Geographer Martin Mahony introduces a second collection of objects from his ‘Human Geography in the Anthropocene’ students, and how our Museum of the Anthropocene’s ‘centrifugal’ stories resist casting all of humanity together as progenitors of our new planetary age.
1,200 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes
It was a great pleasure to work again with a really engaged, intelligent and creative group of students on this year’s run of my course ‘Human Geography in the Anthropocene’. As usual, the course was organised around students selecting an object which they thought told us something important about the history, politics and culture of this proposed new geological epoch. Mark and I are delighted now to share a sample of the submissions to this year’s on-campus Museum of the Anthropocene, in our first expansion of its online sibling.
Centrifugal stories of a planetary age
In his essay The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea environmental scholar Rob Nixon argues that we need to “counter the centripetal force of the dominant Anthropocene species story” — i.e. the idea that it was the actions of all of humanity, the anthropos, which led us into this new epoch — “with centrifugal stories that acknowledge the immense inequalities of planet-altering powers”.
Scholars and practitioners in the arts, humanities and social sciences have been prominent proponents of such centrifugal stories. Often trading under alternative monikers for this new epoch, such as the Capitalocene, Manthropocene or Plantationocene, these stories identify very specific social groups or systems as being responsible for the violences and upheavals of planetary change. As such, they are stories with very different moral and political lessons.
This new selection of museum submissions offers a range of centrifugal stories which, in very different ways, help us to reckon with the unequal geographies of the Anthropocene. In this centrifuge we encounter turbulent relationships between humans and a range of nonhuman plants and animals, which together paint a powerful picture not just of domination and exploitation, but also of resistance, kinship, and hope.
Cultivating our Anthropocenes: flora of domination and resistance
Reece Page’s analysis of the suburban lawn-scape connects the expansion of these green deserts to earlier expressions of ‘white rule’ over colonised natures and peoples. The projection of lawn aesthetics into imagined extra-planetary futures invites us to consider how visions of environmental futures can transplant past violences into an increasingly unequal present.
Anna Wyeth draws on Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work as a fitting counterpoint, showing how the interdependence between North American indigenous communities and the sweetgrass plant has much to teach us about dismantling colonial ecologies and structures of thought, and “nurturing reciprocity” in their place.
A similar dialectic of domination and resistance is present in Max Drabwell-Mcilwaine’s exploration of plantation gardens. These small plots of land in the margins of historical monocrop plantations saw slaves and indentured labourers cultivate very different socio-ecological realities to the regime of domination that defined plantation agriculture in the past, and which continues in different forms today.
The signal crop of the slave-plantation economy, and the one that helped push the British economy towards industrialisation in the 18th and 19th centuries, was cotton. Jake Kiddell explores the centrality of the plantation system to the industrialism which many have identified as the start of the Anthropocene. He draws a direct line from that to the more recent phenomenon of ‘fast-fashion’, and how planned obsolescence in the textiles industry allocates harms and benefits unevenly across the commodity chain.
Companion stories — the kinship of fauna
Amelia Weatherall looks at another key substance of the industrial revolution — coal — but does so through the history and metaphorical power of the ‘canary in the coal mine’. She shows how the use of canaries as gas detectors has been reprised in the use of bird behaviour as an early-warning system for the climatic changes brought on by the burning of coal and other fossil fuels. And she makes the case for attending closely to the fate of coal mining communities themselves during the transition to new energy sources and industries, as ‘canaries in the coal mine’ of an uncertain socioeconomic future.
Finally, Josh Fowler explores another feathered companion species, the pigeon. Tracing a bracing history of violent extinction, wartime interdependence, and urban antagonism, Josh offers the evolving human-pigeon relationship as a powerful parable of human-nature relationships in the Anthropocene.
Together, I think these short, centrifugal texts provide a powerful argument that the ‘immense inequalities’ of the Anthropocene are played out not just through relations between groups of powerful and marginalised people, but through a web of relations with a range of nonhuman others: relations of domination and exploitation, but also mutuality, reciprocity, and kinship.
Find out more
Step Inside the Museum to view all six of the new objects submitted to the Museum of the Anthropocene, alongside the contributions from previous students on the third-year Human Geography in the Anthropocene undergraduate course at the University of East Anglia. And the main Museum of the Anthropocene page provides introductory reflections and is where we bring together Martin’s post, including the one for our inaugural collection in 2022; Object-based Learning in the Anthropocene sets out the practice of “putting material objects, rather than texts, at the heart of the learning experience” as a means to “transform student engagement with a topic by ‘grounding’ abstract knowledge and theory, and by awakening a wider curiosity about a topic.”
Martin quotes from Rob Nixon’s 2014 Edge Effects essay The Anthropocene: The Promise and Pitfalls of an Epochal Idea, which provides an invaluable, concise and insightful introduction to the interdisciplinary appeals and political controversies of ‘the Anthropocene’ as a concept (or range of concepts). Nixon cites an earlier project to curate an object-based exploration of these concepts – the ‘Anthropocene Cabinet of Curiosities Slam’, which later generated the book Future Remains (edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero and Robert S Emmett and reviewed for ClimateCultures in our post, The Mirrored Ones. His words there also stand as a further signal of the value of Martin’s work with his students and our expanding Museum of the Anthropocene:
To give the Anthropocene a public resonance involves choosing objects, images, and stories that will make visceral those tumultuous geologic processes that now happen on human time scales. With this in mind, the Anthropocene Cabinet of Curiosities Slam has assembled a lively array of object-driven stories. The work on display here seeks to give immense biomorphic and geomorphic changes a granular intimacy. Collectively, these Anthropocene stories have the power to disturb and to surprise, hopefully goading us toward new ways of thinking and feeling about the planet we have inherited and the planet we will bequeath.
A human geographer interested in the contemporary politics of climate change, how future atmospheres are imagined, constructed, represented and contested and historical geographies of environmental knowledge-making.
Writer Hassaun Jones-Bey introduces a human Anthropocene as corollary for our planet’s new geological era. The commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the US shows human nature resisting the same commodification that’s visited upon non-human nature.
3,050 words: estimated reading time = approximately 12 minutes
My artistic process is both intuitive and backwards. If I were a painter, I would describe it as throwing all of the paint up on the canvas, then subtracting some things, moving other things around, and also adding some back until it seems to work. It might be described as putting together a puzzle in which it is okay to change the shape and appearance of the pieces, to throw some pieces away, to go out and find totally new pieces, and to even change the size and shape of the entire puzzle. Part of this comes from a couple of decades of creating ‘word pictures’ on the professional side of my life as a science journalist, while also ‘painting with light’ as an amateur landscape photographer.
Human Anthropocene: commodifying human and non-human nature
The puzzle I’m completing right now suggests that the commodification of non-human nature over the past 500 years has a corollary in the commodification of human nature during the same period. I think of it as a human corollary for the geological Anthropocene. I focus specifically on the commodification of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, particularly in the US. The evolution of musical expression among these people seems to offer a record of human nature resisting the same commodification that has been visited upon non-human nature.
What I’ve essentially done is draft an essay that asks questions based upon my research (which is actually an interpretive analysis of what others have written rather than original field research). My online essay crunches tens of thousands of academic words down into seven or eight 1,000-word blog posts. I tell it like a story and illustrate it with embedded videos to provide the actual pieces of my puzzle. The idea I was hoping to develop further in connecting with ClimateCultures was that paying more attention to the resistance of human nature might provide useful perspectives concerning the escalating crises that human nature continues to aggravate in non-human nature. My interpretation of C. Eric Lincoln’s concept of ‘Black Religion’ — based on a common experience that crosses the various doctrinal and denominational lines in Western religion — plays a central role in this storytelling, because of the Blackamerican need to reconnect societal religion with actual religious experience.
The story narrative grows out of a musically expressed West African river proverb. Its wisdom seems to have traveled to America with enslaved Africans by traversing the environmental water cycle as rivers do. It refers to the Creator in the terms of religious experience of human and non-human nature, as opposed to what modern Western culture would describe as a ‘religion’. The original essay was based on my own interpretation (once again) of a lyrically told Akan proverb about the crossing of a river and a path. The river is described as ‘elder’ because the river comes from the creator.
My initial interpretation of this proverb, in accordance with the textbook in which I encountered it, involved visualizing the intersection like a two-dimensional Cartesian plot or essentially a cross, with the river as the vertical axis and the path as the horizontal axis. My thought was that the exchange of commodities upon the path (which is created by human technologies that kill or at least limit life) need to serve the life that comes from the Creator (in the form of rivers for instance), and not the other way around. I write in the essay:
Paths are technologies as opposed to ecologies. So in this context, the proverb of the river and the path seems to suggest that the Creator gives life through complex environmental cycles and ecologies that essentially embody the Creator’s sacred ego, which might be thought of as the essence of life itself.
Equating the path with the river—or even more so exalting the technology above the ecology—would seem to miss this point. It imagines a human ego that is equal to or even above that of the Creator because of the human capacity to kill. This appears to be the fundamental point of what Lincoln referred to as Black religion. Enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas found themselves ensnared in a “white” colonial ego that attempted to commodify them as its tools or technologies. As a result, Black religion arose to reassert the light of the Creator over the darkness of colonial ego.
To apply the wisdom of the West African proverb to the passage of time and events in the Americas, I translate it into a metaphor of light that also plays a prominent role in scriptures of Western religion. The water cycle metaphor seems to naturally give way to a metaphor of changing light over the course of four annual seasons. All of this seems to be represented for both light and water — the biospheric water cycle and the daily cycle of the sun as observed from the earth — in a puzzle piece that I stumbled upon a decade ago. It is a symbol that was evidently found in one form or another among the artifacts of enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas, and has been described as representing the ‘four movements’ of the sun. The structure also seems applicable to periodic cycles of religious and cultural experience and expression that have been and still are observed in human communities throughout the world. The cross in this symbol is intersected by a closed circle or ellipse that I imagine as illustrating an environmental life cycle or ecology, as perhaps the inner meaning of the entire symbol.
The horizontal bar still represents the path. I think of it now as human technology that embodies a human ego — particularly in a context of modern Western religion that seems to separate the Creator from nature and to place humanity in between. To my mind, this is the modern Western separation of religion from religious experience that necessitated the development of Black religion. It also seems to be fundamental to what I refer to as the human Anthropocene. For me the intersecting environmental cycle is what brings everything and everyone back together. It represents resistance to commodification by both human and non-human nature.
In the process of writing this blog post, I also happened upon a hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) and Dolores Huerta (still living) in the McLaughlin Eastshore State Park in Berkeley, CA. The memorial (as illustrated and described in the images below) conveys a religious experience of non-human nature as understood through Chavez’ and Huerta’s Andean culture, which — the memorial literature states — was also expressed through the Virgen de Guadalupe in the Catholicism of many Mexican and Native American people. The structure of the memorial conveys a religious experience of the changing angle of sunlight as it cycles through four annual seasons to powerfully illustrate a narrative of farmworkers’ struggle against commodification in the Americas.
As it turns out, this memorial was threatened by commodification as well. A year ago a newspaper commentary article, ‘Berkeley Marina Plan would destroy Cesar Chavez Park,’ argued that changes proposed in a city plan for the Berkeley Marina “would transform the park from a place of relief from urban stress into a high-pressure commercial amusement park.”
I initially learned about this from a local resident who shared memories of participating in successful community opposition to the original plan. According to a news article published last month in another city paper, ‘New Master Plan for Berkeley Waterfront Park,’ a new plan for the waterfront area has scrapped a proposed ferry terminal from the initial plan and will instead fill in a portion of the bay to create a potentially much more lucrative ‘container terminal’ for international shipping.
Another key factor the local resident shared with me was the rising cost of real estate and just plain living was driving long-term residents out of the area (all-too-often a factor in the history of Blackamerican community experience), which is currently true of the San Francisco Bay Area in general. The relationship between people and land seems key here.
Modern Western culture seems more likely to describe the water in the river as a natural resource and the talent of a drummer as an entertainment resource. Resources (including the “human resources” currently measured in “man-hours”) may be used wisely or even reverently, but they are still resources to be used rather than ecologies of which we are composed and in which we participate.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries throughout the Americas, a combination of ‘Jim Crow’ religion, ‘scientific racism,’ ‘social Darwinism,’ and emerging global markets pushed formerly enslaved ‘black’ people and culture to the margins of society and often to the margins of existence. Reading about this makes me think of the homelessness and despair one sees in the midst of soaring affluence today but on a much grander scale. Since all of these folks and their communities were actually human and not just commodities, this also seems like a massive demolition of human community consciousness — particularly in terms of the Black religious experience that C. Eric Lincoln described as Black religion.
Cycles of water, cycles of history
The process of working back through this with climate crises in mind and connecting it directly to the commodification of non-human nature led to a good bit of revising in my online essay. It also provided a great deal of focusing, clarity, and brevity (significantly increasing the ratio of music videos to words), which I am quite pleased with and grateful for.
As mentioned above, it is helping me to understand and articulate one of the intuitive pieces that just kind of showed up to become an essential piece of the puzzle, which I mentioned briefly above. An environmental water cycle characterizes each of the century-long quadrants in the religious history that I tell. Such a cycle also works for the larger historical cycle that arises from putting the four quadrants together into a single US history. I still describe it that way at the outset, as follows:
The narrative begins with an “apocalypse” that stripped diverse African people of lands, identity, and dignity to create “black” disposable commodities for colonizing an entire hemisphere where the sacred ecology consciousness of indigenous civilizations was also being marginalized and exterminated. The narrative continues into a rainstorm “genesis” of enslaved Africans and their descendants creating “Blackamerican” identity, evidenced in Negro Spirituals.
After emancipation, headwaters of “blues people” flowed in “exodus” from Jim Crow persecution. This Great (rural-to-urban) Migration became a blues river that overflowed its banks. It burst the Jim Crow dam with a global “gospel” of social change. The freshwater river emptied into a saltwater ocean of “New Jim Crow” massive incarceration, from which hip-hop arose in a “pentecost” of storm clouds spreading globally with post-modern “tongues of fire.
Seasons of change
When I am actually telling the story I used the water cycle to create, however, the narrative seems to flow much more smoothly when I use a metaphor of natural light as it changes during the course of four annual seasons. So in the essay, after introducing the concept of human community ecology and its emigration to the Americas in the first two chapters, I then proceed through a “winter solstice darkness of colonial ego” in the third chapter; a “spring equinox light of Blackamerican genesis and ring shout spirituals” in the fourth chapter; a “summer solstice light of Blackamerican exodus and Blues-matrix Gospel” in the fifth chapter; and an “autumnal equinox light of Blackamerican Pentecost and Hip Hop hybridity” in the sixth chapter. Each of these chapters covers one of my four quadrants, covering the past 500 years of US history. The seventh chapter asks four questions that suggest a problem-solving hypothesis based on my suggested correlation of an Anthropocene in non-human nature to an Anthropocene in human nature.
Originally, I attempted to avoid the potential confusion of a mixed metaphor by going back and changing the water metaphor in each quadrant to a light metaphor. After doing so and reflecting on it, however, it seemed both strained and ineffective. Obfuscating words seemed to overwhelm the visual, audible, and tactile imagery. Simply returning to the mix of metaphors, however, appeared to intuitively translate the embodied religious ecology that seems to flow so naturally in indigenous stories into a religious, scientific, and cosmological imagery of light within the more conceptual and less embodied languages of modern Western literature.
In any event, after struggling through all of this analysis, I encountered a musical video on YouTube by Afro-Cuban pianist, composer and bandleader Omar Sosa that brought the two metaphors together so seamlessly that I embedded it in my online essay. I’ve also included it here below.
This also produced a kind of surprise result that didn’t show up in my academic research. As mentioned previously, the original research arranges the past half-millennium of history into four cycles, which I ultimately arrange as four quadrants of one large cycle at the conclusion. Upon doing so, the upcoming global climate crisis seems as if it might be accompanied or perhaps even preceded by a potentially much more catastrophic repeat of the human ‘climate crisis’ that modern Western culture visited upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. The previous human climate crisis seems to have been caused in large part by abuse of emerging technologies, and revolutionary changes seem to be taking place in those same technologies now. The most important technology to refocus in addressing the Anthropocene, however, showed up as multi-national corporations, which I imagine as pseudo-religious community technologies focused on individual economic prosperity rather than on human community ecology embodying the Creator’s ego.
The hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta seemed to speak to me during this process with a confirming perspective that was indigenous to the Americas. I’ve inserted a couple of landscape views that I took with my phone from that area after a recent rainstorm.
As I write this post, my online essay consists of an introduction and seven chapters. A major goal has been to make the whole thing flow like the river cycle that it flows from. There are two additional blog-length items as well. One is the story of a 400-year-old European song that emigrated to America during the antebellum period to eventually become a political rock song and jazz ballad. The other is a lyrical poem of Black religious experience, ‘Ms. Tubman’s Soldiers,’ that inspired the visual design of the homepage. I posted both of them previously and moved them around to try and make them fit. I ended up taking them down, however, upon realizing that they are not really part of the river I’m attempting to depict. Once the river is complete, I will probably put them back up separately, and also start reposting a lot of music that was just random stuff previously, but now has a meaningful context.
All of that said, I’m not really sure how or to what degree all of this really belongs in the ClimateCultures orbit. I am still thankful for the editorial feedback and stimulus to create a much better piece than I could have otherwise. I would also appreciate any such feedback from the broader community as well.
Find out more
You can read Hassaun’s online essay A Blues Gospel of Anthropocene? at his site, Peace Jungle, where hyperlinks throughout the essay text point to sources of additional information.
Hassaun’s suggestion of the human Anthropocene ties in with the crisis he describes as visited by modern Western culture upon the global hemisphere that started to become the Americas 500 years ago. Geography professors Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis have suggested that the Anthropocene began with European colonisation and mass slavery, with the death of 56 million indigenous people across the Americas in just 100 years of Christopher Columbus setting foot on the Bahamas: “deadly diseases hitched a ride on new shipping routes, as did many other plants and animals. This reconnecting of the continents and ocean basins for the first time in 200 million years has set Earth on a new developmental trajectory. The ongoing mixing and re-ordering of life on Earth will be seen in future rocks millions of years in the future. The drop in carbon dioxide at 1610 provides a first marker in a geological sediment associated with this new global, more homogeneous, ecology, and so provides a sensible start date for the new Anthropocene epoch.”
Hassaun adds some additional sources: “Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1999, Simon & Schuster) by W.E.B. Du Bois (the first modern American sociologist) provides well-documented and particularly valuable perspectives on the post-emancipation marginalization of ‘black’ humanity in the US. And Afro-Latin America, 1800-2000 (2004, Oxford University Press) by George Reid Andrews devotes an entire chapter to the simultaneous ‘whitening’ throughout the rest of the Americas. B.W. Higman has also written a number of fascinating articles on “The Sugar Revolution” as what I tend to imagine as the commodifying engine that drove modern Western culture’s initial expansion throughout the global Western Hemisphere.”