Updated: May 30, 2019 12:15:29 am
Just when the human race seems ready to annihilate itself and enter the fossil record for keeps, the Anthropocene Working Group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy is propelling it into the Anthropocene Age — the era in which the imprint of this industrial and agricultural species becomes visible planetwide. Of course, stratigraphers work with geological slowness. The process of defining the Anthropocene was initiated in 2016 and, while the working group has voted overwhelmingly for the motion, it will be formally proposed only two years later to the commission.
Humans have also left their mark on the Holocene, the era which began about 11,650 years ago, when the glaciers retreated. Ruined cities like Petra and Ur are stirring tourist attractions. Further back in time are the odds and ends of material culture — Acheulian hand-axes, Jomon pottery — and much further back are fossils like Lucy, and fossilised human footprints on the sands of time. Signs of the Anthropocene are less poetic — traces of pollution in tree rings, layers of soot in the substrata of industrial towns, massive deforestation and erosion, millions of acres of concrete, space junk in orbit.
However, there is time yet, until 2021. Time to define a subsidiary age of the Anthropocene, in recognition of a human stain that is far more pervasive than all these vile signs — plastic. Undegraded plastic is everywhere, from landfills to kitchens and the innards of cows. Rivers of plastic flow down to the sea, where it breaks down into microscopic particles that are now found in maritime life forms. Plastic is the most enduring sign of the human race. It is significant enough to be eponymous, identifying a subsidiary of the Anthropocene. It must be named Plasticene.
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