Off the Trail: The Anthropocene is here to stay.

The term Anthropocene is starting to appear more and more frequently. The “cene” ending of the word is familiar from any number of geologic epochs such as Holocene or Pleistocene. But in the case of Anthropocene we humans are the subjects, not dinosaurs, or glaciers or seismic events of unimaginable proportion.

Scientists continue to try and understand how we humans, the “anthro” in Anthropocene, are impacting our planet. Are we causing irreversible changes with development? Or over-population? Or did we start to irrevocably alter the planet when we began agriculture more than 10,000 years ago, deforesting and tilling the earth?  And anthropology professor Dr. John Hawks has written about some anthropologists who wonder if we should capitalize the word at all or refer to our epoch with a little ‘a’ just to signal that this time period is currently unfolding and its full details can not yet be known.

Read below for two scientists thoughts on this topic after convening an expert panel to think and write about our current geologic era and try to determine where we can go from here in understanding the “Anthropocene” and the impact we are having on what is for now, at least, our solar system’s only known habitable planet.

Below is the beginning of the article which was published in and which I saw re-posted on I encourage you to read the entire piece, written by Professors Ben A. Minteer and Stephen Pyne, both of Arizona State University.


What does it mean to preserve nature in the Age of Humans

“Is the Earth now spinning through the “Age of Humans?” More than a few scientists think so. They’ve suggested, in fact, that we modify the name of the current geological epoch (the Holocene, which began roughly 12,000 years ago) to the “Anthropocene.” It’s a term first put into wide circulation by Nobel-Prize winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in an article published in Nature in 2002. And it’s stirring up a good deal of debate, not only among geologists.

The idea is that we needed a new planetary marker to account for the scale of human changes to the Earth: extensive land transformation, mass extinctions, control of the nitrogen cycle, large-scale water diversion, and especially change of the atmosphere through the emission of greenhouse gases. Although naming geological epochs isn’t usually a controversial act, the Anthropocene proposal is radical because it means that what had been an environmental fixture against which people acted, the geological record, is now just another expression of the human presence.

It seems to be a particularly bitter pill to swallow for nature preservationists, heirs to the American tradition led by writers, scientists and activists such as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, David Brower, Rachel Carson and Edward Abbey. That’s because some have argued the traditional focus on the goal of wilderness protection rests on a view of “pristine” nature that is simply no longer viable on a planet hurtling toward nine billion human inhabitants.

Given this situation, we felt the time was ripe to explore the impact of the Anthropocene on the idea and practice of nature preservation. Our plan was to create a salon, a kind of literary summit. But we wanted to cut to the chase: What does it mean to “save American nature” in the age of humans?”

(the rest of the article can be accessed here)



  1. It is interesting that in referring to the other “cenes” you say “But in the case of Anthropocene we humans are the subjects, not dinosaurs, or glaciers or seismic events of unimaginable proportion.” None of the other “cenes” were named for dinosaurs, glaciers or seismic events. In fact, none of the 16 formally recognized “cenes” are named after its cause. They are all named after the condition of the planet’s biodiversity at the time. The Holocene, for example, refers to the “wholely new” make up of species. It followed the Pliestocene which refered to the “newer” group of species which followed the Pliocene.

    This begs the questions: why are we being asked to depart from the geological naming protocol? why is the only “cene” caused by humans, the only “cene” proposed to be named for a cause?

    The short answer is anthropocentrism. The longer is that every informal name for the current epoch since the beginning of geology in the 1770s has been called “the age of man” in one form or another. There was the Anthropozic, Psychozoic, Anthropogene, Anthrocene, etc.

    Which begs another question: if thinking we lived in the Age of Man led us to trash the planet and drive other species extinct, why do we think renaming the present a new version of “Age of Man” for the 15th time will result in any different outcome?

    Kieran Suckling
    Executive Director
    Center for Biological Diversity


    1. Thank you very much for your detailed response and my apologies for not fully understanding the meaning behind the names of the epochs. Your point however is well taken and underscores our myopic and self-centered view of the planet. Dr. Hawks’ blog post on this topic, which I link to,, does suggest that the name Anthropocene is indeed not so scientifically motivated as it is politically motivated. Even so, it is unlikely that the term Anthropocene which most people will probably never hear about, will stimulate any meaningful change in behavior. But, maybe this could also be an age of optimism. Here’s to hoping. Thank you again for reading and commenting. HF


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