the anthropocene: 10 000 years of ecocide
‘Imagine how our discourse and actions would be different if people daily detailed for us the lives— the individuality, the small and large joys and fears and sorrows— of those whom this culture enslaves or kills. Imagine if we gave these victims that honor, that attention. Imagine if everyday newspapers carried an account of each child who starves to death because cities take the resources on which the child’s traditional community has forever depended…. Imagine, too, if our discourse included accounts of those nonhumans whose lives in this culture makes unspeakably miserable: the billions of creatures bred for torture in feedlot, factor farm, or laboratory; the wild creatures worth money, who are pursued and destroyed no matter where they hide; the wild creatures unvalued by the economic system, who are eliminated because they are in the way of production’ Derrick Jensen, Endgame, Vol. 1, 2006, p.59
Update 2021: I wrote the below post when I began my doctoral studies on experimental ecocinema. My studies changed to embrace broader developments in the art and ecology field and to specifically explain long term ecological art practices. I now teach a unique ONLINE course – the Haumea Essential Ecoliteracy 7-week course – to help creatives and art professionals across the world understand the ecology emergency and what it means for the creative sector- see more here: please note, course places fill quickly, but I do maintain a waitlist. Thank you!
My still forming ideas for the first part, and the context in which my thesis (‘the ecocidal eye: beyond the anthropocentric gaze to a relational gaze in cinema’) rests, are to present and characterise the ecocidal tendencies of the human-centered (anthropocentric) gaze, to examine whether culturally we perpetuate such actions in cultural works we produce, such as cinema. In this article I decided to examine anthropocentrism by considering a new term – the Anthropocene as perhaps a means to think about ecocide over the centuries. Interestingly, I found that this term geological term and concept has been adopted quickly, in other fields, particularly in the last few months in international conferences leading up to the upcoming Earth Rio+20 earth summit.
To begin with, when I was reviewing recent data over the last few months on the state of the earth to form the background of my enquiry, I kept coming across so many different, but as I see it now related facets of planetary system collapse or change. The exponential rate and scale of destruction is simply terrifying. The results of globalised ecocide* are evident: in our atmosphere (climate change), in our oceans and waterways (ocean acidification, extirpation of marine species and actual and imminent marine ecosystem collapse), ecosystem degradation leading to gross biodiversity loss (we are now in the largest mass extinction period of the last 65 million years), non-renewable resource and mineral depletion (peak oil, peak nitrogen, peak phosphorus, peak uranium, peak everything etc). I began to see that one couldn’t focus on one particular aspect if one was to understand the systemic nature of ecocide. That one species, and our own at that, is altering so quickly the many life supports of the earth is pretty inconceivable and is leading a growing number of people to call this unprecedented period as the Age of the Anthropocene (the age of man). While there is understandably much attention being paid to climate change (this has been a focus for some in the small area of contemporary art that has begun to look at art & ecology in recent years) I sought out others who were looking at the totality of earth’s biospheric (global sum of all ecosystems) change.
My first idea was to look for people who had long considered a more global perspective of planetary change. Initially I looked to the work of the Club of Rome, a global network of nominated past leaders, economists and influential scientific members. Presented as an independent and international scientific and sociological think-tank I re-examined their 1972 Limits to Growth key points (video summary here). The book was widely distributed in millions of copies yet largely dismissed and lost amidst the economic boom of the latter decades of the 20th century. In fact cultural narratives of unending growth increased in subsequent decades, fueled and coupled with exponentially growing techno-optimism and faith in the economic stories of self-regulating, globalized open-markets. These narratives have characterised and dominated mainstream thinking, policy-making and the mass media in the most powerful industrial societies since, while the destruction accelerated and limits of living systems that support all life, (not to mentions the finite nature of non-renewable energy systems) were largely ignored.
However the early computer modelling of its first ‘business-as-usual scenario’ presented by the Club of Rome’s Limit to Growth authors in the early 1970s has been surprisingly accurate in predicting our dwindling resources, heating atmosphere, biodiversity degradation, burgeoning population etc. I’d seen previously that these findings were updated in 2004 and I have just found that earlier this week that The Club of Rome have released a new document for the global community – 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, by Jorgen Randers (launch videos, info here ). This publication has been prepared in time for the UN 2012 Earth Summit on Sustainable Development in June. Key ideas from this new report claims
‘We already live in a manner that cannot be continued for generations without major change. Humanity has overshot the earth’s resources, and in some cases we will see local collapse before 2052 – we are emitting twice as much greenhouse gas every year as can be absorbed by the world’s forests and oceans.’
However in some circles the agenda of The Club of Rome has also attracted attention for its calls for new forms of global governance. Some people are uneasy with its undemocratically elected members, with their clear links with powerful corporations and institutions, their influence in higher political circles, and their lack in critically examining mainstream ideologies that has accounted for much inequity across the world (Bramhall, 2012).
Looking to other areas and still thinking about the totality of ecosystem collapse, there is significant evidence from other researchers that we in fact exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity in the mid-1980s (Catton, 1982) and its estimated we are currently using the resources of another half-planet, see the international Global Footprint Network. I also began finding a variety of graphs indicating the cumulative and interconnected effects of ecocide occurring across the earth. Among the work of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, another influential international organisation focusing on global social-ecological systems, I also kept coming across terms and concepts such as Planetary Boundaries, The Great Acceleration, the Age of the Anthropocene (age of man). There are now 9 officially recognised planetary boundaries or ‘tipping points’, originally profiled in what is now considered a landmark paper, entitled Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the safe operating Space for Humanity (Rockstrom et. al., 2009). The importance and the debate of these planetary boundaries, of which more are being added, has resulted in them been quickly adopted by the UN as the basis of its ‘draft zero’ document for the Outcome of the upcoming UN Rio+20 2012 Earth Summit on Sustainable Development. The Nine boundaries identified are:
– climate change
– stratospheric ozone
– land use change
– freshwater use
– biological diversity
– ocean acidification
– nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans
– aerosol loading
– chemical pollution.
‘The study suggested that three of these boundaries (climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to the biosphere) may already have been transgressed. In addition, it emphasizes that the boundaries are strongly connected — crossing one boundary may seriously threaten the ability to stay within safe levels of the others’ (Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2012).
How this information is being presented is interesting. Pie-charts have been produced by these scientists that are helping group and visualise these connections, much like Florence Nightingale’s celebrated pie-chart that visualised and brought together singular events that led to vast changes in modern healthcare. So a new picturing of global systems in science is occurring (the boundaries already exceeded and the interconnected realities are easier to grasp, see the pie-chart below). A few critics have suggested that such visualisations are too simplistic and /or don’t include important social markers. For instance in 2012 KateRaworth from Oxfam argued that social boundaries should be incorporated into the planetary boundary structure, such as jobs, education, food, access to water, health services and energy. There is a need to accommodate an environmentally safe space compatible with “poverty eradication and rights for all‘. Within planetary limits and an equitable social foundation lies a ‘doughnut’-shaped area which is the area where there is a “safe and just space for humanity to thrive in” (Raworth, 2012). Kate argues for this social ‘doughnut’ model over the accepted planetary boundaries scheme (see her video below), which as she correctly points out, only identifies scientific criteria. Overall there is some growing recognition that the earth has suffered greatly from the atomised thinking so prevalent in the science, technology and economic sectors in particular and that holistic thinking and concepts like the planetary boundary are urgently needed.
These new graphic images of planetary limits, such as the ones outlined above, have been familiar to some leading scientists and development researchers over the last number of years. However there is much consensus of the urgency that humanity and its leaders recognise the scale and interconnected nature of the earth’s imminent tipping points. A new educational online animation has been recently created. It appears on the new 2012 Internet resource site, Anthropocene.info , which is compiled by a consortium of science and development groups. It commissioned this short internet video to graphically present these ideas to the wider public but also to other scientists and policymakers over the last couple of months.
The new 3 minute video Welcome to the Anthropocene (2012), central to the Anthropocene.info site has achieved online viral status already, despite its data-heavy content, with approximately 80,000+ viewers in just two months. This video was also the centerpiece of the recent international conference hosted in London entitled Planet under Pressure at which leading scientists, economic and human sustainable development policy-makers and the media came together to form a document in the lead up to the 2012 Rio20+ Earth Summit. The short video presents breath-taking NASA-type earth images overlaid with graphic information of the cumulative changes and indices of many of the earth’s systems. Some have already suggested that these new global images and the concept of the Anthropocene, may have a role as revolutionary in altering humanity’s consciousness similar to what Copernicus’ diagrams achieved in an earlier period of human history (The Economist, 2012).
However in many ways Welcome to the Anthropocene seems a very corporate video, ‘belonging’ somehow to the narratives of the unending rise of human ‘growth’ and ‘progress’ espoused by many in the economic, technology and business worlds. Designed for the short attention span of today’s online audiences it conveys these views with aesthetically arresting images that underpin its ‘story’ of the unquestioned primacy of our own species and its ‘brilliant’ inventions. Some have commentated that this video also reveals a quandary for faith believers, as humanity’s widespread effects across the earth pictured here portray a species ‘like unto gods’ (Roberts, 2012). It also simplifies and portrays optimistically its ‘story of the age of the Anthropocene’. It assures us that ‘you and I’, as part of humanity’s ‘creativity, energy and industry’, in this Anthropocentric age will help shape ‘a new story for humanity’. In its 3 short minutes it emphasises this by giving the viewer a ‘god-like’ position of viewing the earth from above; we see the sublime beauty of earth with its growing and glowing spread of industrial civilizations’ lights across the earth’s surface are presented as an achievement of humanity. Yet in a curious way I couldn’t help think that the title ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’ inadvertently reminds one of the Frankie goes to Hollywood pop song ‘Welcome to the Pleasuredome’** (a song that referenced Coleridge’s famous poem of the false paradise attempted by Kubla Khan): As in fact this is what the dominant and now nearly global industrial societal model has so successfully led to, humanity mindlessly consuming and partying in its own brilliantly lit pleasuredome, divorced entirely from the limitations of the ecosphere.
To be fair there are some Google map images on the anthropocene.info site that link to statistics of ecological crisis areas. Yet there is no obvious critical thinking that examines how ecocide has long threaded its way through the everyday business and social life of civilized society, through its complex cultural web of religious traditions and beliefs, its pervasive techno-optimism and political ideologies that alternately deny, silence or dismiss the extent of violence to living systems, indigenous peoples, the endless and accelerating extraction of its finite resources.
The difficulty now lies in the exponential and unprecedented hyper-scale and hyper-rate of changes to the earth and its systems since WWII, which is described in the video and elsewhere as The Great Acceleration. In less than one generation, the dominant cultural stories of industrial world do not match the dramatic changes inflicted on much of the earth and its inhabitants. As leading sociologist, William R. Catton Jr., who determined the ‘overshoot’ of humanity on earth in his early 1980s book of the same name has described, there appears to be a ‘cultural lag’ in appreciating our changed earth and our current cultural systems that clearly perpetuates the situation. Catton describes this by saying:
‘Some people still consider the world a cornucopia. With the European settlement of the Americas, all of Western civilization experienced about four centuries of exuberant growth, and we haven’t yet gotten over the idea that that’s the natural order of things. The cultural lag becomes apparent when our political leaders still talk (as they certainly do here in Ireland) as if we can and should stimulate economic growth further (Jensen, 2002).
In the mass media very little attention attempts to articulate that what we are seeing is the profound and deep cultural crisis of industrialised society. Instead most attention is directed at new economic policy and techno-solutions. A commentator at recent meetings leading up to the UN Earth Summit in Rio next month, Pat Mooney, director of a NGO in Canada, has described how entrenched is the conviction ‘that new technologies will solve the world’s environmental and social problems’, with far too little emphasis being placed on ‘knowing why’ we are this predicament (Irwin, 2012). An interesting new book, Technofix, based on over 15 years of research, with its authors having over 50 previously peer reviewed journal articles to their credit, also details convincingly why technology alone ‘will not save us or the environment’ (Huesmann & Huesmann, 2011).
It should also be pointed out that the Anthropocene era or epoch is not an officially recognised geological term. Popularised by Nobel laureate and atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen since 2000, its criteria as being recognised as an official geological era is still causing much debate in geological circles. In a working party of the Royal Society of Geologists, some leading specialised geologists (stratigraphers) are presently arguing that the amount of geologically quantifiable change from the Great Acceleration will be able to be clearly recognised by geologists in the future from surveying changes to fabric of the earth – ‘the fossil record’. They argue that this should mark the start of the new epoch of the Anthropocene. Others similarly argue that the beginning of the Industrial Revolution significantly altered the fabric of the earth and it should be start of the Anthropocene. I myself favour, like a good portion of other geologists who relegate geological time to much longer terms, that the age of the Anthropocene began when man moved to a settled agrarian lifestyle (which is already classified as the Holocene) some 10 000 years ago and that simply the Holocene could be renamed as The Anthropocene.
Interestingly from my perspective, the Holocene epoch is characterised by the beginnings of settled societies (civilizations) but it also marks the time when societies, becoming powerful and predatory, began to perceive themselves as being separate from, superior to and in competition with nature. While my criteria in my cultural enquiry differs from traditions of geological thinking I can’t but think that anthropocentric cultural beliefs embedded in the dominant settled agrarian communities of the earth have greatly contributed to cultures of ecocide over the millenia. This is a complex area (that I will return to in my ongoing enquiry) but briefly I think it can be well argued that long held and aggregating beliefs regarding our selves as separate and above all other living systems over the millenia contributed greatly in fostering both the Industrial Revolution and The Great Acceleration. Huesmann & Huesmann , authors of Technofix, remind us that technological advancements are never value-neutral but always exist and exhibit the dominant priorities, beliefs and politics of society and that ‘the myth of value-neutral technology’ is particularly prevalent now, dazzled as we are by all our recent technological inventions (Huesmann & Huesmann, 2011, Part II).
As a means of addressing where humanity now is from a cultural perspective one finds academic activity on the edges of the humanities that is engaging in ecological concerns. In particular in Literary theory circles but there is also considerable, well developed work from feminist theory, a branch of which is called ecofeminism. For instance, the late and leading ecofeminist Val Plumwood has described,
‘two necessary and vital projects that face us today: to re-situate humans within ecological systems, and to re-situate non-humans in ethical terms. The most seriously damaging chasm is that which puts humans in a position outside of and in some senses superior to the natural world. (Robin and Rose, 2004).
Like other people interested in seeing ourselves more aware of our ecological realities, I have occasionally heard (in as much where environmental discourse is held at all) that along with the idea of rapidly adopting widespread laws against ecocide (see my earlier article here), humanity urgently needs new ‘stories’ to help create the new paradigm for the changed world we now live in. New ‘stories’ for our books, films, religions etc., that would enlarge our thinking about the ecological laws and relationships we must observe for all life to be sustainable. However, I think this is only partly the case, as I believe with others, that we have long been on a project of ecological forgetting of humanities’ other stories. There are still existing and much historical records to show that many indigenous peoples developed cultures rich in more ecocentric perspectives, rituals and imagery, that supported their more sustainable lifestyle – cultural traditions and works built up with deep attention to place. Dougald Hine, co-founder of the Dark Mountain Uncivilization movement writes, that as ‘the systems we grew up depending upon become less reliable, we will find ourselves drawing on things that worked in other times and places’ (Hine, 2011, p.269). Jensen, whose quotes I started with, suggests going further, asking that we become deeply cognisant of our surroundings, asking our living environments what they require to survive and thrive, ‘If you ask that question, and you listen, the land will tell you what it needs’ (Jensen, 2009). So in my case its not too hard for me to hear my small forest ‘say’ that for it to become healthy and resilient for all the life it supports (me included), that it must never be clear-felled***.
*ecocide – literally means the killing and destroying of our habitats, and is derived from the Greek word oikos meaning ‘house, dwelling place, habitation, family’ and the suffix ‘cide‘ from the French and Latin words to ‘kill or slay’. For the purposes of international law and building on definitions of ecocide from previous war crimes, environmental lawyer Polly Higgins defines ecocide as ‘the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished’ (see more on ecocide in my previous article here. ** Welcome to the Pleasuredome – Frankie goes to Hollywood (1984)The world is my oyster…….. ha ha ha ha ha……..
The animals are winding me up
The jungle call the jungle call who-ha who-ha who-ha who-ha
In xanadu did kublai khan
A pleasuredome erect
Moving on keep moving on-yeah
Moving at one million miles an hour using my power
I sell it by the hour I have it so I market it you really can’t afford it-yeah
Really can’t afford itShooting stars never stop even when they reach the top
Shooting stars never stop even when they reach the top
There goes a supernova what a pushover-yeah
There goes a supernova what a pushover We’re a long way from home welcome to the pleasuredome… *** My own work is transforming a small conifer monoculture into a permanent, non-clearfell forest and changing Irish forestry policy when I can, see here REFERENCES Bramhall, Stuart Jeanne (2012) The Club of Rome and the Sustainability Movement [accessed 10 May, 2012 http://dissidentvoice.org/2012/04/the-club-of-rome-and-the-sustainability-movement/ Catton, William R. (1982) Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. University of Illinois Press Irwin, Aishling (2012) Rio+20 talks ‘too focused on techno fixes’, UN hears. http://www.scidev.net/en/science-and-innovation-policy/science-at-rio-20/news/rio-20-talks-too-focused-on-techno-fixes-un-hears.html, accessed 5 May, 2012. Hine, Dougald (2011) Remember the future? in: Dark Mountain, Issue 2, Summer, p.269. Jensen, Derrick (2009) World at gunpoint: Or, what’s wrong with the simplicity movement. Orion Magazine, June/May issue. http://www.orionmagazine.org/index.php/articles/article/4697/ accessed May 12, 2012. Jensen, Derrick (2002) William Catton, Jnr., In: Listening to the Land: conversations about nature, culture and eros. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, p.136. Raworth, Kate (2012) A Safe and Just Space for Humanity: Can we live within the doughnut? Oxfam Publications, Discussion Series. http://policy-practice.oxfam.org.uk/publications/a-safe-and-just-space-for-humanity-can-we-live-within-the-doughnut-210490, accessed 12 May 2012. Rockstrom, J., et al., (2009) Planetary boundaries:exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14(2): 32. [online] URL: http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss2/art32/ Stockholm Resilence Centre (2012) Planetary boundaries – accessed May 9, 2012 http://www.stockholmresilience.org/research/researchnews/tippingtowardstheunknown.5.7cf9c5aa121e17bab42800021543.html Rose, Deborah Bird & Robin, Libby (2004) The Ecological Humanities in Action: an invitation. Australian Humanities Review, Issue 31-32, April. http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-April-2004/rose.html, accessed 4 May, 2012) The Economist (2012) Welcome to the Anthropocene – Humans have changed the way the world works. Now they have to change the way they think about it, too. May 26th 2011. http://www.economist.com/node/18744401, accessed May 11, 2012 Thanks to Martin, my geologist, for checking the geological terms. Unless explicitly acknowledged otherwise, all form and content in the ecoartfilm.com blog is Copyright © 2008-2012 Cathy Fitzgerald, All Rights Reserved, Ireland. Related posts: Portraits of the Anthropocence by David Thomas Smith