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We’ve Come to Think of the Anthropocene as Bad

But we can make a good Anthropocene as well.

In 2000 scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer suggested that the Earth had left the Holocene as humans have become a geological force on their own. Since then there has been a lively debate about whether we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, the Age of the Humans. Almost twenty years later there is still no consensus when this new geological epoch started. Suggested timings range from around 2.6 million years ago with the development of tool use in Africa or 5,000—8,000 years ago when humans commenced large-scale agriculture to more recent timings like mid-19th century large-scale burning of coal at the time of the Industrial Revolution or the post-1950 Great Acceleration of human impacts on the Earth System.

I argue, however, that whether or how the Anthropocene continues matters more than when it began. Following others, I claim that, the true significance of the Anthropocene concept lays in how it can be used to guide attitudes, choices, policies and actions that influence the future. To achieve this goal while simultaneously settling the debate of its timing, I suggest a four-stage Anthropocene:

1. The early Anthropocene, which began 5,000-14,000 years ago with the domestication of animals or the beginning of large-scale agriculture.

2. The first acceleration phase of the Anthropocene beginning with large-scale burning of coal at the time of the Industrial Revolution.

3. The post-1950 Great Acceleration.

4. And finally the good or the bad Anthropocene depending on human action.

This multistage Anthropocene would unleash the power of storytelling by presenting a multifaceted picture of human agency in the Anthropocene. The reframing of the good and the bad Anthropocene would put humans back in their rightful place on earth, not as gods as in the ecomodernist vision, but as one of many species although with large power for the good or the bad, and the responsibilities this brings along towards fellow humans and the non-human world. The goldilocks climate of the Holocene or at least its continuation is to some degree due to human agency, as according to William Ruddiman, the Earth would have undergone a large natural cooling during the last several thousand years without the start of large-scale agriculture in various parts of the world 5,000—8 000 years ago. Our present day greenhouse gas emissions are, however, putting the Earth on a trajectory that might plunge us out of this stable climate.

This dualistic view on human agency in the Anthropocene would also fit better with our current knowledge that even World Heritage sites, like the Amazon in the south or Laponia in the north, considered by many as pristine wilderness, are to a large degree the outcome of human activities. Indeed, archaeologist A.C. Roosevelt suggests the Amazon’s Anthropogenic Dark Earths, small patches of highly fertile soil ranging up to 10% of the Amazon formed by pre-Columbian inhabitants, are a distinctive, although regional, marker of the Anthropocene. Similarly for Laponia in Sweden, Carina Green notes that reindeer herding carried over thousands of years has shaped the natural landscape that formed the basis for the natural criteria of its appointment as World Heritage.

The Anthropocene does not become “good” by simply declaring it good, but by a fundamental change in our behavior and attitudes. I suggest it will occur if and when humans take decisive action to return within the planetary boundaries defining a safe operating space for humanity. Scientists like Will Steffen have estimated recently that four out of nine planetary boundaries have already been overstepped as a result of human activity: 1) climate change, 2) biodiversity loss, 3) land-system change, and 4) phosphorus and nitrogen cycles. I argue that we will be in the good Anthropocene when we have returned within these boundaries or at earliest when we are on a trajectory taking us back. In other words, when humans are not only a geological force on their own, but are also in control of the consequences of their actions.

The alternative to the good Anthropocene is unfortunately not staying within the current stage of Great Acceleration, but moving into what I would call the bad Anthropocene, as a continuing trajectory away from the Holocene would likely lead to an Earth much less hospitable to humans. Both the good Anthropocene and the bad Anthropocene might be just one tipping point away. Historical and prehistorical records show that development can be fast once a tipping point is reached. Luckily there are also positive tipping points as the solving of earlier environmental problems, like the acid rain and the ongoing recovery of the ozone layer, shows.


Bai, Xumemei et al. (2016) Plausible and desireable futures in the Anthropocene: A new research agenda. Global Environmental Change, Volume 39, 351–362.

Crutzen, Paul and Eugene Stoermer (2000) The Anthropocene. Global Change Newsletter 41: 17.

Green, Carina (2009) Managing Laponia, A World Heritage as arena for Sami ethno-politics in Sweden, Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis. Uppsala Studies in Cultural Anthropology47. Uppsala.

Roosevelt, A. C. (2013) The Amazon and the Anthropocene: 13,000 years of human influence in a tropic rainforest. Anthropocene 4: 69–87.

Ruddiman, William (2005) Plows, Plagues & Petroleum – How Humans Took Control of Climate. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.

Steffen, Will, K. Richardson, J. Rockström, S. E. Cornell, I. Fetzer, E. M. Bennett, R. Biggs, S. R. Carpenter et al. (2015) Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science Vol. 347, Issue 6223, doi:10.1126/science.1259855