The Anthropocene has arrived, a new epoch hallmarked by mass-produced and often abused chickens, plastic pollution, and the fallout from nuclear tests:
The new epoch should begin about 1950, the experts said, and was likely to be defined by the radioactive elements dispersed across the planet by nuclear bomb tests, although an array of other signals, including plastic pollution, soot from power stations, concrete, and even the bones left by the global proliferation of the domestic chicken were now under consideration. (Carrington)
Curiosity and social networking, the things we say set us apart from other animals, are the very traits that have led us to strangle the Earth with waste while intensively breeding animals in factories, only for at least a third of those carcasses to end up on the waste pile too. Experimentation and the desire to spread ourselves as far and wide across the earth as possible physically and virtually is part of the cause, and also part of the widespread ignorance, ambivalence and impartiality to the very clear and obvious signs of the Anthropocene. My weather app tells me that most days this month are anywhere between 4 and 6 degrees warmer than the same days last year. That’s not something we can ignore for much longer.
The Anthropocene is defined by human impact, and our impact is destructive at best. We all have duty to attempt to remedy what we have done. I think about what I can do aside from the few vegetables and fruits I grow in pots and tubs in my garden, the pollinator-friendly plants I plant out each year, the recycling bin, and the environmentally-friendly light bulbs in my house.
As a researcher who works on literary geography, mapping poetics, and postcolonial feminisms, it’s a challenge initially to think of what I could offer in my work that could help reduce the damage we are doing to the planet. Can I really do anything at all? When I imagine working towards a more positive environmental future I immediately think of laboratories, test tubes and intricate experimental structures of wire and tubing .
Perhaps there are other ways that I, and others, can contribute. I am reminded of a short blog post by Diana Stuart Sinton called, “How Would You Define Spatial Literacy?” Sinton defines spatial literacy as “the competent and confident use of maps, mapping, and spatial thinking to address ideas, situations, and problems within daily life, society, and the world around us.” She defines spatial thinking as “the ability to visualize and interpret location, distance, direction, relationships, change, and movement over space.”
The emphasis on spatial thinking stems from the US-based study on Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K-12 Curriculum (2006) which identified geospatial technology as one of the fastest growing industries. Those of us in areas of research that don’t result in passive houses, solar panels, and hydroponics can inform and embed thought regarding the reality of the Anthropocene, in the hope that these thoughts may lead to actions. Spatial thinking and environmental awareness don’t just have to be geared towards that one industry.
I believe that one of the reasons we have brought the Earth to this point is lack of awareness, and the idea that someone else is doing the thinking about, making and applying of support systems for Earth in our stead. Indeed, the author of article linked in the first paragraph, Damian Carrington refers to Chris Rapley’s analogy of driving a spaceship to express this:
“Since the planet is our life support system – we are essentially the crew of a largish spaceship – interference with its functioning at this level and on this scale is highly significant. If you or I were crew on a smaller spacecraft, it would be unthinkable to interfere with the systems that provide us with air, water, fodder and climate control. But the shift into the Anthropocene tells us that we are playing with fire, a potentially reckless mode of behaviour which we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on the situation.”
We assume that someone else is housekeeping Earth rather than realising that we have a communal responsibility towards it. If we can scaffold this kind of thinking across curricula, then maybe we can mark a turning point in our philosophy of the planet. English departments could use apocalyptic fiction to indicate a sense of realistic threat in the proliferation of such writings in the 20th and 21st centuries. Video games like the Fallout series pose interesting questions about how we visualise our impact on the planet, and the ethical implications of living in a post-apocalyptic world. Geographers can encourage aforementioned spatial thinking and literacy to chart the rapid and destructive patterns of change across Earth’s surface. Digital Humanists can ask students to explore and express what happens when our wired and networked world collides with the natural one.
I could continue listing. In short, I think we can do more. In a special lecture in UCC earlier this year, Latin Americanist and environmental activist, Peadar Kirby also expressed the importance of including environmental concerns in our work as teachers with the warning that we are running out of time.
University rhetoric is currently flooded with buzzwords and catchphrases regarding employability, and producing “work ready” students. Considering that we, the human race, are singularly responsible for bringing our home to its knees, the arrival of the Anthropocene should inspire us to ensure that our students are ready to inherit the damage and do something positive about it.
Finally, check out the documentary below. It gives an interesting timeline of how the earth would change if humans were taken out of the equation: