Placing the Golden Spike: When Did the Anthropocene Begin? (And Why the Question Matters)

Les Beldo | 24 February 2017 | Respond
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons User Bahudhara - CC-BY-SA-3.0 The 'golden spike' marking the Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) at the base of the Ediacaran Period.

The Golden Spike marking the Ediacaran period. Where would we place the spike to mark the human epoch? (Image Credit – Wikimedia User: Bahudhara CC-BY-SA-3.0)

In August 2016, the International Geological Congress voted to accept the suggestion first made by two acclaimed Earth scientists that we live in a new geological era defined by human-induced environmental and atmospheric change. “The Anthropocene,” as the scientists proposed to call it, “could be said to have started in the latter part of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane” (1). Even before the proposal was accepted by an international body of stratigraphers, the suggestion of a human-dominated geological epoch provoked spirited responses across the social sciences and humanities. In a flurry of conferences and essays over the last several years, anthropologists, geographers, historians, and others have debated the merits of placing humans alongside asteroids and glaciers as agents of planetary geological change (2).

In 2015, Milwaukee’s Institute of Visual Arts invited its visitors to contemplate the Anthropocene with an exhibit called “Placing the Golden Spike” (the International Union of Geological Sciences marks exemplary sites for each geological epoch by driving a golden spike between layers of rock). I visited the exhibit along with other attendees of an interdisciplinary conference at the nearby University of Wisconsin. The exhibit sparked sustained discussion in the conference plenary sessions that followed, although none of the distinguished scholars at the conference could agree on when the Anthropocene began or what it should be called. Their answers tended to vary in line with what they had been studying throughout their careers. An anthropologist of the nuclear age placed the figurative spike in 1945 at the Trinity nuclear test site. Marxians pointed to the rise of capital in Europe as the obvious starting point and suggested changing the handle to the “Capitalocene” (3). A militant art historian of the Napoleonic era felt that European colonialism marked the dawn of the new age and earnestly suggested we rename it the “white supremacy-cene.”

The debate was emblematic of the scholarly disagreement that has accompanied the Anthropocene concept since its first appearance. Notwithstanding the dramatic impacts of industry and agriculture on the global environment, scholars have tended to disagree on almost every significant aspect of the concept, including what to call it. Donna Haraway, not in attendance at the conference, prefers the label “Chthulucene,” named after H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional, octopus-headed monster (4). Others have passionately argued that it would make more sense to call it the “Plantation-ocene” (5). The proposed starting points for these renamed eras are equally diverse, ranging from the discovery of fire to the agricultural revolution to the invention of the microprocessor.

STS scholars may have their own answers to the question of when the Anthropocene began or how to characterize it, but the STS approach can also help us understand what different answers to these questions tell us about the political and epistemological commitments of those who offer them. Any answer, as Jasanoff has observed in general of scientific knowledge, is bound to be produced in concert with the socio-political order it represents, a process STS scholars refer to as co-production (6). Academic disciplines are no exception, enabling the creation of knowledge through a shared understanding of who we are, as humans, and what we care about.

The concept of the Anthropocene is a useful provocation in the humanities and critical social sciences for the same reason that those fields might never have come up with the concept themselves: the idea of a global human epoch challenges some of the most cherished normative and intellectual commitments of the respective fields. Does it make sense to talk about a single anthropos when the industrial age has been marked by sustained systemic inequality? (7) How does all of humanity act as a monolithic agent? Does climate change matter more or less than nuclear fallout or mass extinction? Is there such thing as nature untouched by humans? The disciplines and their various sub-fields give different answers to these questions, all diverging from the original assumptions made by Crutzen and Stoermer (8).

Those two Earth scientists were able to coin a term because they agreed—even if not all of their fellows have joined them (9)—on at least three crucial and deeply value-laden points: first, what constitutes a shared humanity (their implied answer: all of homo sapiens); second, which human impacts matter most for naming an era (their answer: climate change); and finally, how should those impacts be measured (their answer: concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane in polar ice core samples). Adjust any one of those terms and you will get a different answer to the question of when the Anthropocene began. Adjust two or all three of the dials, and you may end up calling this current age something else entirely.

Keywords: Anthropocene, climate change, capitalocene, environment


  1. Crutzen, Paul J. (2002) “Geology of mankind.” Nature 415 (6867): 23-23.
  2. See, for example: Latour, Bruno. (2014). “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene.” New Literary History, 45, 1-18 // Haraway, Donna (2015). “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities, 6, 159-165. // Haraway, Donna et al (2015). “Anthropologists Are Talking – About the Anthropocoene.” Ethnos DOI: 1080.00141844.2015.1105838
  3. Moore, Jason W. (2014). “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature & Origins of Our Ecological Crisis.”
  4. Haraway, Donna et al. “Anthropologists Are Talking – About the Anthropocoene,” 22.
  5. Haraway, Donna “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.”
  6. Jasanoff, Sheila. (2004). States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. London: Routledge. (p.3)
  7. Bonneuil, C., & Fressoz, J. B. (2016). The shock of the Anthropocene: The earth, history and us. London: Verso Books.
  8. Jasanoff, Sheila. “A History of Scales and the Scales of History”, Development and Change 48(3), May 2017.
  9. Autin, Whitney J. and Holbrook, John M. (2012). “Is the Anthropocene an issue of stratigraphy or pop culture?” Geological Society of America (GSA) Today, 22 (7): 60-61.

Further Reading:

Jasanoff, Sheila (2004). States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and Social Order. London: Routledge.

Jasanoff, Sheila. (2004). “Heaven and Earth: The Politics of Environmental Images.” Earthly Politics. MIT Press.


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