Notes on The Great Acceleration, by JR McNeil and Peter Engelke

“One can find reasons, as this book does, to prefer a more recent date for the beginning of the Anthropocene. Those reasons, in brief, are, first, that since the mid-twentieth century human action (unintentionally) has become the most important factor governing crucial biogeochemical cycles, to wit, the carbon cycle, the sulfur cycle, and the nitrogen cycle. Those cycles form a large part of what is now called the “Earth system, “a set of interlocking global-scale processes.” The second reason is that since the mid-twentieth century the human impact on the Earth and the biosphere, measured and judged in several different ways (some of which we will detail) has escalated.”[1]

  The quote above is taken from “The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945,” written by John Robert McNeil and Peter Engelke and provides meaning for their conception of when to date the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene can be defined as our present age, one when humans hold a powerful influence over the ecology of the globe. Dating the Anthropocene to 1945 suggests that the rampant energy use, population growth, and increased greenhouse gas emissions spurred on this cataclysmic geological event.[2]

Because there is not yet a consensus on the beginning of the Anthropocene, McNeil and Engelke chart the emergence of its arrival citing numerous devastating environmental disasters and the human toll that followed, with an overwhelming number of calamities taking place post 1945. Others scholars have noted that the Anthropocene began at the onset of the first “land use revolution” 21,000 years ago while others say the it began alongside the Bronze Age, and still others 1610. The reasons for these alternative dates of the beginning of the Anthropocene range from the spread of agriculture, variation within atmospheric carbon dioxide relating to the death toll of Indigenous people, and other geocultural factors.[3] The dating of the Anthropocene is important as it identifies the moment when human action collectively began the process of degrading the ecosystem through exploits related to technological “progress.” As McNeil and Engelke inform, the manifest drawbacks of environmental damages urge us to develop ways into finding alternatives to continue living on the Earth without continuing to harm it.

“But still, we can also unfortunately imagine a convergence in the future: climatological excess-relentlessly produced through the logic of the same proto-industrial world that grew out of the triangle trade- might indeed eventually change the earth’s material history. As the seas rise, those paths might shift, themselves re-mapped by the human.”[4]

[1] John Robert McNeill and Peter Engelke, The great acceleration: an environmental history of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016)3-5

[2] Sadie Bergen, “Getting Warmer:Historians on Climate Change and the Anthropocene, ”Perspectives on History, February 2017 (accessed April 27, 2017).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Marisa Parham, “Black Haunts in the Anthropocene”, Notebook January 26, 2014.  (accessed April 27, 2017).

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