World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format        

Book Review


Jeremy Davies, The Birth of the Anthropocene. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2016. Pp. ix + 234. Index. $29.95 (cloth).


     There remains little doubt that the last few centuries of human activity have profoundly altered the earth. The exponential growth of our species combined with our ever-increasing capacity to bend nature to our will have initiated a cascade of changes within the complex biological and climatological systems of this planet. These changes (which certainly include global warming, rising sea levels, declining biodiversity, loss of polar ice, and much else besides) could be of such profound scale that they may collectively qualify as the beginnings of a new epoch in the history of the earth. The environmental changes associated with this new "Anthropocene" may ultimately even threaten the viability of our modern ways of life, if not the entire human species. It should therefore be plain to see the dire need for all scholars, not just those of the earth sciences, to come to grips with the possibility of a dawning Anthropocene epoch. Jeremy Davies' concise, erudite and highly-engaging book, The Birth of the Anthropocene, will, I am sure, soon be regarded as one of the best introductions to this new and rapidly evolving field. Davies unpacks the many debates and complexities surrounding this new human era of global history and champions the Anthropocene as a common framework for scholars of the sciences and humanities to engage with the causes and consequences the current ecological crisis.

     In the space of just five chapters, Davies offers a wide-ranging analysis of the intellectual underpinnings of the Anthropocene. He explores the sticky issues of definitions and periodization while also outlining the complex workings of the earth's environmental systems and humankind's ever changing relationship with the earth. Throughout the book, Davies steadily builds a case for the utility of the Anthropocene as not just a term, but as a way of thinking. Indeed, the current global environmental catastrophe "is so far reaching," says Davies, "that it cannot be really understood without setting it in the context of geological time" (5). From the outset, the reader is asked to consider human history as unfolding on a scale of hundreds of millions of years rather than centuries. We are reminded, for example, that all recorded human history—from the first agrarian communities to the present—has unfolded within the abnormally stable and altogether brief Holocene epoch. This 12,000 year stretch of time saw global temperatures waver little more than a single degree Celsius. This era of environmental stability appears over, as recent global climate change is now unfolding at a rate more akin to the Pleistocene epoch, where temperatures varied by as much as 5° C in the space of mere centuries and entire ecosystems were destroyed and remade as a result.

     In the opening chapters, Davies offers a wide range of sobering facts and figures to better illustrate the pace and scale of modern environmental changes. Consider that in parts of the Pacific plastic debris outweighs plankton by a factor of six. Or that since their deliberate introduction to Lake Victoria in 1954, Nile perch have pushed over 200 species of fish to extinction. Or that since 1750 CE humans have released 555 billion tons of carbon into the air, half of which remains in the atmosphere and a quarter of which has entered the oceans. Or that US livestock produce 40 metric tons of excrement every second. Within the field of world environmental history, The Birth of the Anthropocene fits well alongside works like John McNeill's Something New Under the Sun.1 However, it is a testament to just how recently "the Anthropocene" has developed as a concept that McNeill's 1999 history of global environmental change in the twentieth century does not use the term even once.

     Chapter Two offers a brief intellectual history of the Anthropocene as a concept, wherein we learn that the term is indeed remarkably new. Coined in 2000 by the Dutch climate scientist Paul Crutzen, the "Anthropocene" was intended to reference recent atmospheric changes, namely the increasing levels of greenhouse gases since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Crutzen's narrow conception of the Anthropocene has since been subjected to a wide range of cross-examinations from scholars of the sciences and humanities. Here Davies explores the criticisms and new interpretations put forth by Dipesh Chakrabarty, William Ruddiman, Bruce Smith, Melinda Zeder, Jason W. Moore, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), and the Anthropocene Working Group. It is made clear that there is yet no consensus as to what criteria should define the Anthropocene, nor is there agreement as to when it began (or will begin). In Chapter Three, "Geology of the Future," Davies examines in greater detail the various proposed criteria and dates by which to locate the Anthropocene. Where Crutzen's sees industrial carbon emissions as the defining feature of this new era, thereby giving us a possible start date of 1784 CE (Watt's steam engine), others locate a much older Anthropocene marked by the global proliferation of domesticated plants and animals beginning with the Columbian Exchange in 1492 CE. A much younger Anthropocene may be identified using layers of radioactive isotopes from nuclear tests dating from the 1950s and 1960s. Jason W. Moore further complicates things by shifting the argument from the technological to the social in his "Capitalocene" epoch, with roots stretching back to Early Modern Europe and the emergence of global capital accumulation.

     Chapters Four and Five conclude the book by offering a survey of the last 640 million years. Davies' aim here is to allow readers to see the Anthropocene within a proper context, that is, the longue durée of natural history. Viewing the Anthropocene in such terms helps to undo our anthropocentric conceptions of humanity and nature. By placing human history on a timeline that includes trilobites and the movement of continents we cannot help but seem inconsequential. Humanity appears fleeting and fragile when standing atop the Anthropocene. At the same time, however, the sweeping changes we have helped to bring about in the last decades seem all the more remarkable on such a timeline—our collective impact upon the natural world appears grossly out of proportion to our brief existence.

     Ultimately, Davies regards the Anthropocene as a mental framework still taking shape. Its utility to scholars comes in forcing one to consider global scales of space and geological scales of time when addressing modern human history. As such, the Anthropocene way-of-thinking has much common ground with the new historical frameworks of "Deep History" and "Big History." The Birth of the Anthropocene should be welcome reading for many scholars, particularly those seeking to get up to speed with this vast and quickly evolving field. General readers and undergraduate students will find Davies' writing accessible and engaging. Indeed, such a work should serve well in many college-level classrooms, especially as a general primer to the topic. And all will certainly appreciate Davies' knack for making the complex comprehendible and the daunting manageable.

Andrew Peterson received his PhD in World History from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Currently Dr. Peterson is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Grand Valley State University in Michigan where he teaches world history and "Big History." His research focuses on globalization in the early modern era, world environmental history, maritime history, and European colonialism in Southeast Asia.



1 John R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000).



Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2017 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use