The Anthropocene Debate: On the Limits of Colonial Geology

On August 29, 2016, the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Union of Geological Sciences announced that it is preparing a formal proposal to designate the anthropocene as an official unit of Earth time. First suggested by Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen in 2000, the term indicates that through destructive environmental processes, humans have become the driving force in determining the geophysical form of the planet.

The working group’s announcement points to evidence of human activity such as fallout of Plutonium 239, carbon concentrations in soil, and fossils of industrially-bred chickens. It will suggest a start date of the new geological epoch at circa 1950 to coincide with the first uses of nuclear weapons and with the ‘great acceleration’ in population and industrial activity, including massive changes to the atmosphere driven by fertilizer, coal, and oil use. It will furthermore identify a ‘golden spike‘ for the epoch — a specific physical site in one place where the change in geological strata can be measured and where the rock contains a variety of identifying markers of the epoch that can also be found elsewhere across the planet. (Note the symbolic connection of geology’s ‘golden spike’ to the golden railway spike, a symbol of modern progress and colonial integration.)

The proposal faces an uphill battle. The working group’s announcement will appear arbitrary and unsystematic to critics in both the natural and the social sciences. Stratigraphers — the geologists who study sediments deposited over millions of years on the planet’s surface — have been largely skeptical of formalizing the term anthropocene since its physical features are in most cases not yet deeply embedded in the lithosphere. Ecologists focusing on biofeedback mechanisms have proposed parallel terms, such as ‘entomogenic climate change,’ to capture how changes in the environment are the result of complex interrelations between humans and other species.

Meanwhile, environmental justice activists and scholars have widely criticized the concept for its limited analysis of the ‘human.’ In one sense it is overly broad: it generalizes to all humans the effects of particular environmental practices that have only benefited some humans at the expense of others. In another sense it is overly narrow, viewing ‘the human’ as separate from ‘the environment.’ A number of critics point to the central role of fossil-fueled capitalism, suggesting that it is necessary to specify a mode of production that generates destructive wastes rather than to view climate change and other planetary processes as inherent to a species. More broadly, the term shuts down a radical reimagining of the interspecies forces that constitute our planetary webs of life.

Finding a geological basis for the anthropocene in preserved rock or ice strata limits the potential of the term, confining it to geological forms in ways that reproduce the divide between human and environment that ‘anthropocene’ could theoretically undermine. This much is evident in the dismissal of the clearest stratigraphic evidence of capitalist transformation of the environment by the top experts in the field and, thus, the exclusion of this evidence from the working group’s proposal.

For example, British geologists Colin Waters, Mark Williams, and Jan Zalaseiwicz use the precedent of geologists’ use of tiny fossil burrows to date the Cambrian era to suggest that ‘complex animal bioturbation’ is a stratigraphic signal of the anthropocene. In this case, humans are conceived as animals who burrow deep into rock layers in order to build underground structures and to extract fuel materials. In their series of articles, the group suggests that 19th and 20th century subterranean features such as oil boreholes or the London subway system will remain long-term features of preserved sediment and thus can serve as golden spikes of the anthropocene. Such evidence has been rejected out of hand by top stratigraphers because it is ‘made by humans rather than by natural sedimentation.’ But isn’t that the whole point of the concept of the anthropocene?

Because of this limitation, the working group will look instead for the most widely distributed sedimentary evidence of environmental destruction, such as radioactive fallout. As such, they weaken their proposal on two fronts. First, they limit their stratigraphic evidence to the top layers of sedimentation, reinforcing the perception that these signals are arbitrary, based on predictions of future fossils rather than existing ones, and ‘political’ rather than ‘scientific’ (as if the arbitrary designations of prior geological epochs are not already political). Second, they blunt the methodological challenge that some of the most interesting anthropocene science poses to geology. By focusing on the presence of human-made materials rather than the absence of strata disturbed by extraction technologies, the search for a golden spike is narrowing to more predictable methods.

As a colonial science that was useful for settler-colonial mapping and exploitation of oil and minerals worldwide, geology assumes a linear and progressive Earth time geologically represented in the vertical sedimentation of new layers of matter atop older ones. Yet anthropocene studies that focus on bioturbation (activities through which organisms disrupt sediments) require stratigraphic method to move from a vertical to a horizontal orientation. In a second-order reflection on geological method, the investigator must analyze the presence of the vertical fossil record against the horizontal absence of adjacent layers in deep hiatuses (absences of strata) produced by drilling. The hiatuses themselves have geological content, documenting technocapitalist incursion into the strata.

Geologists don’t need to pick a specific environmental process like climate change or nuclear irradiation to define the so-called anthropocene. The very ability to conceptualize the planet as a geological system by documenting and reorganizing its strata may be the most compelling geologic signal for declaring a new epoch marked by the co-production of planetary systems by humans and other species.

As such, one interesting candidate for a golden spike is one that wasn’t proposed by the British group: the 1963-66 Camp Century ice core, the first deep ice core to extract all layers of the polar ice sheet down to the bedrock. Located close to the longstanding Kalaaliit Inuit settlement of Qaanaaq in northwest Greenland, this core drilling project spurred high-tech ice coring methods that would  widely distribute scientific drilling across polar and mountain regions. Retrieving the core was a significant development for climate science because ice sheets preserve the best long-term evidence of changing atmospheric conditions (including carbon concentrations) over millennia. It is difficult to imagine the creation of the concept ‘anthropocene’ without such ice core data, and proposing Camp Century as a golden spike could focus attention on the climate-related struggles of Arctic Inuit who claim sovereignty in this region.

Drilled by the US military in Greenland as part of a secret installation intended to mobilize under-ice nuclear weapons, the Camp Century ice core demonstrates the interplay of Cold War nuclear militarization, Arctic colonization, and emerging climate science. The world’s first deep ice core is both an expression of high-tech imperialism and a technical basis for linking atmospheric sciences to geological method; the ice core scientist literally removes the stratigraphic record from the Earth in order to study it. Incidentally, global warming threatens to melt the ice covering the site. Although this is one of the main technical limitations for use of ice as a golden spike, it demonstrates that climate change itself has the potential to undo the progressive temporality of the stratigraphic record.

Despite all its weaknesses, the anthropocene debate should force geology to confront investigators’ relationships to processes of geological change they measure, akin to the challenges posed by quantum mechanics to physics at the dawn of the nuclear age. It should reckon with the field’s colonial inheritances, which make geology, like all colonial science, an impure science that cannot be understood outside of the context of the relations of place, labor, and production that mobilize it. Geology is a spawn of the colonial capitalist assemblage that is rapidly transforming the planet, and whether or not geologists formalize ‘anthropocene,’ the discipline cannot stand objectively outside the relations that term clumsily attempts to name.

Understanding this history — whether or not we accept any golden spike narrative for the anthropocene — is necessary for integrating our grand visions of climate with fragmented ones about our dispersed environmental justice struggles, which have been constant since the systemic colonial reengineering of indigenous ecosystems began in earnest some 500 years ago. Unfortunately, the current debates are doubling down on the conceptual split between humans and the planet, society and nature, in ways that foreclose a broad rethinking of the planetary processes through which energies, life forms, and processes are formed and reproduced.