From "El amor por las montañas" series of Guy Laramee, http://www.guylaramee.com/

Anticipating the Anthropocene

From "El amor por las montañas" series of Guy Laramee, http://www.guylaramee.com/

At an international meeting in 2000, Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul J. Crutzen grew increasingly irritated at scientists introducing their research in the context of Holocene norms. Finally, he interrupted, “We’re not in the Holocene any more. We’re in the… the… the… the Anthropocene!” The term stuck, and the idea that humans’ influence on nature has become so dominant as to constitute a new geological age has itself become dominant among environmental historians – and among geologists formally debating the christening of an Anthropocene epoch.

But as often happens in such matters – especially in the epoch of the keyword search – Crutzen was soon informed that he had not in fact invented the term. Limnologist Eugene Stoermer had been using it for about a decade. The two corresponded and published together on the Anthropocene concept.[1]

Historians, like all humans, love to track down antecedents. The medieval roots of Romanticism. The Italian who invented the telephone before Bell. Victorian selfies. We crusade to find the first of something. And when we find it … we look earlier.

Chambers's Journal, 1881

Chambers’s Journal, 17 September 1881

In 1881, an unnamed writer published a short essay called “The Human Period in Geology” in Chambers’s Journal. From its title onward, the article seems to prefigure the Anthropocene concept. The writer asks whether there was not “some difference in the working of natural forces in an epoch which differs from all past periods in the world’s history, by the presence of a new force, that of human intellect, capable of controlling Nature.” The essay then catalogues the many ways that humans have already transformed the earth. We have denuded the land of trees and soil, silting rivers and changing climates in the process. We have alternately drained marshes and irrigated farmland, altering the humidity of the surrounding atmosphere. We have altered the distribution of species, both by accident and design, to the point that the terms indigenous and exotic have lost all meaning. And we have exterminated species altogether. Summarizing, the writer argues that

we can no longer deny to man an important place amongst geological agencies. Although powerless to destroy the forces of Nature, he can influence them to a degree unknown before, and, under the impulse of caprice, effect such changes in a few years as it would otherwise have taken long geological periods to accomplish. Compared with the length of a geological epoch, the almost ephemeral duration of human power on the earth has been marked by changes so great as to show that the influence of mind, though the last to be felt, is by no means the least of those agencies which modify the condition of our earth.[2]

James Vincent Elsden ...or his brother, Arthur, 1874. See goo.gl/sKQOWf.

James Vincent Elsden …or his brother, Arthur, 1874. See goo.gl/sKQOWf.

The author turns out to have been James Vincent Elsden, a 25-year-old geology graduate working as a science tutor in Sussex, England.[3] Apparently unable to find a university position, he published his lecture notes and coached soldiers taking their officer training exams throughout the 1880s and ‘90s. His Applied Geology finally earned him some scholarly attention, and he edited geology journals, became active in the London Geological Society, and wrote several standard texts in the early twentieth century.[4] He is completely forgotten today.

I am not, as you might suppose, suggesting that Elsden should be raised up as the real discoverer of the Anthropocene. Elsden himself cites a predecessor in his first sentence, saying that “all must agree with the Italian geologist Stoppani that man makes a distinct geological period.” Antonio Stoppani had in fact coined the term “anthropozoic era” a few years earlier; he and Man and Nature author George Perkins Marsh were mutual influences. Moreover, the title of Elsden’s essay in Chambers’s reads as more portentous, more prescient today than it actually was in 1881. Geology textbooks of the time regularly referred to the “Recent or Human Period.”[5] Elsden was of his time, not ahead of it.

In their book The Shock of the Anthropocene, Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz argue that historians must fight against the totalizing tendencies of the Anthropocene concept, with its implication that only now have we (read: scientists) come to understand our effect on the planet. To accept that idea is to ignore the ways in which people of the past were aware of nature and how it was being changed. My resurrecting Elsden from obscurity, then, is meant as a small contribution to Bonneuil and Fressoz’ project to remind people of today that humans have known for quite a long time what we have been doing.[6]

But what we know and how we behave are two different things. Immediately after claiming that humans wreak “the most havoc” of any part of the organic world, Elsden ends his essay on a note that appears optimistic to the point of being intellectually dishonest. He quotes the famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace that “The true grandeur and dignity of man is that he can control and regulate Nature, and keep himself in harmony with her.” Like too many essayists (and bloggers, and historians, and people), the temptation to be optimistic trumped the temptation to be honest. Although Elsden would publish widely for the next half century, I have found no evidence that he ever again wrote about anthropogenic environmental change, that it ever again shaped his thought.

It makes one wonder: what will a historian a century or more from now think of what I wrote, and didn’t write, about this contemporary age?

 

[1] Oddly, when Stoermer died in 2012, they had never met.

[2]The Human Period in Geology,” Chambers’s Journal, 17 September 1881, 593-5. I owe Libby Robin thanks for mention of Chambers’s article in “A Future beyond Numbers,” Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands, eds. Nina Möllers et al. (Munich: Deutsches Museum and Rachel Carson Center, nd), 21.

[3] Authorial credit is given to Elsden in William Topley and Charles Sherbern, eds., The Geological Record for 1880-84, vol.2 (London: Taylor & Francis, 1889), 452.

[4] Elsden’s obituary appears in the London Times, 8 November 1930, 17.

[5] And in 1885, the term “Holocene,” denoting the wholly recent geological layer, was chosen for the current geological age.

[6] Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptise Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us, trans. David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2016 [2015]), esp. 170-2.

 

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I am a Professor in the Department of History at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ontario, Canada. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. You can reach me at amaceach@uwo.ca.

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