In Other Words
Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene
Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Nils Bubandt, Heather Swanson, and Elaine Gan; University of Minnesota Press, 368 pages
There is no shortage of books foretelling the catastrophe to which climate change shall deliver us. But what about a perfectly decent field guide to the flora and fauna of rising seas and ruined forests? Into this vacuum comes Arts of Living on a
Damaged Planet, a volume packed thick with descriptive essays of life in the Anthropocene — the emergent word to describe our own era, in which human hands have reshaped the planet’s environment and climate. Penned by a motley mix of mycologists, lemur biologists, sci-fi writers, anthropologists, and zoologists among others, these 18 pieces jaunt across the world, trying to make sense of plants and animals interacting with each other in a polluted landscape.
There is the profile of a Russian scientist who covertly spelunks the hollowed-out reactors of Chernobyl, an account of the vast pseudo-marine ecologies required to support salmon farming, an ecological study of Tijuana-San Diego canyons that are fertilized by raw sewage, and thought pieces that consider the entangled lives of lichen and ants, mammal life and microbes, humans and wolves. It should be noted that Arts of Living on a Damaged
Planet is actually two books. Flipped one way, half the volume is subtitled Ghosts, with essays devoted to recently extinct species and landscapes destroyed by human error and avarice. Flipped the other way, the book’s subtitle is appended as
Monsters, a second volume that starkly considers how a hot, polluted planet is quickly reshuffling the dominance of species in front of our own eyes.
The Monsters half introduces itself with “Bodies Tumbled Into Bodies,” where the book’s four coeditors, writing jointly, consider how comb jellyfish — capable of eating 10 times their weight in a single day — have overtaken the Black Sea since the 1980s. “The ocean turns monstrous. Filling the seas with sloshing goo, jellyfish are nightmare creatures of a future in which only monsters can survive,” write the editors. “Under other conditions, jellies are capable of playing well with other species. If jellyfish are monsters, it is because of their entanglements — with us. Jellies become bullies through modern human shipping, overfishing, pollution and global warming.” It’s a style of writing and inquiry that remains consistent throughout the essays, the mixing of scientific acumen and hard fact, all while flirting with some of the more radical theories currently being put forth by ecologists — namely that every living thing is symbiotic, thoroughly co-evolved and utterly codependent on other species. In the case of humans, our evolution is simply not conceivable without the bacteria residing in our intestines nor the wolves we tamed into dogs, during our long march through hunter-gathering and agricultural domestication.
A few of the authors even concede the occasional silver lining to life in the Anthropocene. For instance, Jens-Christian Svenning, a biologist who specializes in the ecology of megafauna (animals larger than 100 pounds), invites the reader to consider the recent resurgence of giant beasts on the very continents to which they were nearly driven to extinction — Europe and North America. In Europe, where one million hectares of agricultural land are abandoned each year to urbanization, wild boar, brown bear, Eurasian elk, and even the common beaver have made strong re-expansions across the Continent.
Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet has its origins in a 2014 University of California - Santa Cruz conference of the same name. It was an event that commingled scientists with humanists in the name of interdisciplinary understanding to answer the question of whether humans and other species will really be able to go on coexisting in the future. But unfortunately, as far as this book is concerned, the scientists have the greater writing strength. For example, Lesley Stern, a film theorist and historian who is also known for her experimental fusions of film criticism and fiction, contributes a piece called “A Garden or a Grave? The Canyonic Landscape of the Tijuana-San Diego Region” that is little more than a journalistic account of the Tijuana River watershed and the battle between shantytown residents, tire dump proprietors, politicians and conservationists to remake the landscape.
Contrast that with the contribution of Ingrid Parker, an ecology professor whose work blends natural history with mathematical botany models. She collects, quantifies, and analyzes plants in a California meadow to understand how much of the flora are invasive transplants that arrived with Spanish colonialists. Extrapolating back to native species, she reveals the pre-settler California to be a polychromatic, floral Eden. “At the time of European contact, spring in California was a riot of color. Spectacular fields of shimmering blue lupines and baby blue-eyes, pink owl’s clover, prickly yellow fiddlenecks, scarlet paintbrushes, and uncountable poppies like orange dots in a pointillist painting would have stretched from San Diego to San Francisco and beyond.”
There’s a poetry in facts. And as this book reveals, there is an increasing amount of courage and acceptance to be found in understanding even the most destructive changes in plant and wildlife that the overheated Anthropocene will bring us.
— Casey Sanchez