The Anthropocene: 10,000 yrs of ecocide

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12 May 2012


The Great Acceleration in the Age of the Anthropocene; still from the video ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene‘ (2012)

10,000 years of


By Cathy Fitzgerald

‘Imagine how our discourse and actions would be different if people daily detailed for us the lives— the individuality, the small and large joys and fears and sorrows— of those whom this culture enslaves or kills. Imagine if we gave these victims that honor, that attention. Imagine if everyday newspapers carried an account of each child who starves to death because cities take the resources on which the child’s traditional community has forever depended…. Imagine, too, if our discourse included accounts of those nonhumans whose lives in this culture makes unspeakably miserable: the billions of creatures bred for torture in feedlot, factor farm, or laboratory; the wild creatures worth money, who are pursued and destroyed no matter where they hide; the wild creatures unvalued by the economic system, who are eliminated because they are in the way of production‘ Derrick Jensen, Endgame, Vol. 1, 2006, p.59

Cathy Fitzgerald Visual Culture PhD scholar, National College of Art & Design, Dublin, Ireland


My still forming ideas for the first part, and the context in which my thesis (‘the ecocidal eye: beyond the anthropocentric gaze to a relational gaze in cinema’) rests, are to present and characterise the ecocidal tendencies of the humancentered (anthropocentric) gaze, to examine whether culturally we perpetuate such

actions in cultural works we produce, such as cinema. In this article I decided to examine anthropocentrism by considering a new term – the Anthropocene as perhaps a means to think about ecocide over the centuries. Interestingly, I found that this term geological term and concept has been adopted quickly, in other fields, particularly in the

last few months in international conferences leading up to the upcoming Earth Rio +20 earth summit. To begin with, when I was reviewing recent data over the last few months on the state of the earth to form the background of my enquiry, I kept coming across so many different, but as I see it now related facets of planetary


system collapse or change. The exponential rate and scale of destruction is simply terrifying. The results of globalised ecocide* are evident: in our atmosphere (climate change), in our oceans and waterways (ocean acidification, extirpation of marine species and actual and imminent marine ecosystem collapse), ecosystem degradation leading to gross biodiversity loss (we are now in the largest mass extinction period of the last 65 million years), non-renewable resource and mineral depletion (peak oil, peak nitrogen, peak phosphorus, peak uranium, peak everything etc). I began to see that one couldn’t focus on one particular aspect if one was to understand the systemic nature of ecocide. That one species, and our own at that, is altering so quickly the many life supports of the earth is pretty inconceivable and is leading a growing number of people to call this unprecedented period as the Age of the Anthropocene (the age of man). While there is understandably much attention being paid to climate change (this has been a focus for some in the small area of contemporary art that has begun to look at art & ecology in recent years) I sought out others who were looking at the totality of earth’s biospheric (global sum of all ecosystems) change. My first idea was to look for people who had long considered a more global perspective of planetary change. Initially I looked to the work of the Club of Rome, a global network of nominated past leaders, economists and ‘The exponential rate and scale of destruction is simply terrifying. The results of globalised ecocide* are evident: in our atmosphere (climate change), in our oceans and waterways (ocean acidification, extirpation of marine species and actual and imminent marine ecosystem collapse), ecosystem degradation leading to gross biodiversity loss (we are now in the largest mass extinction period of the last 65 million years), nonrenewable resource and mineral depletion (peak oil, peak nitrogen, peak phosphorus, peak uranium, peak everything etc). I began to see that one couldn’t focus on one particular aspect if one was to understand the systemic nature of ecocide. ’


influential scientific members. Presented as an independent and international scientific and sociological think-tank I re-examined their 1972 Limits to Growth key points (video summary here). The book was widely distributed in millions of copies yet largely dismissed and lost amidst the economic boom of the latter decades of the 20th century. In fact cultural narratives of unending growth increased in subsequent decades, fueled and coupled with exponentially growing technooptimism and faith in the economic stories of self-regulating, globalized open-markets. These narratives have characterised and dominated mainstream thinking, policymaking and the mass media in the most powerful industrial societies since, while the destruction accelerated and limits of living systems that support all life, (not to mentions the finite nature of non-renewable energy systems) were largely ignored. However the early computer modelling of its first ‘business-as-usual scenario’ presented by the Club of Rome’s Limit to Growth authors in the early 1970s has been surprisingly accurate in predicting our dwindling resources, heating atmosphere, biodiversity degradation, burgeoning population etc. I’d seen previously that these findings were updated in 2004 and I have just found that earlier this week that The Club of Rome have released a new document for the global community - 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, by Jorgen Randers (launch videos, info here ). This publication has been prepared in time for the UN 2012 Earth Summit on Sustainable Development in June. Key ideas from this new report claims ‘We already live in a manner that cannot be continued for generations without major change. Humanity has overshot the earth’s resources, and in some cases we will see local collapse before 2052 – we are emitting twice as much greenhouse gas every year as can be absorbed by the world’s forests and oceans.’ However in some circles the agenda of The Club of Rome has also attracted attention for its calls for new forms of global governance. Some people are uneasy with its undemocratically elected members, with their clear links with powerful corporations and institutions, their influence in higher political circles, and their lack in critically examining mainstream


ideologies that has accounted for much inequity across the world (Bramhall, 2012). Looking to other areas and still thinking about the totality of ecosystem collapse, there is significant evidence from other researchers that we in fact exceeded the earth’s carrying capacity in the mid-1980s (Catton, 1982) and its estimated we are currently using the resources of another half-planet, see the international Global Footprint Network. I also began finding a variety of graphs indicating the cumulative and interconnected effects of ecocide occurring across the earth. Among the work of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, another influential international organisation focusing on global socialecological systems, I also kept coming across terms and concepts such as ‘Planetary Boundaries’, ‘The Great Acceleration’, ‘The Age of the Anthropocene’ (age of man). There are now 9 officially recognised planetary boundaries or ‘tipping points’, originally profiled in what is now considered a landmark paper, entitled Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the safe operating Space for Humanity (Rockstrom et. al., 2009). The importance and the debate of these planetary boundaries, of which more are being added, has resulted in them been quickly adopted by the UN as the basis of its ‘draft zero’ document for the Outcome of the upcoming UN Rio +20 2012 Earth Summit on Sustainable Development. The Nine boundaries identified are: - climate change - stratospheric ozone - land use change - freshwater use - biological diversity - ocean acidification - nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans - aerosol loading - chemical pollution ‘The study suggested that three of these nine boundaries (climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen input to the biosphere) may already have been transgressed (see piechart). In addition, it emphasizes that the boundaries are strongly connected — crossing one boundary may seriously threaten the ability to stay within safe levels of the others’ (Stockholm Resilience Centre, 2012).


How this information is being presented is interesting. Pie-charts have been produced by these scientists that are helping group and visualise these connections, much like Florence Nightingale’s celebrated pie-chart that visualised and brought together singular events that led to vast changes in modern healthcare. So a new picturing of global systems in science is occurring (the boundaries already exceeded and the interconnected realities are easier to grasp, see the pie-chart above). A few critics have suggested that such visualisations are too simplistic and /or don’t include important social markers. For instance in 2012 Kate Raworth from Oxfam argued that social boundaries should be incorporated into the planetary boundary structure, such as jobs, education, food, access to water, health services and energy. There is a need to accommodate an environmentally safe space compatible with “poverty eradication and rights for all‘. Within planetary limits and an equitable social foundation lies a ‘doughnut’shaped area which is the area where there is a “safe and just space for humanity to thrive in” (Raworth, 2012). Kate argues for this social ‘doughnut’ model over the accepted planetary boundaries scheme (see her video here), which as she correctly points out, only identifies scientific criteria. Overall there is some growing recognition that the earth has suffered greatly from the atomised thinking so prevalent in the science, technology and economic sectors in particular and that holistic thinking and concepts like the planetary boundary are urgently needed.



These new graphic images of planetary limits, such as the ones outlined above, have been familiar to some leading scientists and development researchers over the last number of years. However there is much consensus of the urgency that humanity and its leaders recognise the scale and interconnected nature of the earth’s imminent tipping points. A new educational online animation has been recently created. It appears on the new 2012 Internet resource site, , which is compiled by a consortium of science and development groups. It commissioned this short internet video to graphically present these ideas to the wider public but also to other scientists and policymakers over the last couple of months.

Copernicus’ diagrams achieved in an earlier period of human history (The Economist, 2012).

from the limitations of the ecosphere.

To be fair there are some Google However in many ways Welcome to map images on the the Anthropocene seems a very site that corporate video, ‘belonging’ link to statistics of ecological crisis somehow to the narratives of the areas. unending rise of human ‘growth’ and ‘progress’ espoused by many in Yet there is no obvious critical the economic, technology and thinking that examines how business worlds. Designed for the ecocide has long threaded its short attention span of today’s way through the everyday online audiences it conveys these business and social life of views with aesthetically arresting civilized society, through its images that underpin its ‘story’ of complex cultural web of the unquestioned primacy of our religious traditions and beliefs, own species and its ‘brilliant’ its pervasive techno-optimism inventions. Some have commentated and political ideologies that that this video also reveals a alternately deny, silence or quandary for faith believers, as dismiss the extent of violence humanity’s widespread effects to living systems, indigenous across the earth pictured here peoples, the endless and portray a species ‘like unto accelerating extraction of its gods’ (Roberts, 2012). It also finite resources. simplifies and portrays optimistically its ‘story of the age of The difficulty now lies in the the Anthropocene’. It assures us that exponential and unprecedented ‘you and I’, as part of humanity’s hyper-scale and hyper-rate of ‘creativity, energy and industry’, in changes to the earth and its systems this Anthropocentric age will help since WWII, which is described in shape ‘a new story for humanity’. In the video and elsewhere as ‘The The new 3 minute video Welcome to the its 3 short minutes it emphasises this Great Acceleration’. In less than one Anthropocene (2012), central to the by giving the viewer a ‘god-like’ site has achieved online generation, the dominant cultural position of viewing the earth from viral status already, despite its data-heavy stories of industrial world do not above; we see the sublime beauty of match the dramatic changes inflicted content, with approximately 80,000+ viewers in just two months. earth with its growing and glowing on much of the earth and its spread of industrial civilizations’ inhabitants. As leading sociologist, This video was also the centerpiece lights across the earth’s surface are William R. Catton Jr., who of the recent international presented as an achievement of determined the ‘overshoot’ of conference hosted in London humanity. Yet in a curious way I humanity on earth in his early 1980s entitled Planet under Pressure at couldn’t help think that the title book of the same name has which leading scientists, economic ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’ described, there appears to be a and human sustainable development inadvertently reminds one of the ‘cultural lag’ in appreciating our policy-makers and the media came Frankie goes to Hollywood pop changed earth and our current together to form a document in the song ‘Welcome to the cultural systems that clearly lead up to the 2012 Rio20+ Earth Pleasuredome’** (a song that perpetuates the situation. Catton Summit. The short video presents referenced Coleridge’s famous describes this by saying: breath-taking NASA-type earth poem of the false paradise attempted images overlaid with graphic by Kubla Khan): As in fact this is ‘Some people still consider the information of the cumulative what the dominant and now nearly world a cornucopia. With the changes and indices of many of the global industrial societal model has European settlement of the earth’s systems. Some have already so successfully led to, humanity Americas, all of Western suggested that these new global mindlessly consuming and partying civilization experienced about images and the concept of the in its own brilliantly lit four centuries of exuberant Anthropocene, may have a role as pleasuredome, divorced entirely growth, and we haven’t yet revolutionary in altering humanity’s gotten over the idea that that’s consciousness similar to what



the natural order of things. The cultural lag becomes apparent when our political leaders still talk (as they certainly do here in Ireland) as if we can and should stimulate economic growth further’ (Jensen, 2002).

argue that this should mark the start of the new epoch of the Anthropocene. Others similarly argue that the beginning of the Industrial Revolution significantly altered the fabric of the earth and it should be start of the Anthropocene. I myself favour, like a good portion In the mass media very little of other geologists who relegate attention attempts to articulate that geological time to much longer what we are seeing is the profound terms, that the age of the and deep cultural crisis of Anthropocene began when man industrialised society. Instead most moved to a settled agrarian lifestyle attention is directed at new (which is already classified as the economic policy and technoHolocene) some 10 000 years ago solutions. A commentator at recent and that simply the Holocene could meetings leading up to the UN Earth be renamed as The Anthropocene. Summit in Rio next month, Pat Mooney, director of a NGO in Interestingly from my perspective, Canada, has described how the Holocene epoch is characterised entrenched is the conviction ‘that by the beginnings of settled new technologies will solve the societies (civilizations) but it also world’s environmental and social marks the time when some societies, problems’, with far too little becoming powerful and predatory, emphasis being placed on ‘knowing began to perceive themselves as why’ we are this predicament being separate from, superior to and (Irwin, 2012). Furthermore, an in competition with nature. While interesting new book, Technofix, my criteria in my cultural enquiry based on over 15 years of research, differs from traditions of geological with its authors having over 50 thinking I can’t but think that previously peer reviewed journal anthropocentric cultural beliefs articles to their credit, also details embedded in the dominant settled convincingly why technology alone agrarian communities of the earth ‘will not save us or the have greatly contributed to cultures environment’ (Huesmann & of ecocide over the millennia. This Huesmann, 2011). is a complex area (that I will return to in my ongoing enquiry) but It should also be pointed out that the briefly I think it can be well argued Anthropocene era or epoch is not an that long held and aggregating officially recognised geological beliefs regarding ourselves as term. Popularised by Nobel laureate separate and above all other living and atmospheric chemist Paul systems over the millennia Crutzen since 2000, its criteria as contributed greatly in fostering both being recognised as an official the technological ideology of the geological era is still causing much Industrial Revolution and The Great debate in geological circles. In a Acceleration. working party of the Royal Society of Geologists, some leading Interestingly Huesmann & specialised geologists Huesmann , authors of Technofix (stratigraphers) are presently previously mentioned, also remind arguing that the amount of us that technological advancements geologically quantifiable change are never value-neutral but always from The Great Acceleration will be exist and exhibit the dominant able to be clearly recognised by priorities, beliefs and politics of geologists in the future from society and that ‘the myth of valuesurveying changes to fabric of the neutral technology’ is particularly earth – ‘the fossil record’. They prevalent now, dazzled as we are by

all our recent technological inventions (Huesmann & Huesmann, 2011, Part II). As a means of addressing where humanity now is from a cultural perspective one finds academic activity on the edges of the humanities that is engaging in ecological concerns. In particular in Literary theory circles, but there is also considerable, well developed work from feminist theory, a branch of which is called ecofeminism. For instance, the late and leading ecofeminist Val Plumwood has described, ‘two necessary and vital projects that face us today: to re-situate humans within ecological systems, and to re-situate nonhumans in ethical terms. The most seriously damaging chasm is that which puts humans in a position outside of and in some senses superior to the natural world. (Robin and Rose, 2004). Like other people interested in seeing ourselves more aware of our ecological realities, I have occasionally heard (in as much where environmental discourse is held at all) that along with the idea of rapidly adopting widespread laws against ecocide (see my earlier article here), humanity urgently needs new ‘stories’ to help create the new paradigm for the changed world we now live in. New ‘stories’ for our books, films, religions etc., that would enlarge our thinking about the ecological laws and relationships we must observe for all life to be sustainable. However, I think this is only partly the case, as I believe with others, that we have long been on a project of ecological forgetting of humanities’ other stories. There are still existing and much historical records to show that many indigenous peoples developed cultures rich in more ecocentric perspectives, rituals and imagery, that supported their more sustainable lifestyle – cultural traditions and works built up with


deep attention to place. Dougald Hine, co-founder of the Dark Mountain Uncivilization movement writes, that as ‘the systems we grew up depending upon become less reliable, we will find ourselves drawing on things that worked in other times and places’ (Hine, 2011, p.269). Jensen, whose quote I started with, suggests going further, asking that we become deeply cognisant of our surroundings, asking our living environments what they require to survive and thrive, ‘If you ask that question, and you listen, the land will tell you what it needs’ (Jensen, 2009). So in my case its not too hard for me to hear my small forest ‘say’ that for it to become healthy and resilient for all the life it supports (me included), that it must never be clear-felled***.

____________________ * ecocide – literally means the killing and destroying of our habitats, and is derived from the Greek word oikos meaning ‘house, dwelling place, habitation, family’ and the suffix ‘cide‘ from the French and Latin words to ‘kill or slay’. For the purposes of international law and building on definitions of ecocide from previous war crimes, environmental lawyer Polly Higgins defines ecocide as ‘the extensive destruction, damage to or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been severely diminished’ (see more on ecocide in my previous article here

** Welcome to the Pleasuredome – Frankie goes to Hollywood (1984)

The world is my oyster…….. ha ha ha ha ha…….. The animals are winding me up The jungle call the jungle call who-ha who-ha who-ha who-ha In xanadu did kublai khan A pleasuredome erect Moving on keep moving on-yeah Moving at one million miles an hour using my power I sell it by the hour I have it so I market it you really can’t afford it-yeah Really can’t afford itShooting stars never stop even when they reach the top Shooting stars never stop even when they reach the top There goes a supernova what a pushover-yeah There goes a supernova what a pushover We’re a long way from home welcome to the pleasuredome…

*** My own work is transforming a small conifer monoculture into a permanent, non-clearfell forest and changing Irish forestry policy when I can, see here

Jensen, Derrick (2002) William Catton, Jnr., In: Listening to the Land: conversations about nature, culture and eros. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, p.136. Raworth, Kate (2012) A Safe and Just Space for Humanity: Can we live within the doughnut? Oxfam Publications, Discussion Series. publications/a-safe-and-just-space-forhumanity-can-we-live-within-thedoughnut-210490, accessed 12 May 2012. Rockstrom, J., et al., (2009) Planetary boundaries:exploring the safe operating space for humanity. Ecology and Society 14 (2): 32. [online] URL: http:// art32/ Stockholm Resilence Centre (2012) Planetary boundaries – accessed May 9, 2012 research/researchnews/ tippingtowardstheunknown. 5.7cf9c5aa121e17bab42800021543.html

Rose, Deborah Bird & Robin, Libby (2004) The Ecological Humanities in Action: an invitation. Australian Humanities Review, Thanks to Martin, my geologist, for checking Issue 31-32, April. http:// the geological terms. archive/Issue-April-2004/rose.html, accessed 4 May, 2012)


Bibliography: Bramhall, Stuart Jeanne (2012) The Club of Rome and the Sustainability Movement [accessed 10 May, 2012 http:// Catton, William R. (1982) Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. University of Illinois Press Irwin, Aishling (2012) Rio+20 talks 'too focused on techno fixes', UN hears. http://, accessed 5 May, 2012. Hine, Dougald (2011) Remember the future? in: Dark Mountain, Issue 2, Summer, p.269.


Jensen, Derrick (2009) World at gunpoint: Or, what's wrong with the simplicity movement. Orion Magazine, June/May issue. index.php/articles/article/4697/ accessed May 12, 2012.

The Economist (2012) Welcome to the Anthropocene – Humans have changed the way the world works. Now they have to change the way they think about it, too. May 26th 2011. 18744401, accessed May 11, 2012