Remember the controversy surrounding whether Pluto should no longer be a classified as a planet? I was reminded of that dispute recently when I came across a scientific term used in two completely different contexts. Just like the meaning of “planet,” the definition of “Anthropocene” --- a word that assumes that human beings have so altered the planet so as to create a new geological epoch --- may be in the eye of the beholder.
Earlier this month, I attended a speech given by M. Sanjayan, the lead scientist of the Arlington-based The Nature Conservancy. Sanjayan described the world that we live in as the Anthropocene but didn’t provide very much in the way of an explanation. Indeed, the speaker seemed to believe not only that the audience was familiar with the term but that his listeners would not question his view that the Holocene epoch (the geological epoch of the last 12,000 years) had ended and the Anthropocene had begun.
While I knew the term Anthropocene from the popular culture, Sanjayan’s remarks were the first time I heard the word used in such a matter-of-fact manner by a respected scientist. I left the lecture wondering if I had missed some big pronouncement from the scientific community on the subject. Like the main character in the movie Office Space, I was afraid that folks were going to come up to me and ask, “Did you not get the Memo?”
A little research revealed that I did not miss anything. In fact, an article published in mid-September revealed that the arbiters of geological epochs --- the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) --- have not taken any position on the subject.
Importantly, the article points out that a working group of the ICS is busy assembling the data on whether we are in a new epoch. But don’t hold your breath for a ruling any time soon: the research won’t be completed until 2016 and that will be followed by a series of debates and votes by the experts in the field.
So, while the International Astronomical Union has downgraded the status of Pluto to that of a "dwarf planet,” the jury is still out as to whether we are in the Anthropocene epoch. Stay tuned.
Mike Nardolilli serves as President of the Northern Virginia Conservation Trust, President of the Arlington Outdoor Lab, and as a Member of the Board of Directors of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.