WE’RE ABOU T TO ENTER a new era of geological time. Or rather, we’re already in it, but it’s about to be- come official. Maybe you’ve heard of it. It’s called the Anthropocene: the Age of Man. The idea of the Anthropocene has been floating
around for a while. But until recently, that’s all it’s been — an idea.
Now a group of experts belonging to the International Geologic Con-
gress, the body that decides how the history of the earth — all 4.54
billion years of it — should be divided up, has formally endorsed the
All that’s left now is to decide on a starting date, and to agree on
a golden spike that would mark it — something in today’s geologic
record permanent and widespread enough to act as a durable sign for
some far-future geologists to find when they try to plumb the depths of
our present folly. A couple of proposals have been floated: a carbon-di-oxide spike in the air trapped inside glacial ice. Radioactive isotopes
scattered around the world by nuclear testing in the 1950s and ’60s.
Spherules of ash from coal-burning electrical plants.
Whatever they choose, the message will be clear. Past geological eras
have mostly ended in catastrophe: an asteroid impact, a mass extinction, a sudden onset of glaciation. This time the catastrophe is us. For
historians, the opening of an era like this should be a cause for reflection. It’s a moment to think about the speed at which human beings are
capable of change, and the scale of time we use when thinking about
The historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage have published a book
called The History Manifesto (Cambridge University Press, 2014), in
which they argue that historians should expand the frame of their
studies by embracing the long view, or longue durée. They envision a
future in which historians surf vast temporal sequences of data and
act as enlightened referees among disciplines’ competing claims. As
someone who has spent years training to be a historian, I love this idea.
But, like many of the things I love, it is both vauntingly ambitious and
unlikely to come true.
While I doubt this will be the future of the profession — historians
aren’t about to be embraced as enlightened referees when even basic
scientific claims are increasingly being held in doubt — I agree with
Guldi and Armitage about the importance of the longue durée. It’s a
concept that was popularized by the great French historian Fernand
Braudel. When I entered grad school for history (in what feels like another geological era), one of the first books that made a big impression
on me was his The Mediterranean and Mediterranean World in the Age of
Philip II (originally published in French, in 1949; since republished in
English by the University of California Press).
Not much read or cited anymore, it remains a masterpiece. Braudel
belonged to a group of French historians called the Annales School.
They pioneered a way of studying history that looked past immediate
events and toward the underlying structures — geographical, economic, demographic, even meteorological — that shaped most of human
existence. Think of history as a glass of beer. The way the Annales
School looks at it, geography and social structure are the beer and the
glass. All that other stuff we think of as history — kings, queens, battles, wars — that’s just the foam.
Braudel taught historians to pay attention to landscape. He showed
that it was one thing to toil as a peasant in the fields, and quite another
to enjoy the freedom of the mountains. He taught us to think about
stasis as much as we do change. Thinking in terms of the longue durée
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By JACOB MIKANOWSKI