10 Reads to Problematize the Anthropocene at Crawford Lake and Beyond

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Compiled by Gabrielle McLaren, with contributions from Claire Campbell, Jessica DeWitt, and Ramya Swayamprakash

Crawford Lake’s sediment cores contain heavy metals, ash from fossil fuel combustion, microplastics, and high levels of plutonium due to nuclear weapon testing. For the Anthropocene Working Group, this makes Crawford Lake the proposed stratigraphic beginning (or Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point, GSSP) of the Anthropocene: a new geological era defined by human activity and its planetary-level ecological impacts. If three international geological bodies agree, geologists will formally acknowledge the Anthropocene as a new geological era–something that geologists and non-geologists alike have been doing informally since 2000, when the concept of the Anthropocene was introduced by atmospheric scientists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer. 

However, the Working Group’s decision is a political one, as scientists, activists, and social science and humanities scholars have known and argued for years. With anthropogenic climate change’s reality and consequences widely known and accepted, if not understood, the project of defining the Anthropocene has become a storytelling project. When did humans’ ecological impact become drastic and damaging? Who had the biggest impact and why? How useful is a geological category? Does “Anthropocene” capture the complicated answers to these complicated questions–or are alternative frameworks that point more directly to petrol, capital, colonialism, and anthropocentrism more helpful in understanding this planetary crisis? 

Here are ten reads suggested by NiCHE’s editorial team to begin untangling the conceptual debates surrounding the Anthropocene and the controversies around the Crawford Lake announcement.

1. “Defining the Anthropocene” by Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin (Nature, 2015)

For those with institutional access, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin’s article is a strong introductory survey for non-geologists looking to situate themselves in the technical debate around the Anthropocene. Lewis and Maslin break down how geological eras are defined, what kind of evidence geologists look for, and the potential start dates and markers up for discussion in 2015. Importantly, this includes pre-20th century options, with Lewis and Maslin suggesting that the Anthropocene’s beginning correlates with global imperialism in 1610. As a result, this article is a useful foray into broader debates about the Anthropocene and its alternatives for senior undergraduates and graduate students. – GM

2. An Anthropogenic Table of Elements: Experiments in the Fundamental, edited by Timothy Neale, Courtney Addison, and Thao Phan (University of Toronto Press, 2022).

What happens when you let humanists at a scientific framework of tidy, segmented, and reductive organization? You get “a mess of complicated stories and structures,” narratives that find and follow the elements of a reimagined periodic table across scales as they embody the forces, human demands, and often problematic relationships of the Anthropocene. From the more expected (carbon, copper, lithium) to the less so (cheese, ice, testosterone), these are short, dense essays suitable for close reading with senior undergraduates. – CC

3. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None by Kathryn Yussof (University of Minnesota Press, 2019) 

Yussof’s slim but dense book argues that the creation of racial categories was intimately tied to mineral exploitation legitimized by geology as an academic discipline. Yussof is one of many scholars who argues that the Anthropocene–by attributing ecological damage at the geological scale to a general ‘anthropos’ or ‘Man’–obscures how unevenly borne responsibility for the planet’s state truly is. However, by centering geology’s history and its anti-Black and anti-Indigenous violence and racism, Yussof provides a unique critique of the tools, methodologies, and disciplinary structures at play in the Anthropocene debates. – GM

4. On the Importance of a Date, or Decolonizing the Anthropocene” by Zoe Todd and Heather Davies (An International Journal for Critical Geographers, 2016)

In this open-source article, Todd and Davies draw on the scholarship (and especially that of Indigenous and Black scholars) criticizing the Anthropocene framework’s inattention to colonialism. They ultimately argue that the Anthropocene, by universalizing both the responsibility for environmental damage and environmental thinking and relations more broadly, conceptually follows colonial logics of assimilation. – GM

5. The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis by Amitav Ghosh (University of Chicago Press, 2021)

In this tightly written series of essays, Ghosh traces the long arc of extractive and racial capitalism, laying the roots of the current climate crises. Chapters focus on various ailments of and caused by advanced extractive and racial capitalism, maintaining a through-line from the nutmeg trees in the Banda Islands (and the Dutch East India Company’s incredible violence against Bandanese people in the 17th century) to settler colonialism to the petrochemical empire that U.S. national power rests upon. -RS

5. Erle Ellis’s resignation letter from the Anthropocene Working Group (2023)

Erie Ellis’s resignation letter, published only days after the Crawford Lake announcement and ending his 14 years of involvement in the group, is a brief, but important criticism of the Working Group’s moves to define the Anthropocene in narrow, twentieth-century-focused terms. Ellis flags concerns about the political consequences of this definition both within academia and–more importantly–in public understandings of the Anthropocene. His letter has also been used to highlight the importance of dissent in scientific inquiry. Bonus: Ellis is also the author of Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction (2018) from Oxford University Press’s ‘Very Short Introduction’ series. – JD and GM

6. The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945 by J.R. McNeill and Peter Engelke (Harvard University Press, 2016)

In 2016, the AWG voted to focus their search for an Anthropocene start date in the 20th century, largely for the reasons McNeil’s book details: a dramatic and unsustainable escalation and intensification of human consumption since 1945.

If you’re looking for a plain-language explanation of the Great Acceleration for a general audience, check out this episode of the CBC Ideas podcast with David Kattenburg. – GM

8. Routes of Power: Energy and Modern America by Christopher Jones (Harvard University Press, 2014)

Though Routes of Power is a story of the United States, and particularly the eastern seaboard (Susquehanna River, represent!) over the past two centuries, it’s also a story of how the transition to mineral energy and fossil fuels shaped contemporary North America, the climate crisis, and inequitable geographies of extraction and consumption. It’s a highly readable account of how dependency on “cheap” energy is grooved into our economic and social landscape. – CC

9. Profit: An Environmental History by Mark Stoll, Profit: an Environmental History (Polity Press, 2023)

Published just this year, Profit examines the evolution of capitalism through people, places, and processes–starting in Medieval Italy and ending with the Anthropocene. In so doing, Stroll paints a rich (albeit limited by his own acknowledgment) of consumer capitalism and its indelible impact on the planet. In doing so, Stoll picks up what thinkers like Jason Moore have put down in suggesting that a “capitalocene” is a more apt framework to understand our current crisis. -RS

10. Serpent River Resurgence: Confronting Uranium Mining in Elliot Lake by Lianne Leddy (University of Toronto Press, 2022)

As the Crawford Lake announcement will inevitably steer conversations about the Anthropocene and resource consumption into the twentieth century, Leddy’s description of Canadian Cold War colonialism through the uranium industry’s impact on Serpent River First Nation’s health and home somehow becomes an even more relevant intervention in Canadian environmental history. You can also listen to Lianne Leddy on Episode 75 of our Nature’s Past podcast. – GM

Bonus #1: Learn more about Crawford Lake from the CHESS 2017 Archive!  

In 2017, the Canadian History and Environment Summer School visited Crawford Lake, including the conservation area’s Longhouse Village. Articles on the NiCHE website by participants, both in English and French, reflect on themes of Indigenous landscapes, gender, land appropriation, and the area’s mineral and flora presences. – JD and GM

Bonus #2: Canada’s Anthropocene Series (2018)

In 2018, Alan MacEachern edited a four-part series on Canada’s Anthropocene that culminated with a roundtable involving all four series contributors: MacEachern, Ashlee Cunsolo, Joshua MacFadyen, and Pamela Banting. Sean Kheraj also published a response to the series roundtable. – JD

Feature Image: Crawford Lake Conservation Area
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Gabrielle Mclaren

Gabrielle (she/elle) holds an MA in History from Concordia University, where her thesis dealt on malaria's impact in Upper Canada, using the construction of the Rideau Canal as a case study. She graduated from Simon Fraser University in 2020 and will be starting a PhD at York University in Fall 2024. She is currently based in Tio'Tia:ke, Montréal.

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