An­thro­pocene move­ment scarier than car­bon tax

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To sell Cana­di­ans on the mer­its of his car­bon tax plan, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau staged a me­dia event in late Oc­to­ber be­fore a group of high school stu­dents at the Na­tional Gallery in Ot­tawa. His backdrop was a wall-size im­age of Cathe­dral Grove #1, a beau­ti­ful but dark-hued in­te­rior view of a bo­real for­est on Van­cou­ver Is­land taken in 2017 by famed Cana­dian land­scape pho­tog­ra­pher Ed­ward Burtynsky.The link be­tween the peace­ful majesty of Cathe­dral Grove #1 and the crass pol­i­tics of a $20 car­bon tax might not be ob­vi­ous. But the high school stu­dents were at the Na­tional Gallery to take in An­thro­pocene, a ma­jor mul­ti­me­dia ex­hibit based on new Burtynsky pho­to­graphs that de­picts as­sorted hu­man in­cur­sions on the ge­og­ra­phy of the planet — coal min­ing, garbage pro­duc­tion, log­ging, oil re­fin­ing, ex­press­ways, mar­ble quar­ries, un­der­ground tun­nels.Trudeau’s sim­plis­tic mes­sage to the stu­dents — and all Cana­di­ans — was that a car­bon tax will help cur­tail this on­go­ing ru­ina­tion of the Earth. Be­hind the sim­ple mes­sage, how­ever, is a com­plex tan­gle of mo­tives, ob­jec­tives and po­lit­i­cal wran­gling that an­i­mate the key play­ers be­hind the ex­hibit.The small col­lec­tion of about 30 of Burtynsky’s more re­cent in­dus­trial land­scapes is part of a decades-long global cam­paign among sci­ence ac­tivists to make ge­o­log­i­cal his­tory by of­fi­cially in­sert­ing hu­mans as a plan­e­tary force greater per­haps even than na­ture it­self.Ac­cord­ing to the An­thro­pocene move­ment, un­der cur­rent con­di­tions dom­i­nated by hu­mans, the planet is head­ing for a Sixth Ex­tinc­tion, a fol­lowup to the Fifth Ex­tinc­tion more than 65 mil­lion years ago, when a com­bi­na­tion of vol­canic ac­tiv­ity, as­ter­oid im­pact and cli­mate change ef­fec­tively ended 76 per cent of life on Earth.The im­me­di­ate ob­jec­tive of the Burtynsky ex­hibit at the Na­tional Gallery — along with a com­pan­ion ex­hibit at the Art Gallery of On­tario in Toronto — is to build mo­men­tum for an of­fi­cial dec­la­ra­tion by the In­ter­na­tional Com­mis­sion on Stratig­ra­phy (ICS) that hu­man be­ings are at the de­struc­tive heart of a new epoch in Earth’s ge­o­log­i­cal story.Stratig­ra­phy mea­sures and iden­ti­fies lay­ers, or strata, of rock that record the his­tory of the planet. Most of the high school stu­dents vis­it­ing the Na­tional Gallery would rec­og­nize the mas­sive ge­o­logic land­scapes that ex­pose this record, each layer rep­re­sent­ing some time frame in Earth’s evo­lu­tion. The Grand Canyon is a good ex­am­ple, as are im­ages of rock from the Juras­sic pe­riod, which be­gan 200 mil­lion years ago and ended 50 mil­lion years later.But since the cam­paign to in­tro­duce the An­thro­pocene epoch be­gan around the year 2000, there have been no iden­ti­fi­able lay­ers of hu­man sed­i­ment or fos­sils that meet the def­i­ni­tion for a Ge­o­logic Time Scale, which reaches back 4.6 bil­lion years. Ac­cord­ing to many ge­ol­o­gists, the An­thro­pocene move­ment is us­ing po­lit­i­cal mes­sag­ing to try to over­throw the ex­ist­ing foun­da­tions of strati­graphic sci­ence. The move­ment is also ded­i­cated to us­ing this new hu­man epoch as the mo­ti­va­tion for a new sys­tem of global po­lit­i­cal gov­er­nance.With the ar­rival of Burtynsky as a high-pro­file ad­vo­cate, the sci­ence cam­paign to de­fine and iden­tify the An­thro­pocene gets a fresh pub­lic­ity boost. What has been un­til now mostly a con­tentious bat­tle among ge­ol­o­gists and Earth sci­en­tists is be­ing dragged into a new pop­u­lar arena via a unique — and some ar­gue ma­nip­u­la­tive and dis­torted — merger of art and sci­ence.Burtynsky seems ide­ally suited for the cam­paign. With two long­time col­leagues, film­mak­ers Jen­nifer Baich­wal and Ni­cholas de Pencier, he formed The An­thro­pocene Project in 2014, a col­lab­o­ra­tion aimed at us­ing art to “make An­thro­pocene a house­hold word.”The gallery ex­hibits are a prod­uct of the project, as is a doc­u­men­tary film, An­thro­pocene: The Hu­man Epoch, cur­rently show­ing in Toronto and else­where in limited re­lease. The project even has its own poet, Mar­garet At­wood, whose 11 con­tri­bu­tions — ti­tled The Plas­ticene Suite — are scat­tered through a large-scale $125 cof­fee-ta­ble book on sale at the ex­hibit.From one poem: We are a dy­ing sym­phony. No bird knows thisBut us — we knowWhat our night magic does.Our dark night magic.How­ever art­ful, Burtynsky has turned his project over to the ser­vice of a sci­ence cru­sade led by a small group of 37 ge­ol­o­gists known as the An­thro­pocene Work­ing Group. Its lead pro­tag­o­nist is Jan Zalasiewicz, a ge­ol­o­gist at the Uni­ver­sity of Le­ices­ter and a pro­lific pro­ducer of jour­nal ar­ti­cles pro­mot­ing the of­fi­cial in­stal­la­tion of the An­thro­pocene as a new unit of the Ge­o­logic Time Scale. Among the AWG’S mem­bers and pro­po­nents are also many cli­mate ac­tivists, in­clud­ing jour­nal­ist An­drew Revkin and Naomi Oreskes, a sci­ence his­to­rian at Har­vard.One of many AWG pro­pos­als is to de­clare 1950 as the end of the cur­rent in­ter­glacial, 12,000-year Holocene epoch, dur­ing which man emerged as the last Ice Age glaciers re­treated. In the late 1940s and early 1950s the world’s nu­clear su­per­pow­ers det­o­nated mul­ti­ple de­vices that de­posited mea­sur­able ra­dioac­tive fall­out that is now em­bed­ded in sed­i­ments across the planet. AWG ge­ol­o­gists sug­gest this nu­clear sed­i­ment is ev­i­dence for a new epoch — a “Golden Spike” or a “bomb spike” — proof, they claim, that hu­mans are the new me­te­orites.In this min­gling of art and sci­ence, how­ever, both Burtynsky’s provoca­tive pho­to­graphs and Zalasiewicz’s sci­en­tific claims are clearly part of a larger po­lit­i­cal at­tempt to de­lib­er­ately ma­nip­u­late pub­lic opin­ion and global eco­nomic and power struc­tures. But do the art and the sci­ence of the An­thro­pocene, jointly or sep­a­rately, make the case they claim to make? Or is the An­thro­pocene, as one sci­en­tist put it, more about “pop cul­ture” than hard sci­ence?


The An­thro­pocene Project ad­heres to an ex­plicit warn­ing: We are headed for dis­as­ter, and as Burtynsky writes, we have only our­selves to blame: “Our plan­e­tary sys­tem is af­fected by a mag­ni­tude of force as pow­er­ful as any nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring global catas­tro­phe, but one caused solely by a sin­gle species: Us.” The catas­tro­phe, he goes on, is brought on by our “in­nate so­cial pre­dis­po­si­tion to greed.”This is a rel­a­tively new stance for Burtynsky. In per­haps his most fa­mous book, 2003’s Man­u­fac­tured Land­scapes, he seemed am­biva­lent about the mean­ing of his panoramic sweeps of stun­ning in­dus­trial sites — Ari­zona cop­per mines, Sud­bury nickel tail­ings, the oil­sands in Al­berta.“I’m not try­ing to editorialize and say this is right or this is wrong,” he said at the time. “Ei­ther ex­treme is too sim­plis­tic. We are com­pelled to progress. We have ex­tracted from the land from the mo­ment we stood on two feet. We are work­ing to sup­ply the kinds of ma­te­ri­als that are nec­es­sary for the lives we’ve built for our­selves.”With The An­thro­pocene Project, how­ever, it’s hard see much dis­tance be­tween the ex­hibits, film and books and the sug­ges­tions of wan­ton de­struc­tion that run through and sur­round them. While most of the new im­ages that make up the Burtynsky project still con­tain ev­i­dence of hu­man in­ge­nu­ity and the ben­e­fits of in­dus­trial ac­tiv­ity, the in­tent now is clearly to por­tray hu­man ac­tiv­ity as de­struc­tive.At the AGO, where the ex­hibit closes Sun­day be­fore mov­ing to Eu­rope, the first ma­jor wall-size im­age is a photo of the Car­rara mar­ble quar­ries in Italy, where white stone has been ex­tracted since an­cient Rome. But the harsh flat-rock im­ages of the gi­ant quar­ries ig­nore the cre­ative uses to which the mar­ble has been put — from Michelan­gelo’s David and hun­dreds of other sculp­tures to some of world’s great­est ar­chi­tec­tural struc­tures. Were these crimes against the Earth?In the doc­u­men­tary, footage of large equip­ment re­mov­ing Car­rara mar­ble slabs is ac­com­pa­nied by a high-vol­ume sound­track from the fi­nal scene of Mozart’s opera Don Gio­vanni. It’s a death scene in which an an­guished Gio­vanni is asked by a mar­ble statue to re­pent for his sins. When Gio­vanni re­fuses, he is en­gulfed in the flames of hell:Ter­rors un­known are freez­ing me,Demons of doom are seiz­ing me,Is hell let loose to tor­ture me?Or does it mock my sight?To which a chorus re­sponds, as Gio­vanni de­scends into the in­ferno and the slab of Car­rara mar­ble is moved by the equip­ment:Tor­ments eter­nal wait thee!Burn­ing in end­less night!Lest this not-so-sub­tle mes­sage is lost on those less fa­mil­iar with opera, a mono­tone fe­male voice also of­fers a sur­vey of the hell fire An­thro­pocene pro­po­nents ar­gue has fol­lowed the Holocene era: B.C. forests are be­ing dec­i­mated, oceans are in peril, an­i­mals are be­com­ing ex­tinct be­cause of hu­man-driven habi­tat loss, poach­ing, pol­lu­tion and cli­mate change.


Next time you eat a bar­be­cued chicken leg, you may be bit­ing into proof that hu­mans have re­con­fig­ured the bio­sphere and trig­gered a new ge­o­logic epoch.A re­cent pa­per by the sci­en­tists pro­mot­ing the An­thro­pocene claims that ubiq­ui­tous broiler chick­ens — bred and de­vel­oped by hu­mans to feed hu­mans — are now so dom­i­nant in global bird­land that they “vividly sym­bol­ize the trans­for­ma­tion of the bio­sphere to fit evolv­ing hu­man con­sump­tion pat­terns, and show clear po­ten­tial to be a bios­trati­graphic marker species of the An­thro­pocene.”The num­bers are sig­nif­i­cant. In 2016, the stand­ing pop­u­la­tion of broiler chick­ens was es­ti­mated at 22.7 bil­lion — vastly greater than the stand­ing stock of any other bird species on the planet. In all, al­most 66 bil­lion chick­ens were con­sumed that year, and the an­nual con­sump­tion rates keep climb­ing — part of what the An­thro­pocene move­ment calls “The Great Ac­cel­er­a­tion.”Chick­ens have been on din­ner plates since Ro­man times. But thanks to breed­ing tech­nol­ogy and farm­ing prac­tices de­vel­oped since the 1950s, the mod­ern broiler chicken has been trans­formed in skele­tal size and shape. “With its huge pop­u­la­tion size and dis­tinc­tive bi­ol­ogy, ge­net­ics and bone geo­chem­istry, the broiler chicken may be viewed as a key species in­di­ca­tor of the pro­posed An­thro­pocene Epoch,” said the pa­per, one of whose au­thors is Zalasiewicz.But hold on. A few days af­ter the pa­per was pub­lished by the jour­nal The Royal So­ci­ety Open Sci­ence, I spoke to Stan­ley C. Fin­ney, a lead­ing ge­ol­o­gist who teaches at Cal­i­for­nia State Uni­ver­sity.Fin­ney is not op­posed to the idea that hu­mans are hav­ing a ma­jor, neg­a­tive, im­pact on the ge­og­ra­phy of the planet. But as Sec­re­tary Gen­eral of the In­ter­na­tional Union of Ge­o­log­i­cal Sciences (IUGS), he is vig­or­ously op­posed to a new “An­thro” or “cene” on the Ge­o­logic Time Scale. “The drive to of­fi­cially rec­og­nize the An­thro­pocene may, in fact, be po­lit­i­cal rather than sci­en­tific,” he wrote in 2016.In Fin­ney’s view, the chicken pa­per is just an­other wave in a two-decades-long flood of pro­mo­tional re­search from Zalasiewicz and his as­so­ciates. Their An­thro­pocene group was set up in 2010 within the frame­work of the IUGS, which rep­re­sents more than one mil­lion Earth sci­en­tists. But so far, the AWG hasn’t even put for­ward an ini­tial pro­posal for con­sid­er­a­tion.Fin­ney, who is also chair of the ICS, said the chicken pa­per sug­gests the AWG has no ge­o­log­i­cal case. “To be use­ful, the sam­ples mea­sured would have to come from a sin­gle strati­graphic sec­tion” of the Earth. The chicken sam­ples, how­ever, come from chicken farms and other pro­cess­ing op­er­a­tions, es­sen­tially arche­o­log­i­cal sites rather than strati­graphic lay­ers of the planet’s sur­face.The chicken pa­per, he said, “looks like a good an­thro­pol­ogy/hu­man his­tory topic and not a ge­o­logic topic.”And that’s typ­i­cal, ar­gues Fin­ney, of the AWG. “Why are they do­ing this work, rather than putting to­gether what is needed for a for­mal pro­posal, un­less there is noth­ing to put to­gether for a for­mal pro­posal?”The big­ger prob­lem with “ev­i­dence” of a new epoch is that — even if the An­thro­pocene has be­gun — barely 75 years isn’t enough to jus­tify its ex­is­tence in the con­text of a four-bil­lion-year-old planet. Va­clav Smil, emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Man­i­toba, says that while hu­mans are chang­ing the Earth, there is lit­tle rea­son to con­clude that we are a force as great or greater than na­ture.As he wrote in 2015, so­lar ac­tiv­ity, the planet’s shape, ro­ta­tion and tilt, the ec­cen­tric­ity of its or­bital path and the cir­cu­la­tion of its at­mos­phere are all be­yond hu­man in­ter­fer­ence. “Nor can we ever hope to con­trol the enor­mous ter­raform­ing pro­cesses, the Earth’s plate tec­ton­ics driven by in­ter­nal heat and re­sult­ing in slow but con­stant cre­ation of new ocean floor, form­ing, re­shap­ing, and el­e­vat­ing land­masses whose dis­tri­bu­tions and al­ti­tudes are key de­ter­mi­nants of cli­mate vari­abil­ity and hab­it­abil­ity.”Na­ture re­mains in charge and it’s too soon to de­clare the An­thro­pocene, said Smil. “Let us wait be­fore we de­ter­mine that our mark on the planet is any­thing more than a mod­est mi­cro­layer in the ge­o­logic record.”In a re­cent com­men­tary, Mark Sagoff, a re­tired pro­fes­sor at Ge­orge Ma­son Uni­ver­sity, high­lighted one of the more un­usual as­pects of the move to de­clare 1950 as the birth date of the An­thro­pocene. Whereas the ge­o­log­i­cal sciences look at the present to con­struct the past, the An­thro­pocene move­ment in­stead “con­structs the fu­ture to in­ter­pret the present — a fu­ture in which hu­man­ity ei­ther takes re­spon­si­bil­ity for the Earth sys­tem or is re­spon­si­ble for its col­lapse.”Fin­ney raises the same point about im­pos­ing the An­thro­pocene on the ge­o­logic time chart. Should pro­jec­tions into fu­ture mil­len­nia be the ba­sis for rat­i­fy­ing the An­thro­pocene and dis­lodg­ing pre­vail­ing sci­ence? “And are we so cer­tain,” he asked, “of what fu­ture mil­len­nia will bring?A cou­ple of years ago, James Scourse, a pro­fes­sor of phys­i­cal ge­og­ra­phy at the Uni­ver­sity of Ex­eter, called the de­bate over the An­thro­pocene “worse than mis­lead­ing.” The pro­posal has cre­ated “a redundant, man­u­fac­tured, de­bate that dis­places more im­por­tant sci­en­tific re­search and gen­uine dis­cus­sion on cli­mate and en­vi­ron­men­tal change. It is a fad, a band­wagon, a way of mar­ket­ing re­search as cut­ting-edge and rel­e­vant.”


There can be lit­tle doubt, how­ever, about the ob­jec­tives of the An­thro­pocene’s pro­po­nents. Both the art and the sci­ence are united be­hind what can only be de­scribed as a rev­o­lu­tion­ary over­throw of cur­rent global gov­er­nance ideas, sys­tems and struc­tures.The world needs a “deep trans­for­ma­tion based on a fun­da­men­tal re­ori­en­ta­tion of hu­man val­ues, eq­uity, be­hav­iour, in­sti­tu­tions, economies, and tech­nolo­gies,” reads an Au­gust pa­per led by Will St­ef­fen, a chem­i­cal en­gi­neer and a lead­ing mem­ber of the An­thro­pocene Work­ing Group. It en­vis­ages con­trols on pop­u­la­tion, eco­nomic devel­op­ment and other “de­lib­er­ate, in­te­gral, and adap­tive steps to re­duce dan­ger­ous im­pacts on the Earth Sys­tem.”Or­ches­trat­ing this great ac­cel­er­a­tion in sci­en­tific man­age­ment of the planet presents a chal­lenge, the pa­per’s au­thors ad­mit. “How this can be done tech­ni­cally, eth­i­cally, eq­ui­tably, and eco­nom­i­cally” is un­cer­tain and “highly chal­leng­ing,” they write, es­pe­cially since such con­trols might be a lit­tle trou­ble­some, in­clud­ing “mon­i­tor­ing and chang­ing be­hav­iour.”While un­cer­tainty over global gov­er­nance and sci­en­tific method­ol­ogy looms over the An­thro­pocene move­ment, at least one con­clu­sion is ob­vi­ous: The man­u­fac­tur­ers of the Anthroposcare have much more in mind for the planet and its hu­man oc­cu­pants than a $20 car­bon tax.I’M NOT TRY­ING TO EDITORIALIZE AND SAY THIS IS RIGHT OR THIS IS WRONG. EI­THER EX­TREME IS TOO SIM­PLIS­TIC. WE ARE COM­PELLED TO PROGRESS. WE HAVE EX­TRACTED FROM THE LAND FROM THE MO­MENT WE STOOD ON TWO FEET. — Ed­ward Burtynsky in 2003IT IS A FAD, A BAND­WAGON, A WAY OF MAR­KET­ING RE­SEARCH.

Coal Mine #1, North Rhine, West­phalia, Ger­many 2015.Photo on page NP1: Phos­phor Tail­ings Pond #4, Near Lake­land, Florida, USA 2012.

Ed­ward Burtynsky

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