This word was rejected by geologists. But it’s already taken over the world.

From The Washington Post

What do you call the current time period — when we humans are warming the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans, altering the land and leaving a literal mark on the planet? Not the Anthropocene, according to geologists who rejected the idea of adding a new epoch to Earth’s official geological timeline.

Yet for many activists, artists and academics outside of geology, the Anthropocene, or “Age of Humans,” is here to stay, regardless of what rock specialists have to say.

Earlier this year, a panel of geologists rejected a proposal to officially designate the past seven decades, during which humans profoundly impacted the environment, as the new chapter in the planet’s history.

But as these scientists spent years debating, the term became widely adopted outside geology to encapsulate the angst around environmental degradation — popping up in book titles, music albums and art exhibitions.

For the term’s proponents, the idea that humanity has pushed the Earth into a new geological epoch should serve as a wake-up call. “It’s only been 70 years,” said Francine McCarthy, a professor of earth science at Brock University in Ontario, referring to the start of the new proposed epoch. “We don’t have another 70 years to wait.”

The name’s persistence speaks to a need for a cultural shorthand for referring to the big, complex ecological changes that are defining the present era, advocates say — something akin to terms like the Cold War or the Internet Age that came before it. Even if geologists say they cannot pinpoint its exact start, it is obvious to many who continue to use the term that the Anthropocene has begun.

“I always thought that this geological discussion was perhaps too soon,” said ecologist Inês Martins, whose employer — the Leverhulme Center for Anthropocene Biodiversity at the University of York — has embraced the term. “But the reality is it is a very useful concept to use to identify an era where humans have increased their impacts.”

Enter the Anthropocene

The term burst into public consciousness in 2000, when the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen suggested the global effect of human activities was so profound that Earth was no longer in the Holocene, the current geological epoch.

“I was at a conference where someone said something about the Holocene, the long period of relatively stable climate since the end of the last ice age,” Crutzen recalled years later to the author Fred Pearce. “I suddenly thought that this was wrong. The world has changed too much. So I said: ‘No, we are in the Anthropocene.’ I just made up the word on the spur of the moment. Everyone was shocked.”

The coinage is a combination of the prefix “anthropo-,” which comes from the Greek word for human, and suffix “-cene,” derived from the Greek for “new” or “recent.”

The five most recent epochs all deploy “-cene” but lack the specificity of Crutzen’s new name, according to Merriam-Webster, with names simply referring to how far in the past each is.

Crutzen, who died in 2021, knew a thing or two about humans degrading the atmosphere, having won his Nobel for his work explaining how pollution was stripping Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Earthbound geologists took his idea seriously. In 2009, a scientific body called the International Commission on Stratigraphy appointed a working group to search for a so-called “golden spike” for the new epoch — a literal place on Earth where the rock record shows a clear transition from one ancient time to the next. For example, the Jurassic period, famous for its dinosaurs, is named after the Jura Mountains in Europe.

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