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Set in stone

22 March, 2024

We don’t usually give much consideration to debates in the field of geology but one has piqued our interest recently – the conversation about whether we’ve entered a new geological epoch.

A committed band of geologists has been searching for 15 years for a ‘golden spike’ showing a clear change in rock, sediment or ice records resulting from human’s impact on the earth, heralding the start of the ‘Anthropocene’. In February, a vote was taken by geological timekeepers to determine whether the evidence presented qualifies a new epoch. And the result? Human-caused changes to geology haven’t (yet) marked the start of a new epoch.

But this doesn’t mean we can relax. The decision is ultimately arbitrary – we know change is happening and happening fast, and don’t need to look to the slow-moving geological record to have this confirmed. The rate at which we’re producing pollution and disrupting climate systems is rapid and profound.

And although geologists may not agree, the public, businesses and civil society use these labels too –‘Anthropocene’ is already a feature of the vernacular, and a useful way to explore impacts of human activity and how it is transforming the planet. The fact that a new human-defined geological epoch is even being considered at all should give pause for thought – we’re not just releasing some gases and plastic here and there, but rapidly and dramatically changing the oldest and most permanent records of Earth’s history.

By Patrick Bapty

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