In the history of the earth, the chapter of humanity is a sigh. And it took the blink of an eye to push the planet to the brink of ruin: agriculture pollutes the soil and water. Microplastics float in seas, lakes and rivers. Chemicals can now be detected almost everywhere in nature. Humans dry moors, straighten rivers, clear forests and remove mountains in search of raw materials. Flora and fauna are falling victim to environmental destruction, while the balance of temperature and seasons is getting out of control due to the increasing CO2 content in the atmosphere.

It took humans around 200 years to sustainably and in some cases irreparably destroy the earth. Researchers agree that climate change is man-made. Meanwhile, the question remains controversial as to whether Earth’s history therefore deserves a new epoch name.

Recently much discussed: the Anthropocene. The Dutch researcher and Nobel Prize winner in chemistry Paul Crutzen wanted to use the concept to describe the massive influence of humans on the planet back in the early 2000s. In his widely acclaimed essay in the journal “Nature,” he described humans as an “environmental power” for the millennia to come. At the time, the scientist cited the increasing increase in CO2 in the atmosphere as the main argument, which can be traced back to the era of the steam engine using ice cores. When it came to the starting point for the Anthropocene, Crutzen decided on industrialization – even though his predecessors noted that humans had already massively influenced the earth’s surface at least 10,000 years ago through the beginning of livestock breeding and agriculture.

The recent debates about a new geological epoch are about precisely this question. However, Crutzen, who died in 2022, can no longer present his arguments. In its place, the international Anthropocene research group, together with the Max Planck Society, is now campaigning for the Anthropocene to be scientifically recognized as a new geological era. However, the researchers initially failed in their attempt at the beginning of March. A majority of a panel of experts from the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) spoke out against it.

The reasons for this were not publicly stated, but in a report in the New York Times, members of the panel admitted that some scientists had struggled with the point at which the ongoing Holocene should be replaced.

The Anthropocene research group dates the start of the new era to the middle of the 20th century and supports its decision with plutonium isotopes from above-ground nuclear weapons tests that have since been discovered worldwide. In order to really be able to speak of a new geological era, the human influence on the planet must be proven in all corners of the world. However, ash particles from petroleum and coal combustion can be found predominantly in Europe and the USA, at least in the 19th century, because industrialization took place there. So now atomic remains.

This message may be useful for the researchers’ argument. It certainly isn’t for the planet itself. Scientists are wondering whether there are any places left untouched by humans in the world. There is little to suggest this. Plutonium was even found in the Pine Island Glacier in Antarctica, which was released during nuclear tests thousands of kilometers away. But these are not the only traces that humans recently left behind.

Microplastics and plastics have been detected on the highest peaks and in the deepest seas; Eternal chemicals are no longer just found in coated frying pans or weatherproof clothing, but are increasingly accumulating in nature.

According to estimates, the mass of technological scrap may already exceed the mass of all living things on earth – and as technological fossils, they will provide future researchers with information about technological progress.

Factory farming is disrupting the balance of species worldwide: according to estimates, humans make up 34 percent of the biomass of all land mammals, farm animals make up 62 percent, while the share of wild animals in the total mass has shrunk to four percent.

The most unmistakable of all signs of a new geological era is probably the steadily increasing content of carbon and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Humanity has consumed more energy since 1950 than in the previous 11,700 years of the Holocene.

In view of this, it seems surprising that the IUGS committee is closed to a new era name. But the researchers probably have their reasons. One of them: The Holocene marks an overarching warm phase after a longer ice age. Researchers speak of glacials (cold periods) and interglacials (warm phases), which have alternated since the beginning of Earth’s history. Within these cold and warm phases there are temperature fluctuations that extend over decades and centuries. It is possible that the current rise in temperature also marks a short phase in geological history.

This is pointed out by Phil Gibbard, Secretary General of the International Commission on Stratigraphy: “The conditions that lead to glacier formation have not changed, so we might expect the Holocene to be just an intermediate stage (between two mini-ice ages),” he said “Geology Bites” podcast last year. According to him, it could go on like this for another 50 million years. The Anthropocene is then just an “event” in earth’s history that lasts a few thousand years.

Advocates of the Anthropocene counter that the Holocene led to the flowering of humanity. But that is no longer the case today. However, without formal recognition of the term Anthropocene, this impression would remain.

For the Anthropocene research group, the topic is not yet over. The debate is likely to be held again and again in the future – at least until climate change is reversed. And, depending on social and political commitment, that will probably take at least another hundred years.