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. 

 

Utopia and Its Discontents

— approx reading time: 5 minutes

Writer David Thorpe was one of the five winners of a commission from the 2016 Weatherfronts conference. All the commissions from that and from the 2014 event have now been brought together in a combined anthology, available as a free download.

I have a story, ‘For The Greater Good’, in the new collection, Weatherfronts. Here is a tracing of my thought processes that led to me writing it.

Originating with Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia, the eponymous word literally means “no-place”, or any non-existent society ‘described in considerable detail’… as in his book. But over time it has come to mean an ideal sort of society in which everyone has what they need and there is peace and justice for all. Perhaps everyone has their own idea of what utopia would be like.

 

The Island – illustration from Utopia, 1516
Artist: Thomas More © British Library Board http://www.bl.uk/learning/images/21cc/utopia/large1678.html

Its opposite is dystopia, a term coined 352 years later in 1868 by the philosopher J.S. Mill, who used it to denounce the then government’s Irish land policy. Dystopian fictions became popular in the 20th century. Dystopian movies now seem to dominate our screens, all graphically and dramatically prophesying a dire future.

I fear that there is a danger that by populating our imaginations with pictures of a future of suffering by the masses, environmental despoliation, endless conflict and/or the dominance of machines, as in films like Metropolis and Blade Runner and novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four then we could end up creating the very world that we fear. In other words that these prophecies become self-fulfilling.

By contrast, what are the features of utopia? Should we instead be picturing this?

Are we living in Utopia but don’t realise it?

I started thinking that for people living 500 years ago, the way we live now would actually seem like a utopia.

Just think:

  • All year round we are able to eat an incredible variety and plenitude of food from all over the world.
  • If we get ill we are taken care of by doctors and nurses for free, and there is always a hospital nearby.
  • People increasingly live past 100 years of age. If no one can look after them they are looked after by carers in special homes.
  • There are no poor houses or workhouses, instead if you cannot work you are given money to make sure you have somewhere to live and can buy food.
  • If you are mentally handicapped or ill, you’re not shut away in an awful madhouse, you are given medicines or therapies to make you feel better or manage your illness.
  • People with disabilities are cared for and their special qualities understood and valued.
  • Human rights are recognised and protected in law.
  • We live in warm homes and can travel incredibly cheaply anywhere in the world in a few hours.
  • We can talk to people anywhere, watch movies, take photographs and videos, listen to music and find out almost anything we like using cheap gadgets that fit in our pockets.

This would all be considered incredible, even 100 years ago. Miraculous even. But do we think we are living in Utopia? No! We are only too aware of what is wrong with our society: injustice, environmental destruction, war, pollution, climate change, inequality….

Of the above list of benefits, the increase in life expectancy, the widespread availability of more than enough food, improved health, and the increase in wealth can all be attributed to the industrial revolution and to the widespread availability of fossil fuels. The downsides of this are climate change and pollution.

These downsides are what at the time were the unforeseen consequences of what was considered hugely beneficial.

Then what is it?

So I began to imagine: what if we created a ‘utopia’ in the UK, based upon the ideals expressed in Zero Carbon Britain and One Planet Living? What would be the unforeseen consequences?

In other words, what if we had a society which could feed everybody with food grown within the country and all energy was renewably generated? It would seem ideal to us, but what might be downsides?

First, how would it work? ‘Ecological Footprinting’ is the science of measuring the environmental impact of a society against its share of the Earth’s ‘carrying capacity’. The idea of an ecological footprint is that it is linked to laws of supply and demand. I will explore this in a later post. For now, though, on the supply side there is the availability of natural resources and the ability of the Earth to absorb the waste products and other environmental consequences from our activities. And on the demand side there is the level of population and its corresponding consumption level.

For the world to be sustainable the demand must not exceed the supply, or we are burning up the future to satisfy the present – as we are now. If the entire population of the planet lived the same lifestyle that we have adopted in the Global North, then together we would need the equivalent of at least three Earths’ worth of resources. Which we don’t have.

We are beginning to get used to the idea that sensors, meters and other monitoring equipment can measure in real time all kinds of things from energy use to traffic levels, productivity, resource use and so on. At the same time algorithms are becoming more and more sophisticated in the way that they analyse the results of all this monitoring and make use of the data processed, incorporating them in feedback loops.

If we extrapolate this tendency into the future we can imagine that a society which attempts to sustainably manage itself will use algorithms and monitoring extensively to model future supply and demand, and make corrections automatically along the way so that they’ll continue to be matched.

Where is this leading?

That was the premise for my story, ‘For The Greater Good’ in WeatherfrontsIt’s all very well being able to cater for an existing population with existing productivity levels. But what if the models forecast that a population increase and a simultaneous decrease in productivity would mean that the population would suffer?

Would we want to live in this kind of world? You’ll have to read the story to find out if my heroine does!

Weatherfronts cover design
Photograph & design: Sarah Thomas © 2017
https://journeysinbetween.wordpress.com

Find out more

You can read more about David’s fiction and non-fiction at his website and download a free ebook of the new anthology Weatherfronts from Cambria Books, featuring stories, poems and essays from twelve writers who won commissions from the two events that TippingPoint and partners held at the Free Word Centre in 2014 and 2016. There are videos of some of the authors reading their works and audio recordings of panel discussions at the events on the Free Word website: search for ‘Weatherfronts’.

On 25th May, ClimateCultures editor, Mark Goldthorpe, will be chairing a panel discussion between David Thorpe and three of the other 2016 authors – Justina Hart, Darragh Martin and Sarah Thomas – at the Hay Festival.

You can read about Zero Carbon Britain and download their new report. This article from the One Planet Council describes the work of the Welsh Government’s commitment to ecological footprinting. And The One Planet Life provides further information and resources.

For an interesting discussion of the history of Utopia and Dystopia, see this set of articles from the British LibraryAnd this article from Encyclopaedia Britannica describes ten literary dystopias (somehow managing to bypass Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four).

 

Questioning Utopia? Space for creative thinking...

"What do you think are the best ways of reaching people who don't normally think about climate change? Does Utopian thinking help or hinder? How about humour, or other ways of bypassing the usual cognitive filters to touch our emotions? Share your ideas in the Comments box below, or use the Contact Form."