A new conservative campaign aims to discredit efforts to define the new and dangerous stage of planetary history, by driving a wedge between social scientists and the Anthropocene Working Group.
by Ian Angus
About 11,700 years ago, the last ice age of the Pleistocene ended and a new time of relative warmth and climate stability began, an epoch that geologists call the Holocene. Now, a large body of scientific evidence shows that “the Earth has been pushed out of the Holocene Epoch by human activities.” A new and unprecedented time of sweeping global change, the Anthropocene, is now underway.
That conclusion does not sit well with the anti-green, pro-nuclear and pro-capitalist ideologues at the Breakthrough Institute (BTI). Since ideology and self-interest tell them that business as usual is the best policy, they must reject the science that identifies business as usual as a road to catastrophe. BTI founders Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger insist that recent climate changes and extinctions are no big deal: “those developments represent an acceleration of trends going back hundreds and even thousands of years earlier, not the starting point of a new epoch.”
As I’ve written previously, rather than ignore or denounce Anthropocene science, at some point BTI instead decided to undermine it. Their method: promoting a caricature that has nothing to do with the actual Anthropocene and everything to do with preserving the status quo. In their fantasy world, there is no environmental crisis: if we just use more technology, expand capitalism, and give up trying to harmonize society with nature, we will have “a good, or even great, Anthropocene.”
Erle Ellis, a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, is Breakthrough’s principal academic advocate in this matter. He argues that because human societies have changed the biosphere for millennia, “the entire past 11,000-plus years of the Holocene might simply be renamed the Anthropocene.”
As Clive Hamilton wrote of a similar case,
“When they conclude that the Anthropocene and the Holocene began at the same time, so that no new epoch is required, they 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.”
So far as BTI and Ellis are concerned, the Anthropocene is not a time of crisis. Humans are doing what humans have always done, and no emergency response is needed.
After years of pushing that argument, Ellis remains a minority of one in the Anthropocene Working Group, the body set up by the International Union of Geological Sciences to consider whether and when a new epoch may have begun. Almost all AWG members now agree that a qualitative change in the Earth System began in the mid-20th century.
Having lost that debate, Ellis argued that the decision was premature, that scientists should wait 1,000 years and then revisit the question. No one agreed with that, either.
So now he wants to start the entire process over, through a large-scale bureaucratic project that won’t reach a conclusion for decades, if ever.
An attempt to derail
Ellis launched this latest attempt to derail Anthropocene science in December, in a two-page article in the journal Nature. It is co-signed by paleoclimatologist Mark Maslin, who has argued that the Anthropocene began in 1610, and by archaeologists Nicole Boivin and Andrew Bauer, specialists in early human history. The article’s centerpiece is a chart that shows the Anthropocene beginning about 50,000 years ago, overlapping part of the Pleistocene and all of the Holocene. The caption reads:
“Human societies began altering Earth long ago. Human social and cultural capacities to alter its environmental processes have accumulated, scaled up and reinforced each other in complex and historically contingent ways. Defining an Anthropocene epoch should involve examining these transformative social-environmental changes, rather than solely focusing on globally instantaneous environmental transitions.”
The authors claim that the AWG “ignores millennia of previous human influences, from our use of fire to the emergence of agriculture,” and “misrepresent[s] the continuous nature of human changes to our planet.” “Decades of rigorous scientific research into the history, causes and consequences of the long-term reshaping of Earth systems by humans is being ignored.”
It is hard to take this seriously. No one involved with Anthropocene science or the work of the AWG is denying that humans have been altering the earth in myriad ways for thousands of years, or ignoring decades of research. The AWG’s mandate is to determine whether global change has led to a new geological epoch, and if so, when it began, and what physical indicators mark the transition. After eight years of research and debate, the members of the group recently concluded that there is overwhelming evidence of permanent changes in the Earth System, beginning in the mid-twentieth century — and no evidence of a comparable change at any other time since the beginning of the Holocene.
In an article published simultaneously on the website The Conversation, Ellis and Maslin accuse the AWG of believing “that only Earth’s most recent human populations possess the capacity to change Earth.” Again, that’s nonsense: what the AWG has concluded is that human activity has only recently made global changes that have disrupted fundamental features of the entire Earth System and that threaten to lock in changes to the planet for millennia to come.
Ellis apparently doesn’t understand — or doesn’t want to say — that he and his co-authors are not talking about the Anthropocene. Their insistence on “the continuous nature of human changes to our planet,” shows that they reject the fundamental concept of Anthropocene science — that there has been an abrupt and qualitative change in the state of the Earth System.
As three leading supporters of the AWG process point out in reply:
“The ‘anthropogenic’ epoch of Ellis et al. is different, and obscures this major Earth system and stratigraphic change. By including all human impacts across the world over millennia, their Anthropocene extends diachronously through the Late Pleistocene and Holocene to the present day. This overlap makes it meaningless as a geological timescale unit.”
The wrong people are in charge!
Three years ago Ellis wrote: “Formal recognition of the Anthropocene is ultimately a decision for geologists” although other views should be considered. As recently as January 2016, in an interview published by BTI, he praised AWG convener Jan Zalasiewicz for “not focusing exclusively on geologists,” and pointed out that “there’s a surprising number of non-geologists in the group.”
How his tune has changed!
As we’ve seen, part of this new article repeats arguments that have made unsuccessfully, many times before. But that’s just framing for a new emphasis, expressed in the article’s title, “Involve social scientists in defining the Anthropocene.” They want us to believe that the entire AWG process is illegitimate because the wrong people are doing the work.
According to the article’s sensationalist opening sentence, “Three dozen academics are planning to rewrite Earth’s history.” That little group is getting away with this because “only 3 of the 37 members are social scientists who study long-term social change.”
The whole process has been so inappropriate and misguided that it “must be rebuilt on a rigorous, transparent, open and sustainable foundation in which the human sciences have a major role.”
This is a clever argument. It builds on the “two cultures” division between the humanities and sciences that has bedeviled academia for decades, and appeals to what Mackenzie Wark calls “the traditional indifference, disdain, or lordly sense of superiority of humanistic knowledge to the sciences.” In The Conversation, Ellis and Maslin even appeal to some on the left, falsely accusing the AWG of promoting “a Western, white-male, elite-technocratic narrative” that is “counter to contemporary thinking in the social sciences.”
It’s not surprising that many members of the AWG are geologists. It is, after all, an expert committee, established by the International Union of Geological Sciences to address a geological question — whether or not a new interval should be added to the Geological Time Scale. A committee without strong geological expertise couldn’t possibly complete that task. But, contrary to what Ellis et al. imply, half of the AWG’s members are from other disciplines — other earth sciences, archaeology, history and even international law. It has publicized its activities through open meetings and publications and invited feedback. All AWG members (the people Ellis and Maslin insult so crudely) are unpaid volunteers, following published and long-established guidelines for dealing with proposed changes to the Geological Time Scale.
That’s just not good enough for Ellis & Co. Instead of a volunteer committee of actual experts, they want an “International Anthropocene Commission,” set up and funded by the International Geological Congress, Future Earth, and the United Nations. It would have “a formal, documented procedure for membership, decision-making and reporting,” including a requirement that 50% of its members represent “anthropology, archaeology, history, sociology, geography, paleoecology, economics and philosophy.” It would reopen the question not only of when the Anthropocene began, but even — indeed, especially — of how a new epoch is to be defined.
Just setting up such a body would take years of negotiation, and there is little chance that such a bureaucratic talk shop would ever reach a conclusion. Ellis’s previous call for a 1,000 year delay could well be achieved.
Does anyone really expect the International Union of Geological Sciences to abandon years of work and start over? Of course not, but that doesn’t matter if the Nature article succeeds in discrediting the Anthropocene Working Group and Anthropocene science itself.
Social science and the Anthropocene
There is no question that the social sciences can and should contribute to the Anthropocene project. I have repeatedly argued that the separation of Earth System science from ecological Marxism has weakened both. The division “has been particularly damaging for Earth system science, which now has a clear view of the physical, chemical, and biological threats to our world, but offers little insight into the underlying causes of the postwar explosion of environmentally destructive activity.” I wrote my book, Facing the Anthropocene, as a contribution toward bridging the gap between Earth System science and ecosocialism.
I’ll go further — we should welcome and encourage any sincere effort to increase the involvement of social scientists, Marxist or not. No new bureaucratic apparatus is needed for that to happen, and thoughtful contributions can extend and combine scientific and social understanding of the of the new epoch. However, that will be true only if it is predicated on respect for and broad acceptance of the work that Earth System scientists and geologists have done over the past four decades to identify the nature, extent and implications of contemporary global change. The social sciences can strengthen Anthropocene science: they can’t replace it.
That is not the method or goal of Erle Ellis and the Breakthrough Institute. Their entire approach rests on outright rejection of Anthropocene science, because it poses a profound challenge to their pro-capitalist, anti-environmental views. The BTI-inspired Nature article is another stage in their campaign to undermine actual Anthropocene science, while hijacking and redefining the word to fit their political perspective.
Erle Ellis, lead author of the Nature article, is a BTI Senior Fellow and co-author of its Ecomodernist Manifesto, so it is not surprising that the article reflects and promotes BTI’s approach to environmental questions in general and the Anthropocene in particular.
The others who signed his article are respected scientists who have made major contributions to the study of our species’ history. I don’t know if they share Ellis’s political views, or if they realize that the article they signed is part of a political campaign against Anthropocene science. Perhaps they are merely (and unfortunately) viewing that science through the distorting lenses of their particular academic disciplines. The fact that two of them did not sign the more provocative article in The Conversation may be a good sign. In any case, we can hope that they learn much more about Anthropocene science, and about the real role of the Anthropocene Working Group, before they address the subject again.
Whatever happens with these writers and this particular attack, we can expect to see more attempts to discredit and delegitimize Anthropocene science. Groups like Breakthrough recognize its radical social and economic implications, and are determined to undermine it, as part of their broader goal of protecting business as usual. Exposing and countering their anti-science propaganda will continue to be an important part of building effective movements against capitalist ecocide.
Related Reading: Hijacking the Anthropocene
 Will Steffen, Reinhold Leinfelder, Jan Zalasiewicz, Colin N. Waters, et al., “Stratigraphic and Earth System Approaches to Defining the Anthropocene,” Earth’s Future, August 16, 2016,
 Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger, and Jenna Mukuno, “Ecomodernism and the Anthropocene,” Breakthrough Journal, Summer 2015.
 Ian Angus, “Hijacking the Anthropocene,” Climate & Capitalism, May 19, 2015.
 Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger et al. “An Ecomodernist Manifesto.” (April 2015)
 Erle C Ellis, “Using the Planet,” Global Change, October 2013.
 Clive Hamilton, “Ecologists Butt Out: You Are Not Entitled to Redefine the Anthropocene,” August 11, 2014.
 Ian Angus, “Expert panel: The Anthropocene epoch has definitely begun,” Climate & Capitalism, August 29, 2016,
 Richard Monastersky. “Anthropocene: The human age,” Nature, March 11, 2015.
 Erle Ellis et al, “Involve social scientists in defining the Anthropocene,” Nature, December 7, 2016, corrected January 13, 2017.
 Note the reference to Earth systems — plural. They are referring to human impacts on individual ecosystems, not on the planet as a whole, which is the focus of Anthropocene science.
 Mark Maslin and Erle Ellis, “Scientists still don’t understand the Anthropocene – and they’re going about it the wrong way,” The Conversation, December7, 2016.
 Jan Zalasiewicz, Colin Waters and Martin J. Head, “Anthropocene: its stratigraphic basis,” Nature, January 18, 2017. Zalasiewicz and Waters are convenor and secretary of the AWG; Head is chair of the AWG’s parent body, the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy.
 Ellis, “Using the Planet.”
 “The Long Anthropocene: An Interview with Erle Ellis,” Breakthrough Institute, January 19, 2016.
 McKenzie Wark, Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (London: Verso, 2015), 120.
 Ian Angus, “When did the Anthropocene begin and why does it matter?” Climate & Capitalism, September 10, 2015. (Originally published in Monthly Review, September 2015.)