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.”

“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'.

Seeing the Flint Water Crisis

In our first accompaniment to Longer, a new ClimateCultures in-depth feature, arts researcher Jemma Jacobs introduces her recent study of the Flint Water Crisis and environmental racism as seen through one photographer’s work to make visible hidden perspectives.


1,830 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


Longer is the new ClimateCultures offering of works that don’t fit within the normal ‘short reads’ format of our blog: 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 them here with an original post, where they can reflect on the motivation or inspiration behind the work or the process of creating it. Jemma’s essay for Longer is The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis.

***

Environmental violence is racially discriminative; this is something I have always known, and my recent research provides mounting evidence to support it. When my Master’s course provided me with more opportunities to build on this knowledge — and add to the academic field in some way — I thought it would be dismissive to ignore the patterns of racial discrimination that I have recognised within the Anthropocene discourse.

At Goldsmiths University, I am completing a Master’s in Contemporary Art Theory. I have found that the Visual Culture department gives me the scope to explore topics utilising various schools of thought. With sustainability, environmental justice and art being three of my major interests, my course has given me the space to explore their intersections. Within the course I have explored Black Aesthetic Theory with regard to black music and poetry and the intersection between ecology and art theory, along with notions of power and subjectivity. Having completed my undergraduate degree in History of Art, my interest in visual culture remains strong. My move to Goldsmiths supported my growing curiosity in theory and environmental issues while allowing me to base my explorations within the visual. So, when given the chance to expand on my knowledge on the Anthropocene and its intersection with racial narratives, I decided to explore the Flint Water Crisis through the photographic lens of LaToya Ruby Frazier. My essay The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis is published today on ClimateCultures.

The Flint Water Crisis & the Black Anthropocene

Beginning in 2014, with its effects predicted to last for many more years to come, the Flint Water Crisis saw the water of a community in Michigan become toxic. The health of adults and children was put in danger. Residents of Flint experienced a range of impacts, from hair loss to miscarriages and disease. Children’s brains were affected, showing damage to their learning, behaviour, hearing and speaking skills. The issue sits deep within a history of environmental racism, particularly when understood with these facts: the crisis was caused by the distinct ignorance and mishandling of those with power, in a city where over half are black or African American and over one third in poverty. The catastrophe highlights racial power imbalances that can be recognised globally. It therefore proves the need to expand on the idea of the Anthropocene – humanity as a whole is not the cause of the changing climate which we see today. Rather, the western powers of white supremacy. Kathryn Yusoff’s concept of the ‘Black Anthropocene’ recognises the inextricable link between the history of racial and environmental violence — arguing that one cannot exist without the other. Ultimately, environmental neglect has its roots in colonial ideas of power and possession.

Flint Water Crisis - showing Flint Water Plant
The Flint Water Crisis Is Ongoing
Photograph: George Thomas CC 2016 Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/hz536n/27805760502

Exploring the discriminatory aspects of the Flint Water Crisis through photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier provides a perspective that is otherwise left invisible. She gives visibility to the black community, emphasising their strength and perseverance within such a catastrophic moment. The title of her photographic series alone, Flint is Family (2016-2021), readdresses the imbalance of power underscored by the crisis. Frazier is an incredible American artist who draws off her own childhood in late 20th century Braddock, Pennsylvania. There, she experienced a declining economy and city. Frazier’s 2001-2014 series The Notion of Family captures the ‘ghost-town’ in a documentary way that sets up her style for later works. Expanding on the neglect she experienced herself, Frazier’s perspective on the Flint Water Crisis is extremely valuable in underlining the American experience, while demanding justice.

Living in the wake

In preparation for my body of work, I read many texts that gave me a theoretical understanding of the black experience. This work is imperative but does not override how I am part of the western white bias that is caught in the colonial modes of thinking that my work seeks to dissect. Making myself open to black authorship was not only important but essential prior to any exploration. Doing so allowed me to approach Frazier’s images with deeper consideration of historical patterns of injustice. Essential contemporary works, such as Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic and Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake, grounded my study of the Flint Water Crisis in a history of racial injustice. Sharpe, specifically, allowed me to explore the existence of colonial attitudes within contemporary society as black communities live ‘in the wake’ of slavery. Her work permitted an investigation into the term ‘wake’ and its various denotations: such as the wake of a ship, referencing slavery but also its everlasting impacts in society today; and the act of being awake.

As mentioned before, Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None grounded this within a more environmental framework. Alongside this, Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything exposed me to the notion of the ‘sacrifice zone’ — “whole subsets of humanity categorized as less than fully human, which made their poisoning in the name of progress somehow acceptable.” This allowed me to see the city of Flint in a way that those in power at the time did: as geographically disposable.

Flint Water Crisis
Protestors march demanding clean water outside of Flint City Hall in Flint, Michigan.
Photograph: Flint Journal © 2015

My research confirmed and extended my knowledge of the need to recognise power disparities within our changing climate and how they are intimately tied to modes of governing. Seeking a recognition of this, my paper views Frazier’s photographs as making visible the invisible. The community of Flint were ignored, their health left to decline as those in power denied the state of their water system. Frazier’s series sheds light onto those communities and shouts their significance.

Visual culture as a positive force

In a world where our environment is being neglected, abused and exploited, black communities are disproportionately impacted. The mistreatment exhibited in the Flint Water Crisis is symptomatic of the greater black American experience at large. In my paper, I explore how contemporary inequities can be traced to the colonial period, how the importance of water is symbolically linked to such concepts. I explore how the visuals of photography reveal the climate crisis as compounding injustices that have been present for many years.

While it is important to be critical of those with power, especially those who use it in discriminatory ways, Frazier provides an alternative approach, one which should be focused on more: how it may be more productive to shed light on those vulnerable to that force. Lifting up communities who are at a disadvantage, especially when they’re portrayed as active agents and not simply passive victims, can work to bring equity to societal relations. Frazier undoubtedly produces a positive force. Her use of the ‘deadpan’ aesthetic arouses curiosity and emphasises the normalcy of racial discrimination. In her documentary photographic style, Frazier provides an intimate insight into the crisis — an understanding that photojournalism within the media is unable to fully render.

Flint Water Crisis - LaToya Ruby Frazer TED Talk, November 2019
Photographer LaToya Ruby Frazer TED Talk, November 2019 https://www.ted.com/talks/latoya_ruby_frazier_a_creative_solution_for_the_water_crisis_in_flint_michigan

Environmental violence can manifest in a variety of ways. The Flint Water Crisis acts as a prime example of its unjust and discriminatory pattern. Frazier’s photographs work brilliantly as a counter, productively expanding and flipping the narrative. My exploration of this in my paper helps to magnify links between past and present inequalities, while simultaneously adding to the discussion of visual arts and its contribution to historical understanding.


Find out more

You can read Jemma’s full essay The Visuality of the Flint Water Crisis, with a full bibliography. Visit our new Longer feature for more pieces from our members.

Unfortunately, we are not able to share LaToya Ruby Frazier’s images here but you can see her series (and video) Flint is Family, and other works, at her website. “In various interconnected bodies of work, Frazier uses collaborative storytelling with the people who appear in her artwork to address topics of industrialism, Rust Belt revitalization, environmental justice, access to healthcare, access to clean water, Workers’ Rights, Human Rights, family, and communal history. This builds on her commitment to the legacy of 1930s social documentary work and 1960s and ’70s conceptual photography that address urgent social and political issues of everyday life.” You can watch A creative solution to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the TED Talk Frazier gave on the Flint Water Crisis, her Flint is Family project and the work with communities in Flint that the project has helped to fund.

You can find out more about the Flint Water Crisis in The Flint water crisis: how citizen scientists exposed poisonous politics a Nature (2018) review of two books on the issues (The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy and What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City), and a series of articles published by The Guardian over several years.

Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness (1993) is published by Harvard University Press. In The last humanist: how Paul Gilroy became the most vital guide to our age of crisis, The Guardian profiles Gilroy and his work. You can also explore Tate’s use of the term Black Atlantic and work by artists inspired by his book.

Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake (2016) is published by Duke University Press. On the violent language of the refugee crisis, published by Literary Hub (11/11/16), is an excerpt from the book. It is among the books that Ashlie Sandoval writes about in the “Books I Teach” series from Black Agenda report (19/2/20). 

Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018) is published by University of Minnesota Press. Yusoff examines how the grammar of geology is foundational to establishing the extractive economies of subjective life and the earth under colonialism and slavery. You can read a review published by New Frame (28/8/19), a not-for-profit, social justice publication with “a pro-poor, pro-working class focus that aims to report faithfully and informatively about the lives and struggles of ordinary people.”

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything (2015) is published by Simon & Schuster, where you can read an excerpt. You can explore more at the This Changes Everything website.

You can read about the use of the ‘deadpan aesthetic’ in photography in So what exactly is deadpan photography? from New York Film Academy (2014).

Finally, you can find out more about MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths University of London.

Jemma Jacobs

Jemma Jacobs

A researcher and curator of activist art, personally specialising in climate communication within the Anthropocene to draw attention to those suffering disproportionately from climate change impacts.

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.

Hacking the Earth

Showing cover of Skyseed novel on geonegineeringCurator and writer Rob La Frenais interviews scientist and fellow ClimateCultures member Bill McGuire about Skyseed. McGuire’s novel explores geoengineering — the ‘fix’ proposed by some as global heating’s global solution. What on Earth could possibly go wrong?…


1,930 words: estimated reading time = 7.5 minutes


As COP 26 in Glasgow approaches, there’s a new thriller, Skyseed by scientist Bill McGuire which is aimed at drawing our attention to the growing lobby of industrialists, fossil fuel producers, politicians and scientists who want to explore the idea of geoengineering — what is called in the novel the ‘Fix’ — using novel, large-scale, engineering solutions to global heating.

Showing cover of Skyseed novel on geonegineering
Skyseed, by Bill McGuire

In a tense drama set in 2028, the world’s scientific community — astronomers, volcanologists and climate scientists — slowly becomes aware there is a conspiracy of ‘bad actors’ who are secretly unleashing synthetic biology-inspired ‘nanobots’ to eat up the carbon in the atmosphere. Without spoiling the plot, there is an unexpected volcanic eruption during this process which sends the world hurtling towards a new ice age, where ironically we have to go back to dirty coal technologies like steam trains to try to reverse runaway cooling. This is probably the first thriller based on the climate emergency as it is unravelling right now and certainly the first based on geo-engineering. As the book’s cover suggests “hacking the earth might be the last thing we ever do”.

The ‘bad actors’ are — wait for it — Britain and the USA. It’s a story that mirrors the unthinkable alliance between Blair and Bush to launch an illegal war in Iraq based on non-existent weapons of mass destruction, based on a ‘dodgy dossier’. In the book, the UK Prime Minister has already bought a dodgy dossier on geoengineering from the US President, while at the same time testing the water with a climate scientist he had previously campaigned with before getting elected and back-pedalling on climate pledges, Jane Halliwell. Here she responds to his suggestion that a ‘fix’ might be possible.

Jane looked at the PM for a long moment, then shook her head. ‘Prime Minister, you know what needs to be done. Nothing’s changed. Our priority has to be slashing emissions, not (increasing) GDP growth. Nothing else will do…Kickstarting the stalled renewables and transport decarbonisation drives, a crash programme in energy efficiency. It’s the same old stuff. I’m afraid there’s just no silver bullet.

Moving from science fiction to reality?

Geoengineering with a space lens
Space Lens. Image: Mikael Häggström – Including the image ‘The Earth seen from Apollo 17’, also public domain licensed, Public Domain, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_geoengineering#/media/File:Space_lens.png

Bill McGuire: “Extreme geoengineering measures include building colossal mirrors or lenses in space to cut the amount of solar radiation reaching the planet.”

McGuire knows his territory. When he’s not writing novels he’s Professor Emeritus of Geophysical and Climate Hazards at UCL, London and contributing author to the IPCC 2012 SREX report on climate change and extreme events. I asked him how he became aware of the dangers of geoengineering as portrayed in his thriller.

“Well the idea’s been around since the Cold War really, people like Edward Teller brought it up. So it’s always been at the back of my mind. Over the last couple of years, there’s been a UN moratorium of geoengineering; open-air experiments anyway. Despite that, people have started to bugger around, if you like, and try things out. It’s the fact that it’s growing in terms of credence and involvement that has sparked my interest in it. People are getting into it in all sorts of ways. For example there’s a project designed to brighten the clouds over the Great Barrier Reef. It’s aimed to preserve the Reef, but it’s pretty clear they are developing a technology that can be used around the world and make large amounts of money out of it. It’s moving from pages of science fiction to what potentially is reality.”

There are already documents circulating about a ‘soft’ version of geoengineering, for example a group led by Sir David King called the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge. What was his response to that? Was ‘climate repair’ also another excuse for inaction on climate?

“In Skyseed I talk about direct interventions that try and cut out incoming sunlight. Those are pretty drastic ways of doing things. The technology in Skyseed is actually a form of carbon capture. The ‘bots suck the carbon directly out of the atmosphere, which is that cause of the devastating cooling. However there are geoengineering techniques based on carbon capture which can be done in all sorts of ways. One that doesn’t sound too bad is spreading basalt dust on farmland. Basalt dust reacts with carbon — it locks it away and does a good job in that way. But when you look at these things, whatever they are, at scale they are huge projects. It would involve spraying basalt dust on half the world’s farmland, just to reduce the emissions by about a 20th of what we produce every year. This is the big problem with geoengineering, it has to be at a massively huge scale if it’s going to do anything at all.

“The other thing I have an issue with is, if you think geo-engineering is a solution waiting to be utilised, then you’re never going to spend as much time pushing as hard as possible for cutting emissions, because you’re always going to think: ‘doesn’t matter, there’s a backstop — we can always resort to that’. If, for example, you’re protecting a city with your loved ones you fight a damn sight harder if you’re in the last line of defence than if you’re in the second line of defence. This is a systemic problem with geoengineering as a whole.”

Geoengineering with iron sulphate
Photograph: NASA (Public Domain), 2006 http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Newsroom/NewImages/images.php3?img_id=17189

Bill McGuire: “This shows a plankton bloom off the coast of Argentina. Some geoengineers want to dump large quantities of iron sulphate into the ocean to promote more plankton growth, the idea being that more plankton will suck up more carbon dioxide.”

With regard to the speech by Jane Halliwell to the Prime Minister above, had he come across any politicians taking the idea of geoengineering seriously?

“I think the UK government is taking it seriously. There are people in government keeping up to speed on what’s going on. It’s certainly not being ruled out. Of course, the fossil fuel companies and others are pushing this. If they can keep temperatures down they think they can keep pulling oil and gas out of the ground. There’s a lot of lobbying in various countries.”

In his book, could the rogue geoengineering activity have been spotted from space, for example from the ISS?

“The sort of scenario I talk about in the book, which is extreme and which we don’t have the technology for at the moment, in terms of these self-replicating nanobots; firstly it was detectable because of the density of the atmosphere. The astronomers were complaining they didn’t have decent observing conditions in the Canary Islands. Certainly, if somebody was pumping, for example, tens of millions of tons of sulphur into the atmosphere, illicitly, that would be picked up, because there are monitoring instruments up there.”

Geoengineering - overview of the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) project
Image by Hugh Hunt, 2011: SPICE SRM – overview of the SPICE (Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering) project. Creator. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SPICE_SRM_overview.jpg

Bill McGuire: “So-called solar radiation management includes mimicking a volcano by pumping millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere. This blocks incoming solar radiation leading to cooling of the lower atmosphere (troposphere) and surface. This is especially risky, as cooling due to large volcanic eruptions – e.g Tambora (Indonesia) in 1815 – is typically accompanied by extreme weather, reduced crop yields, widespread harvest failure and famine.”

Geoengineering — to what end?

With the Arctic ice melting at an alarming rate would that be a legitimate reason for engineering solutions, like re-icing the Arctic with giant mirrors, for example?

“It depends on your point of view. The natural way would be to allow it to heal itself, really. ‘Re-wilding the climate’, I call it. If we decide as a society that if we have brought emissions under control we now want to reverse things, you would use geoengineering schemes to refreeze the Arctic, etc. Or we might argue that we brought emissions down, let’s just let the Earth get back to where it wants to be. Before we started influencing the climate the global average temperature was on its way down towards the next ice age. If we talk about ‘repairing the climate’ we don’t even know what that means. Does that mean getting back to 280 parts per million carbon dioxide, which it was in the interglacial period, because if it is, we will end up in an Ice age again? At a higher level nobody knows. It’s not an issue that’s been addressed yet. Once we get emissions under control, knowing what we do next is a big issue.”

Photograph: Simon Eugster, 2005: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cirrus_fibratus_and_Cirrocumulus.jpg

BillMcGuire: “Thinning of cirrus clouds by means of spraying them with chemicals is proposed as a means of increasing heat loss from the Earth and human activities into space.”

Had he been in a room where people were seriously fanatical about geo-engineering?

“I haven’t been in a room with them, no, but I keep track of things and I know there are individuals who are fanatical about it as an agenda, certainly. There are people like that about. Not many so far, thank God.”

So for example?

“Well the chap (David Keith) who runs the SCOPEX experiment, for example, at Harvard. They already designed an instrument that will go up into the stratosphere and test, first of all spraying water, then calcium carbonate then sulphur dioxide as a means of testing pumping out millions of tons of sulphur. There’s also the Great Barrier Reef project I referred to before. People like Bill Gates are involved in these, they funded some of these studies. Tech billionaires need to have these big shiny projects, don’t they? They can’t keep their hands off. “

In the novel, the whistleblowers who draw attention to the effects of geoengineering (like him) get assassinated by dark forces of the State. How real was this? McGuire: “Well it’s a thriller isn’t it!”


Find out more

Skyseed by Bill McGuire was published by The Book Publishing Guild in September 2020, and you can read more about Bill’s work on the novel and thoughts on geoengineering in his piece for the ClimateCultures Creative Showcase — including a link to a podcast interview.

You can find out about plans for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow in November 2021 and Pre-COP activities at the official COP 26 website.

In his article for The Guardian (16/4/20) — Scientists trial cloud brightening equipment to shade and cool Great Barrier Reef — Graham Readfearn describes experiments to use a modified turbine to spray trillions of nano-sized salt crystals into the air from a barge. And this article by Jeff Tollefson in Nature (27/11/18) reports on researchers’ plan to spray sunlight-reflecting particles into the stratosphere, an approach that could ultimately be used to quickly lower the planet’s temperature: First sun-dimming experiment will test a way to cool Earth.

Rob mentions the Centre for Climate Repair at Cambridge, which was founded and is chaired by former UK Chief Scientific Advisor Sir David King. The Centre’s research themes include deep and rapid emissions reductions, greenhouse gas removal and restoring broken climate systems, and it also develops policy.

Climate Emergency – a New Culture of Conversation, Rob’s previous interview with another fellow ClimateCultures member, discussed ClimateKeys, composer Lola Perrin‘s ground-breaking global initiative to ‘help groups of people tell the truth to each other’ about the ecological and climate emergency.

Rob La Frenais
Rob La Frenais
An independent contemporary art curator, working internationally and creatively with artists entirely on original commissions, directly engaged with the artist’s working process as far as possible.