By Andrew Hendricks
In all likelihood, mankind will soon be formally entering a new period of Earth’s history, or “epoch.” According to many of the geologists and other scientists proposing this new categorization, we are already there, and perhaps have been for hundreds of years. This comes as a bit of a wake-up call for us as a species, as the reason for this new epoch is entirely man-made. Anthropocene gets its name from “anthro” which means “human,” and the root “cene” which is the standard suffix used for recording geologic time.
One of the most prominent, if not jarring, features of this new era are rocks made of human-originated melted plastic that have washed up on Hawaiian shores. The bizarre, yet fascinating, stones are an amalgamation of plastic, hardened lava, sand and corals all cobbled together in small clumps, and have been dubbed “plastiglomerates.” Given the prevalence of plastic in the world the past fifty years or so, the rocks could (and likely will) be washing up on many more shores, all over the globe.
Officially, we are currently in the Holocene, an epoch stretching back 11,700 years to the ice age.
In a recent science and nature piece, the The Smithsonian revealed that the popularity of the term “Anthropocene” originated as “an environmental buzzword ever since the atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen popularized it in 2000.” The piece goes on to say that in the year 2013 alone the term made its way into almost 200 peer-reviewed articles, and that a new academic journal has been published using Anthropocene as its official title. Furthermore, a panel selected by IUGS was tasked with deciding whether or not to formally announce that the earth has left the Holocene period and officially entered the Anthropocene.
Should we be worried?
Yes, but not about being in the Anthropocene. This new era we have entered is not a statement of humans destroying the planet for ourselves, but of humans changing the planet to such a degree it can now be seen as a geologic timescale. It should be a wake up call, however. Many polluters, climate change deniers, and those who believe the Earth is simply too big and humans too insignificant to care about what we do to the environment. Informed minds are already aware of the flawed sort of opposite-of-hubris these arguments are.
We created a hole in the Ozone layer that we’re only still now finishing filling. We, as humans, have caused the extinction events of other species, even before the industrial revolution. Now with it, we do it on a regular basis.
Then, should we care?
Science is neat, so yes we should care, you animal. Geological scale time is hardly something that impacts one’s day to day life. But in the context of understanding the planet and our place on it, this is probably the most important geologic story since pangea. For more than a century, tourists have flocked to the Grand Canyon as evidence of history seen in explicit strata or “layers” separating hundreds and thousands and millions of years by sedimentary layers. A few thousand years from now they’ll begin pointing out in those layers where the Anthropocene began.
Future generations may assume Hello Kitty was a deity to some cultures, though.