Rejecting the Anthropocene is a mistake

Geologists' vote is a terrible blunder

In the second of our two-part series, we go head-to-head on the Anthropocene, after the status of ‘Anthropocene’ was rejected for the world by an international panel last month. Read Part 1 here of the debate here.

As ecological disaster on Earth looms ever larger, the International Union of Geological Sciences has voted against recognizing the Anthropocene as an official epoch. The vote was anti-scientific and regressive, argues Timothy Morton. Now more than ever we must recognize that we have entered an age of human-induced planetary transformation.

Timothy Morton's latest book, Hell: In Search of a Christian Ecology, will be published in May 2024.


You must understand, young Hobbit, it takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish. And we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.  — Treebeard the Ent in J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Tolkien’s Treebeard is an ancient shepherd of the forest: he understands deep time like a geologist. In the movie, he’s talking to Merry and Pippin about discussing whether he and his fellows should join the war in defense of Middle Earth. The Hobbits are getting justifiably impatient: “Our friends are out there!”

The Ents make the wrong decision: they won’t join the battle. They have to be forced to see their error. Pippin makes Treebeard witness how thousands of trees have been cut down by the humanoid enemy: “Many of these trees were my friends!”

2024 is a year of elections around the world. In the US everything from democracy to the planet is on the ballot. The International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), a venerable committee of geologists, has chosen this moment to end a decades-long debate over the existence of a geological epoch – an epoch that continues today. Geological epochs last tens of thousands of years and longer. Many geologists want to call our present epoch the “Anthropocene,” in recognition of the geological-scale impacts of humans on the planet. This is an epoch marked by the ravages of enslavement and settler colonialism, and of the oil-addicted automated version we call industrial capitalism. These and other processes have changed Earth’s geology, have changed what you’ll find if you dig down into its crust – in the Arctic as much as in Arkansas. Nevertheless, the IUGS has decided that we are not, after all, in the Anthropocene.

You see, humanities scholars have been busy debating the very word, “Anthropocene.” Isn’t the word another example of an all too real and structural prejudice, a hangover from the time when Europeans referred to Man with a capital M, meaning a white man, straight and cis to boot? Hey geologists, the argument goes, you’re blaming everyone on Earth for what Europeans and Americans have done, mostly in the last few centuries. You’re being arrogant and you’re making a sweeping and toxic generalization. We should instead say “Capitalocene” or “Plantationocene” or “Anthroposupremacene,” and we should date its beginning to the Industrial Revolution or the early days of settler colonialism or some other dateable event on a timeline.

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I have often been lumped in with the toxic generalizers. This is unfortunate. I’m hell bent on ending white supremacy and patriarchy too. Ecology without Nature said it quietly, but I still got stalked and worse by people who heard its anti-racist dog whistles. So here’s my point. Yeah, maybe they should’ve called it the Capitalocene or any number of terms I’ve heard in the twelve years I’ve spent talking about it with them, Soviet smokestacks notwithstanding. Maybe everyone (I’m so vain) could’ve listened more to my argument that an event is not a dot on a Wikipedia timeline, but more like an explosion or ripple: it moves and can have many points where it starts, gathers, disperses… Maybe it was a mistake to date the Anthropocene to after the detonation of the first atomic bombs.


We spent most of the last decade quarreling about the label. Now we can’t have the product at all. Geology’s priests have spoken. But we need the product. We need a name.


But, whatever. Understanding the ripple theory takes a lot of time and might involve reading a lot of philosophy. And as my hero Ms Moneypenny says in Skyfall, “There’s no time!” And it’s an election year. Way to go.

And way to go humanities scholars. We spent most of the last decade quarreling about the label. Now we can’t have the product at all. Geology’s priests have spoken. But we need the product. We need a name. When the princess figures out her abuser’s name is Rumpelstiltskin, he starts to lose his power over her. As it is, we’re peering at tiny crannies and nooks of geological time, like the US border. We need to go big. And we need to go big without thinking we’re generalizing. We need to be really specific at really big scales.

It is priestly, you know, what the IUGS did: hierarchical in fact (Greek hieros, “priest”). Their decision has nothing to do with being scientific. Being scientific requires consensus, and consenting is different from submitting to a vote. Science requires truth being modal: there can be amounts of it. Newton is still “right” if you want to slingshot around the Moon. “The Pfizer COVID vaccine is 95% effective” is better than “God created an infinite universe, period.” The Catholic church said that kind of thing in the Middle Ages, and you could be tortured and killed if you didn’t agree. But 95% is a pretty good chance, and it’s nice because no one is threatening to hurt you if you disagree.

There’s always more to discuss, because ideas and cultures change: that’s why I’m in conversation here with Sophie Chao’s excellent IAI essay. I’m saying: the hierarchy decreed that since the term “Anthropocene” isn’t “scientific,” debates about it don’t matter at all. And we live at a time where debate is dying. Every day, right now, in the USA and elsewhere, the ultra right is canceling books, firing librarians, scaring teachers into quitting because they might have referenced sex in a way that some fundamentalist won’t like… Thanks a bunch, geologists. Great timing.

Okay, I’ve got that off my chest; now let’s talk about the label. Here’s the way I’ve been saying it to anyone who will listen. First, the Anthropocene has a very precise and very sparing definition: There is a layer of human-made materials in the top layer of Earth’s crust. This layer is everywhere. Everywhere. And it dates back furthest to about 10,000 BCE.

White supremacy and enslavement and colonialism and imperialism played a huge part in the Anthropocene. And, like truth, responsibility is modal: there can be amounts of it. Pacific Islanders are perhaps 0.0000001% responsible for global warming, if that. White Americans are 99.99999% responsible, or more.

You can say all these things if you realize an event is not a dot on a line. It’s common sense really. Everything you see around you is just the current state of the Big Bang. More locally, the credit cards in my wallet are just the current state of neoliberalism… and the current state of credit and money… and the current state of the Big Bang. More locally still, the grooves etched on one of them are the current state of airport carpark card readers that don’t accept metal cards (I read the warning too late)… and the current state of neoliberalism… credit and money… and so on… and the Big Bang. Events can overlap. Events can be nested. Events are processes, not plastic dots.

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It’s bitterly ironic that the master-versus-slave template that gave us patriarchy and white supremacy also gave us this idea of time as a line of dots. It confuses time with the measurement of time – which doesn’t sound like a big deal, and I have no space to convince you properly. But I’ll say this: colonialism and enslavement involve imposing one system of measurement on others, one measurement to rule them all. The fury over which dot, which label, is just fallout from that.

But I hope that now you can see how something as colossal as the Anthropocene can have many “origins.” The first was Mesopotamian-style agriculture, which happened in Africa, the Americas, Europe… you name it, because a mild global warming event caused everyone’s food to run or grow somewhere else. Humans settled down and stored and planned, and there was nothing intrinsically “wrong” with it at the scales they were thinking at (city, land, country…). But, wash rinse repeat, and you end up influencing Earth systems like the nitrogen cycle.

The huge irony here is that Earth’s weather fell into a repetitive, predictable pattern, like how enough people walking the same way across a bridge can make it sway disturbingly. But regular, predictable cycles is what farmers rely on – the rhythms that white people got used to calling “nature”: First the farmer plants the seeds, / Turns around and takes his ease… But this “nature” was likely an effect of the more heavily planned approach to growing things and living. “Nature” was never just an idea. “We’ve always done it this way, it’s natural” was the reason to farm, farm, farm – until coal and then oil and plastics and pesticides were required.


The idea that “nature” was a predictable, periodic background to human theatrics encouraged the hubristic second moment of the Anthropocene: settler colonialism and slavery.


When your brain is cycling smoothly, you’re just about to have a stroke. When tectonic plates are doing it, they’re just about to have an earthquake. Global warming is a planet-quake. The long, nice, smooth-looking phase was the problem. The idea that “nature” was a predictable, periodic background to human theatrics encouraged the hubristic second moment of the Anthropocene: settler colonialism and slavery. Which made things a lot, lot worse: if I had to choose just one origin, I would go for this. And then we really would have to change the name, because this is about white supremacy, and especially England and its Frankenstein’s monster, the USA. See? Truths can overlap.

Example: as I write this I sit next to my Jamaican wife, Treena. Her uncle Michael has the last name Barrett, because his ancestor was enslaved on the Barrett plantation in Jamaica, Barrett as in Browning. Millions of human beings and millions of species of plants and animals were deliberately and accidentally moved around the world, along with bacteria and viruses. Coal mining began in earnest. Eventually the automatic version evolved: industrial capitalism, where workers must sell themselves cheap in order to get a job, unlike everything else on the market.


In a year of vital elections, in which the planet’s future is at stake, the high priests of geology deny us a planet-scale name for our epoch. You think they’re going to call it the Capitalocene instead?


As fossil fuels fed the beast, the system of industrial capitalism grew massive. And right after the Second World War there occurred what geologists call “the golden spike”: Earth systems went haywire and the planet-scale stroke kicked off in earnest.

But now a priestly caste of scientists has decided that “Anthropocene” is not a thing, no matter what you call it. In a year of vital elections, in which the planet’s future is at stake, the high priests of geology deny us a planet-scale name for our epoch. You think they’re going to call it the Capitalocene instead?

“Anthropocene” is not a statement of human arrogance. It’s a cosmic insult. It’s like pointing out a skid mark in a toilet bowl.

Some environmentalists actually like the vote against the term. They buy the idea that thinking that humans could have a catastrophic effect on the planet is arrogant and laughable, and say so in the New York Times. They might as well be working for Big Oil.

But even if you like pronouncements from on high, you might have to agree with Jan Zalasiewicz, Chair of the body that voted, that the ballot was really shady. Full disclosure: Jan is my friend and, like him, I’m dismayed. Most of those casting their votes were not eligible to do so—older Ents in this case were not wiser Ents, they were just hanging around to kill this epoch. I can’t get too specific here, but it’s clear that some announced their vote before debate—a sure way to silence newer members. There was not a quorum. Fourteen years of evidence collection was hardly discussed. The Geoethics Commission report was largely ignored. The lowest-level vote of the geologists came without reasons, and subsequent votes rushed in to ratify it. The official statement makes a hash of the concept. And on and on.

This is all as stupid and pointless as Ents agreeing not to fight for their world. Inside and outside the Geology Department, the assault continues. The waves get bigger, the flames more lambent.

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