A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #5

— approx reading time: 6 minutes

It's a pleasure to welcome back writer Nick Hunt for the latest post in our series A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Nick's contribution of three objects traces one path from our present into a future which he reminds us will not stay forever on any one course. He returns us to a longer view, of a past which honours the power and beauty of natural forms - the human and more-than-human.

This seventh generation

On a grubby brick wall in Hackney Wick a small brown plaque bears the words: FIRST PLASTIC IN THE WORLD. It is bolted high on the wall, and few people passing by ever raise their eyes to see it.

A hundred and fifty years ago there would have been flat-capped workers on these streets, smoke billowing from chemical factories, the solvent stink of dyeworks. Now there are flat-capped hipsters, smoke drifting from narrowboats on the canal, the solvent stink of graffiti paint. This is the seventh generation of the Plastic Age.

Plaque to Alexander Parkes, Hackney, London
Photograph: Plaques of London
www.plaquesoflondon.co.uk

In 1866 the empire had a problem. The efficiency of industrial slaughter had surpassed natural capital reserves, and resources once abundant were becoming scarce. Whale oil, used for everything from lighting to industrial lubrication, was in sharp decline due to collapsing whale stocks. It was peak whale oil. But new techniques for extracting rock oil boosted the petroleum trade, and drills took the place of harpoons on industrialisation’s frontline. 

Around the same time, ivory – used to make ornaments, cutlery handles, piano keys and billiard balls – was running out as well. It was peak elephant. A substitute was invented by a man called Alexander Parkes: a hard, smooth, synthetic plastic made from nitrocellulose, better known as Parkesine, the first manmade plastic in the world.

(It is one of the stranger ironies of industrialisation: that petroleum saved the whales and plastic saved the elephants. Or at least that was how it seemed, before the icecaps started melting and plastic clogged the seas. Now it appears the world’s largest mammals merely had a stay of execution.)

Parkesine was first produced in the Parkesine Works in Hackney Wick, a zone of London dominated by dyeworks and chemical factories. It was a commercial failure, and the company folded two years later. But other plastics swiftly followed: xylonite in 1869, celluloid in 1870, and in 1907 Bakelite paved the way for mass production, disposable culture and the consumer boom. In its ever mutating variety – polystyrene, polyethylene, polypropylene, polytetrafluoroethylene – plastic would enter every home, replacing not only ivory but metal, glass, stone and wood, never decaying, never corroding, obsoleting organic matter. It would change the composition of the oceans, working its way up the food chain from bottom feeders to apex predators, and enter the geological record to become part of the planet itself. It’s hard to conceive of a more successful example of market penetration.

That small brown plaque says nothing of this, and most people don’t notice it’s there. But a carrier bag wafts on the breeze, and discarded plastic bottles litter the road underneath, like devotional offerings at the shrine of their creator.

Sun machines: the future for now

I moved out of Hackney Wick years ago and came to live in Bristol again, but inevitably London pulls me back. It means I spend too much time in the limboland between the two cities, going up and down the M4. The view through the smeared coach window is of transport infrastructure, road-signs, scrappy woodlands, fields. But over the course of the last few years this vision has started changing. 

The green fields are gradually vanishing from the flanks of the motorway, covered by a tide of grey: row upon row of darkly reflective panels angled to the south, ranks of mathematical squares in place of pastureland. Officially they are called solar farms, evoking bucolic rural scenes, but – as people who genuinely love the land have pointed out – more truthfully they are solar factories, electricity machines to fuel mankind’s expansion.

Sometimes flocks of nonplussed sheep are nibbling between the rows, competing with the machines for the energy of sunlight. 

Sometimes the angle of the sun turns the fields into a mirror, a blinding metallic glare that hurts the eyes to look at.

Solar ‘farming’ Photographer: unknown

Of course I know the arguments: they are infinitely less worse than climate-changing power stations, more palatable than nuclear plants, less intrusive than wind turbines. And I know that the fields they’re replacing, monocropped and glyphosated, are hardly natural anyway but products of tens of thousands of years of human meddling and control, reaching back all the way beyond the Neolithic. But the solid fact remains: a shiny plasticated skin has been clamped upon the land. What was green is turning grey. As an environmentalist I am supposed to applaud the sight, but it fills me with despair.

This will not be the future forever, but it is the future for now. The culture that makes these things will pass, but its objects will remain. 

The long past of the Long Man

When traffic is bad, or an accident has closed too many lanes, the coach occasionally detours past the white horse on Cherhill Down, created by cutting turf away to reveal the gleaming chalk below. Only a few centuries old, this monument is by no means ancient – unlike the more stylised white horse at Uffington, which dates back over three thousand years – but the mindset it represents seems to me very, very old: an honouring of the power and beauty inherent in animal forms, an act of devotion, of attention, that reaches back to the horses sketched in charcoal on Paleolithic cave walls. From the window of a Megabus such a vision is absurdly romantic, but these interventions in the landscape were surely intended to have that effect: to lift our eyes from the road, away from our self-involved routines, into other ways of seeing, into other aeons.

Last summer my mother and I walked the South Downs Way, which runs for a hundred miles along the top of the chalk down, on which human feet have beaten tracks for at least eight thousand years. The colours are very simple there – the green of grass, the yellow of wheat, the white of chalk, the blue of sky – and the walking is simple too: you keep the sea to your right and keep going east. On one of our last evenings of walking, aching after eighteen miles, we dragged ourselves on a limping extension to see the Long Man of Wilmington, a chalk outline of a figure holding a staff in each hand, cut into the sloping turf of a Sussex hill. Nobody knows how old he is – he might have been made any time from the Iron Age to the sixteenth century – and nobody knows what the staffs represent. But they look like walking poles.

The Long Man of Wilmington
Photograph: Cupcakekid 2003 Creative Commons (CC)
Source: Wikipedia (‘Long Man of Wilmington’)

We stood in silence at the Long Man’s feet and eventually turned for home. Maybe it was partly exhaustion, but both of us were strangely moved. Even though we had offered him nothing, we felt as if we had left something behind.

Find out more

As well as Wikipedia, of course, you can read more about the history of plastics it this BBC News brief guide and this interesting piece from Scientific American

The Union of Concerned Scientists has this brief overview of the environmental impacts of solar power.

Among the many sites discussing ancient land art such as the Long Man of Wilmington, Britain Explorer has this quick but interesting guide to ‘The Top Ten Geoglyphs in the UK and the World’.

You can find more of Nick’s writing at Nick Hunt – and ClimateCultures is pleased to have Nick’s own selection of passages from his new book, which you can find via the links on his Profile page.


You can read other contributions in the series at our page on A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects. Each post in this series earns its author a copy of a book that’s had an impact on my thinking about our topics here – whether fiction, poetry or non-fiction – and which I’ve recently rediscovered in a charity shop. I’ll be revealing which book is heading Nick’s way when I review it for ClimateCultures next month.

Your personal Anthropocene? Space for creative thinking...   

"What three objects illustrate a personal timeline for the Anthropocene for you? See the original 'guidelines' at ClimateCultures' A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects, and share your objects and associations in your own post." 

At its heart, the Anthropocene idea seems simple (if staggering): that as a species (but far from equally as generations, countries or communities) humankind has become such a profligate consumer, reprocessor and trasher of planetary resources that we've now left (and will continue to leave) our mark on the ecological, hydrological and geological systems that other species and generations will have to live within. In reality though, the Anthropocene is a complex and highly contested concept. ClimateCultures will explore some of the ideas, tensions and possibilities that it involves - including the ways the idea resonates with (and maybe troubles) us, personally. 

Your objects could be anything, from the mundane to the mystical, 'manmade', 'natural', 'hybrid', physical or digital, real or imaginary. What matters are the emotional significance each object has for you - whether positive, negative or a troubling mix of colours along that spectrum - and the story it suggests or hints at, again for you. Whether your three 'past', 'present' and 'future' objects are identifiably connected in some way or float in apparent isolation from each other is another open question. 

Use the Contact Form to send your ideas, or if you're a Member contribute your objects as a post. 

 

The Polar Tombola

— approx reading time: 4 minutes

As the UK tour of The Polar Tombola draws to a close, ClimateCultures member Nancy Campbell reports on this Arts Council funded project, which aims to encourage awareness of endangered Arctic languages – and the environment recorded in their specialist vocabularies.

When we hear about change in the Arctic, it’s more often related to climate than culture. But globalized culture and business is causing rapid changes in the region. Since the 1800s, 21 indigenous Arctic languages have become extinct, and more are being added to the list year by year.

Kanungneq, letterpress-printed card and definition from The Greenlandic-English Dictionary, Copenhagen, 1927
Nancy Campbell © 2017
http://www.nancycampbell.co.uk/

UNESCO’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger charts languages at different levels of concern: vulnerable, endangered, and then extinct. West Greenlandic (Kalaallisut), the official national language of Greenland, is one of those vulnerable languages, with 50,000 speakers. North Greenlandic (Avanersuaq, 1,000 speakers) and East Greenlandic (Tunumiit oraasiat, 3,000 speakers) are definitely endangered. Other Greenlandic dialects, such as Qavak, have already slipped out of use.

The importance of these languages is recognized by people across the Arctic region and the wider world.

Once, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) relied on information from peer-reviewed scientific studies, and has largely excluded traditional knowledge (TK) as a source of information for its reports. But now there’s a growing recognition from scientists that traditional knowledge can provide insights – and indeed that it’s particularly useful in “remote” locations where there are no other means of observation. This knowledge, passed on down the generations, is enshrined in the language. As an environmentalist reading about these issues, I began to wonder how future scientists will study the Arctic ecosystem without access to specialist Arctic vocabularies. As a poet, I wondered what happens to an individual’s experience of words when their language begins to disappear.

My own experience in the Arctic was enriched by learning Kalaallisut, and many of my projects (books such as How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet) pay tribute to what the language has taught me.

A game of words

I decided to develop a way of spreading the word about endangered languages that took the issue outside the book into performance. Many Arctic nations have an oral rather than written tradition and the transmission of oral literature from one generation to the next lies at the heart of cultural practice. Performances of creative works of verbal art are increasingly endangered. It seemed an anomaly to address such issues on the printed page.

Hence The Polar Tombola – a game of chance, like the Italian Christmas raffle from which it draws it name. At events around the UK, from London’s Southbank Centre to the Polar Museum in Cambridge, from Liverpool’s World Museum to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, I invited passers-by to pick a card from a vast snowball containing word-cards letterpress-printed with West Greenlandic terms. I had chosen words that related to the environment, such as “kagdleq” (thunder), “karnalak” (reindeer which is shedding its hairs), and “ikiarôrpoq” (the sun or moon shines through the clouds).

To learn the meaning of the word on their card, the player has to consult a Greenlandic-English dictionary from 1926. Browsing a printed dictionary is a relatively rare experience these days, and most players seem to enjoy it, so I encourage them to take their time, stopping to consider any words that intrigue them before reaching their goal. In the process, they acquire at least one word of Greenlandic, and an appreciation of the wider culture too.

Then comes the twist: each player is encouraged to leave a word behind. “If you had to lose a word from your own language,” I ask, “what would it be?” The question brings home a sense of empathy for language loss, one word at a time.

“I hereby abandon this word”
Nancy Campbell © 2017
http://www.nancycampbell.co.uk/

It’s a big commitment to vow never to use a word again and some people decide not to play along. One issue has come up again and again in conversations with players: censorship. “I’m not giving away a word,” some people say. “I don’t have enough as it is.” Others are only too glad to give up words that have negative connotations – whether these are commonly understood (in the case of “war” and “hate”) or distinctly personal (“compass”). Both reactions make it clear that the surrender of a word is a potent act. There is no going back: each renunciation is a binding contract, as the player’s signature on the card attests. One player, the artist Steve Perfect, receives the Greenlandic word “kaggsuk” (bits of ice drifting in the sea) and decides to give up “ice cube”. He later tells me he’s been introducing bartenders around London to Greenlandic.

While such an interpretation might suggest a light-hearted approach to the linguistic challenges facing the polar regions, I was glad to see such enthusiastic public engagement. Since many people don’t even know where Greenland is before they play The Polar Tombola, it was necessarily a crash course in culture and language. I found that players were captivated by their brief interaction with the Greenlandic dictionary, astonished by the detailed and perceptive vocabulary for environmental conditions, and eager to learn more.

Back to books

At the end of the final performance at the Arnolfini in Bristol I carefully gathered up all the cards on which words had been written: Danish, Dutch, Farsi, Icelandic, Korean and Spanish words, as well as many English ones. There were political epithets, meaningless verbal ticks and Latin scientific names. A selection of these words have been published as an anthology The Polar Tombola: A Book of Banished Words, alongside new texts on language loss commissioned from contemporary writers including Vahni Capildeo, Will Eaves and Richard Price.

In A Book of Banished Words some writers use the commission to explore issues of linguistic politics closer to home: writer and musician Phil Owen chooses to ditch the word “dissever”, once used in an 1847 English report used to suppress the Welsh language in schools. Others take the commission into scientific territory: Nasim Marie Jafry eradicates the word “Coxsackie”, but not before exploring how this Algonquin term meaning “the hoot of an owl” mutated over time, becoming the name of a small US town, and then of a life-changing virus.

Language is important not only to the Arctic, but to all of us.

The Polar Tombola
Photograph: Caspar Evans © 2017
www.smallpublishersfair.co.uk

The Polar Tombola is funded by Arts Council England through Grants for the Arts.

Find out more:

At nancycampbell.co.uk,  you can read more about The Polar Tombola project and you can order a copy of the book (print or digital), published by Bird Editions.

You can find out more about Nancy’s previous book, How to Say I Love You in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet, at the website of Miel, which was established in 2011 “to promote and publish difficult, innovative, intelligent, and deeply felt writing and visual art.”

This recent article at Alaska Dispatch News is a report by Laureli Ivanoff from Unalakleet, on “Inupiaq, the language I can write and speak, but don’t understand.”

UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is an online edition, where you can browse through the languages, using combinations of search criteria and/or zooming in on the map.

The World Oral Literature Project documents and makes accessible endangered oral literatures before they disappear without record.