2 Defining the Anthropocene

Paul Crutzen, the Nobel laureate, and Eugene Stoermer coined the term Anthropocene in 2000 for a brand new human dominated geologic age (Lövbrand et al., 2009Jump To The Next Citation Point; Slaughter, 2010). The term Anthropocene is derived from two Greek words, anthro (human) and cene (new). The term signifies the gradual exit of the planet Earth from its current geological epoch, the Holocene (Steffen et al., 2011Jump To The Next Citation Point). However, the term remains as “proposed” as it is “increasingly employed” to define the transition to the complete anthropogenisation of planet Earth (Zalasiewicz et al., 2008Jump To The Next Citation Point). Accelerated human impacts prompted this new scientific postulation. The term has not yet been formalised by the stratigraphic community. However, several efforts have responded to this concern (Robin and Steffen, 2007; Zalasiewicz et al., 2010). For instance, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) discussed the Anthropocene as a potential geological era in its 2012 meeting (Sachs, 2011). Similarly, the ICS Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy established an Anthropocene Working Group. The Anthropocene has also been the subject of various academic conferences around the world. The proponents of the Anthropocene have stratigraphic ideas in mind when they coined the term. However, landscape scientists have a major stake in this debate. Humans are not creating or laying a new geologic strata; rather, landscapes are being transformed, in most cases, negatively. It is not surprising that Crutzen (2002Jump To The Next Citation Point) attributes the Anthropocene to the industrial revolution.

Some researchers consider the Anthropocene on the scale of millennia. Ruddiman (2003Jump To The Next Citation Point) suggests that the Anthropocene commenced some 8000 years ago. Others trace it to the past 6000 years (Schlütz and Lehmkuhl, 2009Jump To The Next Citation Point) or even to the last fifty years, when natural drainage systems came under massive human pressure (Meybeck, 2003Jump To The Next Citation Point). It is apparent that consensus is lacking on the timing of the Anthropocene and its impact across geographic areas. Apparently, further dialogue is required between the scientists concerned. The term is overshadowed by unpredictability, misunderstandings and how humans dominate the pre-existing natural systems (Ellis and Haff, 2009). Naturally, landscape scientists have the potential to corroborate uncertainties associated with the concept of the Anthropocene. An editorial published by Nature (2011) sheds light on the complexities of the Anthropocene:

[T]he driving force behind the geological transition it labels is not a continental rearrangement, massive volcanism or an extraterrestrial impact – forces that have reshaped the planet in the past. Yet the Anthropocene does deserve proper recognition. It reflects a grim reality on the ground, and it provides a powerful framework for considering global change and how to manage it.

Defining the Anthropocene is meaningless without reference to the Holocene. The Holocene is still the ratified geological epoch of planet Earth in the 21st century. The Holocene (which means “early recently”) is a Quaternary system epoch whose stratigraphy is marked by climate change, geophysical processes, sea-level rises, vegetation development, faunal migrations, human evolution and activity (Walker et al., 2009Jump To The Next Citation Point). This epoch has created a stable condition for human survival, and the development and use of landscape resources. The overkill theory which associates the mass decimation of animal species to humans at the beginning of the Holocene has been disproved in recent studies (Grayson, 2008). This argument aims to show that human-induced biodiversity loss is not a feature of the early Holocene.

The science of geology has been debating geological age ratification and terminologies for a long time. Walker et al. (2009) point out that, since the late 19th century, scientists have debated the nomenclature and timing of the Holocene. Arguments were advanced on the need to identify the boundary of the Holocene and the Pleistocene based on climatic and geological variables. Therefore, the ongoing debate on the Anthropocene is common to geological age benchmarking. The most important aspect is to track human impact. Overstepping the planetary boundaries constitutes a source of pressure for planet Earth (Rockström et al., 2009a; Galaz et al., 2012). The literature contains abundance reference to human excesses within the nine boundaries. Rockström et al. (2009bJump To The Next Citation Point) observe that environmental changes in the Holocene do not disrupt the conditions that are ideal for the survival of humans. Temperature, freshwater availability and biogeochemical cycles were within a relatively narrow range during the Holocene. The boundary between the Holocene and the Anthropocene could be determined by the extent and rate at which humans modified planet Earth. Compared to the pre-industrial state of the planet, the current environmental change levels exceed the levels known since the time the Holocene was ratified. According to Syvitski (2012), the unique traits of geologic epochs are defined by “what happens” between one epoch and another. It could be a shift in climate regime, mass extinction or bulk change in the composition of sedimentary rocks. The rates of modification of the planet between pre-industrial and post-industrial eras are given in Table 1. If we consider climate change and biodiversity boundaries as examples, then the anthropogenic pressure arguments advanced by proponents of the Anthropocene are correct.

Table 1: Planetary boundaries

Planetary Boundary



Current Status Pre-Industrial

Climate change

CO2 parts per million (ppm)


392 280

Radiative forcing: watts per meter squared


1.5 0

Ocean acidification

Saturation state of aragonite in water


2.90 3.44

Stratospheric ozone

Dobson units


283 290

Nitrogen cycle

Millions of tonnes/yr removed from atmosphere


121 0

Phosphorus cycle

Millions of tones/yr entering ocean


8.5 – 9.5 1

Freshwater use

km3/yr human consumption


2,600 415

Land use change

% of global land converted to cropland


11.7 low

Biodiversity loss

Species per million/yr extinct


> 100 0.1 – 1

Aerosol loading

Particulate concentration in atmosphere

to be determined

Chemical pollution

Several possibilities

to be determined

Based on Rockström et al. (2009b) and updated according to External Link Reprinted by permission from Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

It is important to add that the values given in Table 1 merely portray the world average. These values are most probably higher for certain geographical levels, such as cities. Table 2 shows a number of indicators and drivers that many researchers associate with the proposed Anthropocene. For the indicators shown in Tables 1 and 2, big data is required to explore the levels of impacts on different landscape systems.

Table 2: Anthropocene indicators




Atmospheric pollution

CO2 hike to between

280 – 387ppm

Raupach and Canadell (2010)

Land use / land cover change

Proliferation of anthropogenic biomes; 70% of ice free areas are under stress

Boyle et al. (2011); Ellis (2011); Ellis and Ramankutty (2008); Ellis et al. (2010)

Oxygen decline

decline of biodiversity, and disruption of biogeochemical and environmental feedback systems

Falkowski et al. (2011)

Population density

disproportionate land use intensity

Ruddiman and Ellis (2009)

Mining, irrigation, civil constructions

Sedimentation, siltation, desiccation

Syvitski and Kettner (2011)


Global warming

Zalasiewicz et al. (2011Jump To The Next Citation Point)

Urbanisation & Transportation

Landscape fragmentation

Meadows et al. (2005); Li et al. (2009); Tian et al. (2011)

Connections between landscape and the Anthropocene

Landscapes evolve over time from the overlap of various geologic stratifications of different epochs (Figure 2View Image). Changes in climate and geologic formations create the necessary conditions that accommodate life on landscapes (Meadows, 2001). Landscape scientists and researchers consistently explain landscapes in the light of myriad theories. The response of landscape scientists to the Anthropocene debate would be unsatisfactory without reference to various landscape theories.

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Figure 2: Landscape development is not independent of systematic and time dependent geologic/climatic transformations. This figure is developed based on a section of the ICS 2010 stratigraphic chart (External Link

Several theories explain landscape development from different viewpoints. To begin with, the 19th century work of John Playfair and William Morris Davies’ Ideal Cycle theory remains a key reference in landscape evolution (Dutch, 1999). Davisian theorists view landscapes as phenomena that develop over a long period of time, based on the working of geophysical processes. Penck’s slope/erosion theory (of 1924) and King’s pediplain theory of 1953 (Hack, 1960) are closely related to Davies’ Geographic Cycle theory. Both theories emphasise that landscapes develop in stages. These theories fit into the characteristics of the Holocene/Quaternary period. On the other hand, Catastrophism theory is an alternative to the Davisian theory. Catastrophists argue that landscapes originate from sudden short-lived and violent processes (Turney and Brown, 2007; Austin, 2009). Such abrupt and fast changes cause large-scale permutations of landscapes. Still on the development of landscapes, Creationists’ theory suggests that violent natural forces eliminate organic life, setting scenes for a new landscape development phase. The latter two theories bear semblances with the underlining feature of the Anthropocene, which essentially highlights the disruption of landscapes.

Landscape attracted the interest of several disciplines long before interdisciplinarity became popular. According to Zube et al. (1982Jump To The Next Citation Point), human-landscape interaction gives rise to four paradigms:

  • Expert paradigm (landscape evaluation)
  • Psychophysical paradigm (landscape aesthetics)
  • Cognitive paradigm (landscape perception)
  • Experiential paradigm (human-landscape interaction process)

These paradigms portray landscape research as multidisciplinary and holistic in nature. Perhaps, what is not clearly reflected in these paradigms is the aspect of landscape participatory governance. Zube et al. (1982) reveal that geographers, foresters, landscape architects, behavioural scientists and planners, among others, dominate landscape science. Based on the current state of the planet Earth, landscape science needs closer contact with other disciplines. Landscape scientists have distinguished themselves with the tradition of an integrated approach. This approach placed landscape science on a vantage point to respond to the Anthropocene challenges and opportunities offered by the Fourth Paradigm. Over time, landscape science has developed into a broad-based intersection of many disciplines (see Figure 3View Image). This makes it a prominent player in the Anthropocene, data deluge and landscape sustainability discourse.

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Figure 3: Landscape science in the 21st century agglomerates many disciplines.

Definitions of landscape are subject to the prevailing scientific atmosphere of a given society. For this reason, we examine some of the definitions of landscape at different times. We begin with Hartshorne (1939), who sees the landscape as an “external, visible (or touchable), surface of the earth.” He adds that “this surface is formed by the outer surfaces, those in immediate contact with atmosphere, of vegetation, bare earth, snow, ice, or water bodies or the features made by man.” Hartshorne tackles divisive arguments on landscape types by emphasising the terms “natural landscape” and “cultural landscape.” He opines that the natural landscape is original and uninterrupted by humans, and refers to it as “primeval landscape.” On the other hand, the scholar distinguishes cultural landscape as one with any notable alterations by “primitive or civilised man”. Some landscape scientists are aware of what Hartshorne calls “notable alterations”, and hence their focus is on ecological perspectives of landscapes. Today, natural landscapes by Hartshorne’s definition are virtually nowhere to be seen. It is worth noting that we refer to Hartshorne’s definition only in the context of the meaning of landscape. As a leading geographer, Hartshorne was obsessed with the idea of regionalism in geography, in contrast to Sauer’s landscape school (Howe, 2011). Carl Sauer sought explanations of the deep and organic links between cultures and landscapes. Sauer’s unique contribution to landscape science went beyond the meanings of landscapes. His ideas can still be used to chart a broader and integrated approach for managing landscape sustainability challenges. Mathewson (2011) observes that Sauer viewed landscape in the context of its visible material attributes, modification processes, plant and animal origin and dispersals, aboriginal depopulation, primitive and traditional agriculture, cultural diffusion and destructive exploitations. Sauer’s “Morphology of Landscape” (1925) and his leadership of the Berkeley School of Cultural Geography created a niche for him in landscape science. The contemporary landscape challenges transcend borders of disciplines such as geography or countries like the United States. Hence, many disciplines use many terminologies to define the landscape. Terms such as geography, ecosystem, environment, planetary system, habitat, regions, scenery, nature or spatial systems are commonly used.

In 1939, Carl Troll, the father of landscape ecology, defined the landscape as “the total natural and human living space” (Naveh, 2007). Understanding the intricate relationship between humans and landscape prompted the emergence of landscape ecology. Carl Troll defines it as “the study of the main complex causal relationships between the life communities and their environment” which “are expressed regionally in a definite distribution pattern (landscape mosaic, landscape pattern)” (Troll, 1971). A more holistic paradigm is required to explain the cause and effect of landscape change. For this reason, Naveh and Lieberman introduced the Total Human Ecosystem (THE) paradigm in 1984. This paradigm, based on multidisciplinary landscape ecology, views landscape from its spatial, temporal, conceptual and hierarchical scales (Naveh and Lieberman, 1984). The authors maintain that THE considers “values of nature and its non-economic richness into workable parameters in educational and decision-making processes”. It is on this basis that Naveh (2010) called the THE paradigm a social-ecological super system where humans, together with their total environment, form an indivisible and coherent co-evolutionary geo-bio-anthropological entity. However, as Zonneveld (1989) observes, the holistic perspective used in landscape science was borrowed from the physical sciences. Holism represents the hierarchy of all things – from quarks to minerals or from cells to a system. The main problem of this concept is that the system hierarchy “either remains the same over a certain period of time or shows a slow gradual change, without large, sudden changes.” This situation negates the speed of changes that has recently affected landscapes. Scientific evidence on the impact of rapid landscape change underpins the need to embrace the Anthropocene debate from a broad perspective.

Based on the quest for sustainability landscape functions, government institutions also define landscapes holistically. The British government science think-tank, GO-Science suggests that, apart from pure ecological and socio-economic functions, landscape represents the historical, aesthetic, identity, heritage and mental well-being of a nation (Foresight Land Use Futures Project, 2010). Such institutions also recognise the role of public participation in landscape governance. The European Landscape Convention (ELC) stresses the role of people in its landscape policy formulation (ELC, 2004). This is a reflection of democratic principles in contemporary landscape management. The ELC also stresses the role of the awareness, planning, management and conservation of landscapes (Scott and Shannon, 2007; Scott, 2011; Llausàs and Nogué, 2012Jump To The Next Citation Point). Similar policies also exist for landscapes in the United States and Canada (Morse and Kujara, 2010). It is important to note that all the theories explained above recognise the role of humans, or at least the way in which humans perceive landscapes. However, perceptions have changed over time. The driving forces affecting landscape change also vary with time.

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