By Kieran Delamont
Give me the splendid silent sun, with all his beams full-dazzling; Give me juicy autumnal fruit, ripe and red from the orchard.”
—Walt Whitman, 1900.
“Drill, baby, drill. And we must!”
— Sarah Palin, 2010.
Anthropocene is a multi-year project by photographers and filmmakers Edward Burtynsky, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, involving a feature film as well as a multimedia display currently on display at the National Gallery.
The project was a sort of cousin to a project by an international group of scientists operating under the moniker “The Anthropocene Working Group.” They are pushing to redefine our current geological epoch (the Holocene) as having been terminated by the Anthropocene – the epoch in the Earth’s history where human activity is the dominant force on Earth’s systems. This group, made up of 27 scientists from the International Union of Geological Sciences, formally proposed adding this new epoch to the geological time scale in 2016.
When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, we can’t just take our foot off the accelerator. We have to slam on the brakes
The film version of Anthropocene starts with the dead parts of dead elephants: large off-white tusks, being unpacked from shipping containers and placed onto piles that are lit on fire like bonfires. Every part of it is unnatural, from the inventory markings on the tusks to their jenga-like stacking into funeral pyres for dead beasts. Naturally, elephants don’t die stacked in piles. Naturally, elephants don’t naturally die without their tusks.
The point that Anthropocene was making was echoed, albeit in a different way, by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Its report, released in early October, offered a stark assessment of the impact and urgency of the current state of climate change.
In the end, the exhibit and report said essentially the same thing: that what we are doing to the planet is irresponsible, violent, unsustainable, or murderous. (Pick a word!)
They are two expressions, one visual and one scientific, of the same ethical point: that human-created climate change now poses a threat to human existence, and that it is time to adapt to the new way of the world.
“The overarching context of this report is this: human influence has become a principal agent of change on the planet,” reads the report, released on October 6, “shifting the world out of the relatively stable Holocene period into a new geological era, often termed the Anthropocene.”
The Paris Climate Agreement, signed in 2016, was an agreement between 194 countries to hold global temperature increases under 2°C above pre-industrial levels. The agreement also said, though, that countries should strive to hold temperatures to an even lower threshold of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
The latest IPCC report was looking, primarily, at what a world that was 1.5°C warmer would look like, and more importantly what it would take to keep the world from surpassing it.
The findings were fairly stark: to keep the planet from warming beyond the 1.5°C threshold, we would have to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent below 2010 levels by 2030, and become carbon neutral by 2050.
The most salient aspect of those two deadlines is how close they are – which is either optimistically a sign of how much we’re going to need to hustle on this one or, perversely, how totally screwed we might be.
“When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, we can’t just take our foot off the accelerator,” wrote climate policy journalist Umair Irfan, in Vox. “We have to slam on the brakes.”
“Although multiple communities around the world are demonstrating the possibility of implementation consistent with 1.5°C pathways, very few countries, regions, cities, communities or businesses can currently make such a claim,” write the IPCC report’s authors. “To strengthen the global response, almost all countries would need to significantly raise their level of ambition. Implementation of this raised ambition would require enhanced institutional capabilities in all countries, including building the capability to utilize Indigenous and local knowledge.”
The report was written by a panel of dozens of authors, part of a body that was first convened in 1988 to study the science of climate change. This report had been in the works for several years, and considered over 6,000 scientific publications and consulted over 1,000 scientists.
The report’s authors argue that reversing course on global warming amounts to nothing less than a revolution in the ways we think about sustainability and the role that energy and resource extraction plays in society.
They write, “The geographical and economic scales at which the required rates of change in the energy, land, urban, infrastructure and industrial systems would need to take place have no documented historic precedent.”
To talk and think and write about climate change is always to think about death in some way. How could it not be? Climate change news and science are both, at their core, about tracking the end of the world.
Anthropocene shows us what the end of the world concretely looks like; the report presents scientists’ research showing just how close we’ve moved towards it. Both are motivated by a desire to avoid this end; both, though, can feel like they are tilting at windmills.
Of course, the contents of the IPCC report were not really news to anyone who has followed climate science for the last few years. What it accomplished, however, was thrusting the stark reality of that science in front of everyone. All of the sudden, the discourse around politics and climate change and energy seemed, finally, to concede that we are well on our way to killing ourselves and that we don’t have much time to turn that around.
Right around this time, Anthropocene debuted in Ottawa and Toronto, in the form of both a film and a multi-media project at the National Gallery and the Art Gallery of Ontario. Boiled down, it’s a simple project: to turn the camera lens towards the way we are reshaping the earth and its systems through industrial extraction.
The greatest strength of the Anthropocene exhibit is that it manages to visually capture that process — of killing the planet — and shows it to us in real time. That, too, is why it feels so vulgar: it is in almost no way prescriptive, hopeful, or even very forward-thinking. It’s showing us that we’re killing ourselves, and worse than that, it is showing us precisely how well we’re accomplishing it. It offers no real advice on how to stop it.
“Arguably, we are on the cusp of becoming (if we are not already) the perpetrators of a sixth major extinction event,” writes Edward Burtynsky, in a book-length collection that goes along with the project. “Our planetary system is affected by a magnitude of force as powerful as any naturally occurring global catastrophe, but one caused solely by the activity of a single species: us.”
The work of Burtynsky and his colleagues show us images of large expanses of the Earth, some of them on wall-sized prints. There are large pictures of mines in Chile, of the Los Angeles highway system, of the slums of Lagos, Nigeria.
Many of the most compelling shots are from above. Burtynsky says that he used a “forty-foot monopod” for much of the work, and that shooting from above “render[s] subjects such as transportation networks, mining, agriculture and industrial infrastructure more expansively, capturing vistas that had eluded me until then.”
It feels, in a way, like Burtynsky and company is inadvertently taunting the viewer. At least that’s how I saw it: the experience is impersonal, and the viewer feels like they are looking down on an Earth, where the things that are most considered achievements look, from above, like scars cut into the landscape. As the viewer, you almost feel like a god. It can be unrecognizable, at times, and enormous.
Eventually, though, it sets in that none of this is considered in the abstract. It’s all very real, and it’s happening now. I am not God; maybe there is no God. Either way, I’m still stuck here on Earth to cook here with the rest of you.
If anything, this is where Anthropocene and the IPCC report share a common idea: that we are all in this together, and that our solutions are going to need to be collaborative, swift and transformative. They both make a similar ethical argument: that it is time to get to work on fixing this problem. It is a global one, and it is one that threatens our very existence, such as we know it.
The focus of Anthropocene is decidedly not on the human cost of climate change. Burtynsky, Baichwal and de Pencier are more focused, from an aesthetic as well as moral perspective, on the —Earth-as-victim, where the things that humans call achievements — highways, factories and strip mining — are scars made by us and us alone.
And yet, when humans do appear in Burtynsky, Baichwal and de Pencier’s work, they appear in the Global South or in the post-Soviet, Siberian expanses. Our own Canadian contributions to this disaster — our great offshore oil rigs, our black and tarish oil sands, our dismantling of Indigenous land — are mostly absent from the film and exhibit, save for one glimpse at forestry in British Columbia.
As I walked out of the gallery, I felt the same thing as I felt when I walked out of the film: despair. I choose this word carefully and specifically, since no other word communicates the feeling of powerlessness of living on a dying planet.
I joke all the time with my partner that one day I want to pack up and move to Uruguay and live in the forest, away from a capitalist world that feels as inescapable as it does impersonal. It’s a weird fantasy, I’ll grant, but it’s one that feels to me worth clinging to for what it represents: a place away from everything when the future feels too grim.
Now, I just worry about whether Uruguay will still be there, or if it will one day be swallowed up by the rising seas.
“Give me to warble spontaneous songs, reliev’d, recluse by myself, for my own ears only;
Give me solitude—give me Nature—give me again, O Nature, your primal sanities!”
— Walt Whitman, “Give me the Splendid, Silent Sun,” 1900.