“The onset of the Anthropocene”

Bruce D. Smith and Melinda A. Zeder. 2013. Anthropocene, Vol. 4, pp. 8-13.
A number of different starting dates for the Anthropocene epoch have been proposed, reflecting different disciplinary perspectives and criteria regarding when human societies first began to play a significant role in shaping the earth’s ecosystems. In this article these various proposed dates for the onset of the Anthropocene are briefly discussed, along with the data sets and standards on which they are based. An alternative approach to identifying the onset of the Anthropocene is then outlined. Rather than focusing on different markers of human environmental impact in identifying when the Anthropocene begins, this alternative approach employs Niche Construction Theory (NCT) to consider the temporal, environmental and cultural contexts for the initial development of the human behavior sets that enabled human societies to modify species and ecosystems more to their liking. The initial domestication of plants and animals, and the development of agricultural economies and landscapes are identified as marking the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch. Since this transition to food production occurred immediately following the Pleistocene–Holocene boundary, the Anthropocene can be considered as being coeval with the Holocene, resolving the contentious “golden spike” debate over whether existing standards can be satisfied for recognition of a new geological epoch.

As I have indicated in many of my earlier posts, I am fascinated by Niche Construction Theory (NCT), and I believe it is crucial to an understanding of the Anthropocene. And in my post on a key article for NCT I listed the Smith and Zeder as a further reading, precisely because they explicitly bring NCT into the discussion of the Anthropocene—by using it to address the controversial question of when the proposed period is supposed to have begun.

Smith and Zeder suggest that the onset of the Anthropocene can be identified with the advent of widespread human niche construction activities, roughly 11,000 to 9,000 years ago (p. 12). They argue that “there is a clear and unequivocal hard rock stratigraphic signal on a global scale” (ibid.) that marks this point. They note that their proposal meets the kind of criteria demanded by the scientific community charged with determining the “official” start of the Anthropocene—i.e. it relies on geological (hard rock) data, which are widespread across the Earth. Thus, they hold, their proposed boundary is supported by the same kind of evidence as other boundaries in the geological timeline.

I note this feature of their argument because it seems to challenge a critique of their paper offered recently by Clive Hamilton. Hamilton complains that ecologists—indeed I think he means everyone not engaged in Earth System Science (ESS)—in effect have no business in the discussion of the Anthropocene, because they miss what ESS alone offers: a vision of “Earth as a total entity.” Without addressing the whole of Hamilton’s concern (I’ll hint at something about his view in a moment), let me observe that Smith and Zeder at least claim to be offering evidence that indicates that the activity they point to (humans’ early efforts at ecosystem engineering) had impacts that were permanent and pervasive, i.e. that left a mark on the Earth system.

I should say that the stridency of Hamilton’s demand that non-ESS’tists “butt out” (his phrase) of discussions of the Anthropocene left me wondering what raw nerve was being touched. It seems to be his concern that Smith and Zeder “are saying that what humans are doing to the Earth now is not qualitatively different to what humans did when they began to domesticate animals and cultivate crops” (my emphasis). I wonder if Hamilton’s worry is something like this. Clearly we want to condemn humans’ current mode of life—but it seems extreme to condemn the way of life of our early ancestors. So that suggests that something changed—that there is a qualitative difference between us and them that allows us to be conceived as guilty and them as innocent. The onset of the Anthropocene is precisely the moment when that moral difference in “what humans do to the Earth” was made–the moment, in that sense, of the Fall.

But what if there was no qualitative change?1 This is, indeed, where Smith and Zeder are pointing. Asserting a qualitative similarity between what we do now and early human activities does not, as Hamilton indicates he thinks it might, imply that present day humans are innocent. Rather, it suggests something more fundamental—in effect, that we not conceptualize the fact that human beings do things to the Earth in moral terms like guilt and innocence in the first place. Obviously morality demands that we evaluate the effects of what humans do, and where those effects are bad we ought to hold the responsible parties responsible. But the power—and the challenge—of Smith and Zeder’s paper is, I think, that they make it harder for us to distance ourselves morally from what human beings are doing to the Earth now, because we are (unsurprisingly) doing what human beings do.

And indeed we are doing what other species of life do as well: in our niche construction activities we are being utterly and completely natural. But to “naturalize” this conception of ourselves—i.e. to take it to be natural, hence inevitable, that we transform the planet—is categorically not to assert that our niche construction activities enjoy some kind of moral immunity. The project of developing a moral language that we can use to evaluate, perhaps influence, those activities (to invoke the theme of this blog, our practices of habitation) is profoundly urgent. But the starting point for that project must be the inevitability of human niche construction, and it must be guided by a serious understanding of how humans construct their niches. Smith and Zeder make the case that in attending to this core feature of human life we will also gain an understanding of the Anthropocene.

Patrick V. Kirch. 2005. “Archaeology and Global Change: The Holocene Record.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources Vol. 30, pp. 409-440. Smith and Zeder cite this article as contributing to “a greater understanding of the longterm
and richly complex role played by human societies in altering the earth’s biosphere” (p. 12).
Bruce D. Smith. 2007. “The Ultimate Ecosystem Engineers.” Science 315(30):1797-1798. Link to copy at Smith’s website. This is a brief article explaining some early human niche construction activities.

  1.  That there was a quantitative change in the degree and extent of human impact is obvious and not in dispute. 

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