The Antropocene: 1950, The great acceleration

Science, IT, Nature

In Part 9 of his series, Shanti explores the socio-economic and earth-system trends of the new geological epoch called Anthropocene

Trends from 1750 to 2010 in globally aggregated indicators for socio-economic development.
Trends from 1750 to 2010 in globally aggregated indicators for socio-economic development (

The Holocene was a “goldilocks” period for Homo sapiens: not too hot, not too cold, but just right. Preceded by a deep ice age, the Holocene’s climate allowed agriculture to arise and flourish independently in the Middle East, in China and elsewhere.

More complex social structures such as towns and cities arose, followed much more recently by an enormous population growth worldwide. The Holocene is the only known epoch capable of supporting a global civilization of 8 billion people, a still rapidly growing number.

For several years now the world’s top Earth-system scientists and geologists have gathered to debate, discuss and describe a new geological epoch in Earth’s history. This period is being called the Anthropocene, from the Greek ἄνθρωπος meaning man, the epoch shaped by humans. Owen Gaffney of the Stockholm Resilience Centre will be our guide.

The term itself had been coined only recently, in February 2000, by the Dutch chemist and Nobel Prize-winner Paul Crutzen in a flash of insight during a scientific meeting in Mexico. Crutzen’s historic intervention is supported by a growing mountain of evidence. As an idea, the Anthropocene stands on solid scientific ground. That is not to say there is no debate. One of the biggest questions is: when did this new geological epoch begin?

Some argue that the Neolithic revolution, the dawn of agriculture around 10 to 8 thousand years ago, fundamentally changed the Holocene. As we cleared land, burned forests and dug irrigation channels to grow food, we undoubtedly altered landscapes and watersheds. But did we begin to alter the planet on a global scale? Evidence for that conclusion is slight.

In 2002 Crutzen proposed, in the journal Nature, that the Anthropocene could have begun around 1800 with the industrial revolution in Britain. Perhaps 1800, Crutzen suggested, is the boundary between the Holocene and the Anthropocene? Two years after Crutzen’s proposal, in 2004, after almost two decades of research, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, IGBP, published its first synthesis of the Earth as a system. Led by Earth-system scientist Will Steffen and including Crutzen, the report focused heavily on the concept of the Anthropocene, reiterating that the industrial revolution looked the likely candidate as the boundary.

But it also contained an intriguing series of 24 graphs, which pointed to a significant event that occurred around 1950!

The most striking conclusion from the graphs is that in the mid-20th century humanity’s effect on the Earth crossed a tipping point. This is when post-World War II production and consumption slipped into overdrive, and we, the producers and consumers, moved onto a new, almost exponential trajectory, fueled by the use of Earth’s natural resources.

Trends from 1750 to 2010 in indicators for the structure and functioning of the Earth System.
Trends from 1750 to 2010 in indicators for the structure and functioning of the Earth System (

Incredibly, in a single human lifetime, changes in major planetary indicators started moving almost in synchronicity with social and economic indicators of change, one force seemingly driving the other. Now, we are in a whole new world. From this perspective, the most significant event in the 20th century was not the Great Depression, not the two World Wars or the Cold War, but rather the moment that a single species, ours, came to dominate Earth’s natural cycles.

Today we use an area the size of South America to grow our crops and an area the size of Africa to graze our livestock. We move more sediment and rock annually than all natural processes combined. And we are in the midst of Earth’s sixth mass extinction as a result of our human activity.

Experts from around the world assert that the profound impact humans are having on Earth systems warrants the recognition of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. So, will future geologists regard 1950 as the boundary between Holocene and Anthropocene?

Crutzen has changed his mind about 1800, and now favors around 1950, and so do many other researchers, because since 1950 the graphs show a great acceleration in 12 Socio-economic trends: world population, urban population, real GDP (Gross Domestic Product, a measure of the size of an economy), foreign direct investment, primary energy use, large dams, water use, paper production, fertilizer consumption, transportation, telecommunications and international tourism.

They also show a great acceleration in 12 Earth system trends: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, surface temperature, stratospheric ozone, marine fish capture, ocean acidification, coastal nitrogen, shrimp aquaculture, tropical forest loss, domesticated land and terrestrial biosphere degradation.

Golden spikes are used by geologists to define major geological time boundaries and large changes in Earth’s biota. There is a candidate to mark the beginning of the Antropocene, that moment in geological time when humanity became a world-altering force.

On July 16, 1945, the Manhattan Project reached its goal when U.S. scientists detonated the first atomic bomb in the desert of New Mexico. On that exact date, radioactive isotopes entered the atmosphere and they will forever remain in the sedimentary record as an unmistakable marker for future geologists.

Crawford Lake, a 24-meter-deep pond in Ontario in Canada is the candidate: chemicals and minerals in the sediments clearly capture the global ‘great acceleration’ in fossil fuel burning, fertilizer use and atomic bomb fallout that began in the 1950s.

To be continued…

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Shanti is the creator and compiler of this series, including At Home in the Universe and 1001 Tales.

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