Whilst over the last 10,000 years, human civilization has advanced significantly, it is changes seen over the last 400 years, and over the last 60 years in particular, that have led to a situation in which humans are now eating away at our own life support systems at an unprecedented rate.

As Mark Maslin, Professor of Climatology at University College London, explains in the May 2016 edition of Geographical magazine:

“Scientists are now suggesting that the impact of humans on the globe is so large in terms of the effect we collectively have, that humanity should now be seen as a geological superpower, on the same scale as plate tectonics or a massive meteorite impact. This is because human activity has clearly significantly altered the land surface, oceans and atmosphere, and re-ordered life on Earth.

This new human-dominated geological epoch is called the Anthropocene.

Last year, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin wrote a review paper in Nature on defining the Anthropocene epoch. Mark Masline explains how they think it began:

“The radical suggestion was that it began in 1610, after the irreversible exchange of species between the New and Old Worlds following the 1492 arrival of Europeans in the Americas. The resulting global networks of trade led to a rapid, repeated, cross-ocean exchange of species, which is without precedent in Earth’s history.

The 1610 date provides an unambiguous event after which the impacts of human activity became global and set Earth on a new environmental and evolutionary trajectory. There is a clear drop in CO2, centred on that year, due to the arrival and actions of Europeans in the Americas after merely a dozen decades. The arrival of people from the old world into the new led to the deaths of 50 million indigenous people, most within a few decades of the start of the 16th century due to smallpox and other foreign diseases. The resulting near-cessation of farming across the continent and the re-growth of Latin American forests removed enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to produce a pronounced dip in CO2 and this is now clearly seen in Antarctic ice core records.

The 1610 potential start date also resonates with the replacement of feudalism with capitalism. In fact geographers have coined the term ‘the Capitalocene’ to reflect this political shift, which coincides with the acceleration of environmental degradation. Earlier than this, Karl Marx identified Columbus’ rediscovery of the Americas in 1492 as a key event in the establishment of our current capitalistic world order.”

In a new book, Geography, by Carl Lee and Danny Dorling, 1492 is depicted as the key date after which both the physical, ecological and human geographies of the planet began to fundamentally change and transform into something new – all due initially to just one new geographical connection. Mark Maslin continues:

“In hindsight, it was as if we had discovered another planet. For those living in what we christened the Americas, it was as if very violent, disease-ridden and ignorant aliens from outer space had landed.”


By Jon Crooks, updated 9 July 2016