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10 February 2021

How the Nobel-winning chemist Paul Crutzen changed the way we see nature

The scientist, who has died aged 87, effectively ended a 12,000-year-old geological era when he invented the “Anthropocene”.

By India Bourke

“We no longer live in the Holocene!” These words, blurted out in a moment of frustration at a scientific conference in February 2000 by the Nobel-winning scientist Paul Crutzen, effectively ended a geological era that had lasted almost 12,000 years. In its place, announced Crutzen, the atmospheric chemist who died on 28 January aged 87, was something called the “Anthropocene” – an epoch in which human activity is the dominant influence on nature.

The term had been coined years before by the biologist Eugene F Stoermer. But Crutzen – who said he came up with it independently – cemented its imaginative standing, taking it from the narrow realm of stratigraphy and into common parlance. Crutzen had tapped into a truth about the vast physical and moral consequences of human activity that many felt could not be ignored.

“The long-held barriers between nature and culture are breaking down. It’s no longer us against ‘Nature’,” Crutzen wrote of our age of acidified seas, omnipresent plastic and a sixth mass extinction. “Instead, it’s we who decide what nature is and will be.”

The outburst was typical of a man with a reputation for nonconformism who often showed up to conferences in an open shirt and sandals. His freestyle lectures gripped audiences. “Idiots” was how he annotated a paper with which he disagreed, while his own work described the relationship between ozone gases as like that between “two mafia families”.

Born in Amsterdam in 1933, the young Crutzen loved to lose himself observing the wonders of the natural world: the “broken” moon, first snowfalls, his “good friend” Peter the cat. When not engaged in his passion for skating on frozen lakes, he would escape into stories of travel and polar adventure. But Nazi Germany’s occupation of the Netherlands in 1940 was a brutal childhood experience.

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Money had always been scarce (his father worked as a waiter and his mother as a cleaner in a hospital kitchen), yet the outbreak of war brought famine in its wake. Classmates died of starvation; his cat was eaten by neighbours; his schooling fell to mere hours a week. A fever would later ruin his chances of a scholarship to university, leading him instead to engineering school and military service.

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It wasn’t until after meeting and marrying his wife, Terttu Soininen, that an advert for a job as a computer programmer at Stockholm University changed the course of Crutzen’s life. Alongside the role, which he secured in 1959, he was able to attend classes there. Nine years later, he received his doctorate in meteorology.

Throughout his subsequent career – in which he published a prolific 360 peer-reviewed articles and 15 books – Crutzen continued to set his own course on his own terms, perhaps especially so when it came to understanding the natural environment.

Before 1970, he recalled in an interview, scientists were generally of the opinion that “nature is so big and humankind so small”. Crutzen became convinced that this was wrong. His early research on the emissions of supersonic aircraft persuaded him that nothing was safe from humanity’s threat: “Other serious problems will certainly arise in the increasingly complicated world of tomorrow,” he wrote in 1972.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Crutzen proved that industrial gases were causing the Earth’s protective ozone layer to thin. By 1987 this work helped underpin the Montreal Protocol, a groundbreaking international treaty banning the production of ozone-depleting aerosols. Without this agreement, the world would now be considerably more vulnerable to cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation, and global warming projections would likely be 25 per cent worse than they are today.

Crutzen went on to share the Nobel prize for chemistry for his contribution to tackling the ozone disaster. Yet his planetary safeguarding didn’t end there. Further research warned of the long-term effects that nuclear conflict would have on weather systems and global harvests. Crutzen regarded the resulting concept of “nuclear winter” as by far his “most important” contribution to politics.

It is the term Anthropocene, however, that will likely seal Crutzen’s place in history most firmly – though geologists are still at odds over its application and whether humanity merits the status of a geological force. The concept has also been criticised for risking the promotion of an overly anthropocentric world-view in which acknowledging humans’ impact on nature leads to an outsized perception of their capacity to protect it.

It may therefore be somewhat paradoxical to mark, through the life story of one man, a concept that should ultimately help direct attention back to the natural world. Yet if, as Confucius argued, “the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name”, then few have contributed more to the beginning of this shift. As Crutzen wrote in 2011: “In this new era, nature is us.” 

[see also: Ten crucial questions about the world in 2021]

This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair