Introduction to the ARCADE Issue 35.1 feature, “Generation Anthropocene: Climate Change and Life After the End of a World.” Articles from the issue will release online over the following weeks. Subscribe to receive ARCADE in print.

35-1 feature introduction

In 2000, the atmospheric chemist and Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen popularized the idea of the Anthropocene, a geological epoch whose atmosphere, hydrosphere, and even lithosphere has been significantly altered by human activity. Though its exact start date is controversial, a popular idea is that the Anthropocene began around the 1950s, and if this proves true, it will render its predecessor, the Holocene, the shortest geological epoch by far. The Holocene will have lasted less than 12,000 years. For comparison, the Pleistocene, the geological epoch before the Holocene, lasted for 2,500,000 years.

The Holocene should have gone on for hundreds upon thousands of years, but humans may have killed it just as it was, in geological time, born. Scientists attribute various impacts from human activities to the Anthropocene’s creation, including, among others, the presence of radioactive particles left from atomic and thermonuclear bomb tests, global mass extinctions, huge amounts of plastic waste, and, of course, climate change. Humanity’s consumption of fossil fuels—which is pronounced in the US because millions live in the most energy-inefficient manner possible, driving cars, consuming products manufactured in faraway places, living in detached houses, and so on—has been so extensive that it is changing the entire nature and structure of the Earth’s surface as we know it.

In the coming years of the Anthropocene, what new changes to the Earth will manifest, and when will they occur? Scientists don’t know for sure—though certain changes are inevitable, the future has yet to be fully written by the actions of those in the present. What we do know is this: the young of our times have a high chance of living in a new and unprecedented period in our Earth’s history brought about by many factors, one of the strongest being climate change. The children in our schools, playgrounds, and homes will very likely grapple in coming decades with a world heavily altered by human activities, including our rapid warming of the planet. We have collected some of these young voices and put them in this feature. The contributors include grade school through college-aged environmentalists who are engaging in activism and considering difficult moral questions. They understand the grave matter of climate change, are deeply considering its effects, and are ready to face the challenges ahead.