Modernism in the Anthropocene

Researcher Peter Adkins explores how radical early 20th-century literary shifts reimagined the human within broader planetary processes, a ‘Modernist Anthropocene’ expanding understandings of our geological agency long before global environmental predicaments became the widespread crises of our times.


2,000 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes


1922 is often considered a golden year when it comes to literature. James Joyce published his epic modernist novel Ulysses, a work that was almost immediately banned in Britain and America on account of its transgressive content. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land arrived as a fiery example of how verse might respond to the upheavals of post-World War One life. And Virginia Woolf’s experimental narrative of a young man who doesn’t return from the front, Jacob’s Room, established her as one of the foremost novelists of her generation.

Literature was reinventing itself, pushing at the boundaries of what could and couldn’t be said. Along with similar revolutions in the visual arts, music, and architecture, rapid transformations were sweeping cultural forms, breaking down the old ways of experiencing the world and offering new ways of conceptualising lived experience.

Less well-known is the degree to which 1922 was something of a threshold year in attempts to conceptualise what we now refer to as the Anthropocene. The Cambridge geographer, R. L. Sherlock published a book entitled Man as a Geological Agent, in which he argued that we have to think of the human species as both a biological and geological actor — predating Dipesh Chakrabarty’s influential argument about the human as a geological agent in the Anthropocene by almost 90 years. And perhaps even more remarkably, the Russian geologist Aleksey Pavlov actually used the word ‘Anthropocene’ in a 1922 paper, arriving at it as a term that might recognise the longstanding influence of human activity on the planet. 

Human in the nonhuman world

When I began the research on what would become my book, The Modernist Anthropocene, I wanted to know if there were any links between these two spheres of activity: one revising how we understand literature and the other revising how we understand planetary life.

Certainly, it was the case that modernist writers were interested in how humans interact with and imagine the nonhuman world. In one of the moments of Jacob’s Room that moved me when I first read it during my PhD, Jacob Flanders is described as overcome with the urge to press himself against the ground and “feel the earth spin; to have–positively–a rush of friendship for stones and grasses”. Woolf’s writing is so often attuned to geology and ecology. The middle portion of her novel To the Lighthouse (1927), entitled ‘Time Passes’, is largely devoid of human characters and instead imagines the decay of a house on the Isle of Skye, left abandoned during World War One and slowly succumbing to the sea air. It is a vision of life after humans, of the world we might leave behind us. While in Orlando (1928), whose narrative covers over four hundred years, Woolf charts the vicissitudes of the English climate seeming, at moments, to appear to intuit the concept of anthropogenic climate change (possibly, as I discovered during my research, influenced by her reading of the early climatologist John Tyndall).

Modernist Anthropocene: Showing the cover for the first edition of Virginia Woolf's 'To the Lighthouse' (1927) featuring a jacket design by Vanessa Bell
Cover for first edition of Virginia Woolf’s ‘To the Lighthouse’ (1927) featuring a jacket design by Vanessa Bell

This cosmological orientation towards the earth and the air is shared by Joyce, albeit in starkly different ways. Leopold Bloom, one of the principal characters in Joyce’s Ulysses, frequently turns in his thoughts towards nonhuman life, from other animals to celestial bodies. Towards the end of Ulysses, the reader finds Bloom reflecting on the puniness of the human when placed within a planetary frame that runs from macroscopic to micro. In a tour de force sentence, Joyce presents Bloom meditating on:

the eons of geological periods recorded in the stratifications of the earth: of the myriad minute entomological organic existences concealed in cavities of the earth, beneath removable stones, in hives and mounds, of microbes, germs, bacteria, bacilli, spermatozoa: of the incalculable trillions of billions of millions of imperceptible molecules contained by cohesion of molecular affinity in a single pinhead: of the universe of human serum constellated with red and white bodies, themselves universes of void space constellated with other bodies, each, in continuity, its universe of divisible component bodies of which each was again divisible in divisions of redivisible component bodies, dividends and divisors ever diminishing without actual division till, if the progress were carried far enough, nought nowhere was never reached.

For Bloom, whose interest in science provides a worldview in which the human is itself a constellation of otherworldly processes, there is a clear continuity between the geological and the biological. As we find throughout Joyce’s writing, the human is divisible into flows and processes that firmly situates it within broader planetary processes. The human is, in an important sense, resolutely inhuman.

Modernist Anthropocene: Showing the first edition of James Joyce's 'Ulysses' (1922), banned in Britain and USA.
First edition of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ (1922), banned in Britain and the USA.

Tipping points in the Modernist Anthropocene

As I wrote The Modernist Anthropocene, I discovered that there were clear points of confluence between the modernist writers shaking up the literary world and those in the sciences, both in terms of direct points of connection and indirect areas of resonance and overlap. The French philosopher, Henri Bergson, provided one such connection. Eliot had attended Bergson’s lectures while in Paris and his writing on evolution both inspired Joyce (who owned a copy of Creative Evolution while writing Ulysses) and Vladimir Vernadsky, whose work Geochemistry helped pave the way for the field of climatology. Indeed, Joyce and Vernadsky lived in Paris at the same time in the 1920s. Although I am yet to find any evidence of their having met, I like to think that they might have drank at the same cafés or attended the same operas, unaware that they were in the company of a fellow intellectual revolutionary.

Another question which presented itself as I wrote my book was: why then? Why was it during the 1910s, 20s and 30s that these developments took place in literature and science?

Part of the reason was that they were looking to dislodge ideas from the previous century that now appeared lacking in certain respects. In literature, modernist writers were looking to challenge (although not necessarily wholesale reject) Victorian literary conventions. For novelists, this meant utilising narrative techniques such as free indirect discourse and interior monologue to break with what they saw as the artificiality of the realist novel and get closer to the subjective experience of life itself. A similar rationale could be found among figures such as Bergson and Vernadsky, who saw nineteenth-century ideas in evolutionary biology and physics as being too mechanistic, unable to account for what Bergson famously termed ‘élan vital’ – the vital spark which powers life onward.

Yet this was only half the story, as I discovered. The early twentieth century was also a period of environmental tipping points and thresholds. The period saw the development and use of liquid fuels, the nascence of motor and air travel, the invention of human-made nitrate fertiliser, as well as continued rapid growth in industrialism, urbanisation, fossil fuel extraction, and intensive agriculture, all of which were responding to, and fuelled by, ever-expanding population levels.

And although the figures I look at in my book cannot be said to be ‘environmental writers’ in the sense of writing with the explicit aim of ecological consciousness-raising, they were nonetheless alert to the poisoning of the world around them. In Joyce’s Ulysses, for instance, we find repeated descriptions of Dublin’s polluted status. In one particularly memorable description, the River Poddle is described as a “tongue of liquid sewage” emptying out into the Liffey. Later in the book we discover that Bloom knows a family who, reliant on collecting mussels for food, have been poisoned by the sewage. In his attention to the unequally distributed consequences of pollution, Joyce might be seen as intuiting the notion of slow violence, or the way in which many of the effects of the Anthropocene materialise not through cataclysmic instances but gradual processes that unfold so slowly as to become near invisible to all those but most directly impacted.

Showing a postcard image of the River Liffey, Dublin, in 1900. The Liffey, and the tributaries that fed into it, were heavily polluted by the end of the nineteenth century.
Postcard image of the River Liffey, Dublin, in 1900. The Liffey, and the tributaries that fed into it, were heavily polluted by the end of the nineteenth century.

The concept of the ‘Modernist Anthropocene’ emerged as a synthesis of these observations and insights. The term, as I use it, denotes both a historical period, in which significant environmental change and scientific developments occurred that profoundly altered our relationship to the planet, and an identifiable set of aesthetic responses to that historical moment, represented in the works of innovative writers who were highly aware of the way in which humans were influencing nonhuman processes.

The finished book explores this idea by looking in detail at three modernist writers: James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes. T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Gertrude Stein, Franz Kafka, Vita Sackville-West and others also make appearances at various points. As I write, I’ve just finished a follow-up book, an edited collection entitled Virginia Woolf and the Anthropocene. Woolf, for me, might be the modernist writer who was most sensitive to developments in the physical world and the edited collection, which brings together essays from ten leading scholars, explores various facets of her writing as they relate to the Anthropocene. My own contribution to the volume is a chapter on Woolf, petroleum and colonial extractivism and reflects what, I hope, will be the subject of my next book: modernism, energy transition and oil.

Literary works are, as critics are increasingly recognising, uniquely poised to open up new ways of thinking about emergent planetary conditions. As Tobias Menely and Jesse Oak Taylor frame it in the introduction to their edited collection, Anthropocene Reading: Literary History in Geologic Times (2017), literature might be approached as offering a kind of stratigraphic record, providing us with snapshots of specific points in planetary history and thereby helping us understand how we have historically imagined the world. Yet this stratigraphic approach also insists that texts are not just historical artefacts but lively and vibrant materials which can enter into dialogue with the present and help us make sense of ongoing crises and challenges.
Reading and writing are, as the modernists showed us, activities that can help us see the world afresh and foster new ways of understanding what it means to live on a damaged planet. 

Showing 'The Modernist Anthropocene' by Peter Adkins


Peter Adkins

Peter Adkins

A researcher and writer exploring how literature helps us imagine, understand and rethink environmental history, planetary change, resource use, and relationships between humans and other animals.

The Modernist Anthropocene: Nonhuman Life and Planetary Change in James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes by Peter Adkins (Edinburgh University Press, 2024) is published in a paperback edition and is also available for free as an open access e-book. 

Virginia Woolf and the Anthropocene is forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press, due for publication in June 2024. 

Peter mentions how the writings of key modernist authors such as Joyce prefigure or intuit ideas that have become established in 21st-century accounts of the Anthropocene. Among these are the works of historian Dipesh Chakrabarty and literary scholar Rob Nixon. 

In 2009, Dipesh Chakrabarty published The Climate of History: Four Theses (Critical Inquiry, Volume 35, Number 2) in which he suggested that: anthropogenic explanations of climate change spell the collapse of the age-old humanist distinction between natural history and human history; the idea of the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch when humans exist as a geological force, severely qualifies humanist histories of modernity/globalisation; the geological hypothesis regarding the Anthropocene requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans; and the cross-hatching of species history and the history of capital is a process of probing the limits of historical understanding.

In 2013, Rob Nixon published Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press), discussing how the violence wrought by climate change, deforestation, oil spills, and the environmental aftermath of war takes place gradually and often invisibly: a “slow violence, because it is so readily ignored by a hard-charging capitalism, exacerbates the vulnerability of ecosystems and of people who are poor, disempowered, and often involuntarily displaced, while fueling social conflicts that arise from desperation as life-sustaining conditions erode.”

Dystopian Farming: An Inquiry

For animist farmer and author Paul Feather, 2024 brings a creative inquiry into ‘dystopian farming’ as resistance as well as sustenance, and a search for joy and meaning that makes our dire times tolerable: the potential for liberation.


1,100 words: estimated reading time = 4 minutes


I have been farming for twenty years, and I’ve had some success in growing food. Enough success that people ask me lots of questions about it, and that I have several hundred pounds of sweet potatoes, yacón, pumpkins, and potatoes stacked in crates in the cellar alongside shelves full of canned tomatoes, pears, and pickled everything. Enough that I don’t feel overworked in producing all of this. I have been farming for twenty years, yet I still don’t feel like I know how to do it — even less do I know how to talk about it or how to answer your questions about farming.

Farming dystopia. Showing Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains.
Farming dystopia: Full Life Farm in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains. Photograph: Terra Currie © 2023

Whether I have answers or not, people continue to ask how my farm works. So, in pursuit of these answers that I don’t yet have, in 2024 I will make an inquiry into what I do. I shall call it ‘Farming Dystopia’, because I feel that dystopia best describes our cultural and ecological context. I resonate with the words of Potawatomi scholar Kyle Powys Whyte who points out that “some indigenous peoples already inhabit what [their] ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future” in which settler colonialism has so drastically altered people’s environment that it is harder to obtain the traditional foods and materials that they have relied on for millennia. He emphasizes that in spite of this unfortunate reality, “we do not give up by dwelling in a nostalgic past even though we live in our ancestors’ dystopia.”1

This dystopia does not only affect Indigenous people (even if it does affect them most severely). We all live in a world of façade and confusion, where every practice, including farming, requires some not-quite-tolerable measure of exploitation half perceived, but partly veiled by the cognitive dissonance that makes it possible to get through the day. The present dystopia is a soul-numbing experience for anyone, at best; and a terrifying and dangerous one for far too many.

Farming for liberation

If I would honestly describe my farming methodology, acknowledgment of our dystopian context would have to be the jumping-off point. I am farming within a dystopian context. I am inside The Matrix. It is Nineteen Eighty-Four, and this is a Brave New World. Dystopian farming is a means of sustenance and also resistance. It is a frank admission of our dire context, but also — maybe even primarily — a search for the joy and meaning that makes that context tolerable.

This inquiry originates as an attempt to answer questions about my farming methods, and so its initial structure will be blog-like: if I can’t ‘explain’ my methods, perhaps I can narrate them every week or so. However, I would also like to de-center my own methods, because farming is extremely context-dependent. I have no real way to know whether my particular methods will be helpful for people with different access to land, different body types, different social and family structures, different climates … different everything. In the dystopian context, the value of a method is in its potential for liberation, and I don’t know how much my methods can liberate others, especially people with less privilege than I have enjoyed. I would like to be able to answer that question.

If my inquiry is to be successful, it will also have to include other voices, other platforms, and other knowledge. Perhaps it will evolve away from a personal blog to become more like a book, a zine, or a journal article. If there is dialogue, we could even borrow the format of a podcast.

For now, I will inquire and write. My initial reflections have been about the curious mix of liberation and obligation that goats bring into my life. As I make small daily movements in preparation for spring seeding, I will snap pictures and share thoughts about how to coax another round from the dirt. What do I owe the dirt for this?

Dystopian farming in dialogue

As I hope to include others in this inquiry, I think it is helpful to situate dystopian farming in a broad dialogue about global agriculture. Without making prescriptions about what people should or shouldn’t be doing in contexts that I haven’t experienced, I hope I can narrow the scope of the inquiry in a way that invites the participation I am looking for.

I think that dystopian farming should be agroecological and radically holistic. Agroecology is a broad framework that includes dimensions of science, social movement, and practice.2 It is true that like many frameworks, the concept of agroecology is partially coopted by institutions3, so for this inquiry we retain the multidimensionality of agroecology and emphasize its roots in peasant social movements such as La Via Campesina.4 We also use it as a framework that addresses multiple scales: from the ecology of a single farm plot all the way to the global food system as a whole.

This inquiry will naturally interact with dialogue about permaculture — which along with ‘regenerative farming’ seems to have captured much of the imagination of the ecological farming movement — but we should critique these frameworks for their extraction of Indigenous farming practices while failing to integrate Indigenous critiques of modernity. Permaculture and regenerative agriculture have also failed to credit Indigenous people for their intellectual foundation or adequately address the legacies of settler colonialism. This is not something I will critique on the basis of morals or ideology, but because the approach I describe as dystopian farming is radically holistic and acknowledges that failure to integrate these critiques makes our farming practice more damaging to the land, weakens our social movements, and undermines our scientific foundation.

Showing Full Life Farm logo
Full Life Farm. Design: Terra Currie

Finally, dystopian farming is pragmatic. There is room for abstract discussion — and possibly even fiction — but in the end we must have sweet potatoes and a cellar to put them in. Obviously my initial inquiry is personal and fundamentally anecdote, and perhaps that is all it will ever be. But this is also an invitation — or maybe it’s a manifesto to co-create something far more interesting than anecdote or my personal critique of a farming ethos that fails to address the deeper crises of our modern dystopia.


References

[1] Whyte, Kyle Powys, “Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene”, in The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities (2021, Routledge).

[2] Steve Gliessman (2018) Defining Agroecology, Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 42:6, 599-600.

[3] Omar Felipe Giraldo & Peter M. Rosset (2017) Agroecology as a territory in dispute: between institutionality and social movements, The Journal of Peasant Studies, 45:3, 545-564.

[4] Val, V., Rosset, P. M., Zamora Lomelí, C., Giraldo, O. F., & Rocheleau, D. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina I. The symbolic and material construction of agroecology through the dispositive of “peasant-to-peasant” processes. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 872-894; Rosset, P., Val, V., Barbosa, L. P., & McCune, N. (2019). Agroecology and La Via Campesina II. Peasant agroecology schools and the formation of a sociohistorical and political subject. Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, 43(7-8), 895-914.


Find out more

You can find Paul’s Farming Dystopia blog at his website with Terra Currie, where they discuss Full Life Farm — the ecological experiment they established in 2007 on five acres in the lower piedmont of the Appalachian mountains – as well as present their art and writing and health and education work.

Paul Feather

Paul Feather

An animist farmer and author whose artistic interests include the courtship of landscapes for food and seed and translating animist thought into the language of physics.

Centrifugal Stories in the Anthropocene

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

Centrifugal stories of the Anthropocene: showing 'Stanford Torus interior': lawns in outer space. Image: NASA/Donald Davis - NASA Ames Research Center
‘Stanford Torus interior’. Image: NASA/Donald Davis – NASA Ames Research Center

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.

Showing Sweetgrass: wiingaashk (Ojibwe) hierochloe odorata (Latin)
Sweetgrass wiingaashk (Ojibwe) hierochloe odorata (Latin)

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. 

Centrifugal stories of the Anthropocene: Showing an Illustration of a slave house and surrounding gardens. Artist: Unknown
Illustration of a slave house and surrounding gardens. Artist: Unknown

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.

Showing a cotton t-shirt. Image by jeff burroughs from Pixabay
cotton t-shirt. Image by jeff burroughs from Pixabay

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

Centrifugal stories of the Anthropocene: Showing a Canary bird. Image by Danuta Piotrowska from Pixabay.
Canary bird. Image: Danuta Piotrowska from Pixabay.

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.

 

Showing a Pigeon. Photograph: George Hodan, Public Domain
Pigeon. Photograph: George Hodan, Public Domain

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.

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass: indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants (Milkweed Editions, 2015) discusses how the awakening of a wider ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world.

On the theme of companion species, see Donna Haraway’s book about the implosion of nature and culture in the joint lives of dogs and people, who are bonded in ‘significant otherness’: The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003). Finally, of course, you can sample a range of object-based explorations of what the Anthropocene means to artists, curators and researcher members of ClimateCultures, in our A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

Martin Mahony

Martin Mahony

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.

Resisting a Human Anthropocene: Diasporic African Religious Experiences in Nature

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.

Akan proverb, translated in Michael Bakan’s ‘World Music: Traditions and Transformations 2nd Edition’ & featured in Hassaun Jones-Bey’s ‘A Blues Gospel of Anthropocene?’

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.

Human Anthropocene: showing River and Path with environmental life cycle. An image by Hassaun Jones-Bey.
‘River and Path’ representation with environmental life cycle. Image: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023.

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.

Human anthropocene: 3 images showing a hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, McLaughlin Eastshore State Park - Berkeley, CA. Photographs by Hassau Jones-Bey.
3 images: hilltop memorial to Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, McLaughlin Eastshore State Park – Berkeley, CA. Photographs: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023.

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.

3 images: lands, sea, air, light – northern California. Photographs: Hassaun Jones-Bey © 2023

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.

The newspaper articles about Chavez Park that Hassaun mentions are: Berkeley Marina Plan would destroy Cesar Chavez Park (Berkleyside, 24/4/22); and New Master Plan for Berkeley Waterfront Park (Berkeley Daily Planet, 1/4/23).

The book from which the English translation of the Akan proverb is taken is Michael Bakan’s World Music: Traditions and Transformations (McGraw Hill – now available in a 4th edition, 2024).

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.”

ClimateCultures explores many aspects of the human Anthropocene and its more-than-human aspects in our members’ series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects and our new series with Martin Mahony and his students on the University of East Anglia’s Geography and Environmental Sciences course: Museum of the Anthropocene.

Hassaun Jones-Bey

Hassaun Jones-Bey

A retired engineer, science journalist and founder of Peace Jungle, which began as a musical storytelling project when online discourse associated 'apocalypse' with the impending twenty-first century.

Object-based Learning in the Anthropocene

Geographer Martin Mahony introduces work with students using object-based learning to explore the material and intellectual challenges of thinking about human-environment relationships in our new planetary era — and launches a new ClimateCultures feature: Museum of the Anthropocene.


1,450 words: estimated reading time = 6 minutes


When I was first appointed to my teaching post in UEA’s School of Environmental Sciences I was fortunate enough to be given the opportunity to develop a 3rdyear module on a topic of my own choosing. The only restrictions were that it needed to appeal to the School’s new and growing cohort of geography students, and broadly fit within the School’s long tradition of research-led and problem-oriented interdisciplinary teaching.

Given the groundswell of interest within geography and beyond in the notion of the Anthropocene, and the platform the concept has created for critical cross-disciplinary dialogue about the causes and consequences of global environmental change, I opted to build a module around this new way of thinking about human-environment relationships. I opted too to use the module to introduce students to three vibrant sub-disciplines which, in their different ways, have engaged with the material and intellectual challenges of the Anthropocene, and might be transformed by it: historical, political and cultural geography.

Object-based learning — making the abstract concrete

But even with that disciplinary scaffolding, I still faced the challenge of finding something for the students to grab onto; something around which they could focus their intellectual energies, which could situate the usually abstract debate about the Anthropocene in particular places, times and contexts. I hit upon the idea of collaboratively building a Museum of the Anthropocene, into which students would submit an object which they took to be particularly eloquent of the historical, political and cultural transformations which define this proposed new slice of geological time.

Showing Plastiglomerate from Kamilo Beach, Hawai'i, displayed at Museon in The Hague, The Netherlands.
Plastiglomerate from Kamilo Beach, Hawai’i, displayed at Museon in The Hague, The Netherlands. Photograph: Aaikevanoord, October 2016, via Wikimedia, Creative Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plastiglomerate_Museon.jpg

That lead me to read into the world of object-based learning (OBL)1, which has grown in popularity as a novel pedagogic practice of putting material objects, rather than texts, at the heart of the learning experience. For many of its proponents, it can transform student engagement with a topic by ‘grounding’ abstract knowledge and theory, and by awakening a wider curiosity about a topic.

Object-based discourse has risen to wider cultural prominence too – witness the preponderance of books and documentaries on a ‘History of X in 100 Objects’. In an Anthropocene context, objects can be a powerful way of grounding and situating an otherwise abstract and universalising discourse, of stressing the intertwining of matter and culture in human-environmental relations, and of helping audiences and students to cut a path through a thicket of historical and political complexity. The ClimateCultures series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects is a wonderful illustration of how objects can help in tracing the connections between the personal and the planetary, and was an early influence on my teaching practice.

My module, ‘Human Geography in the Anthropocene’, runs over 12 weeks. Students are invited to start thinking about an object in week 3, to confirm their choice by week 6, and to be ready to submit their object and some accompanying text by week 9 or 10. We then stage the Museum as a sort of pop-up exhibition, inviting other members of the School to come and interact with the students and their exhibits. Students then have around three weeks to turn their public-facing text into a formal academic essay about what their object tells us about the historical, political and cultural geographies of the Anthropocene.

Showing the first Museum of the Anthropocene pop-up exhibition, 2018.
The first Museum of the Anthropocene pop-up exhibition, 2018. Photograph: Martin Mahony © 2018

Thinking our way creatively into the Anthropocene

While object selection is hard, and developing connections and insights into complex academic debates is difficult, students have generally responded really positively to the challenge. It gives them a freedom to explore something that is important to them. Sometimes that comes in the form of a family heirloom – a grandfather’s mining lamp, or a bank note from a Burmese PoW camp – or a person, social movement or work of art that allows students from groups that have been under-represented in Anthropocene discourse to explore the causes and consequences of environmental transformation from a deeply embodied viewpoint.

Showing some visitor responses to this year’s Museum of the Anthropocene exhibition.
Some visitor responses to this year’s Museum of the Anthropocene exhibition. Photograph: Martin Mahony © 2022

Other students get interested in the lives and afterlives of certain materials, like plastics, and how – in the form of ‘plastiglomerates’, for example – they represent the literal fusing of humanity with the stratigraphic record. Others home in on the material politics of oil and petroculture, or opt for new or emerging technologies around which new, more sustainable lifeworlds might be built.

I try to encourage students to think and write creatively; to explore the ‘scalar derangements2 of the Anthropocene that take, for example, the banality3 of the suburb or the strip mall and redefines it as part of the ‘terraforming assemblages4 that are remaking the planet with troubling consequences for human and nonhuman life. Sometimes the exploration of those connections and derangements can be deeply troubling, but throughout we emphasise – by leaning heavily on Bonneuil and Fressoz’s excellent The Shock of the Anthropocene5 – that the environmental crisis is not an accident. Nor is it the result of ‘human nature’ or even some inalienable nature of capitalism. The Anthropocene was not the inevitable outcome of human ‘development’, but was rather a product of political choices, made by people and collectives in particular places and times. We explore the politics of historical responsibility and blame6, but the overall point is the historical contingency, the non-inevitability, of the Anthropocene.

Object-based learning: artworks as a way to think about the Anthropocene. Showing Paul Klee's 'Angelus Novus' as Walter Benjamin's 'Angel of History'.
Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee, 1920. Walter Benjamin: “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”

As such, to explore the agency of objects is to explore human agency too. To examine, for example, how a technology as seemingly simple as an oil barrel has helped shape economic markets, political movements, and even democracy itself7, is also to examine how our socio-material world has been put together, and how it might be remade. So while our Museum of the Anthropocene can sometimes resemble the wreckage growing skyward at the feet of Walter Benjamin’s ‘Angel of History8, we emphasise throughout that the Anthropocene could always have been otherwise, and therefore that it still could be otherwise. To break the Anthropocene down into some of its constituent and material parts, we can begin to imagine how it might be put back together differently.


Find out more

Dr Martin Mahony is Lecturer in Human Geography at the School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, and a member of the Science, Society and Sustainability (3S) Research Group and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. He has published two co-edited books: Weather, Climate, and the Geographical Imagination (2020, University of Pittsburgh Press) and Cultures of Prediction in Atmospheric and Climate Science (2017, Routledge), and is currently working on Anthropocene for Routledge’s Key Ideas in Geography series, expected in 2024. 

  1. For insights into object-based learning (OBL) and its benefits, see 
  2. Derangements of Scale by Timothy Clark, in Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 1 (ed. Tom Cohen: Open Humanities Press, 2012)
  3. The Banality of the Anthropocene, by Heather Anne Swanson (Society for Cultural Anthropology: Member Voices, Fieldsights, 22/2/17)
  4. Scale Critique for the Anthropocene, by Derek Woods (Minnesota Review, 2014 (83))
  5. The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz (translated by David Fernbach. Verso, 2017)
  6. Teaching History on the Scale of the Anthropocene: Three Ethical Challenges, by Tyson Retz (2022) in Historical Encounters Journal, 9 (2)
  7. Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil, by Timothy Mitchell (Verso, 2013)
  8. Philospher Walter Benjamin’s concept of the ‘Angel of History’ was a response to the artist Paul Klee’s 1920 painting ‘Angelus Novus’, which Benjamin referred to in section IX of his 1940 essay Theses on the Philosophy of History. The image is used with Benjamin’s full text here.

ClimateCultures is delighted to be working with Martin to bring a selection of his students’ work to our site. Visit our new Museum of the Anthropocene section for further information on the project and an introductory selection of objects from previous students on UEA’s ‘Human Geography in the Anthropocene’ module. We will be adding new objects from the current students very soon. And for Anthropocene objects suggested by our members, visit A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects series. 

Martin Mahony

Martin Mahony

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.