Alternate Title: Yes, We Have No Anthropocene, We Have No Anthropocene Today! (Sung to the tune of Yes, We Have No Bananas)
Guest commentary by David Middleton
Geologists Are Feuding About the Collapse of Civilization
The year’s most acrimonious scientific fight is a mega-drama over a mega-drought.
SEP 20, 2018
This summer, the decree went out: We are living in a new geological chapter in the planet’s 4.5-billion-year history.
For a certain corner of the world, this was big news. You have probably heard of the Jurassic period (when dinosaurs ruled the Earth) or the Cambrian explosion (when complex animal life arose). Now we had a new name for our own neighborhood in time: We modern humans—you, me, and Jesus of Nazareth—were all born in the Meghalayan age. According to the global governing body of geologists, this new era began 4,200 years ago, when a global mega-drought sent ancient societies around the world into starvation and collapse.
How interesting!, you may think. I love science! And perhaps in an earlier era, that’s all you would have had to think. The dawn of the Meghalayan would have earned some wide-eyed headlines, made life slightly easier for a few researchers, and promptly been relegated to a second-round Jeopardy!question.
Instead, the Meghalayan kicked off one of the cattiest, most intransigent fights among earth scientists that I can remember…
The Meghalayan kicked off one of the cattiest, most intransigent fights among earth scientists that I can remember…
Robinson Meyer is a twenty-something year old staff writer for The Atlantic with a 2013 B.A. in music. The “fight among earth scientists” about the Meghalayan Epoch is probably the only “fight among earth scientists” that he has ever heard of… His grandparents probably weren’t even born when the geosynclines vs plate tectonics fight began… And that fight lasted nearly 50 years.
Furthermore, he doesn’t even seem to understand what earth scientists are.
This week, the fight spilled into the pages ofone of the country’s most prestigious journals, as a critic raised a new concern with the embattled age. A short article published Thursday in Science contends that the Meghalayan is premised on faulty archaeology. There is scant evidence, it says, that the worldwide mega-drought around 2200 b.c., which started the Meghalayan, brought ancient society to its knees.
“There was no sudden, universal civilizational collapse,” writes Guy Middleton, a visiting archaeologist at Newcastle University, in the piece. “Overall, the archaeological and historical evidence suggests that 2200 b.c.was not a threshold date.”
Middleton’s point is larger than just the Meghalayan: He is siding with a group of scholars, mostly at European universities, that argues that climate change has almost never led to war or total ruin in the past. He writes as much in his piece: “Climate change never inevitably results in societal collapse, though it can pose serious challenges, as it does today.”
Guy Middleton is not a relative of mine, as far as I know… Nor is he an earth scientist. Dr. Middleton is a Visting Fellow, School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle University, with no earth science background at all.
Sidebar. Earth Scientists or earth scientists? I normally capitalize the ‘e’ in Earth. Earth science is the study of the Earth. When referring to academic departments and degrees, I usually write “Earth Science,” because my B.S. was from the Earth Science Department. While the study of earth (as in dirt) is certainly part of Earth science… To me “earth science” would be soil science. Since the article uses “earth scientists,” I am using that form in this post.
The “architects” of the Meghalayan, naturally, disagree with Dr. Middleton:
“This is a totally misleading piece of writing, which displays a lamentable grasp of the facts,” said Mike Walker, a professor at the University of Wales and the leader of the team that proposed the Meghalayan.
“I do not see a single accurate claim,” agreed Harvey Weiss, a professor of archaeology at Yale who, also helped write the Meghalayan proposal.
In a series of emails, Weiss lambasted his critic’s credentials. “Middleton, a pop-archeology writer, failed archaeology Ph.D., and English-as-a-second-language instructor in Japan, now claims archeo-expertise in matters about which he knows nothing, and gets great audience in Science—of all journals!” he wrote.
“For me, the most intriguing question is, ‘Why does Science publish this rubbish?’” he said in another message, sent several hours later under the subject line “and Weiss added … ”
- Dr. Michael Walker is an Emeritus Professor of Quaternary Science at the University of Wales. He is an actual earth scientist. He’s probably one of the foremost experts in the world as it pertains to Quaternary stratigraphy.
- Dr. Harvey Weiss is a Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Anthropology and Forestry & Environmental Studies (that’s a mouthful) at Yale University. While he is primarily an archaeologist, his specialty is human adaptation to climate change during the Holocene.
I share Dr. Weiss’ sentiments: “Why does Science publish this rubbish?” Dr. Middleton lists this as one of his references in the Science article:
The International Commission on Stratigraphy, “Collapse of civilizations worldwide defines youngest unit of the Geologic Time Scale”; stratigraphy.org.
This doesn’t appear to exist on the ICS website. The title, “Collapse of Civilizations Worldwide Defines Youngest Unit of the Geologic Time Scale,” appears to be from a Long Beach State University press release. A press release from Durham University also has a similar title: Collapse of civilizations worldwide defines youngest unit of the Geologic Time Scale.
Further furthermore, why does The Atlantic publish rubbish about the rubbish published in Science? A twenty-something year old “journalist” with a degree in music, characterizing a one-sided argument involving one earth scientist and two archaeologists as “one of the cattiest, most intransigent fights among earth scientists that [he] can remember,” is as rubbish as it gets… Unless it gets rubbish-ier… Which it did. The music major spent most of the rest of the article listing Middleton’s (the other Middleton) archaeological arguments against the Meghalayan epoch. However, to the music major’s credit, he closed the article with this:
Walker, the professor who led the Meghalayan team, told me that “the archaeological record has no relevance whatsoever” in helping to set the new age. The mega-drought that set in 4,200 years ago is the important boundary in time, he said, adding: “I cannot understand why Science, which is supposed to be a flagship journal for global science, would publish such a poorly researched article as this.”
The formal announcement from the ICS never even mentions the archaeological record or collapsing civilizations.
The archaeological record, though coincident with the stratigraphic record, “has no relevance whatsoever” in defining the boundaries of the Meghalayan Epoch. This is from Walker’s 2012 discussion paper on subdividing the Holocene:
The Middle–Late Holocene Boundary
We propose that the Middle–Late Holocene Boundary should be placed at 4.2 ka BP as defined by a mid/low-latitude aridification event (hereafter, the 4.2 event). This was a widespread climatic phenomenon that is reflected in proxy records from North America, through the Middle East to China; and from Africa, parts of South America, and Antarctica (Mayewski et al., 2004; Staubwasser & Weiss, 2006).
The forcing mechanisms behind the 4.2 event are less obvious than is the case with that at 8.2 ka BP, however. There is, for example, no evidence for massive freshwater releases into the North Atlantic or for significant northern hemisphere ice growth; likewise, there are no systematic concentrations of volcanic aerosols or increases in atmospheric CO2. Mayewski et al. (2004) suggest that southward migration of the InterTropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) might account for the low-latitude aridity (which is the hallmark of the event), and would be consistent with the increase in strength of the westerlies over the North Atlantic, increased precipitation, and consequent glacier advance in western North America (see below). The onset of aridification also coincides with a 1–2 8C cooling of North Atlantic surface waters (Bond et al., 1997), while in the Pacific, tropical ‘deep’ waters may also have cooled sufficiently to allow a switch-on of the modern El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) regime (Sun, 2000), which became more pronounced in the mid-latitude regions after c. 4.0 ka BP (Barron & Anderson, 2010). More active El Niño events inhibit and weaken the Asian monsoon, and the interval from around 4.0 ka BP onwards registers in many Pacific and Asian proxy records as one of weak or failed Asian monsoons with resulting widespread drought conditions (Fisher et al., 2008, and references therein). Irrespective of cause, however, the fact that the 4.2 event is manifest in a range of geomorphological, stratigraphical and archaeological records from many parts of the world (Weiss, 2012; Fig. 4) means that it constitutes an appropriate temporal marker for the Middle–Late Holocene.
It has been suggested that the effects of humans on the global environment, particularly since the Industrial Revolution, have resulted in marked changes to the Earth’s surface, and that these may be reflected in the recent stratigraphic record (Zalasiewicz et al., 2008). The term ‘Anthropocene’ (Crutzen, 2002) has been employed informally to denote the contemporary global environment that is dominated by human activity (Andersson et al., 2005; Crossland, 2005; Zalasiewicz et al., 2010), and discussions are presently ongoing to determine whether the stratigraphic signature of the Anthropocene is sufficiently clearly defined as to warrant its formal definition as a new period of geological time (Zalasiewicz et al., 2011a,b). This is currently being considered by a separate Working Group of the SQS led by Dr Jan Zalasiewicz and, in order to avoid any possible conflict, the INTIMATE/SQS Working Group on the Holocene is of the view that this matter should not come under its present remit. Nevertheless, we do acknowledge that although there is a clear distinction between these two initiatives, the Holocene subdivision being based on natural climatic/environmental events whereas the concept of the Anthropocene centres on human impact on the environment, there may indeed be areas of overlap, for example in terms of potential human impact on atmospheric trace gas concentrations not only during the industrial era, but also perhaps during the Middle and Early Holocene (Ruddiman, 2003, 2005; Ruddiman et al., 2011). However, it is the opinion of the present Working Group that the possible definition of the Anthropocene would benefit from the prior establishment of a formal framework for the natural environmental context of the Holocene upon which these, and also other human impacts, may have been superimposed.
There was no discussion of the collapses of civilizations as a basis for the Meghalayan Epoch. To the extent archaeological evidence was relevant, it was relevant to the 4.2 ka event. Furthermore, they went on to note that the Holocene subdivisions were based on “natural climatic/environmental events” rather than human impacts and that anthropogenic “fingerprints” appear to be present throughout the Holocene.
And this leads us to the reason that the Anthropocene will never be recognized as formal geologic time period.
The utility of the Anthropocene requires careful consideration by its various potential users. Its concept is fundamentally different from the chronostratigraphic units that are established by ICS in that the documentation and study of the human impact on the Earth system are based more on direct human observation than on a stratigraphic record. The drive to officially recognize the Anthropocene may, in fact, be political rather than scientific.
Dr. Stanley Finney is the Secretary General of the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), which would have to ratify any formal changes to the geologic time scale.
The geologic time scale is based on the stratigraphic record, not on human history. Personally, I think the Holocene Epoch shouldn’t even be an epoch. It should be an interglacial stage within the Upper Pleistocene, rather than an epoch of equal stature to the Pleistocene.
The subdivision of the Holocene was based on a formal recommendation from a Working Group and was approved by >60% votes of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy and the ICS Bureau, followed by ratification by the IUGS Executive Committee.
The Anthropocene Working Group has been around since 2009 and has yet to put forward a formal recommendation.
Finney, Stanley C. & Lucy E. Edwards. The “Anthropocene” epoch: Scientific decision or political statement? GSA Today, 2016; 26 (3): 4 DOI: 10.1130/GSATG270A.1
Walker, M. J., Berkelhammer, M. , Björck, S. , Cwynar, L. C., Fisher, D. A., Long, A. J., Lowe, J. J., Newnham, R. M., Rasmussen, S. O. and Weiss, H. (2012), Formal subdivision of the Holocene Series/Epoch: a Discussion Paper by a Working Group of INTIMATE (Integration of ice‐core, marine and terrestrial records) and the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (International Commission on Stratigraphy). J. Quaternary Sci., 27: 649-659. doi:10.1002/jqs.2565
H/T to Javier being the first to cover the subdivision of the Holocene here on WUWT.
If I’ve misspelled Meghalayan anywhere in this post, it’s because it’s a clumsy word with too many a’s in it.
What’s rubbish-ier than an Anthropocene Epoch? An Anthropocene Era.
The Anthropocene Era really would have been fabulous… for its brevity.
- Paleozoic Era: 541 to 252 million years ago, 289 million years.
- Mesozoic Era: 252 to 66 million years ago, 186 million years.
- Cenozoic Era: 66 million to 73 years ago, 65.999927 million years.
- Anthropocene Era: 1945-2018, 0.000073 million years.