“Where Have All The Birds Gone?”

Artist Michael Gresalfi shares an artwork that uses repurposed materials dating from before our mass communications ‘information age’ to witness the extensive decline of bird species and populations in his local area and the loss of natural spectacle.


820 words: estimated reading time = 3 minutes


My wife and I have lived here in our home, located in Boyds, Maryland, USA for more than 32 years. Our backyard is adjacent to a 2,500-acre regional park. Black Hill Regional Park is comprised of fields, forests, streams, ponds, and a large lake.

Over the past decade, we have noticed the precipitous loss of so many species that we previously observed, including native bees, butterflies, beetles, salamanders, frogs, toads, turtles, and birds.

Not only have we lost a number of bird species, the quantity of remaining bird populations has drastically diminished. In the past, during both the Spring and Fall migratory seasons, we would watch in awe as deep and dark ribbons of migrating birds flew overhead, oftentimes extending for many miles and for half an hour or more.

Over the past years, this substantial loss of both species diversity and populations has influenced the direction my art has taken. I find myself responding to this human-induced global environmental onslaught with an increasing focus on creating climate change focused art, and where possible relying upon recycled and repurposed materials when making my art.

If you have not watched my narrated art and science integrated slide show ‘Our Changing Planet’ please do so. My large installation “What Man Has Wrought” likewise is also available here on the ClimateCultures website.

Post-it board – sixteen reasons for bird species losses

Bird species in decline. Showing "Where Have All The Birds Gone?" Artwork by Michael Gresalfi
“Where Have All The Birds Gone?” Artwork by Michael Gresalfi © 2023

This repurposed work originated with my purchase of a 1970s-era post-it board, which I then transformed into a climate change focused work of art.

I began with a 19.5″ x 27.5″ canvas framed and unpainted machine-stamped post-it board that included the outlines of birds sitting along attached twine, along with one-inch-sized clothes pins.

Prior to the introduction of the ‘Information Age’ and the advent of personal computers and particularly smartphones, people kept track of upcoming events on paper calendars and notepads and through the use in their homes of post-it boards.

I found this post-it board, equipped with the eight intact strings and a few miniature wooden clothes pins at my local Goodwill store. The canvas was untouched, no gesso, no paint. The birds were simple outlines, and not colored. The price tag on the back indicates it was sold in the ‘pre-barcode era’.

I purchased it for US $5.00 and proceeded to paint both the background and the birds with various acrylic paints. I then used vintage filing folder plastic file tabs and associated cardboard name tags, along with purchased colorful one-inch clothes pins to create this climate change focused work.

The twenty short post-it notes posted on this repurposed board (in order) are as follows:

*Where Have All The Birds Gone?

*In the past 50 years 30% lost in N. America

*2.4 Billion have disappeared since 1970

*MANY CAUSES MAN INDUCED

*CLIMATE CHANGE

*HABITAT LOSS

*CO2 INCREASING

*SEED BEARING PLANTS DISAPPEAR

*INSECT LOSS

*PESTICIDES

*HERBICIDES

*FERTILIZERS

*MONOCULTURES

*DEFORESTATION

*POLLUTION

*CATS

*TOO DRY

*TOO WET

*TOO HOT

*TOO MUCH!

My future goal is to broaden my focus on the many other diminishing and lost species that I have observed here in my backyard and within the adjacent regional park.

I haven’t seen a salamander egg mass in the ponds in more than a decade. The mating songs of the Spring Peepers, a tiny chorus frog found in the pond directly behind our yard, is nowadays a mere whisper.

Along with Box Turtles, Bull Frogs, Possums, and Monarch Butterflies, all are prime candidates for my future works.


Find out more

You can see Michael’s video ‘Our Changing Planet’ and his large installation “What Man Has Wrought” in our Creative Showcase feature — along with more than 25 examples of other ClimateCultures members’ work.

“If you were alive in the year 1970, more than one in four birds in the U.S. and Canada has disappeared within your lifetime” — so begins Vanishing: More Than 1 In 4 Birds Has Disappeared In The Last 50 Years, an article by Gustave Axelson
(September 19, 2019) for All About Birds. The article summarises recent research led by
Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which quantified for the first time the total decline in bird populations in the continental U.S. and Canada, a loss of 2.9 billion breeding adult birds. Conservation scientist Ken Rosenberg, who led the study, is quoted: “These bird losses are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife. And that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.”

Globally, the 2022 edition of State of the World’s Birds from BirdLife International “paints the most concerning picture for nature yet. Nearly half of the world’s bird species are now in decline, with only six percent having increasing populations. One in eight species (or 1,409 species in total) are now threatened with extinction.”

Michael Gresalfi

Michael Gresalfi

An artist who seeks to incorporate art with climate change data, and whose work in encaustic medium, glass paint, oils and acrylics includes 'Our Changing Planet'.

Starting to See Waste as Art and Heritage

Curator and writer Veronica Sekules introduces her special essay for our Longer feature, using GroundWork Gallery’s recent exhibition to explore artists’ roles in helping change how we value what we discard, viewing our waste as art and heritage.


1,570 words: estimate reading time = 6 minutes


Longer is the place for works that don’t fit within the normal ‘short reads’ format of our blog. Longer is for essays, fiction or other forms that haven’t appeared online elsewhere and explore in more detail the creative responses to our ecological and climate crisis. With each new Longer piece, the author introduces it here with an original post, where they can reflect on the motivation or inspiration behind the work or the process of creating it.

***

In my essay, The Art and Heritage of Waste, I hope to counter the prevailing culture of extractivism by looking at how mobilising the creativity of artists can help us to rehabilitate waste as a transformative resource.

From March to July 2023, GroundWork Gallery’s exhibition The Art of Waste] featured the work of eight artists, all of whom were in different ways [bringing creative responses to waste that point to solutions, albeit on a tiny scale.

GroundWork Gallery — which I opened in 2016 — is situated in King’s Lynn, in Norfolk, UK, on the confluence of the River Purfleet with the Great Ouse. It lives in a converted little 1930s warehouse, a building we saved from waste, as the planners and heritage officials at first wanted it demolished “for something more suitable”. The gallery is dedicated to the environment and to the role of art and artists in helping us to rethink aspects of it, and to understand and treat it better, vitally urgent now in our times of crisis. I believe art can carry a powerful message or ‘voice’ to a much wider world than the narrow confines of the conventional art world, if only its audiences respond actively to it and communicate its innovative messages to wider publics, other disciplines and contingent professions. That is how we begin to achieve change — through bursts of inspiration, sudden insights, and above all through widening influence.

Still from Henry/Bragg film, The Surrey Hills: a film about a landfill site incongruously situated in the Surrey Hills. © 2012

Environmentalists hate waste. This is the starting point for all the work I discuss in the essay, as artists hate waste too, and many of them are trying to find creative solutions to the way we think about it and literally view it. However, I’m proposing that we rethink the category of waste to include formally its relationship with art and with heritage, and think about the potential status of waste as both. The re-categorising and the status change involved will play a part in counteracting the extractivism which has contributed so significantly to the effects of climate change.

Artists working with waste for positive impact

Each of the artists in The Art of Waste used waste materials as creative resources, making use of surplus materials, implementing circular economies, being very economical in leaving nothing behind. As well as inventive practical strategies, the artists excelled in changing the status of waste, from that of detritus and ephemera, to be something precious and valued.

Jeremy Butler creates minutely detailed relief-assemblages which involve items that the artist has carefully crammed together to make complex formal architectures that hover somewhere between order and disorder. 

Liz Elton makes large-scale draped fabric-like installations using compostable cornstarch, a material used in food waste recycling bags, which she colours with vegetable dyes made from her own kitchen waste, intercepted on its way to compost.

Caroline Hyde Brown makes work mainly in textile and paper, and is part of a bio-based collaborative group who are recreating textiles from Neolithic legumes, such as grass pea and more recently green manure crops such as Buckwheat and lentils.

Lizzie Kimbley works with woven textiles, natural dyes and basketry techniques, using principles of circular design to consider material sustainably in regard to its whole life cycle. 

Kai Lossgott is a writer, filmmaker, visual and performance artist, and waste in his work has its own agency and is as much a metaphor as a physical phenomenon.

Eugene Macki is a sculptor whose work makes resourceful use of waste materials, often including food, and can be playful in making the most of the multiple meanings that result.

Jan Eric Visser creates sculptures from his inorganic household garbage, experimenting with new forms new materials, consistent with his own saying: ‘Form Follows Garbage’. 

Rain Wu, whose conceptually driven work materialises in different forms and scales, works with waste and perishable materials to instigate discussions around our manifold relationships with nature.

The immediate impact of The Art of Waste was measurable to a degree from the visitor book comments. Responding to the exhibition, many visitors remarked that it was “inspiring, relevant and thought-provoking”. However, it was also “unsettling”, “bringing new perspectives on waste”. Some were moved to more action: “Interesting ideas, we need to reach out to everyone”, “WE NEED TO DO MORE”, “much needed”, “love being eco”, “we waste so much”, “educational and makes us aware of our industry and pollution”, “who knew waste could be so useful – makes you think”, “feels very dystopian”, “compulsory viewing for all politicians and their influencers”. One of the youngest visitors wrote: “Makes you think about waste. Awe inspiring”.

This positive impact was gratifying but just a beginning. It showed to an extent the desire of people to be receptive to new creative ideas and how these can stimulate our societal needs to change. However, beyond the specificity of the timescale and place of the exhibition, there needs to be a whole lot more thinking about how we can mobilise the creativity of artists and these kinds of responses to it. Where does it get us and where can it lead? What does that kind of power enable and what and whom can it both connect with and lead to?

Revaluing waste as heritage

As I explore in the essay, recent thought on waste has proposed various paradigm shifts that involve changes in consumer habits, moving away from a throw-away economy of short-term use and of things ‘becoming useless’, to one of waste as asset creation. Some argue that waste as an entity ought to be entirely avoidable, or even non-existent, providing that materials, foods and resources are used by people with greater economy and efficiency. Within the framework of Discard Studies, the entire concept of waste is open to interrogation from all points of view. In sympathy with that interrogative framework, I suggest that a paradigm shift in the way waste is categorised will help us all to prioritise what and how and why we save the stuff of the earth. Increasingly, students of waste, entrepreneurs repurposing it and artists creating with it are recognising that waste needs to be rehabilitated as a transformative resource, not stuck with the shifting values of random commerce or the vilification applied to detritus.

In setting the framework for further discussion, I hope my essay raises in outline some of the issues in the definition of heritage and of the potential for waste as heritage. It touches on some of the enormous complexities of the subject of waste, such as how and where is waste accumulated and what are the problems of distribution. I touch on the subject of who the various categories of ‘we’ are who are creating the problems. Then, taking a lead from a series of artists’ projects, I take a look at two specific contentious waste subjects in more detail: landfill sites and plastics, and how they might be faced afresh. The ways these subjects have been tackled by artists, writers and archaeologists hold the key to the category shifts we need, from dumps and surpluses to treasure, from waste and trash to art and heritage.

Waste Heritage: showing Jeremy Butler's Landskip 1 at GroundWork Gallery in 2023
Jeremy Butler’s Landskip 1 at GroundWork Gallery © 2023

The innovative ways in which artists are using waste materials can lead the way to a shift in values, potentially turning what is currently a burden into a heritage asset. Categories of definition matter and both art and heritage are relevant. Waste’s role as heritage, specifically, needs to be brought into focus more, in order that we give greater value and the right kind of longevity to all the earth’s material and how we are using it. Shifting values affect attitudes. Applied at scale, that is one way the idea of waste as bulk mess and detritus can end. Instead, if surpluses, leftovers and spent materials are sorted not only by reuse potential, but as categories of art and heritage, this re-categorising can turn a negative into a positive asset and environmental benefits and economic consequences can follow.


Find out more

Veronica’s full essay, The Art and Heritage of Waste, is the third piece in our Longer feature, where members share original works, or ones that haven’t appeared online elsewhere, and which don’t fit easily into the regular ClimateCultures blog; Longer provides space to explore in more detail creative and critical responses to our ecological and climate crisis.

GroundWork Gallery in King’s Lynn, Norfolk, UK, is dedicated to art and environment. It shows the work of contemporary artists who care about how we see the world. Exhibitions and creative programmes explore how art can enable us to respond to the changing environment and imagine how we can shape its future. The Art of Waste ran from 18th March to 15th July 2023.

Veronica Sekules
Veronica Sekules
An art curator, educator and writer with a background in the environmental movement, who has created GroundWork Gallery to showcase art and campaign for the environment.

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.

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.

A Personal History of the Anthropocene – Three Objects #13

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


1,310 words: estimated reading time = 5 minutes


The challenge: the Anthropocene — the suggested Age of Human that our species has initiated — has a complex past, present and future, and there are many versions. What three objects evoke the unfolding of human-caused environmental and climate change for you? View other contributions at A History of the Anthropocene in 50 Objects.

***

The recording of history is a collective narrative of personal memories and subjective interpretations of objective data. And memories are the internal stories we create from fragments which become entwined with present experience and our imaginings of the future, always in the same moment. As I thought about identifying objects from the past, present and future, I could only see them as materials on a journey flowing through time. This flow need not be considered as a linear process but as a cycle, perhaps a little like the river cycle, in that all time can co-exist simultaneously but in different locations.

Based on my recent experiences out walking, objects that represent the Anthropocene in the present time, perhaps more than any other, are the proliferating numbers of discarded face masks and discarded dog shit bags (DDSBs) lying on pavements, spilling out from litter bins or festooned from trees and bushes. But I wished no connection with these objects, whereas each of the three objects I selected have specific resonances for me with the past, present and future.

Washed downstream

My first object is a fragment of brown slipware pottery, one of a handful I gathered last year while mud-larking on a pebble bank at the edge of the River Severn, downstream of Shrewsbury town centre.

Slipware pottery fragment from the River Severn
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

An informed acquaintance suggested to me that the brown and amber pieces were most likely 17th or 18th Century combed slipware. I was intrigued by its unknowable journey from formation of the clay, very likely a result of glaciation, and extraction for making into a pot. It was then used in someone’s house in Shrewsbury, maybe even one of the Tudor timbered mansions that still stand in the town centre. At some point it was lost and broken and found its way into the river. Over the years, it has been washed downstream, gradually rounding off the edges until I picked it up. How will my intervention change its course of flow?

Ruptured nature in peatbog and bitumen

I encountered the second object whilst researching a project at the Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve, the UK’s third-largest raised peatbog. Within the wetland nature reserve, there was a car breaker’s yard that operated for many years until the site was taken over by the Shropshire Wildlife Trust. The stark juxtaposition of the scrapyard against the remote wetland landscape had fascinated me for some time.

Artefacts 6×6
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Tyre mountain
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Artefact 26
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

Shortly after many of the crushed cars had been removed from the site, I made a visit to observe the mountains of remaining tyres and thousands of mangled fragments of plastic and metal car parts. I collected these like archaeological finds. Then entering a thicket between the scrapyard and peatbog, I saw a large bitumen tanker part-suspended in amongst the trees, as if it had been driven in at speed and simply left.

Showing a bitumen tanker dumped in woods
Tanker in the wood
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

When I returned a few months later, the tanker had been separated from its cab and moved, as part of the ongoing clean-up process, to a position on the concrete hardstanding in the main scrapyard, which was being cleared for restoration by covering with topsoil. In the warmer weather, the bitumen leaked from ruptures in the rusted steel carcass and spread out in mesmerising black pools, its ‘skin’ intricately marked and rippled.

Showing bitumen spill from a tanker
Tanker
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020
Showing a black pools of bitumen, its 'skin' intricately marked and rippled.
Bitumen
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

Bitumen can be found naturally or produced via the fractional distillation of petroleum. This natural hydrocarbon seemed to be reaching out, as if trying to recombine with the peat below and complete a cycle interrupted by human processing. The sculptural tanker is a powerful artwork in itself, symbolic of the human exploitation of petroleum and car manufacture.

In my early discussions with the Shropshire Wildlife Trust, there was general agreement that we, as a society, should take responsibility and acknowledge the legacy of human impact on the environment, perhaps by leaving some of the dereliction in place. However, while bitumen is widely used as a construction material, it has some chronic toxicity, it is a potential carcinogen and the tanker was regarded as a hazardous waste. The metal structure was also regarded as unsafe, so the decision was regretfully made to retain the tanker on the concrete and cover it with soil as protection.

Acorn to oak, and uncertain futures

The final object is an acorn. This particular acorn came into my possession during a heritage project where I was trying to locate trees more than 200 years old in Telford; trees that could have been witness to the battle of Cinderloo, an industrial dispute in 1821. Around 3,000 miners marched in protest against savage wage cuts and they shut down ironworks before coming into conflict with the Shropshire Yeomanry, resulting in two fatalities and nine arrests, with one man hanged for felonious riot.

Acorn
Photograph: Andrew Howe © 2020

There are many woodlands in Telford, growing over the ruins of industries that date back to the start of the Industrial Revolution. Only a few of the trees are as old as 200 years though, so the acorn I collected from one old oak in Coalbrookdale provided me with the potential to create a special connection. By planting the acorn, it may grow and live on beyond a normal human lifetime to make a connection spanning between the origins of the Anthropocene and an uncertain future.

The centuries-old relationship between the English and oak woods is at the heart of national identity; once integral to peasant livelihoods, Royal hunting forests and naval shipbuilding. Oak has abundant uses as a strong and durable construction timber, as fuel, as animal fodder, for the tanning of leather and in production of ink, but its value is increasingly recognised for sequestering carbon and sustaining biodiverse flora and fauna in its branches and in its root systems. Humans will need to rebalance the values of oak between a commodity and as a living guardian, if we are to begin regaining some harmony with the more-than-human for our own survival.

Witness, Coalbrookdale Oak: oak gall ink on paper
Image: Andrew Howe © 2020

Find out more

You can explore Fenn’s, Whixall & Bettisfield Mosses National Nature Reserve, and the Marches Mosses of which it is a part, at The Meres and Mosses site. And you can find out more about Andrew’s own work with the Mosses and Marshes project at Of the Mosses. including an introduction to the site: Tracing Human history across the Moss.

Bitumen, a sticky, black, highly viscous liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum, is also known as asphalt, and is mainly used in road and other construction, although its natural form was historically used for waterproofing and as an adhesive as far back as 5,000 BCE. Runoff from roads can cause water pollution from bitumen and, as this article from MedicineNet explains, Hot asphalt causes a lot of air pollution. “As it heats up, asphalt releases chemical compounds that contribute to air pollution … Sunlight plays a key role in these asphalt emissions, with even moderate levels of sunshine tripling the release of air pollutants.”

You can learn more about the history of the Cinderloo Uprising in Dawley, Telford and the heritage project led by community group Cinderloo 1821

Andrew Howe

Andrew Howe

An interdisciplinary artist and project manager using walking and mapping to explore how people interact with places, drawing attention to human entanglements within a multi-species environment.