Saturday, January 12, 2019

Failing at a triple-point,
the ‘Anthropocene proposal’?

Martin Bohle
(IAPG Board of Experts, Belgium)

Martin Bohle

The ‘Anthropocene proposal’ is about amending the Geological Time Scale namely, to introduce a new epoch, the ‘Anthropocene’. This essay [*] starts at a triple-point: global anthropogenic change happens, scientific methodological rigour applies, and “the Anthropocene for the first time gave birth to a universal ‘Anthropos’” (Hamilton, 2017, p.118). Additionally, it is assumed that ‘Anthropocene proposal’ is rejected (Rull, 2018) because it does not match the methodological rigour of the Geological Time Scale; what would unlock an ethical dilemma that then has to be tackled.

To set off; the vigour of the debates about ‘Anthropocene proposal’ indicates a profound matter. Its essence, whether we witness emerging “a kind of hybrid Earth, of nature injected with human will, however responsibly or irresponsibly that will may have been exercised” (Hamilton & Grinevald, 2015, p.68). Hence, the debates about the ‘Anthropocene proposal’ are about the ‘human condition’ how contemporary people live, collectively. What are the nuts and bolts?

Societal context

During its prehistoric and historical times already, humankind modified natural environments to appropriate resources for living and wellbeing (Zalasiewicz et al., 2018). Contemporary societies abundantly apply geosciences for their economic activities that bind through global supply chains the entire globe into one system (Bohle, 2017). Crafts-person, technicians, architects, and engineers implicitly apply geoscience knowledge when altering natural environments or creating artefacts, e.g. extraction of minerals, the laying the foundations for buildings, or managing floodplains. Large-scale infrastructures like shore defences, hydropower plants or urban dwellings visibly interact with the geosphere and without profound geoscience knowledge could not have been built. Finally, global production systems or consumption patterns couple human activity with the geosphere at a planetary scale through cycles of matter, energy and information.

Since some decades, humankind's activity intersects the geosphere in a much ampler manner than ever before, either directly or intermediated through the biosphere (Barnosky et al., 2012). During the last century, the number of people on Earth and mostly the patterns of affluent consumption of resources culminated in a global, societal endeavour of anthropogenic change. When considering this outcome from a philosophical point of view, then the resulting global anthropogenic change is intended. It is driven by the ‘Anthropos’ applying hegemonic value system(s); for the good, the bad and the ugly (Dalby, 2015); or the inescapable (Dryzek, 2016).

Hence, anthropogenic change is about how people who, given their value systems, cultural choices and lifestyles, govern the appropriation of biotic and abiotic resources from the natural environments. The technological means, the scientific understanding and the economic resources confine which ‘endeavours of anthropogenic change’ are possible. Within the corpus of scientific understanding, geosciences are instrumental in how effective and efficient the change is. Subsequently, geoscientists are co-architects of the current times of global anthropogenic change. Recognising this ‘engagement’ and assuming the related responsibility is necessary (Jonas, 1984). Subsequently, it is not innocent how geoscientists use their expertise, including what to do with the ‘Anthropocene proposal’ that is made by some of their peers.

When considering global anthropogenic change in its societal context, then geosciences concerns any human being because s/he interacts with the Earth system. This ‘any human being’ needs insights or orientations to understand the functioning of the geosphere. The ‘Anthropocene proposal’ would summarise such insights and, subsequently, orientations about planetary boundaries would inform about the ‘do and do not’ that any responsible person should find helpful to have (Steffen et al., 2015). Hence, the importance that geoscientists, including the geologists, handle the ‘Anthropocene proposal’ in an ethically sound manner.

Ethical context

Science and research are a service to society (Bernal, 1939) and responsible science is a public good (Murphy et al. 2015). Hence, any undertaking of science and research is value laden (Douglas, 2009). Like many other science communities, the geosciences communities recently have strengthened their professional ethical frameworks (Di Capua et al., 2017).

During the last decade, the field of geoethics gained visibility within geosciences as an agent-centric virtue-ethics, as the ‘Cape Town Statement on Geoethics’ outlines: “It is essential to enrich the roles and responsibilities of geoscientists towards communities and the environments in which they dwell, … Human communities will face great environmental challenges in the future. Geoscientists have know-how that is essential to orientate societies towards more sustainable practices in our conscious interactions with the Earth system. Applying a wider knowledge-base than natural sciences, geoscientists need to take multidisciplinary approaches to economic and environmental problems, embracing (geo)ethical and social perspectives. Geoscientists are primarily at the service of society. This is the deeper purpose of their activity.” (Di Capua et al., 2017). To render these ideas operational a ‘Geoethical Promise’ has been formulated (Matteucci et al., 2014).

The ‘Anthropocene Proposal’ seen through the ‘Geoethical Promise’

The ‘geoethical promise’ (Matteucci et al., 2014) offers geologists, and beyond (Bohle and Ellis, 2017), a framework to analyse the ethical implications of options in a professional context. In this sense, the nine statements of ‘Geoethical Promise’ also inform how to appreciate the ‘Anthropocene proposal’ (see table): 


Statements made in the
"Geoethical Promise"
...when applied to the "Anthropocene proposal"

       I.           … I will practice geosciences being fully aware of the societal implications, and I will do my best for the protection of the Earth system for the benefit of humankind.
…then these statements can be interpreted as calling to make people aware of the ongoing global anthropogenic global change giving this awareness top priority. Naming the present times ‘Anthropocene’ would rise awareness to favour sustainable development.

     II.            … I understand my responsibilities towards society, future generations and the Earth for sustainable development.

    III.            … I will put the interest of society foremost in my work.


    IV.            … I will never misuse my geoscience knowledge, resisting constraint or coercion.
...then these statements call to be non-compromising vis-a-vis third party requests regarding the application of geoscience knowledge and methodology.


     V.            … I will always be ready to provide my professional assistance when needed, and I will be impartial in making my expertise available to decision makers.

   VI.            … I will continue lifelong development of my geoscientific knowledge.


   VII.            … I will always maintain intellectual honesty in my work, being aware of the limits of my competencies and skills.
…then this statement calls for truthfulness in applying geoscience knowledge and methodology

 VIII.            … I will act to foster progress in the geosciences, the sharing of geoscientific knowledge, and the dissemination of the geoethical approach.

    IX.            … I will always be fully respectful of Earth processes in my work as a geoscientist.

  • The statements I, II and III of the ‘geoethical promise’ emphasize the societal responsibility of the geoscientists. Global anthropogenic change happens and threatens future living conditions of people. Therefore, people including individual and collective human agents with power to decide should be made aware of this threat. Naming the present geological times ‘Anthropocene’ would be an explicit message telling them about the size and nature of the ongoing change that they drive. 
  • Furthering the analysis; the statements VI, VIII and IX of ‘geoethical promise’ do not offer any insight on how to appreciate the ‘Anthropocene proposal’. 
  • In turn, the statements IV, V and VII imply, from various angles, are a reflection about scientific methods that applies to the ‘Anthropocene proposal’. To put it simply, these statements call for methodological rigour that does not compromise to (societal) pressures. Therefore, given these three statements the ‘Anthropocene proposal’ should not be looked upon favourably if it does not fit to the scientific methodology how to design the Geological Time Scale. 
Thus, the ‘geoethical promise’ does not give guidance regarding whether to accept or to reject the ‘Anthropocene proposal’, although it offers an approach how to take a decision. 

The debates within geoscience communities about the ‘Anthropocene proposal’ are about methods how to determine in a rigorous manner the Geological Time Scale. In case that the ‘Anthropocene proposal’ will be rejected an ethical dilemma will arise. In this circumstance two considerations are pitched against each other. On one side, the rigour of the scientific method, which is an important cultural value that needed centuries to establish. On the other side, the requirement to use scientific findings to improve how the human societies functions, which is the final cultural value ‘why to do science’.

This geoethical dilemma needs to be handled. Non-action is not a valid option. Given the societal responsibility that the geoscientists have they must assume to inform the society about the nature of present times. What to do, if the ‘Anthropocene proposal’ is methodically flawed when seen from the perspective of the Geological Time Scale?

A Remedy for the Anthropocene?

What to do? The eleventh thesis about Feuerbach [Marx, 1845]: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world …; the point is to change it,” offers an inspiration.

The Geological Time Scale (International Chronostratigraphic Chart) is an interpretation of the stratigraphic record. It describes the past, the geological history. Properly naming the current times of global anthropogenic change is a matter of the present, of contemporary history. To acknowledge this categorical difference, that is, considering the past and the present in a different manner, the Geological Time Scale would benefit from an end-date.

Amending the Geological Time Scale by an end-date, set by those who have the competence and authority to do it, would circumvent the ethical dilemma pitching values against each other. Instead, such a proposal would give geoscientists the opportunity to size the responsibility that imperatively (Jonas, 1984) follows from their scientific insights into the ongoing global anthropogenic change. Subsequently and elegantly, the ‘Anthropocene proposal’ could be made with all scientific rigour that it needs because of its societal relevance, although without compromising the methodological rigour that underpins the settings in Geological Time Scale.

To be practical, an end-date, for example, could be the peak of the Plutonium fallout (from the nuclear essays in the atmosphere). Some had proposed this features as a marker of the onset of the Anthropocene (Zalasiewicz et al., 2017) now it may serve as marker of the end of the geological past, including the end of the Holocene. The resulting messages, from the geoscience community, would be unequivocal.

[*] This post builds on a working paper that is available at the author’s profile on ResearchGate (doi: 10.13140/RG.2.2.10735.28325). The working paper has been prepared in view of a contribution to a special issue of the journal Quaternary (see: Rull, V. (2018). What If the ‘Anthropocene’ Is Not Formalized as a New Geological Series/Epoch? Quaternary, 1(3), 24. doi:10.3390/quat1030024).  
This post, published at the IAPG blog and the author’s blog, is made to invite comments to nourish the author’s reflections for the final draft of the contribution to Quaternary that will be prepared in January 2019.


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