A Science Journalist Nails the Anthropocene

Guest “attaboy” by David Middleton

A small ray of sunshine in the dismal swamp of science journalism from, of all places, The Atlantic

The Anthropocene Is a Joke
On geological timescales, human civilization is an event, not an epoch.


Humans are now living in a new geological epoch of our own making: the Anthropocene. Or so we’re told. Whereas some epochs in Earth history stretch more than 40 million years, this new chapter started maybe 400 years ago, when carbon dioxide dipped by a few parts per million in the atmosphere. Or perhaps, as a panel of scientists voted earlier this year, the epoch started as recently as 75 years ago, when atomic weapons began to dust the planet with an evanescence of strange radioisotopes.

These are unusual claims about geology, a field that typically deals with mile-thick packages of rock stacked up over tens of millions of years, wherein entire mountain ranges are born and weather away to nothing within a single unit of time, in which extremely precise rock dates—single-frame snapshots from deep time—can come with 50,000-year error bars, a span almost 10 times as long as all of recorded human history. If having an epoch shorter than an error bar seems strange, well, so is the Anthropocene.


The idea of the Anthropocene is an interesting thought experiment. For those invested in the stratigraphic arcana of this infinitesimal moment in time, it serves as a useful catalog of our junk. But it can also serve to inflate humanity’s legacy on an ever-churning planet that will quickly destroy—or conceal forever—even our most awesome creations.


Perhaps, someday, our signal in the rocks will be found, but only if eagle-eyed stratigraphers, from God knows where on the tree of life, crisscross their own rearranged Earth, assiduously trying to find us. But they would be unlikely to be rewarded for their effort. At the end of all their travels—after cataloging all the bedrock of the entire planet—they might finally be led to an odd, razor-thin stratum hiding halfway up some eroding, far-flung desert canyon. If they then somehow found an accompanying plaque left behind by humanity that purports to assign this unusual layer its own epoch—sandwiched in these cliffs, and embarrassed above and below by gigantic edifices of limestone, siltstone, and shale—this claim would amount to evidence of little more than our own species’ astounding anthropocentrism. Unless we fast learn how to endure on this planet, and on a scale far beyond anything we’ve yet proved ourselves capable of, the detritus of civilization will be quickly devoured by the maw of deep time.


Even worse for our long-term preservation—long after humanity’s brief, artificial greenhouse fever—we’re very likely to return to our regularly scheduled programming and dive back into a punishing Ice Age in the next half-million years. 


But what would we leave on the seafloor, where most sedimentary rock is made, where most of the fossils are, and where we have a slightly better chance of recording our decades-long “epoch” in the rocks? Well, many marine sediments in the fossil record accumulated, over untold eons, from the diaphanous snowfall of plankton and silt, at a rate of little more than a centimeter per thousand years. Given this loose metric (and our current maturity as a species), a dozen centimeters of muck seems an optimistic goal for civilization.

A dozen centimeters is a pathetic epoch, but epoch or not, it would be an extremely interesting layer. It’s tempting to think a whisper of atomic-weapons testing would remain. The Promethean fire unleashed by the Manhattan Project was an earth-changing invention, its strange fallout destined to endure in some form as an unmistakable geological marker of the Anthropocene. But the longest-lived radioisotope from radioactive fallout, iodine-129, has a half-life of less than 16 million years. If there were a nuclear holocaust in the Triassic, among warring prosauropods, we wouldn’t know about it.

The Atlantic

While Mr. Brannen peppered the article with some carbon-crazy nonsense, he seems to have a George Carlin-worthy sense of civilization’s irrelevance to the Earth. He is also the author of Earth Is Not in the Midst of a Sixth Mass Extinction. He is currently CEJ Scripps Fellow and CU Boulder and actually making an effort to understand “paleoclimate and climate change over geological time scales”. While he clearly buys into most of the alarmist nonsense, he seems to realize that climate change is not an existential threat and that the Earth doesn’t even notice that we’re here.

Mr. Brannen earns a Jon Lovitz award.

Featured Image

‘Habitus’ (2013 – ongoing) is an art installation by Robyn Woolston (robynwoolston.com), commissioned by Edge Hill University, which announces the Anthropocene epoch, Vegas-style. AAPG Explorer.

58 thoughts on “A Science Journalist Nails the Anthropocene

  1. If there were a nuclear holocaust in the Triassic, among warring prosauropods, we wouldn’t know about it.

    OK, so what kind of event would be noticed?

    How about a giant meteor that killed most of the life on Earth. Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event

    In the geologic record, the K–Pg event is marked by a thin layer of sediment called the K–Pg boundary, which can be found throughout the world in marine and terrestrial rocks. The boundary clay shows high levels of the metal iridium, which is rare in the Earth’s crust, but abundant in asteroids.

    We’ll have to work a lot harder if we want to compete with that.

  2. Percy Bysshe Shelly said it first, and probably best:

    I met a traveller from an antique land,
    Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
    And on the pedestal, these words appear:
    My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
    Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

    — Percy Bysshe Shelly, 1818

    • @James, 7:03 pm

      Always loved that poem. Less intellectually:

      One day cock of the walk, next, a feather duster.

  3. Quite correct. Manmade climate change, or no such change, as far as the earth is concerned the whole thing doesn’t amount to a blip. Only the minds of little men consider Man significant in the universe, or even in the history of the Earth.

    • You are quite right – man is insignificant in the universe (woman is another story).

      We should bow down to those really significant life-forms, the algae, who built some spectacular edifices, which have lasted for millions of years. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Cliffs_of_Dover.

      I imagine one alga saying to another: ‘only the minds of little algae consider Alga significant in the universe, or even in the history of the earth!’ The second alga replied: ‘Wait and see, you may be underestimating our impact’.

      I am always surprised by the argument that humans can’t possibly have an impact, given the impact other animals and plants have had on the earth, as well as the fact that a key characteristic of humans in all other contexts is arrogance.

      • I don’t think anyone is saying that we don’t have an impact or that we might not have a long term impact. What I interpret David to be saying is that it’s far too early to know. So far, in geologic terms, mankind is the half-life of a fruit fly. Perhaps we should wait a bit before assigning us our own epoch.

        • Unless we keep doing what we’re doing for 10’s of millions of years, we won’t leave much of a mark in the stratigraphic record, if we even leave a mark.

          • David Brinn’s Uplift series of novels imagines civilizations millions of years old, and habitable worlds more precious than they. Long term management becomes something rather important. Poor management will get you replaced and the planet reseeded with a promising new experiment.

      • Man is very significant. Men-darlings love to be heroes, so they invented washing machines and vacuum cleaners and cars and trucks and buses and movies and airplanes and a gazillion other things, many of them for the sake of women. I won’t HAVE the current trashing of males! (or whites)

        Gratitude is an important virtue. It makes happiness, it increases material success, it is vital in relationships and it boosts longevity.

        I am also grateful for WUWT, for its truth and its intelligent comments.

        • Lady Esther, thank you for that. You have chosen to not accept the role assigned by the diversity klatch, weirdly invented by lefty white folk. I recently said in an argument that it is the worst form of гасisм and elitisм vis a vis non white гасеs to suppress western civilization and its contributions to make every body ‘equal’ rather than promoting good freedom governments globally to allow its citizens to catch up by themselves. Hey we borrowed the good from past civilization’s around the world and built on that.

          The response? That was hate speech! All this néomarxiste ugliness taken to its planned end might, indeed, create a recognizable stratum for a new epoch that I don’t wish to be part of

    • Now, how did the old saying go? If for the sake of timescale, the Earth was just one year old, Mankind would have appeared upon the Earth at around 11:40pm, on New Years’ Eve! Yeah, we’re really significant, certainly in as much as we are the only indigenous species that can save the planet for future generations, if & when it needs saving that is! Apart of course from when the Vogon Constructor ship arrives to demolish the Earth to make way for the new Inter-galactic highway that we new nothing about, despite the plans being on full display in the Alpha-Centauri System! Huh, planners, I ask you?

  4. ” the maw of deep time ”
    ” 16 million years ”

    The Columbia River flood basalts sort of center on that 16M years.
    “Deep Time” yawns.

    • OTOH, and IIRC, the first few epochs of the Big Bang took place within the first 1 second of the ‘bang’ part. Now here’s humanity claiming an epoch of our for making a mess with our imitations of what the stars have been doing naturally and without all the drama.

  5. This is a beat-up – both the journalist’s article and the WUTW blog.

    The proposal for the Anthropocene is debated within geological science, and has not been accepted. It is fine for a journalist to be part of the debate but it’s not necessary to be so over-the-top. Or maybe it is, it’s journalism after all!

    My basic problem with the article is that the arguments used against the Anthropocene could equally be used against the Holocene. There are no rock layers in the Holocene; just unconsolidated sediments – sands, clays, volcanics , because the Holocene is only about 11,500 years long and that’s not enough for the sediments to harden into rocks (OK some of the lava flows have hardened). In fact the scarcity of hard ‘rocks’ could also be held against the Pleistocene – that’s only 2.5 million years. There are extensive glacial deposits (of older reworked rocks), sedimentary sequences of sands, clays and carbonate deposits -the latter often hardened into a soft rock, and volcanics, but there hasn’t been enough time for any metamorphosis into harder rocks.

    As Brannen says, some Epochs are 40 million years old, and this indeed might make an Epoch of 400 years, (Anthropocene), or 11,000 years (Holocene) or even 2.5 Million years (Pleistocene) laughable. But there is a pattern in this – the further back the Epoch, the longer it is, the closer to the present, the shorter it is. The obvious reasons are that a lot of stuff dating back to older geological times is poorly exposed being covered with younger stuff, and a lot of older stuff has been reworked into younger stuff, or subducted by continental drift, which can also bring old material to the surface. In fact beyond the Tertiary period, more than 250 Million years ago, ‘epoch’ is used less commonly than period or series.

    Should an Anthropocene Epoch be recognised? There are reasons for and against, which I’m not going to address here – my point being sloppy journalism. I think a better argument could be made to regard the Holocene and perhaps also the Anthropocene as Ages within the Pleistocene Epoch, rather than separate Epochs. In reality the terminology doesn’t matter a lot, the various stages are regularly revised. Splitting geological time into thinner sections in the recent past just reflects how much more access we have to the fine details of the development of the earth’s surface. The youngest unit we recognise will always be the shortest.

    • Tom Foley
      August 14, 2019 at 7:45 pm

      Yes, some good points Tom
      However, it’ll be interesting to see just how much trace there will be of us in another 500,000 years after a few ice ages have come and gone.

      Maybe we should be just a “stage”, rather than an Epoch, as our nuclear waste is certainly unusual, at least since the Oklo event in Gabon 2.2 billion years ago (well worth Googling if you’re at all interested in nuclear waste and reactors). However, I’m sure David Middleton is much better qualified to comment as I’m a just hard rock geologist, not a sedimentologist.

      • Half a million years from now there will still be a man-made plaque on the moon bearing Richard Nixon’s signature.

        • Two things.
          Wasn’t it JFK who set the goal to land on the Moon?
          Wasn’t it Israel that recently dumped a bunch of tangerines (or whatever they’re called) on the Moon?
          (OK. Three things.)
          In half a million years, according to CAGW theory, the heat generated from the Earth would have melted the Earth anyway.

      • The “funny thing” is that the GSSP for the Holocene will be gone in less than 100,000 years.

          • The GSSP for the Holocene will be deformed out of existence at the base of the Greenland ice sheet, just like the base of the Eemian and all previous interglacial stages were.

          • …and concrete and brick and lake sediments and Plutonium-242 and Iodine-129 and no large mammals? Anthropic transistion is going to be a lot easier to find than the K–Pg boundary.

          • The large mammal extinction predates the proposed start of the “Anthropocene” by at least 10,000 years, didn’t wipe out all large mammals, was not classified as a mass extinction and probably won’t be very distinctive in the fossil record a few million years from now.

            Regrading the dreaded 242Pu…

             Years  242Pu  238U
                                         – 100.0% 0.0%
                             373,000 50.0% 50.0%
                             746,000 25.0% 75.0%
                          1,119,000 12.5% 87.5%
                          1,492,000 6.3% 93.8%
                          1,865,000 3.1% 96.9%
                          2,238,000 1.6% 98.4%
                          2,611,000 0.8% 99.2%
                          2,984,000 0.4% 99.6%
                          3,357,000 0.2% 99.8%
                          3,730,000 0.1% 99.9%
                          4,103,000 0.0% 100.0%

            It will be undetectable in less than 5 million years, replaced by “the most common isotope of uranium found in nature.”

            Brick and cement… Really? What do you think brick and cement will weather into?

             Portland Cement
             Lime (CaO)  60 to 67%
             Silica (SiO2)  17 to 25%
             Alumina (Al2O3)  3 to 8%
             Iron oxide (Fe2O3)  0.5 to 6%
             Magnesia (MgO)  0.1 to 4%
             Sulphur trioxide (SO3)  1 to 3%
             Soda and/or Potash (Na2O+K2O)  0.5 to 1.3%

            Silica (sand) – 50% to 60% by weight
            Alumina (clay) – 20% to 30% by weight
            Lime – 2 to 5% by weight
            Iron oxide – ≤ 7% by weight
            Magnesia – less than 1% by weight

            What do you think the Earth’s crust is made out of?

          • Loydo,

            There are at best trace amounts of 129I and 242Pu.

            Whatever remains of buried cities in a million years will be few and far between.

            The mark of humanity’s time on Earth won’t be a pimple on the posterior of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction event and associated strata, to include not just impact debris but tsunami and global fires.

          • I didn’t run the iodine numbers… But 99.999% all of that trace of 242Pu will be 238U in less than 5 million years.

          • David,

            Thanks for the data. Your post hadn’t yet appeared when I commented.

            Spealing of large mammals, fossil fuels saved the whales!

            Yes, you’re right that the Pleistocene extinctions started about 50 Ka.

    • The end of the Pleistocene/beginning of the Holocene is not defined by geology but climate.

      “The end of the Younger Dryas is the official start of the current Holocene Epoch. Although it is considered an epoch, the Holocene is not significantly different from previous interglacial intervals within the Pleistocene”.

      from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pleistocene

      Whether the Holocene deserves any special attention will not be apparent for several million years.
      A future geologist/archaeologist /paleontologist/climatologist will have to determine whether it was the end of the glaciations that marked the Pleistocene or was it just another interglacial within the Pleistocene ?

      The “average species lifespan” for mammals is about 1 million years. Homo sapiens has been around for 200,000 years. Perhaps the end of the Holocene will be marked by the disappearance of H. sapiens in 1000 years or 800,000 years.

      Time will tell

    • I agree that the Holocene doesn’t merit epoch status… But the justifications for an Anthropocene epoch are less than a subset of those for the Holocene.

      I think the journalist’s views are influenced by spending too much time with geologists… And most of us don’t think the Anthropocene even rates joke status .. 😎

    • Epochs and series are subdivisions of periods. Epoch and series are equivalent, but differ in that epoch is primarily defined by time, while series is more defined by lithology. An epoch can be divided into ages like early, middle and late. A series’ subdivisions would be lower, middle and upper. There are far more epochs/series than periods.

      “-cenes” are, by definition, epochs within the Cenozoic Era.

      This is also how climate reconstruction hockey sticks happen…

      But there is a pattern in this – the further back the Epoch, the longer it is, the closer to the present, the shorter it is.

    • The Tertiary began 66 Ma, not 250. That would be just after the end-Permian extinction, ie early in the Triassic Period of the Mesozoic Era.

      Neither the proposed Anthropocene nor even the Holocene merit age or stage status, let alone epoch. The Holocene is so far just a garden variety interglacial. At most it might last some tens of thousands of years longer, but not half a million.

      • Tom got so many things wrong that I missed that…

        And “Tertiary” is so “old school”… The cool kids say “Paleogene”… 😉

        • The obsolete Tertiary covered not just the Paleogene Period, but the Neogene and Gelasian Age of the Pleistocene Epoch of the Quaternary Period. The Gelasian used to belong to the Pliocene Epoch, which is now (properly, IMO) reduced to just two ages.

          The Gelasian is short for an age, at just over a million years. The Campanian Age of the Late Cretaceous Epoch lasted 11.5 million years.

          Ages do tend to get longer the farther back you go, but most other Mesozoic ages are shorter than the Campanian. The following Maastrichtian Age ended with K/Pg MEE.

  6. Jefferson Airplane
    released 1969

    Eskimo Blue Day

    Verse 4:
    “Snow called water going violent
    Dam the end of the stream
    Too much cold in one place breaks
    That’s why you might know what I mean
    Consider how small you are
    Compared to your scream
    The human dream
    Doesn’t mean spit to a tree.”

    …oops I seem to have misquoted one word there in
    the last line.

  7. “and dive back into a punishing Ice Age in the next half-million years. ”

    Did he mean half-thousand years here? That would be closer, unless that useless carbon dioxide molecule gets a spine.

    • The “Holocene” interglacial might end in 500 years, 5000 or possibly even 50,000 years, but not 500,000, unless we deploy giant fusion-powered blow driers to high latitudes. Or keep ice sheets from forming in some other way.

  8. While the collapse of a part of the Dam wall looks alarming, joist how
    dangerous is it. ?

    The dam is still holding back a lot of water, so if there was any real danger they would be releasing water to ease the pressure .

    Its just the usual Media practice of making it far more alarming than it really is. Plus of course the usual CC bit to make it even more scary.


  9. As you say, it is journalism after all. But at least it is witty, interesting in style and shows a good grasp of some important concepts (e.g., the interglacial will end). If there were more journalists of this caliber (like Rex Murphy) I might occasionally read a newspaper. As long as MSM continue to push a diet of sanctimonious fear mongering, that ain’t gonna happen.

  10. “… we’re very likely to return to our regularly scheduled programming and dive back into a punishing Ice Age in the next half-million years …”.
    If the past half million years are any guide to the future, the planet is likely to experience another major glaciation a lot sooner than that.

    • Exactly, we’re in the ice age. Just popped out of it for 12,000 years or so.

      We’ll be able to handle it easily though, as we know who the bedwetters are and who the real scientists and engineers are.

      • When a mile-high ice sheet bulldozes Chicago into talcum powder, we’ll all be bedwetters… 😳

        • Now we know that useless CO2 ain’t gonna do it, Sun’s energy deflectors in orbit, plus nuclear. Hold off on buying the rubber sheets David …..

          Seriously, I feel quite good knowing that we will never descend back into the ice age proper. There’ll still be phony-leftists though. Hardly worth bothering is it?

  11. I’ve often thought that if we wiped ourselves completely out in a nuclear catastrophe, all you would have left of our existence in a few million years would be a thin layer of radioactive dust in the rock record, with here and there bits of plastic or other rubbish in it, probably just a inches thick.

    So if people ever land on a far-off deserted planet and find a thin layer of radioactive dust with the odd cigarette butt or bit of a plastic chip packet, you would know what happened to that civilization.

  12. From the article: “The idea of the Anthropocene is an interesting thought experiment. For those invested in the stratigraphic arcana of this infinitesimal moment in time, it serves as a useful catalog of our junk. But it can also serve to inflate humanity’s legacy”

    I think “inflating humanity’s legacy” is the whole point behind this “Athropocene” naming and is aimed specifically at promoting the idea of human-caused Climate Change.

  13. There really is an Anthropocene, about 12k years old: the Age of Agriculture. This really HAS led to climate change. Not warming, but an increase in temperature extremes and deserts in Temperate Zones, as shown on some of NASA’s global maps.

    Farming damages the topsoil, reducing its ability to hold water, as described in Judith Schwartz’s new wonderbook “Water in Plain Sight.” When rains come hard, as they did this year in the American Midwest, the damaged land cannot hold the water, so it runs off faster than the streams and rivers can carry it off and there is a catastrophic flood that killed perhaps a million calves, and delayed the planting of corn. I hope you are investing in food, because its price is going to rise.

    Then the lost water is gone and you have to irrigate to keep the crops. After the floods come the droughts.

    The primal and perennial forests and grasslands survived lower rainfall years just fine. We are learning how to fix all this with permaculture. I like Sepp Holzer’s books on that. My favorite permaculture book is Mark Shepard’s “Restoration Agriculture.” Read that one for a delightful understanding of how abundant our world can be after reforestation and restoring savannahs, even in just a couple of decades. And with a profit, too–not the trillion-dollar economic trashing caused by idiotic attacks on “fossil fuels” because they increase the source of life. Many of these methods can be profitable even in a single year. And the benefits grow from there.

    As to temperatures, real scientists investigated those before all the screaming began, when you could publish whatever your results actually were, and with valid reasoning in the discussion section. A “Climate Optimum” is 2 to 12 degrees Celsius warmer than today, meaning there was more variety and abundance of life at those temperatures.

    CO2 is a trace gas that absorbs and transmits infrared wavelengths (heat). Water vapor is 200 times more powerful and far more abundant. Other radiative gases are also far more powerful. If you know that, warmist claims are beyond preposterous. Yet half the world’s adults believe the narrative. That tells you our news and information sources are extremely defective. That’s why voting never gets the results you expect. It is a truly dangerous situation and we need to pay attention to it.

    And if you like your meat, you gotta read Judith Schwarz’s “Cows Save the Planet,” so you can inform smart-alecs who believe anything and think that 21st century vegans know more about ecology than billions of years with unimaginable numbers of chemical reactions every second and some products are more stable than others.

  14. Lots of talk of radiometric dating above. I think that (play music) “In the year … “, if our MSM records survive or if they happen to dig into Yucca Mountain, the “Anthropocene” will be called the “WTF Age”. 😎

  15. The whole concept of the Anthropocene is nothing but a palliative to the ego of man. There seems to always be a premise that man can do ANYTHING he wants to do. Unfortunately the engineering skills are sadly lacking to deal with energy in the quantities required to result in a new ‘age’.

  16. Talk about absurd, what about your own anthropomorphic poppycock? Unless you and George Carlin really do have an inside track about what earth considers “relevant” and “irrelevant.” It’s. A. Rock. HILARIOUS. And also b.s. Your assignment of relative value based on time is what YOU prefer, but you like to blame the earth because it’s fun to scare the kids.

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