'Grave violation'

Anti-Anthropocene vote is ‘null and void’

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Commission chairs say organizers of ballot violated statutes and ignored scientific evidence

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by Ian Angus

Several readers have asked about a March 5 New York Times article that claimed that “a panel of experts voted down a proposal to officially declare the start of a new interval of geologic time.” According to the article, the vote effectively killed the proposal to add the Anthropocene as the current epoch in the official Geological Time Scale.

We are still waiting for full details, but it appears that the “vote” was a maneuver organized by a group of conservatives and ecomodernists who have long opposed any recognition of a recent qualitative change in the Earth System. The anti-Anthropocene current, which seems to have supporters in the leadership of the International Union of Geological Sciences, forced through an invalid ballot and then announced the result to the Times, in violation of the IUGS’s statutes.

The Anthropocene Working Group issued this Press Statement after the Times article was published.

The results of a vote on the Anthropocene was announced by some members of the SQS today, though without the authorization of the Chair of the SQS and one of the two Vice-Chairs. We note at this stage that there remain several issues that need be resolved about the validity of the vote and the circumstances surrounding it, in part concerning relevant information just received today from the President, International Union of Geological Sciences. When these are resolved and clarified, we hope shortly, we will be happy to comment further, but it would be inappropriate to talk directly on this matter at present.

Irrespective of the vote, the AWG stands fully behind its proposal, which demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt the following:

  • The Earth System now clearly lies outside of the relatively stable interglacial conditions that characterized the Holocene Epoch beginning ~11,700 years ago.
  • The Earth System changes that mark the Anthropocene are collectively irreversible, meaning that a return to the stable conditions of the Holocene is no longer possible.
  • Anthropocene strata are distinct from Holocene strata. They can be characterized and traced using >100 durable sedimentary signals including anthropogenic radionuclides, microplastics, fly ash and pesticide residues, most of which show sharp increases in the mid-20th century, concurrent with the “Great Acceleration” of population, industrialization and globalization.
  • The base of the Anthropocene is clearly identified in the proposed stratotype section at Crawford Lake, Canada, by a sharp upturn in plutonium concentrations in annually laminated sediments deposited in 1952 CE, coincident with the beginning of thermonuclear bomb testing. This marker level has been traced with great precision in strata around the world including at the three proposed Standard Auxiliary Boundary Stratotypes (SABS) and other reference sections.

All these lines of evidence indicate that the Anthropocene, though currently brief, is – we emphasize – of sufficient scale and importance to be represented on the Geological Time Scale.

We, as a group of many eminent researchers in our field of expertise, wish to carry on, in an informal capacity if necessary, and will continue to argue the case that the evidence for the Anthropocene as an epoch should be formalized, as consistent with the scientific data presented in the submission. If the above vote is confirmed by ICS then the current proposal cannot progress. Given significant issues with the procedure and circumstances of the vote, though, currently being pursued, we cannot confirm that the vote will be upheld.

Naomi Oreskes, a noted historian of climate science  and member of the AWG, told the science policy newsletter Hill Heat:

“The irregularities in the SQS voting procedures strongly suggest that the SQS did not make its decision on scientific grounds. The argument put forward by the AWG—and overwhelmingly endorsed by the AWG membership—was never given a fair hearing. What’s particularly sad about this to me—as a person who cut my teeth in field geology—is that by rejecting the Anthropocene proposal, the SQS suggests to the world that they are unwilling or unable to recognize what we all can now see: that we do indeed live in the Anthropocene. By denying the obvious, the stratigraphers threaten to undermine the credibility of the science that they claim to be protecting.”

Jan Zalasiewicz and Martin Head, Chair and Vice-Chair of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS), to which the Anthropocene Working Group reports, have declared that “the alleged voting has been performed in contravention of the Statutes” and asked the IUGS to initiate “a procedure to annul the putative vote.”

The following report, from Zalasiewicz to members of the SQS, provides more background and insight into the context of the vote.

6 March 2024
Report of the SQS Chair on the violation of the ICS Statutes

Dear SQS members

I hereby report on the alleged ‘vote’ on the Anthropocene proposal instigated on 1 February 2024 by Liping Zhou (SQS 1st Vice-Chair) and Adele Bertini (SQS Secretary), the putative results of which were released on 5 March 2024.

This report is being forwarded to the ICS and IUGS Executive, in addition to the SQS members, for their further processing with a view to ensure adherence to the rules of the ICS Statutes which have been contravened by the alleged vote attempted in the SQS from 1 February 2024 onwards. Adherence to the rules and due and fair process are vital for the SQS as a subcommission of the ICS. Those rules are contained in the ICS Statutes that were ratified by the IUGS Executive Committee on 25 April 2017. In brief, the alleged voting and the process surrounding it is open to challenge based on the grave violation of the ICS Statutes and thus must be considered null and void, on the following grounds:

1. Holding the vote was opposed by me as Chair, and Martin Head as 2nd Vice-Chair, as wholly premature. In such a situation of an equal split over an issue, the Chair, given the leadership role granted by the ICS Statutes, should have the decisive vote. Rule 5.2 states: ‘The Chair shall be the leader of the Subcommission’. No higher authority was cited that would have over-ruled the Chair’s decision and legitimized a contrary decision, to proceed with the vote.

2. Based on the ICS statutory rules in force, a large majority of SQS members who took part in the alleged voting held from 1 February to 4 March were not eligible as voting members at the time they cast their votes. Rule 9.2 of the ICS Statutes, ‘Terms of Office for Voting Members’, is unambiguous as to what disqualifies a member of a subcommission from being a voting member: only those whose term of office does not exceed 12 years of consecutive membership in a subcommission are voting members. Among the current 16 members who took part in ‘voting’, 11 have cast their votes while being ineligible to vote, since the term of office for each of them had exceeded 12 years (by a good margin, in most cases). While all those SQS members can indeed take part in the scientific discussions in the Subcommission, and this is a welcome practice I have encouraged, their participation in voting is in direct contravention of Rule 9.2 of the ICS Statutes. The ICS Executive is thereby requested to accordingly proclaim the result of the alleged vote held from 1 February as being null and void, given that it was held in contravention of its statutory provision contained in Rule 9.2.

3. Moreover, based on the provision of Rule 9.7 of the ICS Statutes, the SQS in its current membership composition is unable to constitute a quorum for valid voting. Rule 9.7 is unambiguous and states that a quorum of 60% is required for a valid decision to be taken in the first round of voting. In the alleged vote held in the SQS from 1 February, there was no quorum since those eligible to vote in accordance with Rule 9.2 comprised far below the 60% required for a quorum. Nonetheless, the alleged ‘voting’ proceeded without a quorum being secured and the outcome of the vote is thus due to be proclaimed null and void on that ground too. The ICS Executive is thereby requested to proclaim the result of the alleged vote as being null and void on that second ground as well, since it has been held in contravention of its statutory provision contained in Rule 9.7.

Rule 9.7. allows for a second round of voting to be organised and does not specify the quorum required for this round. However, no second round of voting has been attempted or held. If it were to be held, only those SQS members whose term of office does not exceed 12 years at the time of voting could validly take part in it. It should be beyond doubt that, once reconstituted, the SQS will be able to secure quorum and members eligible for voting, provided that their term of office does not exceed the maximum length specified in Rule 9.2 of the ICS Statutes. This may therefore enable a valid vote on the Anthropocene proposal submitted by the AWG, but not before.

In addition to the evident infractions of ICS Statutes outlined above, I note additional concerns regarding fair and due process:

1. The Geoethics Commission of IUGS recently compiled a report on the circumstances surrounding the AWG’s proposal. The report was submitted to John Ludden, President of the IUGS, on 19 January 2024, prior to discussion of the Anthropocene question at an IUGS Executive Committee meeting in Nairobi on 26–28 February 2024. My understanding is that its detailed contents should have been immediately made available to SQS members as an important context for discussion, so to provide an opportunity for its contents to be considered and acted upon. I therefore called upon Liping Zhou and Adele Bertini on the 3 March to temporarily ‘freeze’ any proceedings, including ‘vote’-counting and publication of the outcome, until this issue and associated irregularities could be resolved. This call was, however, ignored, and the full results of alleged voting were released on the morning of 5 March and appeared in the press such as The New York Times immediately – prior to even having been formally notified to those concerned such as the AWG Executive.

The Geoethics Commission report – which John Ludden has now authorized to be released to the subcommission and AWG and so is attached to this report – was eventually released to me and to Colin Waters, Chair AWG, on the morning of 5 March, after the result of the alleged vote had already been announced (and spread through the public media). The findings of that report included: that the AWG, in preparing its proposal, was unfairly treated, via conflicts of interest, application of different standards than to other working groups, and unreasonable requests and restrictions, while insufficient time was allowed for comment on the proposal, and the AWG were not asked to provide feedback on the discussions as would be normal practice. The Geoethics Commission further observed that the process as a whole between AWG/SQS/ICS/IUGS was dysfunctional; it thus recommended the urgent suspension of any voting procedures (though not examining their validity).

The IUGS Executive decided at their Nairobi meeting that these recommendations of the Geoethics Commission were by and large not to be acted upon. The clear disparity between the Geoethics Commission’s findings and the IUGS decision give AWG obvious scope to appeal that the vote should be annulled.

2. Prior to alleged voting, and before any meaningful discussion had taken place, several senior members of SQS stridently expressed the way they would vote in clear disrespect of an open-minded process, leading to the violations of the integrity of the process (cf. Rules 9.7 and 10 of the ICS Statutes). AWG was given insufficient time to respond to questions asked by the SQS membership and was not allowed to revise its proposal following discussion. ICS instructed SQS members to disregard large tracts of the AWG proposal that contained subproposals on Standard Auxiliary Boundary Stratotypes (SABSs), and these subproposals did not appear as separate items for voting on the ballot form, all in contravention of ICS’s own rules, such as that: ‘One or more SABSs may be proposed simultaneously with a GSSP proposal’ (M.J. Head et al., 2023, Episodes, 46 [1]: 99–100). In short, AWG was not allowed to present or have its best case considered. If, on all the grounds stated above, the alleged vote is not immediately annulled, the risk of reputational damage to the SQS, ICS and IUGS is considerable.

Jan Zalasiewicz, Chair SQS

Climate & Capitalism will provide more on the supposed vote and its consequences as reliable information becomes available. Meanwhile, my own views on this issue are well -known ….


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1 Comment

  • To be honest, I don’t even think this is a question of political ideology, per se. It’s more a question of a narrowly construed stratigraphic determination of geological epochs. Of course, nothing is exempt from ideological determination, so this is a good example of scientism and a reductionist mindset in bourgeois science, at odds with other tendencies, even in bourgeois science, that point to a more “wholistic” perspective, such as in climate science, ecology, neuroscience or developmental biology. The long and short of it is that this mindset seeks to keep the endeavor as a quiet backwater domain of practitioners, but as such renders itself irrelevant.