Non-Fiction Reviews

A Very Short Introduction

(2018) , Oxford University Press, 7.99 / US$11.95, pbk, xxii+ 183pp, ISBN 978-0-198-79298-7


There is that Chinese curse, or mixed blessing, that goes 'may you live in interesting times' and certainly the decades around the turn of the 2000AD do qualify as interesting times: burgeoning technological development combined with concomitant social change for nearly all on our planet that has literally transformed the world.  It is this last that is this short volume's focus.

As a an environmental scientist interested in human ecology and the Earth system, I am acutely aware of the value of the geological record in illuminating these subjects. Remember, Charles Darwin drew upon evidence gleaned from the geological record to present his case for biological evolution; Darwin may be remembered as a biologist but he was additionally a member of the Geological Society.  Given my academic interests and being a Brit, it probably will not come as much of a surprise to you that I too am a Fellow of the Geological Society and I am therefore very aware of the current Anthropocene debate from the Society's meetings, articles in its Geoscientist magazine, and discussion elsewhere such as in the journal Nature.

The idea is this: the current transformation of our planet is so great that it is being imprinted on the geological record and so will be discernable to geologists of the distant future or, if humanity becomes extinct, successor sentient species or even visiting alien geologists.

From this you can easily see why this book is being reviewed by an internet site primarily established by scientists who are into science fiction: this topic of planetary change discernable in deep time has a number of SFnal resonances.

And if global-scale human action is imprinting itself on the geological record, what do we call the geological epoch that follows? The answer here has been established: it is the 'Anthropocene'.

Of course having a name for it is one thing, but when exactly does the Anthropocene begin?

Now, we do have a summary road map defining the geological record and that is stratigraphy: the sequential layering of geological strata. The key elements and dates within the stratigraphic record are open to some debate not least because both new discoveries are continually being made and techniques (hence refinement of measurement and detection) are constantly improving.  Yet we all need to sing from the same hymn sheet and so we have the International Commission on Stratigraphy that determine the geological chart from which all geologists work.

Within this stratigraphic record there are certain points or markers known as GSSPs (Global boundary Stratotype Section and Points). You may not be aware of this term but you will most likely know of one or two of these points: arguably the most famous is the iridium layer laid down by the asteroid and its impact ejecta that wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous some 66 million years ago.

So the question with which the International Commission on Stratigraphy, aided by bodies such as the Geological Society, are currently wrestling is what should we use as a GSSP to mark the beginning of the Anthropocene? For example, should it be when lead and tin is laid down in Greenland ice cores due to Roman proto-industrial mining and refining? Or, given broadly speaking the trend the past few thousand years of atmospheric carbon dioxide has in the long-term been one of decline, reaching a minimum in 1610 when it more or less stabilised before a long-term trend of carbon dioxide became established? There are many options.

What Erle Ellis has done is explain why the Anthropocene is important to define and the quest to identify a meaningful GSSP marker. It is a fascinating and, given the Stratigraphy Commission has yet to formally ratify a marker, a topical one. It also serves as to a window on areas of Earth Systems Science (what used called biosphere science): a fascinating discipline of additional relevance to understanding how potential life-bearing Earth-like planets function.

This is therefore another useful book in Oxford University Press' 'A Very Short Introduction' series of booklets. Being of a small-sized format with a not large page count, the titles in this series enables readers quickly come up to speed of the core issues and facts of their books' respective subjects. This is a welcome addition to the series and would be a cheap, useful addition as a reference work to anyone concerned as to how we are transforming our world.

Jonathan Cowie

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