Make Way for the Anthropocene

I’m just about to give a public lecture. It will be at Whanganui Regional Museum in a couple of days’ time. The talk is, with some modification, one that I delivered in Japan last month, as a guest of the National Museum of Nature and Science  in Tsukuba. The topic of the gathering was the Anthropocene Epoch and we collected there in order to get our heads around the concept, determine its value to us, and explore how – as museum professionals – we might introduce it to the public. In brief, the idea behind the Anthropocene Epoch is that humans have now had such a considerable impact on the Earth that we have become a geological force, worthy of our own dedicated time period. Hubris? Perhaps. But also potentially a real phenomenon worthy of attention.

Will the concept have purchase, like “biodiversity” and “sustainability” before it? For most people these two words have at least some meaning, whether or not they know the technical scientific definition. Or will the Anthropocene go the way of Chaos Theory – popular for a few years before lapsing from public consciousness. For me, the answer lies in whether it’s sufficiently clear and utilitarian for politicians to be inspired by it and that, in turn lies in whether it captures public imagination.

When it all falls apart, cats will be there to eat what's left. Photo: "Post Apocalyptic Drama" by Jonhyblaze
When it all falls apart, cats will be there to eat what’s left. Photo: “Post Apocalyptic Drama” by Jonhyblaze

So, will our undeniably huge current impact on the planet will be sufficiently long-lasting to have an impact on the fossil record millions of years in the future? For my conclusions, I’m borrowing just a little from The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman (Picador, 2007). It’s well worth a read. This book is a thought exercise around what would happen if humans suddenly disappeared. What would come back? How long would it take for the planet to return to some semblance of a natural state? What would come back depends a lot on where you look. Cows, sheep and toy poodles wouldn’t survive long, especially where native predators were present. Cats, of course, can survive anywhere will be busy for eons mopping up whatever they find.

However, much of the broad sweep of our planetary impact would vanish a few decades or centuries after we’re gone. Trees would grow up through asphalt streets. Buildings would collapse under the weight of sodden roofs. But what about the incredibly long-lived isotopes from nuclear waste? The compressed toxic ooze from landfill plastic? They will eventually form a layer in some future geological record, coupled with changes in CO2 levels recorded in everything from tropical sediments to polar ice. There will also be major shifts in pollen, as we’ve carted plants to and from every continent. And how about the space junk drifting unchanging in the upper stratosphere waiting to pelt whatever ship eventually strays too close? I, for one, am convinced that our footprint on Earth is here to stay and that the Anthropocene as a concept has something worthwhile to impart.

This, then, begs the question of what we do with the concept now that we have it. It might be easy to grasp, but in and of itself it’s not a call to action. I think, that’s where museums can have a unique positive impact. We’re in the business of providing portals to meaning, especially around complex topics. For me, the Anthropocene resonates around the connectivity of all of humanity’s interaction with the globe – ocean acidification, herbicides and pesticides, climate, invasive species, poaching – they’re all interrelated. Does the Anthropocene give a shot in the arm to personal responsibility over environmental stewardship? Does it give us cause to think more deeply about the distribution of wealth?

Is this the visual language of the Anthropocene?
Is this the visual language of the Anthropocene?

Finally, I wonder about how to give this message. Visual language is something that those of us in the business of communicating concepts to the public need to be concerned with. In the last decade or two, the visual language of environmental action has been happy: turquoise blue and apple green on white, with cute little seedlings being protectively cupped by pairs of clean hands. Subconsciously, the message has been “it’s not too late, and it’s not too difficult”. Are we not perhaps at the point where a more somber message makes sense? Is it time to tell people that it could be too late they might have to give something up? Of course, turning everybody off means you have no audience, defeating the purpose.

At the workshop in Tsukuba, colleagues from the Smithsonian and Deutsches Museum gave glimpses of their exhibitions on the Anthropocene. (The latter has web content up that you can look at here.) Additionally, The Great Acceleration: Art in the Anthropocene  in Taiwan provided a platform for a great variety of interpretations, some humorous, some sobering and contemplative.

We are still very early in this journey, processing the ideas sufficiently to have something authentic to say. It’s an important journey, though, one that may help to chart the course of society and its future.

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