The following is from an article by Elizabeth Kolbert in NG (Mar 2011):
The word “Anthropocene” was coined by Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen about a decade ago. One day Crutzen, who shared a Nobel Prize for discovering the effects of ozone-depleting compounds, was sitting at a scientific conference. The conference chairman kept referring to the Holocene, the epoch that began at the end of the last ice age, 11,500 years ago, and that–officially, at least–continues until this day.
“Let’s stop it,” Crutzen recalls blurting out. “We are no longer in the Holocene. We are in the Anthropocene.” Well, it was quiet in the room for a while. When the group took a coffee break, the Anthropocene was the main topic of conversation. Someone suggested that Crutzen copyright the word.
In 2002, when Crutzen wrote up the Anthropocene idea in the journal ‘Nature,’ the concept was immediately picked up by researchers working in a wide range of disciplines. Soon it began to appear regularly in the scientific press.
In 2007, Jan Zalasiewicz, a British stratigrapher, was serving as chairman of the Geological Society of London’s Stratigraphy Commission. At a meeting he decided to ask his fellow stratigraphers what they thought of the Anthropocene. Twenty-one of 22 thought the concept had merit. The group agreed to look at it as a formal problem in geology. Would the Anthropocene satisfy the criteria used for naming a new epoch? . . . Zalasiewicz now heads a working group . . . that is tasked with officially determining whether the Anthropocene deserves to be incorporated into the geologic timescale. . . . The process is likely to take years.
If we have indeed entered a new epoch, there when exactly did it begin? When did human impacts rise to the level of geologic importance? . . . Crutzen has suggested that the Anthropocene began in the late 18th century, when, ice cores show, carbon dioxide levels began what has since proved to an uninterrupted rise. Other scientists put the beginning of the epoch in the middle of the 20th century, when the rates of both population growth and consumption accelerated rapidly.
Crutzen, who started the debate, thinks its real value won’t lie in revisions to geology textbooks. His purpose is broader: He wants to focus our attention on the consequences of our collective action–and on how we might still avert the worst. “What I hope,” he says, “is term ‘Anthropocene’ will be a warning to the world.”