As our collection of objects in the Museum of the Anthropocene grows, it reveals also a proliferation of terms and concepts that we use to talk about this novel (or, at least, newly recognised, but deeply rooted) planetary age and how our material cultures shed light on its complexities and challenges. Here, we offer our Anthropocene glossary: short accounts of some of these ideas and terminologies as they arise. Feel free to comment below on any of these descriptions.
The Columbian Exchange
A term popularised by historian Alfred W. Crosby in 1972 to describe the global transfer of plants, animals and diseases which resulted from the European ‘discovery’ of the Americas in the late 15th century, and the new lines of trade and transport which opened between the ‘New World’ of North, Central and South America, and the ‘Old World’ of Eurasia and Africa (Crosby 1972). More recently, some scientists have argued that the ecological and even climatic upheavals that this caused mean that the onset of the Anthropocene can be dated to the European colonial expansion of the 15th-17th century (Lewis and Maslin 2015).
- Crosby, Alfred W. 1972. The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492. Greenwood Publishing Group.
- Lewis, Simon L, and Mark A. Maslin. 2015. ‘Defining the Anthropocene’. Nature 519 (7542): 171–80.
Developed by the political scientist Peter M. Haas, an epistemic community is a community of experts who share a set of beliefs about the nature and causes of a problem like, for example, climate change, and who also share a set of values and norms about what should be done about it. As Haas (1992, 187) puts it, an epistemic community is a “knowledge-based network of specialists who share beliefs in cause-and-effect relations, validity tests, and underlying principled values and pursued common policy goals”.
- Haas, Peter. 1992. ‘Banning Chlorofluorocarbons: Epistemic Community Efforts to Protect Stratospheric Ozone’. International Organization 46 (1): 187–224.
The Great Acceleration
The “eccentric historical moment”, spanning from the end of World War II to the present, in which human impacts on the functioning of the Earth System have grown rapidly, and in some cases exponentially (McNeill and Engelke 2014, 5). The nature of the Great Acceleration is often conveyed in a series of graphs which documents, on the one hand, socioeconomic trends such as GDP growth, population change, urbanisation and dam construction, and on the other hand, consequent earth system trends in things like global surface temperature, tropical forest loss and ocean acidification. This unprecedented period of change means that many geologists and earth system scientists propose that some time around 1945 or 1950 be considered as the onset of the Anthropocene (e.g. Head et al. 2021).
- Head, Martin J, Will Steffen, David Fagerlind, Colin N Waters, Clement Poirier, Jaia Syvitski, Jan A Zalasiewicz, et al. 2021. ‘The Great Acceleration Is Real and Provides a Quantitative Basis for the Proposed Anthropocene Series/Epoch’. Episodes Journal of International Geoscience, November.
- McNeill, John Robert, and Peter Engelke. 2014. The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
The Malthusian Hypothesis
At the end of the 18th century, English cleric and economist Thomas Malthus proposed in his Essay on the Principle of Population that, while improvements in a nation’s agriculture initially led to greater well-being, this also led to rapid population growth. Consequently, a geometric (exponential) growth in the number of people outstripped the slower, arithmetic increase in food production, bringing starvation among a growing pool of the poor, and mounting social chaos that would threaten the social system. Malthus’s proposition argues against ideas of indefinite progress towards perfectible societies, but his suggested response — on humanitarian grounds, supposedly — was to remove any support for the starving poor, counteracting further population growth amongst those who could not support themselves.
With the world’s population hitting 8 billion in 2022, arguments that we will soon overreach the planetary ‘carrying capacity’ for our species are met by those who insist that new technologies and ways of managing markets — like earlier industrial and economic revolutions — will reveal the solutions to any problems these rising numbers create. Counterarguments against such technological optimism stress, in place of a simple carrying capacity, the notion of non-negotiable ‘planetary boundaries’, which human activities (rather than human numbers per se) cannot exceed without bringing calamity. The idea of ‘doughnut economics‘ builds on this model of upper limits to growth as an ‘ecological ceiling’ by proposing a ‘social foundation’ as the base level below which no one should be condemned to suffer the consequences of Malthusian remedies. In between these two dangerous concentric spheres, it’s suggested, is the Earth as seen as humanity’s ‘safe operating space’.
A term used by geologists to describe the materials residues that humans are leaving in the earth’s rock record, equivalent to markers of previous beings, like dinosaur footprints. Technofossils range in scale from continental road systems down to things like cities, glass bottles, fly ash particles or microplastics (Zalasiewicz et al. 2014; Taffel 2016).
The Tragedy of the Commons
A term coined by population biologist Garrett Hardin in his 1968 paper of that name. Hardin’s focus was the rapid expansion of the world’s human population, which he considered a problem with no technical solution in a finite world. Hardin referred to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s view of the essence of dramatic ‘tragedy’ as “the solemnity of the remorseless working of things”, and he illustrated it with the agricultural example of a pasture “open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons.” In many societies — such as pre-capitalist England — such commons persisted for many generations, more or less successfully for those who had legal rights as commoners (commons were not, in fact, ‘open to all’) and where the actual owners of the land or the law did not abuse their privileges. But, Hardin suggested, as societies stabilise and factors limiting population growth recede, then at some point “the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy”. Each commoner sees the individual advantage of adding more cattle of their own rather than leaving spare capacity for others to take, and the population of cattle grows rapidly to exceed the pasture’s ‘carrying capacity’. The short-lived positive effects are gained by those who maximise their take; the negative effects are soon felt by all as the system crashes.
The metaphor of the commons has been extended to many real-world examples of ‘over-grazing’ of an environmental resource, such as harvesting an ocean’s fish stocks or using a river to ‘dilute and disperse’ pollutants from factories or farms along its course. The ultimate ‘commons’ in this sense is perhaps the global atmosphere and the ease with which different nations and corporations use it to dump carbon dioxide from their fossil fuel usage. But critics (e.g. McCarthy, 2009 504-507) of Hardin’s highly cited paper point out various problems with his analysis, not least that historically most actual commons are not ‘open access’ and have been managed locally by their commoners under evolving rules. For those systems that are seemingly a ‘free for all’ and where the number of actors is huge — such as global heating of the atmosphere — the problems of envisioning and enacting some form of scaling up of a genuine commons approach are indeed massive and tragedy is not hard to find.
Anthropocene Glossary contributors
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