whether formalisation within the Geological Time Scale would make it more useful or broaden its usefulness to other scientific communities, such as the geological community.
  • The beginning of the “Anthropocene” is most generally considered to be at c. 1800 CE, around the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in Europe (Crutzen’s original suggestion); other potential candidates for time boundaries have been suggested, at both earlier dates (within or even before the Holocene) or later (e.g. at the start of the nuclear age). A formal “Anthropocene” might be defined either with reference to a particular point within a stratal section, that is, a Global Stratigraphic Section and Point (GSSP), colloquially known as a golden spike; or, by a designated time boundary (a Global Standard Stratigraphic Age).
  • The “Anthropocene” has emerged as a popular scientific term used by scientists, the scientifically engaged public and the media to designate the period of Earth’s history during which humans have a decisive influence on the state, dynamics and future of the Earth system. It is widely agreed that the Earth is currently in this state.

Gangsta (Courtesy of Gizoogle)

Da Anthropocene sez humanitizzle gon flung our hood outta tha Holocene n’ tha fuck into a freshly smoked up geological epoch.

The Encyclopedia of Earth

The Anthropocene defines Earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.

Another Dan Brown mystery


On 23 May, I received a curious email from my colleague Felix Pharand Deschenes, a Canadian anthropologist.

He told me I needed to get hold of a copy of Inferno, the latest Dan Brown thriller, published 14 May. The book, about a deadly plot to create a new plague to solve over population, contained a curious graph ostensibly from the World Health Organization (WHO) – or at least a fictional version of WHO.

The graph – really a composite of many graphs – depicts the incredible acceleration in human activity starting around 1950 and the knock-on impact on the Earth system.

What is striking is that the graph looks uncannily like the Great Acceleration graphs published by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) in 2004 in its synthesis Global Change and the Earth System. See below.

It is possible the WHO has used the IGBP graphs in a publication, or even developed these independently – I’m going to check with WHO. But the appearance in the book is intriguing. Even the titles of each graph reflect the original Great Acceleration graphs.

Graph from Dan Brown’s Inferno.

Graph from Dan Brown’s Inferno.

The Great Acceleration Graphs. Steffen et al 2004. International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.

The Great Acceleration Graphs. Steffen et al 2004. International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.

Water in the Anthropocene

Irish writer James Joyce’s gibberish masterpiece Finnegans Wake is a tale of the night. It begins with an allusion to the global water cycle.

The tale is told as a stream of consciousness that takes the reader through a restless, endlessly shifting dreamscape, drifting from one half-finished thought to the next.

The main character is an oddly-named Dublin publican Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker or HCE. Versions of this abbreviation crop up throughout, and assume different meanings. In places HCE is a reference to Here Comes Everybody: the publican stands for every man.

This gives a sense for what Joyce was aiming to create: a book that captures humanity in its full state. Finnegans Wake is about people, all people, everywhere.

The first reference to HCE appears in the incredible, dumbfounding opening sentence. Even the first word discombobulates: “riverrun”, in lowercase. The book starts midsentence with a word that doesn’t even exist.

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Howth Castle guards Dublin Bay. Eve and Adam’s is a church on the river Liffey. Joyce is describing the flow of the water cycle and using it as a metaphor for life, and in particular humanity. The opening sentence begins as the last line of the book. The book is a cycle; it is perfectly self contained.

Yesterday, data visualizer Felix Pharand Deschenes and I released a new short film – Water in the Anthropocene, commissioned by the Global Water Systems Project for an international conference taking place in Bonn this week. It opens with a description of the water cycle based on Finnegans Wake’s opening lines, and goes on to chart how humans are altering the global water cycle.

Water availability has largely determined where human civilisations have flourished. Indeed, civilisation emerged between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers on the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq.

But recently we have begun to change the water cycle, not just locally or regionally, but on a truly global scale. We have build 48,000 large dams in less than two centuries and another 1600 are in development. We have drained half the world’s wetlands. We use an area the size of South America to grow our crops and an area the size of Africa for our livestock.

Through climate change, we are further altering the global water cycle. Wet areas are likely to become wetter, dry areas drier. And in many areas we are using groundwater faster than it can be recharged.

We wanted to create something unique and powerful. The film takes the viewer on a journey across our planet, first in its natural state, then as humans change the water cycle.

Felix built a perfect aural accompaniment using a mix of ambient music from Earlyguard and sound recordings by Norwegian artist Jana Winderen of cracking ice, rainfall and water flow.

Sarah Sherborne does another fantastic job narrating the film. This became a more difficult job than the first film, Welcome to the Anthropocene, because it was particularly important for the narration to match precisely to the visuals as datasets sweep in and out.

So as it begins to appear on blogs and tweets we can only hope this is as successful as the first. It was a joy to work on this project with a truly world-class team.

UPDATE (26 May, 2013):

The film has appeared on many blogs and news sites in the last few days, but not everyone is a fan of Joyce. Tasha Eichenseher at Discover says “If you can get past the melodramatic narration, there is a pretty stellar data visualization..that illustrates how the human footprint has changed the global water cycle.” Ouch! Well, you can’t please everyone.