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Anthropocene Lecture Series: ‘What is the Anthropocene?’

23 September 2023
On 5 September 2023, the lecture series 'What is the Anthropocene? - Exploring transdisciplinary collaboration for sustainable change' has been kicked off with the inauguration of the first VU Distinguished Fellow of the Anthropocene, Dr Sjoerd Kluiving, and an introductory lecture on the Anthropocene as a suggested geological epoch.

Dr Sjoerd Kluiving introduced the audience to the current academic debate concerning the Anthropocene and to the quest towards a Theory of the Anthropocene as an interdisciplinary effort. Dr Kim Cohen of Utrecht University took over and shared his insider’s perspective as a voting member of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS) which is guiding the Anthropocene Working Group, and is thus involved in the definition of Golden Spike as a starting point for the Anthropocene.

Below you find a summary of the presentations, you can find a recording of the full lecture here.

Towards a Theory of the Anthropocene: review of overarching disciplines and research addressing planetary boundaries and social and humanitarian crises by Dr Sjoerd Kluiving

VU's Distinguished Fellow of the Anthropocene, Dr Sjoerd Kluiving, confronts the challenge of establishing a theoretical basis for the Anthropocene, a period characterized by humanity's unprecedented impact on Earth's ecosystems. At first, Sjoerd acknowledges the intricate nature of the Anthropocene and states that this lecture is merely a starting point of looking at a theoretical base underlying the complexity, modernity and ‘vagancy’ of the Anthropocene. He covers the past introduction and problem while considering all disciplines in Science, Humanities and Social Science in his quest for an Anthropocene theory. Sjoerd highlights how the dominant influence of human forces on our planet’s land, water and atmosphere has already overstepped biophysical planetary boundaries and is threatening to increase and worsen its conditions if politics, society and economy do not adjust their forces. Sjoerd draws on research that illuminates the impacts that human activities have had on altering landscapes, diverting rivers, and emitting greenhouse gases and how Homo sapiens has become the primary driver of extinction and speciation in the Anthropocene. Sjoerd outlines that the three critical transitions needed to address the profound societal problems of the Anthropocene are the energy transition, the current use of space, and the total greenhouse emissions of the food system. He asks how disciplines can become overarching in breaking loose big societal problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, soil and water contamination, social unrest, pandemics and inequality. He argues that these challenges must be examined from the perspectives of science, humanities and social science, yet an overarching Anthropocene theory, especially over these three domains, is still nonexistent. Sjoerd advocates for increased interdisciplinary collaboration among researchers and underscores the imperative of collective action involving academia, government, corporations, and society to address these critical Anthropocene challenges and foster a sustainable future.

You can find an extended summary of Sjoerd's lecture here.

Coverage and Status of the Anthropocene: inclusivity of data and transdisciplinary issues in iso-chronically defining human-witnessed youngest earth time periods by Dr Kim M. Cohen

The lecture continues with insights from Dr Kim Cohen, from the department of Physical Geography at Utrecht University. Kim guides us into a comprehensive exploration of the Anthropocene, providing insights into its essence, multidisciplinary perspectives, and its significance to various fields of study. He delves into the evolving understanding of the Anthropocene, tracing its gradual acceptance and diversification since the year 2000. The lecture highlights the ongoing efforts to define this epoch, with a particular emphasis on geological definitions, which have garnered substantial attention. Kim proceeds to map out how diverse groups across different disciplines perceive the Anthropocene. This involves a thorough examination of natural sciences, including atmospheric science, ecology, earth system science, and geology, as well as spatial social sciences and humanities. The discussion encompasses crucial dimensions, such as the duration and onset of the period, its global scale and magnitude, and the appropriateness of its nomenclature, including considerations of causality. The lecture then shifts focus to the types of data used to document the intertwined developments of Earth and humanity over recent centuries. Kim introduces the concept of a "planetary dashboard" and underscores the value of geological data in this context. However, he also highlights the limited coverage of it. To advocate for the Anthropocene's inclusion in the international geological time scale, he suggests the consideration of Earth system and socio-economic metrics, particularly those originally used to propose the concept. This transdisciplinary approach to data inclusivity, especially concerning the mid-20th century starting point, is presented as a crucial step in official recognition, a topic that has been explored by the Anthropocene Working Group and is elaborated upon in the lecture. It is worth noting that existing definition procedures for chronostratigraphical units do not encompass this transdisciplinary perspective on data inclusion, a point that Kim brings to the forefront during the lecture. The lecture ends with an open discussion and question session with the audience.

You can find an extended summary of Kim's lecture here.

As Fellow of the Anthropocene, Sjoerd Kluiving also organizes transdisciplinary workshops which focus on the COP28 climate conference 28 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and use storytelling as a means to reflect on the discussion. During these workshops, stories for the days of COP28 will be developed by connecting science, human health, art and activism; the Netherlands and United Arab Emirates; the Global North and Global South.

All events and the Fellowship of the Anthropocene are coordinated by the Amsterdam Sustainability Institute, all events are free and open to anyone interested.

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