Into the Anthropocene

“The Anthropocene suggests that any past divergence of the geologic and anthropogenic from a shared root is now undergoing an inversion – the two are re-converging such that the hidden model can be turned inside out.”

From “Makeshift Geology (an Anthroposcene)” 2013-
Andrew Yang, Artist

As Thomas Kuhn discussed in the canonical “The Structure of Scientific Revelations”, paradigm shifts signal significant destabilization of accepted values and beliefs while new operative truths emerge. In the course of this emergence, information that was previously anomalous is reconsidered and often found to have substantial bearing in the emerging paradigm. I believe the Anthropocene epoch is an emerging paradigm that will have a significant and systemic impact on global discourse in the significant sub-disciplines of the arts, sciences and the design professions. Recent scientific advances in “big data” and measurement have allowed the sciences to re-orient to predictive modeling of the future. As the Anthropocene paradigm emerges it destabilizes:  time is re-scaled and socio-cultural binaries are ruptured. One such binary, that of the human:nature, is no longer tenable and will provide a dramatic and fundamental shift in how humans view themselves within relations to the Earth and other organisms. Theories about human relations to one another (and others) emerge in importance (for example, Actor-Network Theory) upon the realization that a child born today is the first generation to understand that management of the Earth System is no longer an optional human enterprise among the other beings and actors upon the world stage.

In the 2015 essay, “Thinking the Anthropocene”, authors Hamilton, Bonneuil and Gemenne assert that the Anthropocene has developed a significant interdisciplinary milieu beyond the natural sciences because “it represents a ground-breaking attempt to think together Earth processes, life, human enterprise and time in a totalizing framework.”  The essay expounds on the proposition that the Anthropocene can be defined in three dimensions applicable to the sciences and humanities. The first is that of a paradigm shift in stratigraphy and geological history; the second concerns the broad, interdisciplinary consideration of the Earth System as one shared, complex system from core to crust to outer atmosphere; the third perspective encompasses the total impact of human civilization, including land use, resource extraction and human manipulation of planetary systems and biophysical and geochemical processes. This third perspective is the point of departure for this course, for it is this usage that represents a “threshold marking a sharp change in the relationship of humans to the natural world” (Hamilton etal. 2015) that renders untenable some of the fundamental socio-cultural paradigms upon which human-environment relations have been constructed for several centuries.

The materials, infrastructure and systems of today’s post-industrial landscape are the by-products of the Anthropocene. Previously anomalous, ubiquitous and ordinary vernacular structures of our post-industrial society are radically re-framed with what Bruno Latour has characterizes as time coming towards us. Restoration of past conditions becomes frivolous as we no longer reference our world against what it once was, but rather what our future could be. 20th century environmentalism becomes distant and strange, like the distant and strange antecedent it replaced. Anthropocene environmental ethics expand the urban and the anthrome, providing shaky ground for 20th century environmental policy that rested upon a nature:culture binary and policies or prevention and mitigation (preservation and conservation). This binary becomes untenable and strange in the Anthropocene, with human fingerprints all over the globe. An environmentalism once based on guilt, shame and loss in the Holocene is transposed into one of hope, celebration and mutation in the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene paradigm accelerates and becomes pervasive as conditions, such as the “natural”, erode and concepts of the “postnatural” emerge. Within the stratigraphic lens of the Anthropocene, the natural becomes the postnatural and uncanny conditions unfold as human artifacts (such as infrastructure and landscapes) are recast as a geologic and sedimentary actors layered atop the Holocene detritus. This human stratigraphy is discernible not only in atmospheric carbon and shifting temperature indices but also upon the earth’s crust itself. Our legacy of industrial revolution- its products, its infrastructure, its land- have become a geologic marker or what geologist and paleo-biologist Jan Zalasiewicz and others refer to as the “novel strata”.  To wit: the 400,000 brownfield sites in the US alone are more than an “environmental problem” but are pervasive mesh of human artifacts, both products and processes, buried within the future fossil record.  This is but one example of a global petrochemical landscape that processes, transports and redeposits not only the former plant life of the Pleistocene but also the organic and inorganic compounds, synthetic organic polymers (i.e. plastics), genetic recombinates and ecological phenotypes and alongside other materials composing the initial sedimentary detritus of the Anthropocene.

As Nature dies a slow death while the door to the Holocene closes, ecology is liberated from green, warm and fuzzy tropes that have distanced (and self-destructed) that which it sought to protect. Now emerges what Tim Morton refers to as a “Dark Ecology”- an interconnected, concurrent mesh among ALL systems, objects and actors- biological or otherwise. Dark ecology welcomes water and wood alongside plastics and pollutants, all of which become the post-natural resources of the future and the byproducts of the Anthropocene. These by-products aren’t limited to the chemical and molecular. Rather, the infrastructure and land uses- the landscape and the architecture- become by-products as well.  Brownfield soils characterized by PCB, SVOC and BTEX and others become the fossil beds of the future, no longer remediated but potentially extracted and re-purposed under a new paradigm. The complex network of petrochemical extraction, processing and distribution become celebrated destinations, alongside early (bygone) industrial revolution infrastructure such as the mills for wool, grain and steel.  The ubiquitous and pervasive BMP and NPDES infrastructure of detention basins and rain gardens provide rainwater “treatment” while revealing their ecology as repositories of heavy metals and PAH’s- a modern day tar pit holding styrofoam cups and loosestrife seeds awaiting future extraction or protection.  Our monuments of solid waste infrastructure and earthworks are middens to be preserved and celebrated by future generations; our water infrastructure of potable and storm water is a complex network of headwaters, seeps, and streams that in dark ecology are expanded to include downspouts and rainwater leaders, drain inlets, catch basins,  culverts, pipes, reservoirs, canals, levees, locks and dams- all culvertized, all mapped as complex bluespace hyperobjects. The soil organic carbon cycle replaced by the downspout and dredge cycles.

Biological studies of the Anthropocene are certain to recast and reveal complex native ecological assemblages comprised of what we refer to today as feral ecosystems and ubiquitous pioneer species. Plants once seen as “invasive” are recognized as the new native species of the Anthropocene. The Buckthorn, the Asian Carp, the Zebra Mussel- all comfortably at home as a species native readily adapted to constant perturbations, wrapping the mid-upper latitudes of the Earth and inhabiting a gradient of Anthromes. With the new perspective provided by the Anthropocene paradigm, places of dereliction are recognized as critical habitat for rare and endangered species or as temporary habitat for migration-assisted species that cannot keep pace with the advancing climate fluctuations.   Manufactured ecologies, such as green roofs and sediment disposal facilities are critical ecological patches, with rooftops restored  retrofitted to provide essential future-oriented performative functions. New novel ecosystem ecologists argue for multi-functional ecological corridors no longer limited to “natural” rivers but also including the primary continental transects of the Anthropocene: interstate highways, pipelines and energy transmission routes. The I-35 flyway. Such strange new conditions emerge not only because they are possible, but because they are necessary as the awareness of human modification of, and responsibility for,  the Earth System becomes imperative and required in the emerging Anthropocene paradigm.

I believe this third condition is of particular concern for those who not only contemplate human-environment relations, but also consider and project how these values are manifested within the policies and physical forms of our built environment. I believe that as we leave the Holocene behind, tomorrow’s scholar and designer must be prepared to operate within a fundamentally different world which unfolds henceforth into the Anthropocene.

Matthew Tucker

January 2016

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