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Geoscientist Online

Encyclopedia of the Anthropocene

AnthropoceneThese five volumes weigh in at 7.5 kilos, the ~250 component articles taking up 2,175 pages. Yet, they represent just part of the near-cosmic expansion of information on the Anthropocene since this concept was proposed by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, with one-and-a-half pages hidden away in the Global Change Newsletter. This was followed by Paul Crutzen’s more visible, yet briefer, 2002 Nature article.  In 2008, when this Society’s own Stratigraphy Commission published the first geological analysis of the Anthropocene, a Google search would garner maybe a couple of dozen hits. One could read them in a day. Today, typing ‘Anthropocene’ into Google will yield some two million hits, ranging beyond geology into the social sciences, humanities and arts. It’s now impossible to keep up, so an encyclopaedia is a good idea, as ready reference to this new scholarly cornucopia. How does this one measure up? Variably, I think. It has been a heroic effort to assemble the articles, drawn from hundreds of authors, and there’s very useful material here. But there are also, almost inevitably – given the tight deadlines of modern publishing – omissions, duplications, quirks, and variability in depth of coverage.

I like Volume 1, covering geological patterns and energy. The material evidence for the Anthropocene as a geological unit is well covered. The authors include real expertise – Eric Wolff on the ice record, Ian Fairchild on speleothems, Neil Rose on the fly ash record. Clearly, not all of the pleas for copy were answered, so several sections have been written by the editors, notably the indefatigable Scott Elias.

Volume 2 covers climate change, a tricky topic for the Anthropocene. While climate drivers, notably atmospheric CO2 levels, have risen sharply to Pliocene levels, atmospheric temperature is only starting to rise, so far by just over 1° C, as most extra heat is still being absorbed by the oceans. This moving target is part of the anatomy of today’s Anthropocene, and the chapter details ongoing processes, like shifts of species ranges, and regional differences.

Volume 3 covers biodiversity. Here, the focus is firmly on what is happening to the remains of ‘wild’ nature, covering conservation, extinction, invasive species and so on. All well, good and relevant, but there is little on the enormous scale and novelty of the new, species-poor biodiversity we are creating as food – the ‘domesticated’ animals that (with us) now comprise most terrestrial vertebrate biomass, and the burgeoning croplands that provide feedstock for them. There is an elephant in the room here, and it is being ignored.

Volume 4, on Anthropocene ethics, is similarly skewed. There is much on themes like environmental economics, justice, solidarity, resilience, postmodernism and the role of religions, but the focus is almost solely on societal cure for our environmental ills. There is little on the economic and social drivers that led to the global changes in the first place, or larger-scale conceptualizations thereof (such as the technosphere concept), which is somewhat like a doctor prescribing treatment without prior diagnosis.

Volume 5 covers pollution, returning to more tangible evidence and detailing both organic and inorganic pollutants. Nice material here, too, but the haste in production (another Anthropocene characteristic?) is again seen in duplication of topics from Volume 1, such as ocean acidification and plastics.

On the whole, this is a useful addition to one’s library, if one has £2,755 to spare. One might wait, though, for a new edition that covers those important missing themes. That might take this encyclopaedia to ten kilograms or more, and will require reinforcement of both bookshelves and bank balance. It does, though, reflect the scale of this new Anthropocene phenomenon.

Reviewed by Jan Zalasiewicz 

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE ANTHROPOCENE. Edited by DOMINICK A. DELLASALA, MICHAEL I. GOLDSTEIN et al. Elsevier 2017. ISBN: 9780128096659. 2280 pp. List Price: £2,755.00. W: