Altered Planet

wyeth 1 treeAndrew Newell Wyeth (1917 – 2009)
Detail, Snow Hill

 


by Robert Macfarlane

In 2003 the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht  coined the term solastalgia to mean a “form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change”.

Albrecht was studying the effects of long-term drought and large-scale mining activity on communities in New South Wales, when he realised that no word existed to describe the unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed about them by forces beyond their control.
He proposed his new term to describe this distinctive kind of homesickness.

Albrecht’s coinage is part of an emerging lexis for what we are increasingly calling the “Anthropocene”: the new epoch of geological time in which human activity is considered such a powerful influence on the environment, climate and ecology of the planet that it will leave a long-term signature in the strata record.
And what a signature it will be:
We have bored more than 31 million miles of holes in our search for oil.
We remove mountain tops to get at the coal they contain.
The oceans dance with billions of tiny plastic beads.
Weaponry tests have dispersed artificial radionuclides globally.
The burning of rainforests for monoculture production sends out killing smog-palls that settle into the sediment across entire countries.
We have become titanic geological agents, our legacy legible for millennia to come.

Plastics in particular are being taken as a key marker for the Anthropocene.
We currently produce around 100 million tonnes of plastic globally each year.
Because plastics are inert and difficult to degrade, some of this plastic material will find its way into the strata record. Among the future fossils of the Anthropocene, therefore, might be the trace forms not only of megafauna and nano-planktons, but also shampoo bottles and deodorant caps – the strata that contain them precisely dateable with reference to the product-design archives of multinationals.
What will survive of us is plastic – and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.

Recent publications indicate that scientists will recommend the designation of the Anthropocene, and that the “stratigraphically optimal” temporal limit will be located somewhere in the mid-20th century.

This places the start of the Anthropocene simultaneous with the start of the nuclear age.
It also coincides with the so-called “Great Acceleration”, when massive increases occurred in population, carbon emissions, species invasions and extinctions, and when the production and discard of metals, concrete and plastics boomed.
Jason W Moore argues that the Anthropocene is not the geology of a species at all, but rather the geology of a system, capitalism – and as such should be rechristened the Capitalocene.

In 2010 Timothy Morton adopted the term hyperobject to denote some of the characteristic entities of the Anthropocene. Hyperobjects are “so massively distributed in time, space and dimensionality” that they defy our perception, let alone our comprehension.
Among the examples Morton gives of hyperobjects are climate change, mass species extinction and radioactive plutonium. “In one sense hyperobjects are abstractions,” he notes, “in another they are ferociously, catastrophically real.”

We are living through what is popularly known as the 6th great extinction

A third of all amphibian species are at risk of extinction.
A fifth of the globe’s 5,500 known mammals are classified as endangered, threatened or vulnerable.
The current extinction rate for birds may be faster than any recorded across the 150 million years of avian evolutionary history.
We exist in an ongoing biodiversity crisis – but register that crisis, if at all, as an ambient hum of guilt, easily faded out.

A remarkable artwork by the American writer and conservation biologist Julianne Lutz Warren is called “Hopes Echo”.
It concerns the huia, a bird of New Zealand that was made extinct in the early 20th century due to habitat destruction, introduced predators and overhunting for its black and ivory tail feathers.

The huia vanished before field-recording technologies existed, but a version of its song has survived by means of an eerie series of preservations: a sound fossil.
In order to lure the birds to their snares, the Maori people learned to mimic the huia song. This mimicked song was passed down between generations, a practice that continued even after the huia was gone. In 1954 a pakeha (a European New Zealander) called RAL Bateley made a recording of a Maori man, Henare Hamana, whistling his imitation of the huia’s call. Warren’s exhibit makes Bateley’s crackly recording available.
It is, as Warren puts it, “a soundtrack of the sacred voices of extinct birds echoing in that of a dead man echoing out of a machine echoing through the world today”.

Many of the new words we have had to invent are ugly coinages for an ugly epoch.
Taken in sum, they speak of our stuttering attempts to describe just what it is we have done.


excerpted from, Generation Anthropocene

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/01/generation-anthropocene-altered-planet-for-ever

 

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Terrifying what we have done and allow to continue even knowing what’s at stake.

    • And, with U.S. elections coming up, the thought of anyone still pretending that they don’t believe it—so as to continue getting money from oil lobbyists– is almost more than I can stand.

  2. This is a poignantly devastating article. All my life I have been aware of these cataclysmic circumstances taught at an early age by my parents, notably my mother Mary Catherine Aff Russell who passed away Friday at 98. If she had been able to pass out a copy of Rachel Carson’s SILENT SPRING to everyone she met, she would have. Thankfully my world and hers was blessed with an acute awareness.

    • Yes—What has allowed this to continue for decades is the investment rich & powerful people have in oil—and the vast number of stupid people they manipulate.
      Of course, unfortunately, in the U.S. there’s a ready audience of willfully uneducated, anti-science citizens.
      Iguess I’m always preaching to the choir, but I wish the others had some glimmer of the history of science, and the hard-won knowledge so painstakingly accrued by so many for so long. It might give them pause, as blips of recent times who think they prefer the dark ages.

      I’m so sorry to hear about your mother, Lynn. I know what a wonderful presence, and also close friend, she has always been. It must be terribly hard.


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