Holocene vs. Anthropocene

the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) refused to recognise the current geological time as the Anthropocene (Human) Epoch because adding an Anthropocene Epoch ~ and terminating the Holocene Epoch ~ was not supported by geological standards used to define epochs.

Holocene vs. Anthropocene

Representation image

Recently, the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) refused to recognise the current geological time as the Anthropocene (Human) Epoch because adding an Anthropocene Epoch ~ and terminating the Holocene Epoch ~ was not supported by geological standards used to define epochs. This decision was unpalatable to many scientists and laymen, because undeniably humans are now the dominant geologic force on the earth’s surface.

However, the IUGS did recognise that the term Anthropocene described a distinct and definite time. The IUGS said: “Despite its rejection as a formal unit of the geologic timescale, the Anthropocene will remain … an invaluable descriptor of human impact on the Earth system.” This alternative view is more persuasive because human activities of digging mines, construction of dams, expansion of cities and clearing of forests for agriculture and urbanisation ~ will all be visible in the geological record. Also, associated phenomena of pollution, global warming, climate change, and habitat destruction, leading to mass extinction of plant and animal species are definitely an ‘event’ ~ an informal term geologists use for profound changes to the earth system.

Scientific quibbles aside, it cannot be denied that human activities have made planet earth inhospitable for humans. Six leading international datasets used for monitoring global temperatures, consolidated by World Meteorological Organization (WMO) show that the annual average global temperature was 1.45 ± 0.12 °C above pre-industrial levels (1850-1900) in 2023. Global temperatures in every month between June and December set new monthly records, with July and August being the two hottest months in recorded history. This trend has continued; global temperatures rose to 1.66 °C above average during January 2024, making it the hottest January on record. Recently, a number of extreme climate events were noticed:


* Temperatures are rising worldwide, because increasing greenhouse gas emissions trap more heat in the atmosphere. According to the World Meteorological Organisation, the last eight years have been the hottest on record. After widespread heatwaves in 2022, April 2023 again saw heatwaves impacting all of Asia, including India and China. According to Scientific American, July 2023 was the hottest month in the last 120,000 years, with heatwaves in Europe, North America, North Africa, China and Japan.

* Recognising that globally droughts are becoming longer and more extreme, the UN marked 17 June 2023 as ‘Desertification and Drought Day.’

* Tropical storms are becoming more severe due to higher ocean water temperatures. Eightyeight storms occurred across the globe in 2022, of which 40 reached tropical cyclone strength (=119 kmph), and 17 reached major tropical cyclone strength (=178 kmph).

* Sea ice in the Arctic Ocean around the North Pole is melting faster with the warmer temperatures.

* As temperatures rise, there is less snowpack in mountain ranges and polar areas, and the snow melts faster.

* Glaciers are melting at a faster rate. According to a report from International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, Kathmandu, glaciers in the Hindu Kush and Himalayan Mountain ranges melted 65 per cent faster between 2010-2019 than in the previous decade. The Ministry of Earth Sciences found that mean retreat rate of Hindu Kush Himalayan glaciers was 14.9-15.1 meters per year, 12.7-13.2 meters per year in Indus, 15.5-14.4 meters per year in Ganga, and 20.2-19.7 meters per year in Brahmaputra river basins. The European Alps experienced a record amount of ice mass lost (State of the Climate in Europe, 2022).

* Permafrost is melting, releasing methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere.

* Sea levels are rising at double the pace of 1993-2002, threatening coastal communities and estuarine ecosystems.

In a mad rush for ‘progress,’ national leaders often ignore environmental concerns. Recent floods in the United Arab Emirates, speculated to be caused by cloud seeding, killed at least 21 people, caused massive traffic jams, power outages and a closure of Dubai Airport. Such events are being replicated the world over. Last year, damage caused by torrential rains in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand was accentuated by construction debris from road building and tunnelling being dumped randomly in rivers. Roads constructed unscientifically, after indiscriminate mountain blasting, subsided in the rains, causing huge landslides. Frightening videos, showing rows of houses disappearing in swirling rivers, landslides obliterating miles of highways, and people trapped under tonnes of mud, captured the horrifying results of climate-unfriendly activities.

Many lost their loved ones, their houses, and their means of livelihood; roads, railways and other infrastructure projects, built at humongous cost, simply disappeared. Ruthless exploitation of natural resources has led to the massive floods of 2013 and 2021 ~ two environmental tragedies in Uttarakhand in the last decade. Environmentalists termed the floods as “disasters waiting to happen” because tunnelling and blasting for 70 hydro-electric projects had fractured many aquifers and restricted river flows, upsetting the fragile ecological balance of the area.

More recently, cave-ins were noticed throughout the State. It appears that illexecuted tunnelling activities had caused aquifers to burst, leading to outflow of subsurface water, creating a void below the earth’s surface ~ which resulted in land subsidence. Before the Government of India issued a gag order, ISRO reported a subsidence of 5.4 centimetres in just 12 days. A human tragedy followed, particularly in Joshimath; most residents became homeless as their houses developed huge cracks, making them uninhabitable. The townspeople’s woes were magnified manifold by harsh winter rains and snowfall, as also a perpetually leaking aquifer. However, NTPC, that had drilled the tunnels, consistently denied any link between land subsidence and tunnel drilling. The Power Minister, in a press conference, unambiguously reiterated NTPC’s stance.

The official view could be gathered from the response of the Uttarakhand Chief Minister, who informed media persons: “People sitting at different places in the country are talking about Uttarakhand, which is not right because 65 to 70 per cent of the people living there are leading their lives normally. In nearby Auli, which is a tourist attraction, everything is going on normally… Char Dham Yatra will start in the next four months.” This head-in-the-sand approach is not a recent development; after the horrendous floods of 2013 that caused more than 6,000 deaths, the then Uttarakhand Chief Minister denied that human activities like indiscriminate construction of hotels and houses were responsible for the tragedy. The Chief Minister went on to say: “This is a very childish argument ~ that cloudbursts, earthquakes and tsunamis are caused by human factors.

In the history of hundreds of years of Kedarnath, no such incident has taken place… My people are going to suffer because tourism is going to be affected. We have to put the infrastructure back on the rails.” Almost identical statements, a decade apart, by Chief Ministers, from different political parties, indicate the real cause of the problem ~ a flawed development model imagined and implemented for Uttarakhand. In essence, successive Governments have tried to stimulate economic activity through tourism and massive infrastructure projects ~ that have been given a huge push by the current dispensation. Such misplaced zeal for development has made the Government brush aside environmental concerns. Pliant environmental regulatory bodies have unquestioningly towed the Government line, readily granting clearance to environmentally dangerous projects, as a result of which the unpolluted atmosphere, the gentle cool breezes of the hills of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are a thing of the past.

Dust clouds from tunnelling work for the myriad railway tunnels and hydro-power projects, and the ubiquitously dugup roads for road widening projects, assail one’s senses the moment one enters the hills. Scores of heavy trucks clog narrow hill roads, releasing unbearably toxic fumes in the clean mountain air. Probably, we need to discard the present one-size-fits-all model of development and evolve development strategies based on climate and geography. For example, hill States could be better served by a development model based on limited tourism, horticulture, traditional crafts, with knowledge industry hubs in bigger places like Shimla, Dehradun and Nainital.

The politically correct decision of IUGS of not calling the present epoch Anthropocene because it would highlight humankind’s plunder of nature, and would also imply that the present flawed system would continue, fails to convince one, in face of the continuing evidence of human depredation everywhere.

Contrary to perception, right thinking people are seldom against development, but like Lord Byron, love nature more:

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is society, where none intrudes,

By the deep sea, and music in its roar:

I love not man the less, but Nature more.

(Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage)

(The writer is a retired Principal Chief Commissioner of Income-Tax)