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Anthropocene vs Meghalayan: Why geologists are fighting over which epoch Earth is in

It was widely agreed that humans’ impact on nature is so significant that we have entered a new geological phase. But a recent announcement confused matters.

The Earth discovered it was living in a new slice of time called the Meghalayan Age in July 2018. But the announcement by the International Union of Geological Sciences confused and angered scientists all around the world.

In the 21st century, it claimed, we are still officially living in the Holocene Epoch, the warm period that began 11,700 years ago after the last ice age. But not only that: within the Holocene, we are also living in this new age – the Meghalayan – and it began 4,250 years ago.

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Over the past decade, more and more scientists have agreed that human impact on Earth is so significant that we have entered a completely new geological phase, called the Anthropocene, including a group convened to agree a formal definition. The world of science was expecting an official announcement acknowledging this Anthropocene Epoch, not the unheard-of Meghalayan Age. It was so unexpected it turned up zero hits on Google when first reported. So what’s going on?

A new time on Earth

The Geologic Time Scale is a massive achievement that divides the whole of the Earth’s history into meaningful units of time representing key changes in the Earth system, typically based on new lifeforms appearing in the fossil record. The system splits geological time into ever finer “nested” units: eons being the longest, followed by eras then periods, epochs and finally ages.

The Geologic Time Scale. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons[Licensed under Creative Commons]
The Geologic Time Scale. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons[Licensed under Creative Commons]

The new announcement has ratified a proposal to split up the Holocene Epoch into three ages. First the Greenlandian Age which runs from the start of the Holocene 11,700 years ago, to the Northgrippian which began 8,326 years ago. This age runs to 4,250 years ago when the Meghalayan starts, and continues to the present. These more or less define the early, middle and late Holocene while completely ignoring the Anthropocene.

The first problem with the new announcement is the Holocene “concept”, because until humans substantially altered the climate the Earth had been in a normal interglacial or “warm” interval. There have been over 45 similar interglacials over the last 2.5m years making up a total of 10% of the time, while for the rest of the time Earth was in “cool” ice age periods. Yet no other interglacial has been given the rank of epoch, so the reassertion that we live today in the Holocene makes little sense geologically.

The second problem is that the Meghalayan Age defines the “late Holocene” and the present day, but makes no mention of the human impact on the environment. The Meghalayan is defined by a mega-drought that caused the collapse of a number of civilisations in Egypt, the Middle East, India and China, around 2,250 years BCE.

Somewhat surprisingly, the IUGS has referred to this event resulting in a worldwide collapse of civilisation, forgetting that tens of millions of people were living in civilisations in the Americas, Africa and elsewhere. The name of the this age comes from the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya where a stalagmite recovered from a cave provided chemical evidence of the drought and is therefore a marker signalling the beginning of the late Holocene.

But defining an age we live in without mentioning the geological-scale impact of humans on the Earth system seems naïve. How could geologists define a normal warm interglacial phase as an epoch, and ignore the human impact when defining the geological age we live in today?

What happened behind the scenes was a race between two “committees”, some scientists wedded to the Holocene, others backing the acknowledgement of the Anthropocene. The Holocene scientists committee has been around for longer and has won the first round. The competitive committee structure that presides over the Geologic Time Scale has caused much rancour in scientific circles.

Why it matters

Defining – or not defining – when humanity became a significant geological influence is highly political, and crucial in an age of ever-increasing environmental change and degradation. By ignoring the evidence and defining the present day as this new Meghalayan Age, it seems like a small group of scientists – 40 at most – have pulled off a strange coup to downplay humans’ impact on the environment.

What is needed is a rational debate on the time we live in that examines all the nested divisions of geological time to reach some consensus across many scientific fields. Geologists should set up a new official multi-disciplinary IUGS commission with the remit of proposing the classification and definition of this geological time we live in, to happen within two years.

It would take an overview on when the Anthropocene Epoch began, whether the Holocene is still useful or could be retired, and whether the other recently defined ages should also be retired. More generally, it could make sure any recommendations are consistent with the rest of the Geologic Time Scale.

This might seem like a remote debate of little significance to most people. But names have power. There is a huge difference to the story of humanity if we are living in the Meghalayan Age that makes no mention of the human impact on the environment – or in the Anthropocene Epoch which says human actions constitute a new force of nature. The Meghalayan Age says the present is just more of the same as the past. The Anthropocene rewrites the human story, highlighting the need for planetary stewardship.

In our new book, The Human Planet, we maintain that in the last 500 years, science has made humans seem more and more unimportant. But far from being an insignificant naked ape in an almost infinite universe, humans are in fact the most important geological power on the Earth, the only place where life is known to exist. Yet the power humans wield is unlike any other force of nature because it can be used, withdrawn or modified.

Widespread recognition that human actions are driving far-reaching changes to the life-supporting infrastructure of the Earth has profound philosophical, social, economic and political implications. Surely that is important enough to compel scientists to work together to define exactly when humanity became the new geological superpower and help us all better understand the new epoch we live in.

Mark Maslin, Professor of Earth System Science, UCL and Simon Lewis, Professor of Global Change Science at University of Leeds and, UCL.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.