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Michel Magny : Aux racines de l’Anthropocène : une crise écologique reflet d’une crise de l’homme

Le Bord de l’Eau, Lormont, Collection « En Anthropocène », 2019
Philip Gibbard
p. 113-114
Référence(s) :

Michel Magny : Aux racines de l’Anthropocène : une crise écologique reflet d’une crise de l’homme. Le Bord de l’Eau, Lormont, Collection « En Anthropocène », 2019, 386 p., 24 €. ISBN : 9782356876300

Texte intégral

1It is nearly two decades since the ‘Anthropocene’was first proposed by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer to identify the most recent time interval in which many geologically significant processes and conditions have been, and continue to be, profoundly altered by human activities. In the last ten years or so it has become apparent the extent to which these activities are increasingly influencing earth surface processes, including changes in erosion and sediment transport resulting from agriculture and urbanisation, and variations in the chemical composition of the atmosphere, oceans and soils, with notable perturbations in element cycling, such as carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus and various metals. Changes in environmental conditions generated by these processes include global warming, ocean acidification and coastal eutrophication and ensuing anoxia; habitat loss, species range shifts and extinctions; and globally significant physical and chemical changes, including cryospheric loss, ozone depletion and accelerating eustatic sea-level rise.

2Proposals to define formally a new geological time division, termed ‘Anthropocene’ have been advocated for a decade. A case has also been made for its consideration as a formal series/epoch, equivalent in status to Holocene and Pleistocene. Following the establishment of a working group of the International Commission on Stratigraphy’s Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy. To conform to rules of stratigraphical nomenclature, such a division must be based on the recognition of a suitable marker horizon or event. The original suggestion by Crutzen and Stroemer was to adopt the start of the Industrial Revolution in northern Europe (mid-18th century). To merit formal designation, such an event would need to leave a global signature consistently distinct from that of the Holocene, and be marked by novel biotic (i.e. biostratigraphical), sedimentary and geochemical change. Definition of the term remains a long-term prospect in geology, yet today the term is already established widely beyond geological circles, especially in the social science literature, as we see in this and many other publications.

3Whilst there is no disputing the clear evidence in recent geological records of increasing anthropogenic impacts on the natural environment, it is debated whether the stratigraphic signature of these trends is sufficiently distinct, consistent and adequately dated at the global scale, for the proposal for a Holocene/Anthropocene boundary to be substantiated on stratigraphic grounds. The most likely candidate is a mid-20th century ‘nuclear weapon bomb radiation peak’, a preferred marker that coincides with a major and statistically distinct turning point in activity termed the ‘great acceleration’.

4The last years have seen an explosion of publications devoted to examining the impact of these anthropogenically driven changes on natural systems, and in the wider context the implications for humanity itself through the inevitable reactions to these changes that are forcing societies and international organisations to respond to what used to be called ‘global warming’ but is today generally termed ‘climate change’ by the so-called ‘Green Movement’.

5It is in this context that Michel Magny, has published his new French-language book on the ‘Roots of the Anthropocene’, which is subtitled ‘an ecological crisis reflects a crisis for humanity’. By all standards this is a substantial work since it attempts, and certainly generally succeeds, in laying out the foundations of the ever increasing anthropogenic impacts on the natural environment through the ages. The book begins with a discussion on the emergence of humans and their society under the title ‘Milestones in a history of humanity’. This includes a summary of global evolution through geological time, the evolution of modern humans and their development that took early hunter-gatherer groups into settled communities. Next the author discusses the Neolithic, during which he considers social, economic and political upheaval occurred for humanity. Chapter three is devoted to a discussion on modernity and the rise of capitalism.

6The second major section is termed ‘The Anthropocene, a crisis of nature’. This section summarises the origins and impacts of climatic warming. Here Michel Magny examines the longer, as well as the short-term records by discussing how climates have varied throughout the

7Quaternary, the last interglacial, as well as our own (the Holocene) and finally the ‘Anthropocene’ itself. This is followed by the question of the ever-increasing human populations, he then moves on to examine the very real possibility that we are living through a ‘sixth global extinction’ event. Here the author directs the reader to what he terms ‘the ‘anthropisation of the Earth’ which addresses the impacts that we are having on global environments from the bottom of the oceans to the tops of the highest mountains though our activities. Activities that are leading to contamination of these environments with metals, plastics, chemical waste, etc.

8In the third major section entitled ‘The Anthropocene, a crisis for humanity’ the author attempts to answer how the Anthropocene will impact on our planet and our complex modern societies. Is there for example, a risk of catastrophies of climate, politics, capital, etc.? Could the changes already set in motion bring about serious changes to our complex organisation? He finishes with his thoughts on the possibility of reviving global politics and how we might begin to reconcile our activities to bring a balance with our planet’s nature.

9From this summary it will be apparent that in this book Michel Magny has attempted, and to my mind, successively achieved a valuable summary of this complex subject in a single volume. His review is well-considered, balanced and wide-ranging, offering a synthesis of the present state of knowledge, whilst not failing to include the substantial difficulties facing humanity in its realisation that if we continue our unrestricted activities we are heading down a path that could see humanity itself in jeopardy, to say nothing of the crash in biodiversity, the potential catastrophic worsening of climate and so on.

10The book is an authoritative work, falling very much under the heading of a serious study, unlike several of the recent books which have attempted to capitalise on this topical subject. At nearly 400 pages, this text is not for light reading. There are few illustrations and no photographs. Nevertheless the reader is rewarded with a carefully compiled and thought-provoking volume that is multi-disciplinary in both its content and outlook. It will be welcomed not only by professionals, but by those who would like to understand, and indeed ‘get under the skin’ of the ramifications of the environmental and societal impacts of humanly driven climate change in their context.

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Référence papier

Philip Gibbard, « Michel Magny : Aux racines de l’Anthropocène : une crise écologique reflet d’une crise de l’homme », Quaternaire, vol. 30/1 | 2019, 113-114.

Référence électronique

Philip Gibbard, « Michel Magny : Aux racines de l’Anthropocène : une crise écologique reflet d’une crise de l’homme », Quaternaire [En ligne], vol. 30/1 | 2019, mis en ligne le 02 juillet 2019, consulté le 23 septembre 2019. URL :

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Philip Gibbard

Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge Cambridge CB2 1ER, England

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