Publication Details

Castree, N. (2016). Anthropocene. In B. Warf (Eds.), Oxford Bibliographies in Geography. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.


Coined by two environmental scientists, the term "Anthropocene" is currently a buzzword in sections of the earth and environmental science community, as well as in the social sciences and humanities. It may in time assume the status of a "keyword" and become an established part of the academic lexicon. It describes human-induced changes to the earth's biophysical and chemical environment of such scope, scale, and magnitude as to mark the end of the Holocene (i.e., the roughly 11,700 years prior to the 21st century). The Anthropocene is thus an epochal term: it proposes that modern humans possess powers equivalent to the great forces of global nature - although these are unwitting powers that are the combination of countless everyday activities (e.g., driving to work) undertaken by billions of people. Though geographers did not invent the term, they have begun to focus on a range of issues directly relevant to it. Indeed, many have focused on these issues for years, only not with reference to the Anthropocene. Their interest covers the entire discipline of geography, from physical geography through environmental to human geography. This makes the Anthropocene an unusually promiscuous concept, even eclipsing "nature" and "environment" in its semantic reach. This is because it describes not merely "the human impact" on the nonhuman world but also the folding of human activity into earth-surface systems such that it becomes in some sense endogenous to those systems. This is not to imply that humans somehow "dominate" or "control" the earth but simply to acknowledge their newfound capacity to alter biophysical "boundary conditions" across multiple large-scale environmental systems. It is thus no surprise that a wide range of geographers have of late been attracted to the Anthropocene idea and its younger sibling: the concept of "planetary boundaries." Some physical and environmental geographers have advocated one or both of these ideas, along with others in the wider biophysical sciences. Meanwhile, several others are among the scientists seeking to verify or falsify these ideas empirically. These interventions have contributed to what thus far has been a debate centered on the environmental sciences and in geology. A number of human geographers who are less concerned about scientific issues of definition and measurement have concurrently begun to explore what the Holocene's end might mean for the future of humanity. Overall, current writings by geographers about the Holocene's proclaimed end are not cohesive; indeed, one would not expect them to be, and no practitioners have yet called for a more unified approach. They are a vibrant part of a much wider debate, currently an academic one for the most part, about whether we are in a new epoch of earth history and what it portends for life on the planet, both human and nonhuman. This debate should be seen as a continuation (perhaps even an amplification) of older discussions about the sort of "sustainable development" that is both possible and desirable in the future. In terms of geography this debate might eventually reprise, in new forms, grand discussions of human-environment relations that characterized its early decades as a university subject over a century ago. The difference is that these newer discussions will not presume there is a single approach that might reunite geographers across the long-standing divide separating their subject's physical and human components.



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