Understanding the Anthropocene

Understanding the Anthropocene: Ideas of Environmental Change in Historical Perspective


Photo of the Alicante automated tide gauge (mareographe), published in Verhandlungen der vom 5. bis 10. October 1976 in Brüsselvereinigten Permanenten Commission der Europaeischen Gradmessung, C. Bruhns and A. Hirsch (eds.), Berlin: Verlag von Georg Reimer, 1877. Public Domain

This project looks at the historical development of the reference points, baselines, and terms we currently use to track and describe anthropogenic environmental change. Only a detailed mapping of the intellectual roots of the tools and theories used to measure and evaluate global change will, in fact, allow us to better understand present apprehensions and historical narratives.

Taking the lead from the study of geodesy, in particular nineteenth-century attempts to determine a standard "point zero" of altitude and scientific research about subsidence of landmasses, the project discusses the historical roots of one of the most prominent points of reference currently used in discourses about climate change and the Anthropocene: the mean sea-level. To broaden the analysis to how ideas of environmental change in general have been conceptualized and interpreted in the last few centuries, the project will later look also at other dimensions of global change—such as animal extinctions and global warming—with particular attention to the development of an awareness of the determining role of humans.

The mechanics of how we evaluate change, the choices made to adopt specific baselines, and path dependence in scientific research are some of the main issues this project addresses, mainly through the analysis of nineteenth-century scientific papers and the correspondence of scientists. The importance of this approach lies in the fact that past decisions about the ways in which human societies adjudicate environmental change still substantially inform the outlook of science and policy on the future and on how to respond to change through global planning.