Scientists Just Gave Humanity an Overdue Reality Check. The World Will Be Better for It.

The world’s leading institution on geology declined a proposal on Wednesday to confirm that the planet has entered a new geologic epoch, doubling down on its bombshell announcement earlier this month. The notion that we’re in the “Anthropocene” — the proposed name for a geologic period defined by extensive human disturbance — has become a common theme in environmental circles for the last 15 years. To many proponents, the term is an essential vindication, the planetary equivalent of a long-sought diagnosis of a mysterious illness. But geologists weren’t convinced.

The international geology commission’s decision this week to uphold its vote of 12 to 4 may seem confusing, since by some measures humans have already become the dominant geologic force on the earth’s surface. But setting the science aside for a moment, there’s a reason to celebrate, because the politics behind the Anthropocene label were rotten to begin with.

For starters, the word Anthropocene problematically implies that humans as a species are responsible for the sorry state of the earth’s environments. While technically true, only a fraction of humanity, driven by greed and rapacious capitalism, is responsible for burning through the planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate. Billions of humans still lead lives with relatively modest environmental footprints, yet the terminology of the Anthropocene wrongly lays blame at their feet. Responding to the vote, a group of outside scientists wisely noted in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution that “our impacts have less to do with being human and more to do with ways of being human.”

What’s more, inaugurating a new geologic epoch is an unacceptable act of defeatism. Geologic epochs are not fleeting moments. The shortest one, the Holocene — the one we live in — is 11,700 years long and counting. The idea that we are entering a new epoch defined by human-caused environmental disaster implies that we won’t be getting out of this mess anytime soon. In that way, the Anthropocene forecloses on the possibility that the geologic future might be better than the present.

By placing Homo sapiens center stage, the Anthropocene also deepens a stark and inaccurate distinction between humanity and the planet that sustains us. The idea of “nature” as something separate from humankind is a figment of the Western imagination. We should be wary of language that further separates us from the broader constellation of life to which we belong.

Before the recent vote, the Anthropocene epoch had cleared several key hurdles on the path to scientific consensus. The International Commission on Stratigraphy, the global authority on demarcating the planet’s history, established a dedicated working group in 2009. Ten years later, the group formally recommended adopting the new epoch. But the proposal still had to be approved by a matryoshka doll of committees within the commission and its parent body, the International Union of Geological Sciences.

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