A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects

The Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe set this challenge for Members: “What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you?

“The TippingPoint events I took part in asked each of us to come with an object in mind — any object with a personal significance relating to what climate change meant to us and which we wanted to share with others. Many of us brought the physical object — something discovered on a walk or holiday or bought in a charity shop, a book from our shelves or a family heirloom — while others brought photos that captured a landscape, a moment, something experienced or something lost. Sharing these and the stories behind them in small groups, we built up a store of associations between the personal, the small or the incidental and the larger, unbounded complex of meanings that make ‘climate change’ what it is. Sharing in others’ stories enriched our own.

“Remembering the feelings that this exercise evoked for me every time (I was fortunate enough to experience it with four different groups), I’m also reminded of the groundbreaking Radio 4 series, A History of the World in 100 Objects. Neil MacGregor, then Director of the British Museum, described each object, the stories of the different cultures and times they represented since the beginnings of human culture, and what it meant to the world that came after and to who we are as a species. But what those episodes mostly lacked, for obvious reasons, was the very personal story of us as individuals, here and now. This is what the TippingPoint exercise brought.”

Light into the Dark
Photographer: Mark Goldthorpe © 2017

The challenge: your personal Anthropocene

Here is a space to share our stories about any three objects that have that personal resonance: one object from the present, broadly defined; one from the past (any time from whenever you think of as the birth of the Anthropocene right up to just before your own birth); and one from a future time (for as long as you think the Anthropocene might last…). The present object could be something from your own experience; the past object could be something you’ve only heard of, or something that you’ve seen or touched, or it could be imaginary (what might have been the first ever musical instrument, not yet discovered or understood as musical?); your future object might also be imaginary, or a future encounter with a relic of the past. What links all three is your associations with them and that they have meaning and emotional significance for you.

These objects can be anything you choose. Just describe what each one is, how it ‘came’ to you (or you to it) and what it means for you in terms of environmental or climate change or the wider questions of the Anthropocene. If you have an image or sound to share, you can include these too.

The order is up to you. You can start with the present, if you wish, and then move back before you take your imaginative leap into the future. Or start in the future and work backwards… You might connect their stories through an imaginary timeline that connects your versions of past, present and future.

I kicked off the series with my own personal history of the Anthropocene, which you can see below along with new contributions to the series from ClimateCultures authors. For further inspiration:

  • You can explore the BBC Radio series, A History of the World in 100 Objects, hereNeil MacGregor’s book of the series is published by Penguin.
  • You can visit the Museum of Fossil Fuels here at the excellent Happy Museum Project. Submit an object of your own there too, and explore what others have offered. You can see my contribution here.
  • The BBC World Service series 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy is also well worth exploring.
  • You can also read about BBC Radio 4’s The Museum of Curiosity on Wikipedia, with links to the weird and wonderful mix of objects discussed, and purchase or listen to episodes here.

Andrew Howe’s History of the Anthropocene — Three Objects #13

5 April 2021 — approximate reading time: 5 minutes

Interdisciplinary artist Andrew Howe shares three objects that chart material flows in time. Slipware pottery, an acorn and a bitumen spill offer fragmentary stories entwined with present experience and imaginings of past and future in the same moment.

Philip Webb Gregg’s History of the Anthropocene — Three Objects #12

27 April 2020 — approximate reading time: 6.5 minutes

Writer Philip Webb Gregg explores being human in the Anthropocene, using three objects that offer to carry, fuel or guide our search for experience and meaning, but whose less subtle qualities have great power to lead us astray.

Kelvin Smith’s History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #11

12 March 2020 — approximate reading time: 7.5 minutes

Writer Kelvin Smith‘s three objects — electric lighting, symbolically living money, once-and-future reefs — question what is fundamental to human presence on Earth, what’s been taken from the land and what new creations might arise in future seas.

Yky’s Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #10

23 January 2020approximate reading time: 2.5 minutes

Citizen artist Yky offers three objects that explore Anthropocene themes of our relationship with time and the world and the responsibility that we hold in our own hands, using a common photographic presentation to help make these visible.

Nick Drake’s Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #9

16 November 2018 — approximate reading time: 4.5 minutes

Poet Nick Drake offers poems of three dark objects that illuminate our world-shifting ways: an emblem of inefficiency, a single-use convenience that will outlast us, and a nightmare taking shape beneath our feet, our streets, our notice, until… 

Sarah Dry’s Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #8

5 Feb 2018 — approximate reading time: 8.5 minutes

Science historian and writer Sarah Dry offers objects past, present and future that help us investigate clouds and the gap between seeing and feeling. ‘What is not revealed often plays more powerfully in the imagination than what is.’ 

Nancy Campbell’s Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #7

22 Jan 2018 — approximate reading time: 8.5 minutes

Poet Nancy Campbell chooses a child’s bone kayak, a wooden paddle, innovative metal islands: three objects that demonstrate how the past and present elide as our environment changes and how, whatever choices lie ahead, travel is always forward.

Veronica Sekules’s Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #6

15 Jan 2018 — approximate reading time: 5 minutes

Curator Veronica Sekules shares three Anthropocene objects that mark the movement from a visionary symbol of eternity, to the hubris of a transitory age and on to a time which will be witnessed by what endures after us. 

Nick Hunt’s Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #5

29 Nov 2017 — approximate reading time: 6.5 minutes

Writer Nick Hunt traces the years through present, future and past on a path that will not stay forever on any one course; and returns us to a longer view, honouring the power and beauty of natural forms. 

Ruth Garde’s Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #4

12 Oct 2017 — approximate reading time: 5.5 minutes 

Curator Ruth Garde selects three Anthropocene objects: artworks that evoke a past, present and future, highlighting how Deep Time and ‘human time’ are implicated in each other, and the imbalances in our relationship with the rest of nature. 

Jennifer Leach’s Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #3

27 Jun 2017 — approximate reading time: 4 minutes

Artist Jennifer Leach selects three objects that evoke a past, present and future Anthropocene, and highlights care and nurture as constants across humanity’s ages and communities. Her words move from prose to poetry, suggesting a timeline of hope.

Julien Masson’s Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #2

16 May 2017 — approximate reading time: 2.5 minutes

Artist Julien Masson explores memory, material transience and meaning in his an intriguing response to our ClimateCultures challenge to share three objects with personal significance and illustrate the past, present and future of the emerging ‘Age of Human’.

Mark Goldthorpe’s Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #1

22 Mar 2017 — approximate reading time: 9 minutes

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe set Members a challenge: share your choice of three objects with personal significance for you and that say something of the past, present and future of the emerging Anthropocene. Here is his personal contribution.

Know something we should?

Do you know of a book, article, podcast, video, site, artwork or other resource that explores the significance and role of objects in our understanding of environmental and climate change? Use the Contact Form to send your suggestions and a link and a few words on what about it has inspired you.


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