Enter the Anthropocene

March 11, 2015 8:11 PM

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The duties of the Anthropocene Working Group—a thirty-nine-member branch of a subcommission of a commission of the International Union of Geological Sciences—are both tedious and heady. As the group’s chairman, Jan Zalasiewicz, whom Elizabeth Kolbert wrote about, in 2013, says wryly, “People do not understand the very slow geological time scale on which we work.” Yet the A.W.G.’s forthcoming recommendations may bring an end to the only epoch that any of us have ever known—the Holocene, which began after the last ice age, about twelve thousand years ago, and lasts to this day. The group’s members are pondering whether the human imprint on this planet is large and clear enough to warrant the christening of a new epoch, one named for us: the Anthropocene. If it is, they and their fellow-geologists must decide when the old epoch ends and the new begins.

In a paper published today in the journal Nature, Simon Lewis, of the University of Leeds, and Mark Maslin, of University College London, propose that the Anthropocene’s “golden spike”—the line between it and the Holocene—be set at either 1610 or 1964. Geologic time periods are usually bounded by ma...

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