Some articles on the Anthropocene

What is the Anthropocene? - Part 4

Henri Cuny - 15/08/2023

The Anthropocene as a time of awareness?

Fourth and last part of this article aiming to answer the question that obsesses us all (who says no?): what is the Anthropocene?

After having explored the scientific definition of the Anthropocene in part 1, its more general dimension in part 2 and what the concept really covers in part 3, I will approach in this concluding part its more psychological dimension and will try to explain how the conceptualization and the recognition of the Anthropocene represent a significant evolution in our relationship to the world.

The world of humans... and all the rest

Since the concept of Anthropocene was invented and popularized, it is above all because some have become aware of the gigantic impact we have on this planet. This is perhaps the most salient point of the Anthropocene: the recognition, by at least some of us, of our power to transform the Earth's surface. This might seem anecdotal, yet it is a revolution.

For centuries (and still sometimes today!), a common message has been that one would have to be very pretentious to think that humans could influence the planet, this unalterable work of God, created for us. The common idea was that humans had only a minor influence on the Earth, a planet subject to the incomparably more powerful forces of the universe. The Earth was seen as an unshakable and unlimited space subject to the divine laws of nature, while our world was subject to the laws of humans.

This vision is found, for example, in the foundations of our economic process, based on a total recklessness of the planetary boundaries and of the fragile nature of the ecosystems, since it assumes unlimited natural resources as well as the absence of significant impacts of our activity on the biosphere.

This vision is also found in the classic version of history, which is purely anthropocentric, since it considers humans as central and isolated elements of the world. This history is made up of wars, religions, nations and many other human inventions, but has absolutely no consideration for the "non-human" world, seen as the immovable backdrop in which human events take place.

In fact, the human world has been thought to be independent of the natural world. This separation is reflected in the very compartmentalized way we have of seeing things: the human world is studied, for example, via history or economics, while the "rest" is studied by sciences such as biology, chemistry or physics.

This compartmentalization reveals that we consider ourself as being "outside of the nature", which joins the classic nature/culture dualism and the common belief that humans would have "raised themselves" through culture. Humans have their history and their activities, which are independent of the physical and biological systems that surround us and that are subject to other forces.


[1] L. Testot, Cataclysmes: Une histoire environnementale de l’humanité, Payot. 2018.

[2] J.-M. Jancovici et C. Blain, Le Monde sans fin, miracle énergétique et dérive climatique, Dargaud. 2019.

[3] N. Georgescu-Roegen, The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, 2014e éd. Harvard University Press, 1971.

[4] D. H. Meadows, D. L. Meadows, et J. Randers, Les limites à la croissance (dans un monde fini) − Le rapport Meadows, 30 ans après. Rue de l’échiquier, 2012.

[5] C. Bonneuil et J.-B. Fressoz, L’Évènement Anthropocène – La Terre, l’histoire et nous. Seuil, 2013.

A conceptual error

The way of thinking described in the preceding paragraphs should today appear to anyone in their right mind as an obvious and dramatic conceptual error!

On the one hand, the surface of the Earth is modifiable, and the ecosystems it shelters are fragile and subject to bondaries, which we are perhaps well on the way to exceeding.

On the other hand, we totally depend on ecosystems. What we call "economy", for example, is not an independent human process, but is fully subject to the biological and physical laws that govern the Earth's surface.

It is enough to look at what economics is basically to understand that there is not economics on one side and biology, physics or ecology on the other. Economic process, therefore, essentially consists of taking natural resources (living beings, minerals, fossil fuels, water, etc.) and transforming them into goods and services that are ultimately consumed. This is no different from the activity of the countless living beings that are inhabiting this planet with us, who take resources from their environment and transform them in order to live. The harvesting and consumption of antelope, for example, is an important process of the lion's economy.

Human economy can therefore be seen as a process completely linked to the ecosystems on which it totally depends and which in return it profoundly influences. To think of the economy, or more generally of human activity, outside of natural laws therefore constitutes a conceptual aberration.

At the birth of the economic process, humans still had a limited impact on the Earth as a whole – even if locally, the impact could already be strong – the world was immense, largely unknown and could seem unlimited. The conjecture of an infinite and unshakable world, false as it was, could be acceptable, because the impact of human activity on the global system remained marginal.

But the growth of human activity has been so brutal that humans today have a deleterious impact on all living beings and on the physical systems of the planet. What could initially look like simplifying hypotheses (unlimited world, infinite resources, etc.) now clearly appear as delusional hypotheses.

The Anthropocene or the recognition of the conceptual error

The rapid scientific and technological developments of the 20th century (nuclear bomb, space conquest, information technology, etc.) as well as the media coverage of the global consequences of human activity (collapse of life, climate change, depletion of resources, etc.) ended up putting humans with a fait accompli and forced them to see what they did not want to see: they are connected to the Earth's physical and biological systems, on which they depend and which they profoundly influence.

The Anthropocene is the meeting point between the history of mankind and the history of Earth, marked by the realization that human activities by no means have an independent existence, but are completely connected to the Earth and life.

The Anthropocene is an invitation to break out of the classic compartmentalised vision. It shows us that the history of mankind cannot be understood without taking into account the history of the Earth and life, and it pushes us to think of the economy as a process of the living much more subject to the laws of nature than to the laws of humans.

Ultimately, recognizing the Anthropocene involves recognizing the following key points:

  • We are totally connected to the Earth's physical and biological systems, with which we establish interdependent relationships;

  • We have acquired a power that leads us to profoundly transform these systems;

  • Our way of acting means that this power is exerted for the moment in the direction of a rapid and globalized alteration of life and its substrate;

  • Since we are closely dependent on this life and its substrate, our way of acting also carries a risk of self-destruction;

  • It is therefore irrational and dangerous to think about human activity without taking into account physical and biological realities.

Several events suggest that this call for a holistic vision may be spreading. Media coverage and lively debates around the Anthropocene point in this direction, as does the emergence of environmental history, which seeks to link the history of mankind to the history of the Earth and life [1] .

We can also underline the major media success of personalities whose speeches try to get out of the compartmentalization. For example in France, after decades of preaching in the desert, Jean-Marc Jancovici is now in the spotlight with a discourse applying the laws of physics to the human economic process [2].

A collective awareness, really?

So, can we speak of a global "awareness"? In other words, is the recognition of the Anthropocene and of the associated key points a global phenomenon, capable of causing an upheaval in collective consciousness?

It is difficult to give an unequivocal answer to these questions, firstly because "awareness" is hard to quantify: it is a diffuse phenomenon, which plays out over the long term and largely escapes measurement.

We have probably never talked so much about what is called "ecology" which, after being cheesy for a while, would have come back to the fore to become "a hot topic". Several points show, however, that the awareness so much evoked in the media and public discourse is only a distant illusion.

We can note that the criticisms of the delusional character of the economic process did not wait for the conceptualization of the Anthropocene. More than half a century ago, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen showed the inseparable link between economic development and environmental alteration by applying the laws of physics (entropy in particular) to the economy [3]. Similarly, the world-famous report "The Limits to Growth" published in 1972 highlighted the unsustainable character of an infinite growth of human activity [4].

It is therefore difficult to say whether the current movement is ultimately only a continuation of these repeated warnings or constitutes a real step forward in the collective recognition of our global impact.

It can also be pointed out that many peoples of the past or present times have never committed the conceptual error of the Western way of thinking. The Indians, for example, never endangered the bison, a life form on which they totally depended, which testifies to a deep awareness of the existence of a vital link with nature.

The contemporary tale of a "raising awareness" could therefore be seen as a sign of condescension by letting people believe that "we became aware while they did not know" [5]. In fact, some humans have always had a deep awareness of the relationships of interdependence at work in the living world and of their vital aspect.

Finally, if we can assume a certain awareness in the West, which has indeed gone very far in the pursuit of the conceptual error, we should temper our ardor. This awareness, if it exists, remains far from constituting a global phenomenon and does not induce any reorientation of our activity for the moment.

Political speeches, advertisements... show that we continue to be obsessed with GDP growth, technological development and mass production-consumption, precisely the processes that are at the origin of the destructive character of the Anthropocene!

Communication is running at full speed and we now coat everything with a ladle of "ecology" or a hint of "environmental responsibility", but in fact we continue to oppose "economy" and "ecology", a very strong symptom of the fact that the compartmentalized vision still powerfully permeates our minds and that we continue to perceive nature and life as constraints to our development, and not as the vital bases of our existence.


The Anthropocene goes far beyond the scientific definition of a new geological epoch or singular event. This concept constitutes the recognition of the colossal impact we have on the Earth. It is the acceptance that we are no longer those poor creatures subject to the will of god(s), but demi-gods who subject the surface of the planet to their will.

The Anthropocene is the moment when we understand that our history and our economy cannot be thought of separately from the history of the Earth and of life. On the one hand because we now have a power capable of modifying the Earth's surface on its whole, and which is currently exerted in the direction of an alteration of the living; on the other hand because, contrary to what we try to believe, we are totally dependent on physical and biological systems.

However, this "awareness" is still far from constituting a planetary and significant phenomenon on a large scale! First, the recognition of the totalitarian and destructive side of human activity is not a new fact. Second, for the moment it does not translate at all by a questioning of our thought patterns or our behavior. Suffice to say that we have only taken a very timid first step towards a possible in-depth modification of our activity on this planet...

Henri Cuny