In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Anthropocene and Geography

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Geological and Environmental Science Debates
  • Planetary Boundaries
  • Earth System Science
  • Science-Society Relationships
  • Critical Responses in the Social Sciences and Humanities
  • Contributions to Debate by Physical and Environmental Geographers

Geography The Anthropocene and Geography
Noel Castree
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 June 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0111


Coined by two environmental scientists, the term “Anthropocene” is currently a buzzword in the earth and environmental science community, as well as in the social sciences and humanities. It may in time assume the status of a “keyword” and become an established part of the academic lexicon. It describes human-induced changes to the earth’s biophysical and chemical environment of such scope, scale, and magnitude as to mark the end of the Holocene (i.e., the roughly 11,700 years prior to the 21st century). The Anthropocene is thus an epochal term: it proposes that modern humans possess powers equivalent to the global forces of nature, although unwittingly in the form of countless everyday activities (e.g., driving to work) undertaken by billions of people. Many geographers began to focus on a range of issues relevant to the Anthropocene even before the term was invented. Their interests cover the entire discipline, from physical to environmental to human geography. This makes the Anthropocene an unusually promiscuous concept, even eclipsing “nature” and “environment” in its semantic reach, because it describes not merely “the human impact” on the nonhuman world but also the folding of human activity into earth-surface systems, such that it becomes in some sense endogenous to those systems. This is not to imply that humans somehow “dominate” or “control” the earth, but simply to acknowledge their newfound capacity to alter biophysical “boundary conditions” across multiple large-scale environmental systems. It is thus no surprise that a wide range of geographers have been attracted to the Anthropocene idea and its younger sibling: the concept of “planetary boundaries.” Some physical and environmental geographers advocate one or both of these ideas, along with others in the wider biophysical sciences. Meanwhile, several others seek to verify or falsify these ideas empirically. These interventions have contributed to what thus far has been a debate centered on the environmental sciences and in geology (stratigraphy). A number of human geographers who are less concerned about scientific issues of definition and measurement of planetary change have concurrently begun to explore what the Holocene’s end might mean for the future of humanity. Overall, current writings by geographers about the Holocene’s proclaimed end are not cohesive; and no practitioners have yet called for a more unified approach. They are a vibrant part of a much wider academic debate, about whether we are in a new epoch of earth history and what it portends for human and nonhuman life on the planet. This debate should be seen as a continuation (perhaps even an amplification) of older discussions about the sort of “sustainable development” that is possible or desirable in the future. In the discipline of geography this debate might eventually reprise, in new forms, grand discussions of human-environment relations that characterized its early decades as a university subject over a century ago. The difference is that these newer discussions will not presume there is a single approach that might reunite geographers across the long-standing intellectual divide separating their subject’s physical and human components.

General Overviews

The Anthropocene is a profoundly geographical idea in that it represents modern humans as, quite literally, “geo-graphers” (i.e., “Earth writers” or “terraformers”) on an epic scale. Yet it originates outside geography in a network of environmental scientists: this network was strongly linked to the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program (IGBP), which was one of the several “global environmental change” research programs established by leading governments in the late 1980s (it closed in 2016). Because the “Anthropocene hypothesis” is still relatively new, having first being proposed in print in 2000 and not really pushed by its originators until 2007 onward, as yet few general overviews of the subject cover the environmental science, social science, and humanities dimensions. An exception is Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016. Instead, there is a set of (mostly) readable articles authored by several scientists writing together in various combinations who are keen to explore the idea that the Holocene may now be ending. As the Anthropocene is older than the related idea of “planetary boundaries” there are more articles pertaining to it. Regardless, almost all the articles treat the Holocene’s end as a scientific question in the first instance, wherein rates of current environmental change can be compared to past rates in order to ascertain if a qualitative shift has already occurred in earth’s history (or is now occurring). But this scientific focus notwithstanding, these publications all have a clear (though often implied) normative edge: namely, that modern humans must, via their governmental representatives and other means, fundamentally change their activities to ensure the Holocene’s end does not mark the beginning of an inhospitable planet for humans and many other species. This normative agenda amplifies existing scientific research about anthropogenic climate change and biodiversity decline that goes back at least to the 1980s. In this sense, scientists hypothesizing that the Holocene has ended (or is now ending) can be seen as “concerned scientists” building on a decades-old tradition of experts speaking out when they perceive erstwhile scientific issues to have large societal implications. Some environmentalists would like them to be even more outspoken. The inaugural statement of the Anthropocene hypothesis was made in Crutzen and Stoermer 2000, followed two years later by a high-profile solo statement in the journal Nature by Crutzen. Thereafter, a more complete statement was made in Steffen, et al. 2011a and in Steffen, et al. 2011b. Prior to these, the Anthropocene was discussed in the first big book to come from the IGBP: Steffen, et al. 2004. A pithy attempt to identify the societal implications of the Holocene’s proclaimed end is Slaughter 2012. Lorimer 2016 offers a succinct survey of the different ways that Anthropocene has been discussed by academic researchers across the disciplines.

  • Bonneuil, Christophe, and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. The Shock of the Anthropocene. London: Verso, 2016.

    The first in-depth, systematic overview of a range of academic perspectives on the causes and implications of the science of the Anthropocene. Beginning with a summary, it explores a range of social scientific and humanistic perspectives, often at odds with each other. Highlights the fact that there is no “neutral” lens to examine the drivers and effects of the end of the Holocene. Anthropocene science, the authors show, is freighted with questionable assumptions about society’s role in ending the Holocene, also giving different interpretations of the causes and effects of the Anthropocene.

  • Crutzen, Paul. “Geology of Mankind.” Nature 415 (January 2002): 23.

    DOI: 10.1038/415023a

    Crutzen reprised the hypothesis put forward in Crutzen and Stoermer 2000, only this time a much wider scientific audience is targeted.

  • Crutzen, Paul Joseph, and Eugene Stoermer. “The Anthropocene.” Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000): 17–18.

    A short essay published in a newsletter circulated to those formally part of and interested in the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program. It proposes that the Holocene may have ended and suggests a date (1800) when the Holocene “boundary conditions” began to alter significantly. This hard-to-find essay has recently been republished in an anthology of writings about global environmental change edited by environmental historian Libby Robin and others.

  • Lorimer, Jamie. “The Anthropo-Scene: A Guide for the Perplexed.” Social Studies of Science 47 (October 2016): 117–142.

    DOI: 10.1177/0306312716671039

    The most succinct yet comprehensive survey of how the Anthropocene has been received by a range of academic commentators beyond geoscience. The paper describes the analytical “scene” inspired by the science of the Anthropocene.

  • Slaughter, Richard. “Welcome to the Anthropocene.” Futures 44 (2012): 119–126.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.futures.2011.09.004

    Explores the profound implications a new earth environment would have for future humans. It calls for a series of changes in ways of thinking and acting conducive to a cooperative human response to the Holocene’s end. The author places modern universities at the center of future attempts to foster new thinking and new measures to respond to a possibly hotter, wetter, and more volatile earth.

  • Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369 (2011a): 842–867.

    DOI: 10.1098/rsta.2010.0327

    One of two 2011 papers that offer an extended presentation of the idea that the Holocene is finished. Written for a general scientific audience, this paper does two things. First, it presents evidence demonstrating the accelerating rate of global environmental change, including but extending well beyond anthropogenic climate change. Second, it attempts to periodize the Anthropocene, distinguishing the “Industrial Era” (1800–1945) from “The Great Acceleration” (1945–).

  • Steffen, Will, Åsa Persson, Lisa Deutsch, et al. “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship.” Ambio 49.5 (2011b): 739–761.

    DOI: 10.1007/s13280-011-0185-x

    This essay extends the argument presented in Steffen, et al. 2004 in two ways. First, it assumes the Holocene has, in fact, ended and explores how humanity should respond. Highlights the need for “planetary stewardship.” Second, it discusses the concept of “planetary boundaries,” which is also discussed under Planetary Boundaries.

  • Steffen, Will, Regina Angelina Sanderson, Peter D. Tyson, et al. Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet under Pressure. Berlin: Springer-Verlag, 2004.

    This work of scientific synthesis uses an earth system science approach to highlight the massive, interconnected environmental changes instigated by humans in the modern era. Much of the evidence assembled in the book forms the basis for later papers by IGPB researchers arguing that the Holocene may have now ended.

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