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The Anthropocene: are humans wrecking the planet?

17 - 18 October 2015
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Earth Science Week 2015
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The Geological Society is pleased to partner with the 2015 Battle of Ideas for The Anthropocene: are humans wrecking the planet? debate to coincide with the last weekend of Earth Science Week

Debate Topic

‘The Anthropocene: are humans wrecking the planet?'

In recent years, a number of researchers have argued that the changes made by human beings have been so great as to amount to a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. By changing the composition of the atmosphere, the composition of the world's land surfaces and the flora and fauna of both land and sea - and by increasing our population sevenfold in just 200 years - it is argued that such changes are now as great or greater than those caused by natural processes.

In October 2014, an international working group was set up to settle the question of how geology should understand the current period, due to report in 2016. As an article in Nature in March 2015 argued: 'The formal establishment of an Anthropocene Epoch would mark a fundamental change in the relationship between humans and the Earth system.'

It is clear that human beings, particularly in the past few hundred years, have started to have a significant effect on the planet. If concerns about climate change prove to be true, human activity may be fundamentally altering the planet with devastating consequences for all living things. But does this effect really overwhelm natural forces? For example, temperatures today may be little different from earlier periods before humans existed. Wildlife and plants have appeared and disappeared at various stages of natural history. What's so new about today? That same Nature article proposed two different dates for the start of the Anthropocene - 1610 and 1964. Others have suggested different dates. Does this confusion about this proposed epoch's starting point suggest that there is little agreement on what the Anthropocene means.

For many people, the debate does not appear to be a scientifically neutral one. Many of those with the greatest interest in this naming debate also believe that the effect of human beings has been a mostly negative one. Some believe proclaiming a new geological epoch will send out a warning that we need to be more sensitive to nature and place human history in the context of natural history. Yet we could also proclaim such a new epoch in more positive terms - that humans are finally gaining some mastery over nature, with enormous benefits in terms of our health, prosperity and longevity.

Why is this debate happening now? Does it reflect an excessive gloominess about our influence, with human progress now routinely discussed as 'impact'? Or is it a welcome counterbalance to a rapacious economic system that is taking a terrible toll on the world around us, and ultimately humanity itself? Is this really a clear-eyed, objective assessment of the world as it is or does it represent an attempt to use the authority of science to make a political point?’


  • Jan Zalasiewicz, University of Leicester
  • Kathryn Yusoff, Queen Mary University London
  • Peter Sammonds, University College of London
  • Alex Standish, University College of London

About the Festival

The Battle of Ideas is an acclaimed annual festival that draws together 350 international speakers each year. Over the past 10 years, the Battle of Ideas has challenged speakers and audience alike to ‘shape the future through debate’. Over 2,500 people from all walks of life dispute and discuss the key issues and ideas of our time at over 80+ sessions through the weekend.

One of last year’s speakers, human-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, said of the festival, “The Battle of Ideas opens the mind to new perspectives and possibilities. It nourishes the brain, enthuses the heart and invigorates debate. Not to be missed.”

Ivan Hewett, classical music critic, Daily Telegraph said, Between the Proms and Christmas the Battle of Ideas is the brightest spot on the calendar. For two days, the Barbican becomes a republic of the mind, an ideal democracy where expertise and wisdom are given due respect, but everyone can have a say. And it’s such enormous fun.”

For a flavour of the diversity of the discussions at the festival, see the outline programme on the Battle of Ideas website

Tickets and Further information 

For further information about this event, including how to purchase tickets, please visit the Battle of Ideas website.

Earth Science Week - 10-18 October 2015

Find out more about Earth Science Week 2015 Events & Activities