Anthropocene Research Paper

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Human activities have become so pervasive and profound that they rival the great forces of nature and are pushing the Earth into planetary terra incognita. Some geologists believe that that the Earth has now left its natural geological epoch—the interglacial state called the Holocene—and is rapidly moving into a less biologically diverse, less forested, much warmer, and probably wetter and stormier state, the Anthropocene.

In 2000, and then more formally in the journal Nature in 2002, Paul J. Crutzen, a Dutch Nobel Prize–winning atmospheric chemist, argued that in about 1800 the world entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. This was the era in which our own species, without intending to do so, and without even understanding what was happening, became not just a significant force for change within the biosphere, but perhaps the most important single force for change within the biosphere.

Impressed by these arguments, several geologists have proposed that the Anthropocene be formally recognized as a new geological period. At present, we live in the Holocene epoch, which began in 10,000 BP (before present). If the new proposal is accepted, the Holocene era will be designated as having ended in 1800 CE, and the Anthropocene will be designated as the epoch to follow. The date 1800 is an appropriate starting point for the Anthropocene; that is when the global concentration of major greenhouse gases—carbon dioxide and methane—began to rise significantly. It is no accident, therefore, that the new epoch coincides with the invention and spread of the improved James Watt steam engines, and with conventional dates for the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. From an ecological point of view, the beginning of the Anthropocene offers a powerful marker for the beginnings of the modern era of human history.

In a controversial 2005 study, the paleoclimatologist William Ruddiman proposes a different periodization. He argues that through deforestation and the spread of domesticated livestock and wet rice farming, humans may have been shaping the atmosphere on global scales for as long as 8,000 years by raising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and methane. He suggests that these changes prevented the early return to a new Ice Age and allowed the great agrarian civilizations of human history to flourish. In other words, human activity created the global climatic conditions that allowed the world’s major agrarian civilizations to flourish during the last 5,000 years. Ruddiman’s arguments may be overstated, but even so, they suggest that the Anthropocene is not just a byproduct of modernity, but had roots many millennia in the past.

The idea of the Anthropocene (like its conceptual partner, the anthroposphere) has much to offer world historians. First, it highlights the remarkable fact that our species, Homo sapiens, is the first single species in the history of the entire planet to have had a significant impact on the biosphere as a whole. Earlier in the planet’s history, large groups of organisms such as early photosynthesizing bacteria created the Earth’s oxygen-dominated atmosphere. But as far as we know, no single species has ever had such a profound impact on the biosphere. The idea of the Anthropocene therefore highlights our uniqueness as a species, and the power of our capacity for sustained ecological innovation.

The idea of the Anthropocene also offers a powerful tool for thinking about some of the dominant features of modern world history. It highlights the astonishing scale of the changes that have transformed our relationship to the biosphere in the last two hundred years, and the many contemporary challenges those changes have created. And by doing so it suggests that there is an objective basis for the claim that world history did indeed enter a new era at about 1800, the time of the fossil fuels revolution. Finally, the idea of the Anthropocene highlights the profound importance of environmental history to world history in general.


  1. Crutzen P. J. (2002, January 3). The Anthropocene. Nature 415, 23.
  2. Climate Change 2007—The Physical Science Basis. (2007). Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. Retrieved October 20, 2016, from
  3. Ruddiman, W. (2005). Plows, plagues, and petroleum: How humans took control of climate. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  4. Will, S., Crutzen P. J., & McNeill, J. R. (2008, December). The Anthropocene: Are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature?” Ambio, 36(8).
  5. Zalasiewicz, J., et al. (February 2009). Are we now living in the Anthropocene? Geological Society of America, 18(2), 4–8.

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