Mad Men: Anthropocene in Popular Science Writing

The “anthropocene” was a new term for me in this class, and it is still fairly a new term in general (spell check in Word certainly seems to think so, but it also doesn’t recognize words such as neuropsychology so I’ve given up on it) so I was interested to know the general public or “popular science” views on the subject, and how it was being discussed in the media. I could write a whole other post on the fascinating similarities and differences between popular science writing and peer reviewed studies, but I digress…

So, because I love science communication and unfortunately, attempting fun lighthearted articles about depressing subjects, I thought I’d condense these articles into one of my own.

Besides it’s origins- the term was if not coined certainly popularized by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen around 2000 (2), he won a Nobel prize so folks started listening to him more- many of the articles agree to disagree, stating that the anthropocene started either 50,000 years ago, in the 1800’s, the most popular, around 1950, OR in 1610?

But why? What was happening at these very different but equally “exciting”  (read: usually terrible) times in Homo sapiens history?

If we go with the 50,000 years ago mark, the biggest changes in the world were the eradication of large animal species due to hunting and controlled burning by humans all over the globe (1). Soon after, farming and agriculture began to change the world’s landscape for good. However the international population was still quite small 50,000 years ago, had the damage really been done?

Cue colonialism.  Following 1492 in North America, the invasion of western colonizers and the smallpox they brought with them (and weaponized) caused the death of approximately 50 million indigenous Americans. This in combination with the enslavement and transportation of people from Africa to North America and Europe caused a global re-mapping of farmland that left unattended due to the death or capture of the people tending it. Trees and vegetation flourished in these abandoned areas, temporarily sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere, causing a traceable change (1, 4). Many scholars, including Zoe Todd, who’s article was posted by Freya, argue that 1610, the year that mass death and slavery caused this recorded dip in CO2 should be the start of the Anthropocene.

Makes sense. But what about these other dates?

As discussed in class, the 1800’s marked the start of the industrial revolution, first in Great Britain and then throughout Europe and North America (2).

1945-1950, the most popular of the years (it seems from these popular science articles quoting generally the same few atmospheric scientists) because that is when the first atomic bomb tests started, creating layers of traceable radiation in rock layers (1, 2). In addition to this dramatic marker CO2 levels began rising dramatically, and were the highest they had ever been in human history so far (3). 1950 also marked the beginning of the “Great Acceleration” where consumption markers of oil, paper, and eventually plastics would start an exponential change (5).  Which perhaps begs the question, what stage in human consumption do we mark the anthropocene’s beginnings? The consumption of animals and land? The consumption of other human’s land and livelihoods? Or the point of no (or at least improbable) return?

Depressing! Tune in later this week when we discuss mechanized war robots.







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