Anthropocene and Planetary Boundaries

Noel Castree, University of Manchester, UK

Published Online: 23 FEB 2016 • The International Encyclopedia of Geography



“The Anthropocene” was scientific neologism in 2000 but is now something of a buzzword in the earth and environmental sciences, with the prospect of becoming part of the lingua franca of the social sciences and humanities too. It is closely related to the younger scientific neologism “planetary boundaries.” Both terms describe human impacts on the face of the Earth that are wider and deeper than previously recognized. Both also have an epochal meaning, suggesting as they do the end of the Holocene epoch (the period of Earth history during which Homo sapiens have flourished). This entry details the origins of the Anthropocene concept, and its collateral term, planetary boundaries. It then discusses antecedent concepts that failed to catch on in the world of science or the wider world. Contemporary attempts to formally designate the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch are then considered. Despite being so far inconclusive, these attempts have not prevented the Anthropocene being visible in the broader environmental sciences courtesy of the planetary boundaries hypothesis. The entry considers how social scientists and humanities scholars are responding to the claim that humanity is leaving its “safe operating space,” concluding with a discussion of how the broader academic discussions of the Anthropocene are being registered in geography. Though so far fairly marginal to debates about both ideas, geographers have a clear stake in determining their future significance for science and society.

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  • earth observation;
  • human–environment interaction;
  • interdisciplinary research;
  • nature;
  • society;
  • sustainable development;
  • uncertainty;
  • wicked problems

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