“Holocene,” the name for the epoch in which we officially still live, was adopted in 1885, a half-century after Charles Lyell’s demarcation of the “Recent” epoch by the end of the last Ice Age, some 11,500 years ago. Holocene means “wholly recent,” so the decision to bring this epoch to an end would mark the present as a peculiar time, after the recent, a time out of time in more than one sense. The move to recognize the Anthropocene is, in effect, a move to double the present, to see it from the perspective of another moment as well as our own. But what we can see from that doubled place depends on where we locate that other moment.
There are numerous contestants for the Anthropocene’s “Golden Spike,” or Global Boundary Stratosphere Section and Point (GSSP), the site that marks a recognized division in the geological timescale by pinpointing the planetary material that justifies the divide. The earliest would place the start date between six and eleven thousand years ago, based on the adoption and spread of agriculture, since the land-clearing it required necessarily altered the earth’s atmosphere.
But this would be tantamount to saying that the Anthropocene is equivalent to human life as we know it; by linking climate change to something we cannot imagine undoing—very few people are advocating a return to hunter-gatherer status—it would effectively remove any political energy the term might have. And the Anthropocene is, at base, a political strategy, notwithstanding its scientific verifiability; its intent is not simply to carve humanity’s name upon the stratigraphic map (humans, after all, invented the map in the first place), but to raise awareness of the negative planetary impact of certain human activities, with the intent of altering or mitigating them.