In a recent blog post we looked at different generations, from the baby boomers through to Generation Z. But now let’s think on a bigger scale. Do you know what geological epoch we are in? It’s called the Holocene and has lasted since the end of the last ice age approximately 10,000 years ago. Over the last 2.6 million years (the Quaternary period) the Earth has experienced numerous ice ages – or glaciations – with warmer intervals in between, known as interglacials. The Holocene may be regarded as the latest interglacial, which raises the question: are we due for another ice age?
The answer seems to be ‘not yet’. Indeed, climate change is currently heading in the other direction, with global heating a major cause for concern. The rise in global temperature is being driven by the increase of particular gases in the earth’s atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide. The consensus among scientists is that this increase – and the consequent changes in climate and weather systems – are being driven by human activity, in particular the burning of fossil fuels since the time of the Industrial Revolution. Some scientists have therefore suggested that we have in fact entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.
The term Anthropocene uses the combining form anthropo- derived from Greek anthrōpos, meaning ‘human being’. It is defined as ‘relating to the current age, viewed as the period during which human activity has had the greatest influence on climate and the environment’. There has been ongoing debate, however, if we are in a new epoch, about when it started. One issue is that, in geological terms, 70 years – or even 270 years – is the blink of an eye, while what we are trying to define is still unfolding. Climate scientists originally proposed a date of around 1750 when the Industrial Revolution took off. More recently, geologists have favoured 1950, when the geological record shows a definite spike in fallout after the nuclear testing of the 1940s. 1950 also coincides with the start of what has been termed the Great Acceleration – a massive surge in the growth of almost everything relating to human activity: not only carbon emissions, but population, the global economy, technology, water use, tourism, burger restaurants … It is not yet official, but in 2019 a panel of scientists, members of the Anthropocene Working Group, voted to submit a formal proposal to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which decides these things, to designate 1950 as the start of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.
There is no longer any serious doubt about the urgency of the environmental crisis. Governments around the world have been setting targets for reaching net zero carbon emissions. The question remains whether action will be taken fast enough to avoid a climate tipping point. Biodiversity is also under threat, while the world’s oceans are increasingly filling up with microplastics. Nonetheless, during the extremely strange and disquieting year that was 2020, a curious effect was observed. In large parts of the world, for a period of weeks or months, regular human activity was put on hold. Planes were grounded and much economic activity ceased. Skies cleared. Fish were seen in the Grand Canal in Venice. Light and noise pollution decreased. Scientists observed how, in some places, the decline in tourism benefited wildlife. Some have named this phenomenon the anthropause.
Is the anthropause a cause for optimism? The silver lining in the cloud that is the Covid-19 pandemic? Unfortunately, it is far from clear if the effects will last. Anthropause first appeared in our corpus data in June 2020 and peaked in August. Overall citations are fewer than 0.01 per million words. (The usual threshold for inclusion in Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries online is 0.05 per million.) It may prove to be a mere footnote in the history of the pandemic. The Anthropocene, on the other hand, has already earned its place in the dictionary. But whatever happens in the world in the coming months and years, we will continue to track its influence on the continuously evolving English language.
Diana Lea taught English to learners and trainee teachers in Czechoslovakia, Poland and the UK before joining Oxford University Press in 1994, where she works in the English Language Teaching Division on dictionaries and other vocabulary resources for learners of English.
 Stratigraphy is the branch of geology concerned with strata (= layers of rock) and their relationship to the geological timescale.