Writing History in the Anthropocene

Andrea Westermann, Sabine Höhler (eds.)

Geschichte und Gesellschaft 46. 2020, iss. 4

Since the turn of the new millennium, earth scientists from various disciplines have invited their colleagues, other scientists and humanists, politicians, NGOs, as well as the public at large, to consider consigning the contemporary geological epoch of the Holocene to the past, by superimposing a new time interval, the Anthropocene. When discussing this new geological epoch, scholars highlight that past and present societal actions in the aggregate have become a powerful force, shaping and changing the earth system and thus earth history at its planetary or terrestrial scales of space and time, equal, for instance, to the climate-driving forces already at work. By comparing these societal actions with earthly forces, scholars demonstrate the profound and irreversible impacts of societies on their environments: from agriculture and industrialization, carbon dioxide accumulations in the atmosphere, and the rapid, large-scale melting of ice sheets and glaciers, to the circulation of synthetic materials, radioactive contamination of soil, and a shrinking biodiversity. Whatever the Anthropocene’s stratigraphically most appropriate marker and hence actual starting point, Anthropocene geologists claim that we are witnessing the turn of a new page in geohistory. By accepting this claim, we simultaneously re-open the pages of history and start to reassess and rewrite the pasts of various societies or actors because geological and historical dimensions have become interdependent. How have historians, by adding their own repertoire of approaches and tools, engaged with these issues?