Ideas of our time

Universities are in the business of ideas and some of the University of Leicester’s are being hailed as among the most important of our time.

Researchers from our Department of Geology are leading investigations into whether the Earth has entered a new epoch. The Anthropocene – literally, ‘the age of man’ – has been
identified as one of the top 10 new ideas of our time by Time magazine.

It follows in the footsteps of our development of a revolutionary fingerprinting process, hailed in 2008 by Time magazine and again in 2009 by BBC Focus magazine.

Dr Jan Zalasiewicz chairs the international Anthropocene Working Group and Dr Mark Williams is lead compiler of a Royal Society volume on the new epoch. They join a growing
number of scientists from various backgrounds examining the case for the Anthropocene to be designated a formal part of the Geological Time Scale.

“Human activity is now emerging as a key factor shaping the world’s geology.”says Dr Zalasiewicz. “The Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of both humankind and of the Earth,then natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other. Geologically, this is a remarkable episode
in the history of this planet, not least because some of the human-made geology is entirely new in the 4.5 billion year history of our Earth.

“The research base at Leicester is ideal for leading analysis of this concept, with
acknowledged breadth of expertise in global environmental change through deep Earth history.”

The scientists are assessing the effects of recent human activity, including stunning
population growth, sprawling megacities and increased use of fossil fuels.Humanity’s footprint, they now contend, is now so deep and permanent that the concept of a new epoch can be justified.

First proposed by Nobel Prize-winner Paul Crutzen more than a decade ago, the term Anthropocene has provoked controversy. However, the concept of the Anthropocene is increasingly being used both by scientists and by the public as an indication of the scale of human change to planet Earth.

Our geologists are leading on a body of work analysing the case for the formal
acceptance of the term, including a dedicated issue of the prestigious Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, an international conference in
May 2011 co-convened with the British Geological Survey and the University of Leeds, and numerous public and media discussions involving our researchers.

Dr Williams added: “The repercussions would see more than the adoption
of a new term; acceptance of the Anthropocene would be acknowledgement that the fate of our world is now in our own hands, with clear practical implications. For instance,
the Anthropocene is already being used as a framing concept in discussions on
the International Law of the Sea.

“The results of our work give us a much clearer picture of the way in which we
are changing the world – and of how long these changes might last"

This article originally appeared in LE1 Winter 2012

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