Reading Response: Oreskes & Conway, Kolbert

Musings on Enter The Anthropocene -Age of Man by Elizabeth Kolbert, and The Downfall of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. 


Extinctions are now happening at a rate hundreds to thousands of times higher than during most of the last half a billion years. If current trends continue, the rate may soon be tens of thousands of times highter. This is not a quote taken from Oreskes & Conways fictitious dystopian history The Downfall of Western Civilization, but rather a quote taken from Elizabeth Kolbert’s academic article Enter the Anthropocene from In reading this article I was consistently struck by how the real life facts were often as bad if not worse than the “facts” presented in Downfall.

Time Shift

Re-educating myself with geologic eras, periods et al also reiterated the gravity of the emerging Anthropocene. That it is a contemporary emergence is an obvious and frightening paradigm shift. My fear, echoed by others much more eloquently is: If we are able to identify the entry of the Anthropocene, is it already too late? Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen says “What I hope…is that the term ‘Anthropocene’ will be a warning to the world.” This causes me to question the effectiveness of the term ‘anthropocene’. It is sterile, almost euphamistic. Maybe part of our social responsibility is figuring out how to bridge the gap between antiseptic scientific language and human emotion.


The things that might be most indicative of our causal relationship with climate change are the things that will leave the smallest, least traceable things behind. “From a geological perspective, the most plainly visible human effects on the landscape may in some ways be the most transient” says British stratigrapher Jan Zalasiewicz. This is echoed by Kolbert who says “Future geologists are more likely to grasp the scale of 21st century industrial agriculture from the pollen record -from the monochrome patches of corn, wheat, and soy pollen that will have replaced the varied record left behind by rainforests or prairies.” This made me realize that in all likelihood the geologic records we have now that we use to piece together our earth’s history showcase only the slightest bit of historic phenomena. It is alarming to be reminded that our legacy will almost certainly not be a full record of our rise and fall.


-I have never heard of the profession Stratigrapher before. It sounds like a daunting job.

-I was alarmed that Enter the Anthropocene was written in 2011 and that the world’s population was only 7 billion at the time, with no mention made of it approaching 8 billion, even though that’s what the current global population is. I wonder if this is symptomatic of rapid population increase, as also mentioned in Kolbert’s article? This seems to be the start of some sort of “great acceleration”.

One thought on “Reading Response: Oreskes & Conway, Kolbert

  1. GREAT POST – YES – I agree -art can use affect to ‘dirty up’ the clinical facts of “the matter.’ as a thought exercise, it;s nice on many levels to image the future strata – what kind of record will we leave behind what will it look like? what will remain?

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