Are we living in the Anthropocene era?

One Change: By using the term, we are acknowledging our role in the climate emergency

Are we in the Anthropocene? Not officially, though it's become a talking point over the past number of years, the idea creeping out of academia and into the popular imagination, and recently heard in lyrics: "Around here we've been wondering what tomorrow's going to sing; On the final field recording from the loud Anthropocene," sings Bright Eyes on their latest album.

Grimes last year entitled her album Miss Anthropocene, while Nick Mulvey released a song in 2019 called In the Anthropocene, which comes with a little explainer about what the term refers to: "the current geological age".

And that’s where the debate lies. The Anthropocene is a proposed new geological period in which human activity is profoundly affecting the environment. Basically, the idea is that we are now living in a time when our existence on the planet has had such lasting and drastic impact it will remain in the geological record for millions of years. The presence of nuclear weapons, for example, or the spread of plastics in the air and sea, will be detectable in many, many years to come.

Glacial period

A movement to have the present epoch recognised as the Anthropocene, however, was not approved by the bodies required (the International Commission on Stratigraphy and the International Union of Geological Sciences). So technically speaking, we are still in the Holocene, which began after the last glacial period more than 11,500 years ago.

But does the terminology matter? It already seems like the word Anthropocene is becoming more commonly used. I’d heard the phrase lots of times before I knew about the geological debates behind its use. You could say it has already taken hold, and is already coming to mean/or be understood as a loose term for the human impact on the climate – whether or not it will be officially recognised. Meanwhile, research is continuing into a formal “golden spike” to identify markers of the Anthropocene, or when humans collectively began to substantially alter the Earth’s surface and oceans (for example, the detonation of the atomic bomb in 1945 or the spike in atmospheric CO2).

Of course there is a political element: by using the term Anthropocene, we are clearly acknowledging our role in the climate emergency, a detail that some have played down (and rejected). But language matters, as we’ve seen in the move from using climate change (suggesting something naturally occurring) to climate emergency or crisis (suggesting something we must act upon). Anthropocene puts humans centre stage in this moment in time – as the actors, the ones responsible for the mess. And the only ones who can clean it up.