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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751

Abstract

TEMPELHOFF, Johann. The Anthropocene and historical consciousness. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2021, vol.61, n.2, pp.429-451. ISSN 2224-7912.  http://dx.doi.org/10.17159/2224-7912/2021/v61n2a3.

"Anthropocene" has been trending in environmental circles since the onset of the new millennium. It first caught public attention when scientists used it to describe the human impact on Earth's biosphere. Soon, also a lively discussion started amongst environmentalists perturbed by the destruction of earth's biosphere, because of human induced climate change. In the field of environmental and earth sciences there followed a strong initiative for a new geological epoch called the "Anthropocene". It implied that the current scientific stratigraphic dating system of the Earth requires revision. Humankind is said to have disrupted the global support system of life on planet Earth to the extent that we are heading for an imminent disaster. Resource scarcity, environmental destruction and climate change are considered as the symptoms of these human activities. In the early phase of the emergent public discourse the pronounced human ecological footprint was said to have started with the onset of the eighteenth century's British Industrial Revolution. By the early 2000s scientists, activists and politicians warned we were heading towards an imminent crisis. The large-scale extermination of many living organisms was said to have pointed directly to human resource over-consumption. Humankind has now left a profound imprint on geological processes that previously were shaped only by nature. Geologists have not yet reached consensus on an "Anthropocene epoch". One group views climate change as a natural process. Working in strictly demarcated parameters of so-called "golden spikes" registering in sophisticated geoscientific classification hierarchies, many are critical of collaboration with non-geological scientists. They insist that traces of the "human footprint" in most parts of the planet, do qualify as indicators of a new geological epoch. Several geoscientists have come out in support of the idea of an Anthropocene epoch. An outstanding feature of their approach to geoscience has been to integrate the field into comprehensive interdisciplinary study groups focusing on the effects of human activities on earth. Geological sciences, they insist, should now focus more on the present. The focus of working on the past - primarily on Earth's history "before humankind" - should shift to the present and the imminent future. In 2018, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) rejected a proposal for the formalisation of the Anthropocene by a specialised Anthropocene Working Group (AWG). Yet, the debate continues in the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS). It may take several years before the Anthropocene epoch is formally accepted. In the discipline of History, the discussion on the Anthropocene implies that the natural and social/human sciences should move forward towards a new historical consciousness of a distant past and explore contemporary history with a view to the future. There have been several calls for a more integrated endeavour and ethical self-consciousness for contemplating Earth's past, present and future. SUMMARY OF CONTENT This brief overview concerns the origins of the concept "Anthropocene" at the start of the new millennium in the 2000s. The reader is familiarised with definitions of the term and its use by the Nobel Laureate, Paul Crutzen. The word Anthropocene, first coined in 1922 by Russia's Aleksei Pavlov (1854-1929), forms part of Crutzen's assessment of Teilhardt de Chardin and Vernadsky's conception of a noösphere that emerged in the 20th century as an impressive assemblage of integrated knowledge. Crutzen's discontent with the term "global change" in the field of atmospheric science, sparked off a discussion on the new "Anthropocene epoch" in international science institutions. Simultaneously, global society, especially environmental activists, started using the term to describe the profound changes in Earth's natural systems as a result of rapid human-induced disruptions of natural systems. The United Nations Organisation created an awareness among its member states on a critical phase of human-induced change on planet Earth. Of growing concern was global climate change, pollution, and the destruction of Earth's life-sustaining natural ecosystems. The positive mainstream response to the Anthropocene as a new terminological twist in the discourse, had its origins in the 1960s when environmental awareness flourished primarily in Western democracies in all parts of the world. Mounting fears, inter alia, about fossil fuel that induced acid rain, causing respiratory problems for plants and humans living in urban industrial complexes all over the planet contributed to a sense of environmental awareness. Therefore, the subsequent call for an Anthropocene epoch, came at a time when globalisation and modern communications systems had extended at exponential rates in all parts of the world. Aware of waste accumulation, air pollution and anthropogenic destruction of ecosystems, mainstream global human society readily embraced the idea of the Anthropocene as a moral commitment to the environment. However, in academia, the concept was slow to gain traction. Despite several preliminary forays on the topic, the first comprehensive geosciences research on the Anthropocene only emerged in the 2010s. That was after the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) and the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) established an Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) to explore the idea of a new epoch - one which had the potential to factually verify the end of the Holocene in the comprehensive field of geosciences. The institutional politics of engagement between a mature "establishment" and a group of courageous and well-informed mavericks and their growing support base in other disciplines, sheds light on a creative research phase in many academic circles. There is evidence of interaction, multi-faceted and transdisciplinary research, as well as a pronounced shift in making use of history - in the context of the past, the present and even the future - to develop complex and advanced database modelling systems to make new assessments and predictions. But obstacles remain. In 2018 the ICS declined a request for the approval of the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch. Yet, supporters of the new "epoch" remained determined to persevere in the realisation of their objective. By engaging with experts in a variety of natural and social/human sciences, a new and mainly younger generation of geoscientists gained valuable ethical insights. In many cases they have not been over-eager to summarily accept new trends and potentially "spurious" thinking on long held views of earth's intrinsic history. The lively ongoing debate has attracted more participation of researchers working beyond the natural sciences to explore the Anthropocene as a comprehensive expression of an undesirable human domination and wanton destruction of Earth's biodiversity. There are indications of cross-fertilisation in advanced thinking on the Anthropocene in a variety of disciplines. In terms of history and its philosophy, a sense of cohesion in the natural sciences and social/human sciences has emerged from collaborative thinking about the Anthropocene. In the discipline of History there is a keen awareness of the need to explore new methodologies, but a collective historical consciousness remains problematic. For example, historians working in the field of hermeneutics acknowledge their limitations of insight into emergent views on the history of nature. Their historical consciousness is often too confined to customary knowledge of specific human cultures and places. However, there are indications of far more comprehensive forays into incorporating new ideas in the natural sciences. Several well-informed historians have promoted the need for the reconsideration and relevance of current source materials and existing methodologies. JR McNeill, for one, recently called on a new generation of historians to focus on an array of new technologies and ideas previously inaccessible to historians, to shed light on the past and the present in exploring the Anthropocene.

Keywords : Anthropocene epoch; Holocene; stratigraphy; climate change; International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS); Anthropocene Working Group (AWG); historical consciousness; sixth extinction; geosciences; natural sciences; social and human sciences; technology.

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