Man or Nature?
The Idea of the Anthropocene
The British geologist Jan Zalasiewicz has brought a cat with him. Zalasiewicz is a senior lecturer at the University of Leicester and a member of the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London, a group of scientists who play a prominent role in the analysis of the Anthropocene phenomenon. The cat sitting on the table in front of him is black, and she’s called Philou.
During his talk at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Jan Zalasiewicz circles Philou, giving her tidbits. For him, he says, this cat symbolises the Anthropocene Era. He explains that, of all the biospecies on Earth, the house cat, felis silvestris catus, emerged as one of the winners of the epoch in which humans started to master geological events on the surface of the Earth.
Philou, the centre of attention, starts getting restless and demanding food. Zalasiewicz strokes her, gives her something to eat, and continues speaking, unperturbed. If you consider the biomass of all terrestrial vertebrates, he says, humans now constitute one third of this total mass. The largest percentage of the remaining two-thirds is made up of the animals we farm for food: cows, sheep, pigs, goats. The number of actual wild animals has sunk to under five per cent. Zalasiewicz states that we are looking at a biological takeover, the like of which has never been seen before in the history of Earth.
Philou relaxes and listens to the lecture. The house cat, he says, occupies a position between domestication and the wild. Cats are kept by people all over the world and are very good at reproducing. Some 250 million cats are now kept as pets. By comparison, leopards and tigers are the big losers. Zalasiewicz concludes his lecture by remarking that the domestic cat is therefore one of the few creatures to profit from the Anthropocene.
The geological epoch of humans
Anthropo... what?, some readers will be wondering. What sort of term is that, what does it mean, where does it come from? The term Anthropocene was coined by the Dutch meteorologist and Nobel Prize winner Paul J. Crutzen at a congress in 2000. Two years later he substantiated his thesis about the ‘human epoch’ in an article entitled ‘Geology of Mankind’ in the science magazine Nature. Geologically speaking, Crutzen explained, we are living in the Holocene. This epoch began around 11,500 years ago and follows on from the Ice Age, the Pleistocene. However, the Nobel Prize laureate believed humanity had changed the Earth so radically that it was appropriate to declare a new geological era: the so-called Anthropocene. Crutzen locates the beginning of the Anthropocene at the close of the eighteenth century. This was when the invention of the steam engine led to the start of industrialisation, a process that has fundamentally changed the world. Among the consequences of this fundamental transformation are a rise in the production of greenhouse gases, the destruction of the ozone layer, deforestation, the overfishing of the seas, the exploitation of raw materials, and an undreamed-of increase in the global population. According to Crutzen, all these factors, caused by human activity, call for a different approach in our dealings with the Earth. He writes: ‘Unless there is a global catastrophe – a meteorite impact, a world war or a pandemic – mankind will remain a major environmental force for many millennia. A daunting task lies ahead for scientists and engineers to guide society towards environmentally-sustainable management during the era of the Anthropocene.’
This task, as formulated by Paul J. Crutzen ten years ago, was at the heart of the Anthropocene Project’s four-day event in Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt. A huge number of events took place within this framework, at which philosophers, geologists, artists, anthropologists, sociologists, cultural scientists, physicists, literary scholars and climatologists discussed the manifold implications of the Anthropocene. Questions were raised in trans-disciplinary environments over the course of several days: Is it even still possible to work with terms like ‘artificial’ or ‘natural’? Does ‘Nature’ still exist in its pure form? To what extent are we in a position to be able to estimate the consequences of our actions in advance and evaluate them? What does the term Anthropocene signify for topics like sustainability and modern judicial systems?
The event was opened by the Australian chemist and climate researcher Will Steffen. In his lecture ‘The Anthropocene: Where on Earth Are We Going?’ he addressed the question of whether the human race was currently in the process of destroying itself. According to Will Steffen, we are already in a critical decade, following the great acceleration after World War Two. This was the starting point for many things we now refer to as globalisation. Steffen showed a series of alarming graphics about species extinction, the overfishing of our oceans, the increase in global warming and the associated natural disasters caused by climate change. If we continue as we have to date, Steffen warned, we will not manage to limit the rise in mean temperature to two degrees. The next ten years, he said, will determine whether or not we stand any chance at all of survival.
However, after this prologue from Will Steffen, the question already posed itself of what exactly was new about the idea of the ‘Anthropocene’. In 1972 the Club of Rome had already published its study ‘Limits to Growth’, in which it warned that the current global population increase, the rise in environmental pollution and the exploitation of natural raw materials would soon lead mankind into economic and ecological disaster. The global changes certainly weren’t ignored by the humanities, either. To give just one of many examples, in his 1986 book Risk Society Ulrich Beck described the man-made threats and self-endangerment of the modern industrial age: ‘It is no longer a question [only] of the utilisation of Nature, of releasing people from traditional constraints, but […] essentially of the problems that result from technological-economic development itself. The modernisation process itself “reflexively” becomes both a topic and a problem.’ So it is not the diagnosis of the times that is new, only the term ‘Anthropocene’.
New term, old reality
At the conference the scientists explained that one of the main premises of the Anthropocene was that Nature no longer existed, that everything was now man-made. But is this really a ground-breaking realisation? The event took place in the Haus der Kulturen, in the middle of the Tiergarten in Berlin, a piece of landscaped nature that has been a feature of the Berlin townscape for almost five hundred years. In 1740 the landscape architect Georg Wenzelaus von Knobelsdorff was commissioned by the Prussian King Friedrich II to turn the former royal hunting grounds into a public park along the French model. Knobelsdorff embellished the park with neat avenues, ornamental hedges, extensive waterways, late-Baroque labyrinths and figures from ancient mythology. For centuries, then, Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt has been completely surrounded by nature that has been shaped by man.
On the roof terrace of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, before a view of the said Tiergarten, an ox was being roasted on a spit over a fire. The artists’ collective raumlaborberlin had constructed five stations in the foyer where ox meat and side dishes were being prepared. The metabolic kitchen was intended to epitomise the connection between man, nature, animal and machine. The individual stations looked like futuristic laboratories, in which people in white coats were filling little tubs with food. A hundred portions, which had to be heated in microwaves, were handed out to the guests. The author of this article is unable to judge the tastiness of the beef, as even before the diagnosis of the Anthropocene he had already become a vegetarian.
And what were the individual lectures like? The philosopher Akeel Bilgrami from Columbia University attempted to demonstrate in terms of the history of philosophy that denial of morality and moral values by the natural sciences needed to be superseded by a new ‘Being-In-The-World’. Erle Ellis, Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems at the University of Maryland, explained that man has already reshaped more than three-quarters of the land surface of the Earth. Ursula K. Heise, Professor of English at California’s Stanford University, gave a lecture on the Amazonian green-cheeked conure, a parakeet that has all but disappeared in its native habitat, Mexico, as a result of slash-and-burn clearance. However, the trade in parrots has meant that the green-cheeked conure, which managed to escape from some households in California, has been breeding there very successfully. In the San Francisco area there are now more than a thousand of these parakeets, which are now officially described as ‘birds with an immigrant background’. Elizabeth Povinelli, Professor for Anthropology, took as her example a tribe of Australian Aborigines, and posed a provocative question: Is all life equally valuable? Which creatures and which species of being are privileged, in the Anthropocene Age, to lay claim to life or the Earth’s being-processes? The cultural scientist Christina von Braun of Berlin’s Humboldt University raised the point that the call for mutual responsibility also always carried the risk of new ideologies. The sociologist Aldo Haesler prophesied an ‘Age of Singularity’, a shrinking social world in which a small elite lives in gated communities and the greater majority simply waste away as human flotsam. Emma Marris, a journalist and non-fiction writer, called for a new transnational management of the Earth by some form of trust, and the media art collective Smudge Studio from New York addressed places and moments in which the geological meets the human. They had brought with them a piece of rock from a Finnish nuclear waste storage facility, which is intended function as an ally of humanity by containing radioactive waste for millennia.
The Age of the Cat
As interesting and informative as the individual lectures were, they told us hardly anything new. It would have been good also to have heard what political and economic decision-makers, who unfortunately were not represented at this event, would have had to say about the Anthropocene. For one of the crucial questions in future will be how to implement the insights of Anthropocene research in the self-referential systems of politics and the economy. But at least the Anthropocene Project in the Haus der Kulturen tried to create an interdisciplinary awareness of the dangers and risks of humanity. And that’s not the end of the project, either: over the next two years the Haus der Kulturen der Welt will be working together with the Max Planck Institute and the Deutsches Museum to explore the Anthropocene hypothesis further, in workshops, research initiatives and pan-institutional cooperations. And who knows: perhaps the term Anthropocene is sufficiently forceful to set in motion a process that, on the strength of the collected insights and research results of the individual disciplines, will in the future prevent the worst from happening?If this should not succeed and if in the course of the man-made age of the Anthropocene humans actually eliminate themselves, said Jan Zalasiewicz (that was the one with Philou the cat), cats and some less well-loved creatures like the common rat would continue to be represented in large numbers. The house cat, he said, would once again become a wild cat. Its descendants would develop further and change and at some point in the distant future they would once again take over the ecological realm that the long-vanished lions, tigers and leopards left behind. Philou purred contentedly as he spoke. This future scenario seemed very much to her liking.
is a freelance writer and journalist living in Berlin.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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