Paul Jozef Crutzen: the age of the anthropocene


Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen set a landmark when he established that our activities, and the resulting emissions, were damaging our atmosphere and endangering our environment. He also has surprising solutions in store to counter the phenomenon.


Twelve years ago, Eugene F. Stoermer and Paul Crutzen coined a new word to refer to the current geological era. To them, our times are so deeply marked by the impact of mankind on the global geological and environmental balance that a whole new word is needed – until then, scientists had said we were living in the “holocene”. Stoermer and Crutzen coined “anthropocene”, a word with ancient Greek roots: anthropo- means “human” and -cene means “new”. To them, this era dates back to the 18th century and the Industrial Revolution. In 2000, they wrote:

We propose the latter part of the 18th century [to date its onset][…]because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable. This is the period when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several ‘greenhouse gases’, in particular CO2 and CH4.

Paul Crutzen is thus the co-inventor of a word –now being widely used by the scientific community, even though it has not been officially adopted yet – that sums up, in a few letters, a fact we have been finding more and more evidence of over the past twenty years: our activities impact the environment. In other words, they damage it. But Paul Crutzen is not famous just for this linguistic contribution. As an atmospheric chemist, he has spent most of his career working on ozone depletion and the hole in the ozone layer – work which earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995. More recently, Paul Crutzen has also made the headlines for his surprising support of geo-engineering approaches to reverse global warming. Here is a man who has dedicated most of his work to understanding what exactly it is that we are doing to our environment – and how we can curb it.


From the Nobel Prize to geo-engineering?


Back in the 1970s, Paul Crutzen was among the first to point out that emissions of nitrous oxide from the Earth could affect the amount of nitric oxide in the stratosphere, damaging the stratospheric ozone layer. He also noted that these emissions had dramatically increased due notably to the increased use of fertilisers, and to supersonic aircraft. This work earned him the Nobel Prize, but the “anthropocene” concept does not refer only to damage caused to the atmosphere.

The influence of mankind on land use, biodiversity and ecosystems is also disputed and studied by scientists, and must be taken into account.

But to draw a portrait of the situation is not enough – especially if the portrait does not look too good. Solutions need to be found as well. And while everyone is calling for changes in our habits, for less pollution and less greenhouse gases and more reforestation, Paul Crutzen, surprisingly, has sided with the controversial idea of geo-engineering that we looked into in a previous article. More accurately, he does not recommend that we start manipulating the climate, but considers it a possible “plan B”, a last-resort measure should global warming spiral completely out of control. He proposes sending a million tons of sulphur into the atmosphere, to block part of the sun’s rays and thus decrease the global temperature on the Earth’s surface. This project is inspired by volcano Pinatubo, which expelled 10 million tons of sulphur and caused temperatures to drop by 1.5°C. Of course, the idea comes at a cost: 25 to 30 billion dollars each year – who could take it in on? And there are risks, too: acid rain, ozone deficit in the atmosphere, etc. But the mere fact that such a renowned scientist would even consider such an option to get us out of our predicament demonstrates just how worrying the situation has become. It is urgent that we act to reduce our emissions and reverse the negative impact we have on our environment. It is essential that Paul Crutzen’s option never has to be implemented.

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