Buzz, Thirst, and Deep Time: Life in the Anthropocene

Words By Whitney Mallett

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The Anthropocene means the time of humans. The newest epoch signifies that our activity has impacted ecosystems globally to the extent that we are in a totally different geological reality than before. You can read what we’ve done in the rocks. There’s been pushback against who exactly “we” is. It hasn’t been all humans all the time everywhere causing this kind of monumental destructive change. Capitalocene and Eurocene have been offered up as suggestions which hint at the economic and colonial structures that depend on such a heavy environmental tread.

While people debate these terms, scientists are arguing over when exactly the Anthropocene officially started—with the steam engine? fossil fuels? There’s an international working group that’s been nicknamed the Manthropocene since only one of the original 29 scientists involved was a woman; now the ratio is five to 31. The boundary of the last geological epoch is perhaps a little more clear, the Holocene started at the end of the Ice Age nearly 12 thousand years ago. These geo-designations reach back until before the dinosaurs, way back to the first fossils of multicellular organisms, so putting the effects of oil drilling and industrial farming on the scale of glacial episodes and mass extinctions is a bit of a wake-up call.

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As the term has moved from the sciences to the arts and humanities in recent years, the Anthropocene feels all of a sudden everywhere. Last year, McKenzie Wark put it in the subheadline for his book Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene.
This year, Chris Kraus blurbed the anthology Art in the Anthropocene edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin. I provoked Naomi Klein into talking about “the anthropocene” in an interview last month and then despite it only being mentioned once in the whole feature, my editor plucked it out for the title: “Naomi Klein’s Radical Guide to the Anthropocene.” Why not, right? Who’s going to click on another article about “global warming?”

Words like personalities become vessels for ideas. So the story goes, the term the Anthropocene was first coined by two environmentally-engaged scientists: Nobel-Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen and leading diatom researcher Eugene F. Stoermer. In the eighties, Stoermer just came up with the word on the spot at a conference, but together Crutzen and Stoermer made a go at formally defining it, publishing an article in the year Y2K. Their piece came out in the Global Change Newsletter two thousand years after Jesus was born and so many months after computer systems had to rollover to the new millennium, and it turned out, the world didn’t end.

It’s a bit paradoxical, a word like the Anthropocene which gestures at the concept of deep time becoming subject to accelerated cycles of media circulation. Last weekend, someone on my feed instagrammed the cover of yet another volume of academic lit, The Anthrobscene—a play on the term Anthropocene which introduces the idea of digital media’s impact on the earth’s geology.

In journalism, not everything’s a story—an issue isn’t a story, for example, but a trend is. I fell down a rabbit hole researching about the private surveillance industry that’s emerged in the wake of global warming—the urgency around water planning and the dangers of extreme weather hitting energy infrastructure like pipelines and refineries. I emailed a couple editors who didn’t really “see the story.”

Here’s what I mean by private surveillance industry. In North America and Europe, our water infrastructure is aging and inefficient. There are cracks in the pipes bringing water to your tap. Trillions of gallons of water are leaked each year in the US. In certain Italian cities, according to the non-profit European Water, 70 percent of water is being leaked. As people worry more and more about the scarcity of water, there’s a private industry that’s popped up, offering to digitally monitor pipes, pumps, and pressure-flow meters, providing information to the water utility companies about where leaks and breaks are happening and helping them be more efficient. On Slate, I hailed the Japanese conglomerate Hitachi offering this service as a green innovator. It wasn’t a story; it was sponsored content.

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Broken data ( from the series ‘Die Toteninsel’), Zsófia Keresztes, 2014

It’s not just Hitachi. There’s a slew of these private companies which (often public) utility companies are outsourcing to economize water distribution. Eco-friendly and high-tech, many of these companies vaunt they don’t just retrieve large data sets but crunch them too with their algorithm-driven analytics. Predictive analytics promise to solve the problems before they even happen. In 2011, Business Insider named efficiency products and services as one of the water industry’s fastest growing sectors.
There’s a parallel data and intelligence niche in the oil and gas industry. The same extreme weather patterns causing droughts and inciting an urgency around water scarcity have meant more violent storms, hurricanes, and cyclones. Pipelines and refineries in the path of wild weather is a mounting concern. This spring as extreme flooding ravaged the state, a tornado struck a gas-drilling rig in the Texas town of Canadian, putting two people in the hospital. Alleging to minimize potential disaster in these situations, private data and intelligence agencies offer services to monitor petrochemical infrastructure in real-time.

In 2013, the U.S. Energy Information Administration launched a mapping system that shows installations in the path of extreme weather. It’s a public service that gives information as to what pipelines could break during a storm or which oil and gas wells could leak hydrocarbons into the river during a flood. The government agency outsources the private company Genscape to do this monitoring. Genscape (what a sinisterly generic name!) advertises itself as offering “Data and Intelligence for Global Commodity and Energy Markets.”

Capitalism drives the ceaseless extraction of resources while the commodity economy has morphed into something where not just products but, information is commodified. (Genscape trades in “proprietary data.”) Words, these imperfect signifiers, can of course be commodified, but they can be powerful too in how they capture a cultural imagination.

A few hundred years before normcore, the sublime was a buzzword. In the eighteenth century, everyone from Schopehhauer to Hegel was weighing in on how we grasped this quality of terrifying vastness and why we took pleasure in feelings of terror spurred by a storm on the horizon or a seemingly never-ending cliff-face. All those Romantic paintings that came a century later, with a small person overwhelmed by the awesome power of nature, are pretty much the definition of sublime art. You’d think the sublime would make you be careful not to fuck with nature lest you feel the wrath of Mother Earth. But there was also conceptual work going on, priming minds to conceive limitlessness.

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In their writings on the sublime, Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant bickered over how the term relates to the concept of infinity. Burke suggested we take pleasure in sublime things because they remind us that we could be crushed by some indomitable power outside of ourselves—masochistic or just humble depending on how you look at it. Burke wrote a “source of the sublime is infinity.” Kant pointed out, though, that nothing in the material world is actually infinite, so when we’re feeling these feels, we’re not in awe of the world around us but of our own mental abilities to imagine infinity. Fast-forward a few centuries, however, and we’re having trouble unimagining it. One of the reasons why people don’t seem to feel the urgency of global warming is that they have trouble conceiving the idea that progress and resources are limited.

The idea of the Anthropocene does some conceptual work that will ideally help people to conceive our urgent environmental reality; however, it has its shortcomings too. Donna Haraway has pointed out that there’s a hubris and individualism embedded in the term which designates the Anthropos as the sole actor and a geological force on the level of nature. It’s the same man-as-the-center-of-the-universe thought process that got us in this mess in the first place. Still, it functions to highlight the drastic and irreversible impact of our way of being. And, the Anthropocene confronts us with different ways of perceiving time. It makes us think about time from the point of view of the rocks that have stood here for millennia. And it gestures at a future-perfect tense, where we think of what will have passed at a future moment—“in an hour, I will have finished this coffee” or “in five years, the ice shelf in Antarctica will have collapsed.”

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Segway,Peter Moosgaard, 2014

I feel like the loose art movement #vaporfolk forces us to think in the same tense. Objects like H&M packaging refashioned into crude footwear or a Segway-like structure made out of leaves and branches suggest a future that looks like the past but littered with today’s hypercontemporary signifiers, like references to brand-names and tech products. The text from a group show “#vaporfolk #hollyvoodoo: Sponsored by Amazon Readymade” at Vienna’s Lust Gallery reads “[the artists] work with concepts of the ‘Archaic’ instead of ‘New’[…]re-using and infiltrating artifacts from the world of corporate mythologies.” At once, they’re playing with the past, present, and the future.

 

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In these works and how they’re framed, you can trace a lineage back to what artists like Corey Archangel were doing, playing with logos like Applebees or Subway. Again, there’s a sense of humor and a nod to the absolute ubiquitousness of certain middlebrow brands. But there’s also a newfound soberness embedded in foreshadowing a future (maybe a future many are already living in) where these signs are repurposed relics of a fallen civilization. Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s a transformative potential in imagining possibilities beyond.

Vaporfolk isn’t the only imagining going on. Outside the art world, there’s Solar Punk, for instance, like a sustainable future envisioned by Ren-Fair Steampunks. And Harraway has her own sci-fi influenced suggestion for an alternative to the Anthropocene, the Chthulucene which emphasizes a tentacular inter-connectedness. She proposes one of the figures for this epoch to be the Ood, a genderqueer squid-faced alien race from Doctor Who, whose enslavers cut off their external brains that tied them together, making them think communally and in terms of community, a connection Haraway urges is necessary for us to rediscover too. To survive, she insists, we need to think of interrelatedness beyond the human species and of generative principals beyond reproduction. Her slogan: “make kin not babies!”

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Sweety-Knify, Michele Gabriele,2015



Whitney Mallett is a critic, journalist, and filmmaker living in New York. Her writing has been published by The New York Times, Art in America, The New Republic, Filmmaker Magazine, Vice, N+1, The Paris Review Daily, and others. She’s a regular contributor to Topical Cream, a correspondent for The Editorial Magazine, and she co-founded TÉRMÉ Productions.