Rhetorics of an Uncertain Future:
Reflections on the Anthropocene
“Unless we change ourselves as individuals and our culture—the way we relate to the earth—we can’t expect to make the overall changes in society that are necessary.”
- John Bellamy Foster, 2017.
Pollution, global warming, and habitat loss are just a few of the effects of climate change, a direct product of human activity under the capitalist system. In "Rhetorics of an Uncertain Future", interdisciplinary artist and educator Lionel Cruet, presents a transmedia exhibition starting with an installation at Brooklyn’s Yi Gallery, followed by an online viewing of a series of animations for Play Inspire Gallery in Los Angeles, and concluding with a full exhibition at San Juan’s El Lobi. The final show will be a comprehensive installation which will include a series of mixed media drawings, a mural, a video, a soundscape, and small sculptures. During the exhibitions the stories presented will be continued via social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Our goal with this project is to help raise awareness and inspire action, both needed towards the radical change that must be made in order to preserve humanity and the rest of the cohabitants of our planet Earth.
After decades of debate, there is almost an agreement between scientists that this never -before-seen time in which humans have altered nature must be a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.
…contrary to what is often said in magazine articles, Anthropocene does not mean Human Age or Human Era. It combines kainos with anthropos, meaning human being; so, following Lyell’s approach, it means a time when geological strata are dominated by remains of recent human origin. Indeed, a key part of the ongoing Anthropocene debate among geologists concerns which such remains should be used to identify the new epoch. From the perspective of historical and physical geology, the name is appropriate.
The root word anthropos also appears in another common Earth Science term, anthropogenic. The expression “anthropogenic climate change” does not mean that all humans cause global warming; rather, it distinguishes changes that are caused by human action from those that would have occurred whether or not humans were involved. Similarly, Anthropocene does not refer to all humans, but to an epoch of global change that would not have occurred in the absence of human activity.
While official narratives say that atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen was the first to use the concept, Ian Angus argues that as early as 1922, Aleksei Petrovich Pavlov, a Soviet geologist, had already proposed and presented the text. Angus also mentions that during the eighties, Eugene Stoermer used the term as well. Nevertheless, it was after Crutzen that it started to be acknowledged. Some of the ways humans have made a negative impact on the planet are discussed by environmental scientist Earle Ellis:
Overwhelming evidence now confirms that humans are changing Earth in unprecedented ways. Global climate change, acidifying oceans, shifting global cycles of carbon, nitrogen, and other elements, forests and other natural habitats transformed into farms and cities, widespread pollution, radioactive fallout, plastic accumulation, the course of rivers altered, mass extinction of species, human transport and introduction of species around the world. These are just some of the many different human-induced global environmental changes that will most likely leave a lasting record in rock: the basis for marking new intervals of geologic time.
The destruction of habitat and species extinction is one of the effects of anthropogenic actions on the environment. Based on this dreadful reality, Cruet’s series of drawings depict a selection of sea animals that appear to have lost their limbs all while being imposed over a red background. The usage of red could symbolize how humans are bleeding (polluting, killing) the ecosystems. The animals are portrayed as black silhouettes, by doing this, the artist invites the spectator to focus on the missing limb of a suffering creature, and not dwell in considerations of beauty. The silhouettes also represent that all animals are one, in all, sentient beings. In Puerto Rico, an archipelago in the Caribbean -where Cruet and myself were born- we constantly see news of injured or dead creatures. For example, manatees are constantly injured as a result of people invading their habitats and speeding with boats and jet skis. On the other hand, there is global warming, which not only affects humans but non-humans as well. Angus informs us about the drastic temperature changes upon us and its consequences:
It is important to remember that average global temperatures conceal substantial variations in time and place. For example, the atmosphere is consistently cooler over oceans, so a 4-degree average global increase could mean a 6-degree or more increase on land and a 16-degree in the Arctic. In the tropics, the increase would likely be less than 4 degrees, but that smaller shift would be from very hot to extremely hot.
There is more to global warming than average thermometer readings: temperature change can cause dramatic shifts in weather patterns, biodiversity, and much more. Unless radical changes are made, the Anthropocene will be marked not just by warmth but by a new climate regime, very different from the 11,700 years of Holocene stability. This is not just speculation: the transition is well under way.
Our “sapo concho” (crested toad) is just one of the species that are vulnerable in light of climate change. For all of these reasons, many scientists, scholars and activists are urging us to change paradigms and act accordingly. This starts with changing how we see ourselves and our relationship with the environment: we are not the center of the universe! Even if the current economic system has apparently won in separating us from nature, we are still a part of nature.
The Anthropocene is both a new narrative relating humans and nature and a bold new scientific paradigm -a ‘Second Copernican Revolution’- with the potential to radically revise the way we think of what it means to be human.
Humans as we know them have existed for around 200,000 years, and certainly since their arrival have caused an impact over the environment. Ellis argues that even during Darwin’s time some scientists were aware about the disruptive nature of human beings, a different kind of animal.
Even though some scholars initially pointed out to the Industrial Revolution in the eighteenth century, as the beginning of the drastic changes we have inflicted over nature, what the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) proved through their research is that there was a ‘Great Acceleration’: measurable, concrete anthropogenic alterations in the environment starting on the second half of the twentieth century. The AWG was founded in 2009 within the International Commission on Stratigraphy. However, for scientists in other fields, such as archaeology, anthropology and geography, the Anthropocene precedes 1950 by centuries. They focus their research in the lasting changes, not in their repercussions.
The ‘Great Acceleration’ negatively affected our use of the land, and augmented exponentially carbon dioxide emissions and global warming, all of these a direct product of a lifestyle based on the search for infinite profit within a finite environment. Ellis explains how we use land in the twenty first century:
Approximately 11 per cent of Earth’s land is cultivated for crops, 25 per cent is used for pastures and livestock grazing, and 1 to 3 per cent forms urban and other settlements and infrastructures. Woodlands planted to produce timber, fuel, paper, rubber, and other products occupy 2 to 10 percent of Earth’s land. Of land remaining without these direct intensive uses, at least half or more is altered by local fuel gathering, hunting, foraging, pollution, and other local human influences. As a result, three-quarters of the terrestrial biosphere has been transformed directly and indirectly by human use of land.
This exploitation of the land has also other consequences, one of them is, again, the loss of habitat for many species. We must also take into account that the highest percent of usage of land is designated for raising animals for slaughter in a factory farming setting.
Livestock agriculture displaces natural herbivores through direct competition and by the act of controlling predators and competitors. In many cases, land is also cleared to improve vegetation productivity for livestock, while intensive large-scale livestock systems (‘factory farms’) produce methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from manures. (…) Domesticated chickens are now Earth’s most abundant bird and cattle biomass alone exceeds that of all other living vertebrate animals combined-including humans.
Human use of land has displaced and polluted natural habitats at the same time that wild species have been increasingly exploited. For all these reasons together, contemporary rates of human-driven extinctions on land and on sea, especially of animal species, have increased dramatically since the 1950s, and are now far higher than extinction rates across most of Earth’s history.
The meat and dairy industry is thus one of the most polluting for the environment. It also perpetuates speciesism, the assumption that human animals are superior to non-human animals, which leads to justifying their exploitation and oppression. On the other hand, there are health concerns, especially for people consuming red meats. Numerous research studies published by academic and peer-reviewed journals have recommended the change to a mostly plant-based diet. This is not only limited to health reasons, but also thinking about sustainability and the ability to feed a growing population in the next thirty years.
Additionally, it is important to note the problems within industrial agriculture, which instead of preserving the land in sustainable ways is extremely reliant on petroleum-based polluting substances: gas, oil, fertilizers, and pesticides.
It now takes more energy to produce food than we obtain from eating it: every calorie of food energy requires 10 calories of fossil energy.
The predominance of fossil fuels in general since the post-war period is another issue of grave environmental impact, and its’ victims are predominantly in the Global South:
Large transfer of manufacturing to low-wage countries have had the direct effect of increasing pollution in those countries, particularly greenhouse-gas emissions. Their industrial revolution, like the one in Europe and North America in the 1800s, depends on cheap power, and that has usually meant using coal, often low-quality coal, to produce electricity. As is widely known, more greenhouses gas is now produced in China than in any other country; less often noted is how much of that gas is generated to produce goods that are destined for the Global North. Rich countries have outsourced a significant part of their environmental destruction to the Global South.
Therefore, not all humans affect nature in the same way. We must highlight the vast disparity between classes and the amount of harm they inflict on the Earth system. It is also urgent to acknowledge that people are also not all equally affected by environmental destruction. On that note, Ian Angus states:
Unmitigated climate change will lock the world’s poorest countries and their poorest citizens in a downward spiral, leaving hundreds of millions facing malnutrition, water scarcity, ecological threats, and loss of livelihood.
While the military targets climate-change victims as enemies to the capitalist way of life, global elites are preparing for dark times by creating protected spaces for themselves, their families, and their servants in the hope of ensuring that they continue to get more than their share of the world’s wealth, no matter what happens to anyone else.
On imperialism and non-renewable energy sources, Angus shows the importance of coal initially, and later petroleum (to make oil and gasoline) for colonization and war. Ships and planes for these expeditions depended on those combustibles to conduct their operations.
Oil-powered tanks, airplanes, destroyers, and submarines played decisive roles in the barbaric slaughter known as World War I. Britain alone deployed nearly 100,000 trucks and cars, while the United States used some 50,000 vehicles and 15,000 airplanes. Between 1914 and 1918, the global tonnage of oil-powered ships more than tripled, and production of gasoline-powered vehicles increased five-fold.
All of the issues explained above give us even more reasons to analyze critically about our role in policy making and work together as kindred for the creation of a new sustainable future. Even in this grim scenario, there is still some hope that we can put in the effort to develop a society that embraces nature while also encouraging the fulfillment and freedom of humanity. In order to achieve these, it is intrinsic to eliminate the current idea of unlimited growth for profit at any costs, and instead build solidarity networks. Finally, the struggle continues, until every creature is free…
Dianne Brás-Feliciano, Ph.D.