Negotiating and Communicating Evidence: Lessons from the Anthropocene Debate

Skepticism and debate are always welcome and are critically important to the advancement of science. . . . Skepticism that fails to account for evidence is no virtue.

The executive director of the American Meteorological Society, Keith Seitter, made this distinction about skepticism in his letter to the U.S. Secretary of the Department of Energy, Rick Perry, on June 21, 2017.[1] In that letter, he bemoaned the secretary’s rejection of empirically based knowledge about climate change. At the same time, he underlined the importance of related research and of taking the resulting evidence seriously.

To be sure, there is no consensus in academia on every single detail of climate change, but that is no reason to deny the existing evidence and overwhelming consensus about the big picture. The Trump administration’s denial of global warming and withdrawal from the Paris Agreement represent a particularly striking example of “fail to account for evidence.” Little wonder that there is so much talk in the general public and academic circles about an impending postfactual era in which the manipulation and denial of empirical evidence are the order of the day. At the same time, the significance of understanding and using empirical evidence—understood as socially accepted and established knowledge that originates in processes of experimentation, observation, and negotiation—is garnering ever more attention.

Since 2000, a broader discussion that incorporates climate change has emerged: the Anthropocene debate. That humanity has become a geological force and is altering the earth system on a planetary scale forms the underlying argument of the Anthropocene concept. Should geological periodization recognize the effects of human activity and declare or recognize the onset of a new geological era, the Anthropocene? And is this a question exclusively for geologists or does it concern other disciplines and research focuses, including in the humanities and social sciences? By now there are multiple understandings of the Anthropocene concept. And, similar to the climate change debate, there is not yet academic consensus on many of its aspects. To avoid new misunderstandings and at the same time counteract the effects of postfactualism, it is important to be aware of the different disciplinary evidence practices and knowledge production processes behind the scholarship shaping the Anthropocene debate and the communication of its outcomes.

Put differently, does the current situation on our planet not call for a shift towards more flexible research systems and an issue-specific blurring of disciplinary boundaries within the knowledge production process? Don’t we require a relaxation and extension of the negotiation and evidence-producing processes that go beyond the intra- and interdisciplinary, reaching into the transdisciplinary? Interdisciplinarity distinguishes itself through work on a specific question across disciplines. Each discipline addresses the problem with subject-specific methodological approaches, and, in a second step, people seek to develop responses and provide solutions on the basis of these different approaches. Transdisciplinarity is understood here as additionally including experiences and knowledge from society, politics, and business—nonscientific voices from the public.[2]

In 2000, two scientists, the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and the limnologist Eugene Stroemer introduced the term “Anthropocene” in the Newsletter of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme.[3] This intervention launched an academic debate that quickly gained momentum and is nowadays discussed across a broad range of disciplines because of the widely perceived urgency of the problem. In recent years, the Anthropocene has even become an issue for debate in mass media, museums, art galleries, and the like. These public discussions, in turn, can affect academic discourses.

Examples of the Anthropocene entering public discussion outside of geological or other purely academic circles: Arcade (Spring 2017), Arquitectura Viva (November 2016), and The Economist (May 26, 2011).

In 2009, the International Commission of Stratigraphy set up an interdisciplinary Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) under the direction of the geologist Jan Zalasiewicz. Its task is to analyze the scientific evidence for the theory of a new geological epoch named after humanity, the Anthropocene, in order to obtain formal recognition of this designation.[4] The AWG will submit a proposal to the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, which reports to the International Commission on Stratigraphy, which in turn reports to the International Union of Geological Sciences. To this end, the AWG primarily examines the extent to which the impact of anthropogenic actions affects the Earth’s systems globally and whether the resulting changes are measurable in geological strata. To attain recognition of the new epoch, certain stratigraphic criteria—defined in the international stratigraphic guide—have to be met.[5]

Whereas the AWG and other geologists, biologists, and Earth system scientists are primarily occupied with obtaining stratigraphic evidence in particular, using scientific methods more generally, the humanities and social sciences focus mainly on the interdependence of social and environmental phenomena. Intense conceptual discussions are taking place, especially in anthropology, philosophy, sociology, political science, and history. For scholars in these fields, stratigraphic criteria are not the focus. Instead, they use diverse approaches to explore relevant human interactions with the Earth and the political, social, and cultural contexts in which they occur.

Add to these research approaches the output from mass media, which plays a major role in today’s knowledge societies, helping to structure public debate on scientific questions and problems. The media not only reports on the academic Anthropocene debate but is transforming it. This development is reflected clearly in journalists’ shift from adhering to only bare facts toward a kind of storytelling about the Anthropocene. Many people working on related media stories understand and treat the Anthropocene concept primarily as a didactic tool to raise awareness about climate change and to give it meaning.

The diversity of actors and approaches involved in the Anthropocene debate has led to several proposals for an alternative hybrid term that could replace “Anthropocene.” Suggestions include “Capitalocene,” “Plantationocene,” “Thermocene,” “Phagocene,” and “Carbocene.”[6] Here the discussions relate mainly to the anthropocentrism and totalization of the human being as a geological agent inherent in the term “Anthropocene.”[7] There are also questions about how the term assigns responsibility to humans, how it legitimizes their actions or casts them in too positive a light.

Controversy about the Anthropocene concept goes far beyond the term itself, however. If the original proposition had been that the planet began entering a distinct period we can call the Anthropocene with the Industrial Revolution, there are now debates about dating this era back to the Neolithic Revolution or forward to the Great Acceleration, to name only the most prominent proposals. Disagreements reach from challenging the concept outright to considering specific biological, chemical, technological, and social aspects of it.

Multiple divergent Anthropocene concepts are emerging within these discourses. At the same time, thematic issues like hybridity, normativity, posthumanism, and the technosphere bring the different lines of discussion together in common, if disparate accounts, which themselves closely interact. In other words, the existence of differing interpretations of the Anthropocene concept contribute to a dynamic, negotiated process of evidence production.

If using evidence produced in diverse disciplinary contexts entails many difficulties, the natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences could nonetheless gain a lot by focusing on the inherent potential of such interdisciplinary discussions. The repeatedly articulated reproach that the term Anthropocene will deteriorate into a mere buzzword or artifact of pop culture appears mistaken.

This is where my project with Helmuth Trischler on the Anthropocene debate fits in. In Evidence Practices at the Interstice of Sciences, Humanities, and the Public (part of the broader German Research Foundation–financed project Practicing Evidence—Evidencing Practice), we understand the Anthropocene as simultaneously three things: a geological concept, a cultural concept, and a societal phenomenon. We aim to examine the knowledge and evidence practices in all three interrelated areas.[8]

We consider the relevant evidence practices to be socio-epistemic negotiation processes within and between these areas. That the actors in each discipline employ different methodologies and make different kinds of arguments with different interpretive patterns may have the outcome that they read similar empirical data as different kinds of evidence that lead to divergent conclusions. As is well known among historians, after all, pure objectivity doesn’t exist. Instead, perceptions and knowledge depend on researchers’ disciplinary perspectives, personal experiences, and values. Representatives of different disciplines focus on varying actor groups, rely on disparate periodization schemes, and categorize different historical events as more or less relevant.

For example, whereas geologists focus on geological alterations to the planet, using sediments for periodization, archaeologists concentrate on excavations of human artifacts, not going as deep into the Earth as geologists and thus centering on different temporal and spatial scales. Sociologists, on the other hand, propose periodization schemes primarily on the basis of societal systems and structures in societies in a given historical context instead of examining human artifacts or sediments extracted from the Earth.

In the Anthropocene debate, evidence practices come under pressure in their respective disciplinary and discursive regimes, forcing their representatives to leave their respective comfort zones in order to enter what we might call an Anthropocene trading zone to renegotiate their practices in inter- and transdisciplinary ways. The Anthropocene’s interdisciplinarity challenges actor groups to open new avenues of communication, in order to enter an active evidence negotiation process. The Anthropocene debate is becoming a field of discourse in which not only specific content is discussed but long-established scientific boundaries between the environment and human beings, between nature and culture, are blurring, together with the boundaries between the so-called two cultures, the sciences and the humanities.[9]

In order to examine how and by whom evidence is created and which inter- and transdisciplinary feedback loops can be identified within the broad Anthropocene debate, we are analyzing participants’ evidence practices on the intra-, inter-, and transdisciplinary levels. A major line of inquiry for us involves the different dimensions of time and space in such work.[10]

The fusing of geological, historical, and human timescales and of vertical and horizontal spaces in the Anthropocene concept forces us to face the challenge both of thinking in different, somewhat contradictory timescales and of bringing these together.[11] The question of how to do so runs like a thread through the Anthropocene debate and prompts us to leave traditional, linear ways of thinking behind. Whereas, for instance, geologists usually deal with deep time, reaching millions of years into the past, historians’ thinking is mostly restricted to the past few centuries or millennia. Although people can experience the passage of time in their everyday lives, geological and historical timescales often outstrip the human imagination. So how can the fusion of geological and historical time be brought about in academia and the public sphere? And how should such a fusion work with the concepts of evidence employed in the various Anthropocene narratives?

To address these questions, we will analyze the relevant research output and interview experts involved in this work. The ever expanding body of literature on the Anthropocene debate reflects its broad relevance and intensity. Three journals, in particular, are exceptionally specialized on the issue: Anthropocene, Elementa; Science of the Anthropocene; and The Anthropocene Review. Whereas the first two depart from a narrowly scientific approach, the last addresses primarily the humanities and social sciences. For its part, transdisciplinarity is covered by museum exhibitions (for example, Welcome to the Anthropocene in Munich from 2014 to 2016) as well as by publications in media for the general public such as daily newspapers and online videos.

Insofar as criticism and skepticism are preconditions for the advancement of science and scholarship, scientists and scholars seem to be almost forced to make the case for an inter- and transdisciplinary approach—particularly with respect to the multiple meanings, challenges, and consequences of the Anthropocene concept. That is potentially what the greatest contribution of the Anthropocene debate has been—its facilitation of dialogue between the various disciplines and the interested public,[12] not to mention its protagonists’ efforts to maintain a habitable planet.

Fabienne Will is a doctoral student at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and a research fellow at the Deutsches Museum.


  1. The full letter: https://www.ametsoc.org/ams/index.cfm/about-ams/ams-position-letters/letter-to-doe-secretary-perry-on-climate-change/.  ↩
  2. Sabine Maasen, “Transdisziplinarität revisited—Dekonstruktion eines Programms zur Demokratisierung der Wissenschaft,” in Inter- und Transdisziplinarität im Wandel? Neue Perspektiven auf problemorientierte Forschung und Politikberatung, ed. Alexander Bogner, Karen Kastenhofer, and Helge Torgersen (Baden-Baden: Nomos, 2010), 247–67; Rudolf Häberli et al., “Synthesis”, in Transdisciplinarity: Joint Problem Solving among Science, Technology, and Society: An Effective Way for Managing Complexity, ed. Julie Thompson Klein et al. (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2001), 6–22.  ↩
  3. Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stroemer, “The ‘Anthropocene,’” Global Change Newsletter 41 (2000): 17–18.  ↩
  4. Jan Zalasiewicz et al., “When Did the Anthropocene Begin? A Mid-Twentieth Century Boundary Level is Stratigraphically Optimal,” Quaternary International, no. 383 (2015): 196–203, doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2014.11.045; Colin Waters et al. “Assessing Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP) Candidates for the Anthropocene,” Paper 2914, American Geosciences Institute, 2016, https://www.americangeosciences.org/igc/15066; Will Steffen et al., “Stratigraphic and Earth System Approaches to Defining the Anthropocene,” Earth’s Future 4, no. 8 (2016), doi:10.1002/2016EF000379.  ↩
  5. Jürgen Remane et al., “Revised guidelines for the establishment of global chronostratigraphic standards by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS)”, Episodes 19 (1996): 77–81; http://www.stratigraphy.org/index.php/ics-stratigraphicguide.  ↩
  6. Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities 6 (2015): 159–65, doi:10.1215/22011919-3615934; Jason W. Moore, “The Capitalocene, Part I: On the Nature and Origins of Our Ecological Crisis,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 44, no. 3 (2017): 594–630, doi:10.1080/03066150.2016.1235036; Lesley Head, “Contingencies of the Anthropocene: Lessons from the ‘Neolithic’,” The Anthropocene Review 1, no. 2 (2014): 113–25, doi:10.1177/2053019614529745; Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History, and Us, trans. David Fernbach (London: Verso, 2016).  ↩
  7. Daniel Cunha, “The Geology of the Ruling Class?,” The Anthropocene Review 2, no. 3 (2015), doi:10.1177/2053019615607069; J. J. Schmidt, P. G. Brown, and C. J. Orr, “Ethics in the Anthropocene: A research agenda,” The Anthropocene Review 3, no. 3 (2016), doi:10.1177/2053019616662052.  ↩
  8. Helmuth Trischler, “The Anthropocene A Challenge for the History of Science, Technology, and the Environment”, NTM 24, no. 3 (2016), doi:10.1007/s00048-016-0146-3.  ↩
  9. The “two cultures” argument stems from a 1959 lecture by C. P. Snow. See The Two Cultures (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).  ↩
  10. Libby Robin, “A Future Beyond Numbers,” in Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands, ed. Nina Möllers, Christian Schwägerl, and Helmuth Trischler (Munich: Deutsches Museum, 2015), 19–24.  ↩
  11. Bronislaw Szerszynski, “The Anthropocene monument,” European Journal of Social Theory 20, no. 1 (2017), doi:10.1177/1368431016666087; Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry, no. 35 (2009): 197–222.  ↩
  12. Jürgen Renn et al., “Wissen im Anthropozän,” Max Planck Gesellschaft Jahrbuch 2014/15, https://www.mpg.de/8877462/MPIWG_JB_2015.pdf.  ↩
Suggested citation: Fabienne Will, “Negotiating and Communicating Evidence: Lessons from the Anthropocene Debate,” History of Knowledge, January 26, 2018, https://historyofknowledge.net/2018/01/26/negotiating-and-communicating-evidence-anthropocene-debate/.