Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 10, No. 7, July 2014
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Pondering the Anthropocene

Judith Curry

This article was originally published in Judith Curry's blog, Climate Etc., 22 June 2014

Editor's Note: Climate Etc. is an excellent blog about the current scientific debate related to climate change. This article, and the hundreds of comments posted, is a good example of current debates about the Anthropocene and issues of sustainable development.


"[H]ow we meet the needs and aspirations of all of humanity while sustaining the planet’s ecology, is what the Anthropocene is all about."Keith Kloor

What is the Anthropocene and are we in it?

The Smithsonian has a short article entitled What is the Anthropocene and are we in it? Sub title: Efforts to label the human epoch have ignited a scientific debate between geologists and environmentalists. Excerpts:

Anthropocene has become an environmental buzzword ever since the atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen popularized it in 2000. This year, the word has picked up velocity in elite science circles: It appeared in nearly 200 peer-reviewed articles, the publisher Elsevier has launched a new aca­demic journal titled Anthropocene and the IUGS convened a group of scholars to decide by 2016 whether to officially declare that the Holocene is over and the Anthropocene has begun.

Many stratigraphers (scientists who study rock layers) criticize the idea, saying clear-cut evidence for a new epoch simply isn’t there. “When you start naming geologic-time terms, you need to define what exactly the boundary is, where it appears in the rock strata,” says Whitney Autin, a stratigrapher at the SUNY College of Brockport, who suggests Anthropocene is more about pop culture than hard science. 

Some Anthropocene proponents concede that difficulty. But don’t get bogged down in the mud, they say, just stipulate a date and move on. Will Steffen, who heads Australia National University’s Climate Change Institute and has written articles with Crutzen, recommends starting the epoch with the advent of the industrial revolution in the early 1800s or with the atomic age in the 1950s. Either way, he says, the new name sends a message: “[It] will be another strong reminder to the general public that we are now having undeniable impacts on the environment at the scale of the planet as a whole, so much so that a new geological epoch has begun.”

 Eco-pragmatism or doom and gloom?

Keith Kloor has an insightful article Facing Up to the Anthropocene that discusses the environmental movement and the idea ‘anthroposcene.’  Excerpts

It was a battle between what I called the green modernists and the green traditionalists. 

The problem for the green traditionalist is that this redundant message has lost its power. There have been too many red alerts, accompanied by too many vague, screechy calls to action.

Green modernists, I wrote in 2012, dared to remake environmentalism:

Strip it of outdated mythologies and dogmas, make it less apocalyptic and more optimistic, broaden its constituency. In this vision, the Anthropocene is not something to rail against, but to embrace.

This was heresy. For the Anthropocene, as I noted in a follow-up piece at Slate, had already been characterized by green thought leaders and earth scientists as an irredeemable disaster for the planet.

The future of environmental discourse, I argued, would turn on how the Anthropocene was ultimately defined.

Fast forward to the furious debate playing out this week, kicked off by a recent talk by Andrew Revkin, which he discussed at his New York Times Dot Earth blog. The title of his talk is called “Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene,” which, as he explains, has quotation marks “around the adjective ‘good’ to stress that values determine choices.”

A number of people took offense to the notion of a “good” Anthropocene. Indeed, it appears that many of Revkin’s critics  are objecting strenuously to the Anthropocene being described as anything but awful.

This doesn’t bode well for environmentalism, which is already saddled with a doom and gloom reputation. Even more unfortunate–if you are a progressive green open to diverse perspectives– is the hostile attitude towards The Breakthrough Institute (BTI), an Oakland, California think tank that challenges green shibboleths. Those who are most passionate (and outspoken) about climate concerns seem to be the most dismissive of eco-pragmatists and often try to discredit them as a legitimate voice, by suggesting they are part of the problem and not the solution.

After my 2012 Slate piece came out, Bryan Walsh at Time magazine wrote a thoughtful, largely sympathetic critique. His interpretation of eco-pragmatism:

The message of the modernist greens is: in a world of 7 billion plus people, all of whom want (and deserve) to live modern, consuming lives, we need to be pragmatic about how we use—and how much we protect—nature. We don’t have any other choice, so we’d better start dealing with the realities on the ground.

There is no other way, unless you want to wind back the clock to…go ahead, choose another time in history you would prefer to live in.

As for me, I’ll take the Anthropocene, with no regrets. I have a quality of life unprecedented in the history of humanity and I think everyone on the planet deserves to enjoy the same privileges and opportunities I have. This means much of the world has to still modernize for billions of people to enjoy higher living standards. You can’t wave a magic wand to achieve that. It’s going to require massive economic development and massive outlays of energy that is going to stress the planet. There is no way around that.

How we manage this challenge, how we meet the needs and aspirations of all of humanity while sustaining the planet’s ecology, is what the Anthropocene is all about. And I’m fine with that.

Judith Curry's Reflections

Well, it will be interesting to see what the IUGS (International Union of Geological Sciences)  comes up with regarding the Anthropocene as a geologic epoch.  Hopefully traditional stratigraphic analysis will prevail, rather than the perceived need to send a ‘strong reminder to the general public . . .”   I.e. hopefully geologists will not fall into the same rat trap that climate scientists have.

Even if the Anthropocene doesn’t make it as a geological epoch, it seems here to stay as an environmental meme.  As an environmental meme, it has some promise – the sustainability meme is limiting and rather stale.  Eco-pragmatists seem to have a fighting chance at seizing the narrative.

About two months ago, I gave a presentation on climate change to a group of Georgia Tech alumni.  Someone in the audience asked me ‘What did you do for Earth Day?’  I answered ‘Nothing.  I think turning out the lights on Earth Day sends the wrong message – I want to see the lights go on in Africa.’  I guess that puts me in the Eco-pragmatist camp.

I think Keith Kloor sums it up superbly with this statement:

As for me, I’ll take the Anthropocene, with no regrets. I have a quality of life unprecedented in the history of humanity and I think everyone on the planet deserves to enjoy the same privileges and opportunities I have.


Judith Curry is Professor and Chair, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology. She is an internationally recognized expert in climate dynamics. For more information on Prof. Curry, visit her home page.

The Paradox of Sustainable Development

Alec Brown

This article was originally published in Sustainability Scholars, 11 June 2014

Editor's Note: Since it was formulated by the Brundtlant Commission in 1987, the concept of sustainable development has been debated in every conceivable way. Opinions range from "it is an oxymoron" to "it is the key for the future of humanity." The debate continues, and this article by a young scholar explains why we must continue to "muddle through" as best we can.

“Sustainable development is a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are all in harmony and enhance both current and future potential to meet human needs and aspirations.”* This definition of sustainable development has led to what is now called the Paradox of Sustainable Development. Essentially, how can the needs of the present be balanced with the needs of the future in all dimensions of sustainability: environmental, economic, and social. Even among experts in the field of sustainability this topic is debated hotly. Some would argue that we need to continue our growth and consumption as our population rises in order to help those with economic and societal needs. However, this increase in consumption could potentially cause the destruction of our ecosystem and thus harms future generations. But if we do not increase our consumption, the economic needs of many will not be met, harming current generations.

So how can we solve this problem? Unfortunately there is no clear answer. What can be concluded is that what we are doing now is not the correct direction as not only are we harming our environment, but we are also causing suffering for many around the world, especially those in impoverished countries. It would seem that the correct course to take for the future would rely on technological innovations that allow us to gain resources without depriving future generations of the same. But it is easy to say we must innovate, it is much harder to actually develop solutions to the issues. Thus we must take steps immediately to reduce our impact and consumption. Much of this reduction must come from the first world as we have some of the highest impacts and there are many who consume unnecessarily.

Now, of course these small steps forward can only do so much per person, but a small step taken by a large amount of people can have a large impact. The difficulty, however, is not necessarily in taking the small steps, like biking instead of driving or buying local whenever possible, it is in convincing a large number of people to take these small steps. Government mandates are one possible way of accomplishing this, but this type of motivation can cause resentment towards the movement. I believe the solution lies in the hands of businesses and corporations that can take these steps and use them to contribute to their triple bottom line; people, planet, and profits. If companies can take these principles and profitably incorporate them into their business strategy, others will follow suit and the overall culture around the ideas will shift.

Already we can see that there are companies joining the movement, including all of our corporate community partners, and many more. I hope that this means that sustainability will become ingrained in all of our everyday lives and all of our actions, helping to solve the paradox.

* Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, Document A/42/427, United Nations, 1987.


Alec Brown (Davidson College ’16) is working on a major in Mathematics and a minor in Economics. As a Sustainability Scholar this summer he will be working with Ingersoll Rand. At Davidson, he is a brother of the fraternity of Phi Gamma Delta, a Chidsey Leadership Fellow, and a member of club soccer. The past two summers he has interned with The Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh with a focus on sustainability. These experiences have led him to understand the importance of sustainability. Alec hopes that he can continue to help promote sustainable living, both this summer and in his future career.

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