Review: Living With The Anthropocene (edited by Cameron Muir, Kirsten Wehner and Jenny Newell)

For many years, some scientists have been arguing for the designation of a new epoch in Earth’s geological time, the Anthropocene. At the moment we live in an epoch known as the Holocene, a period that followed the ice ages, defined by its stable, agriculture-friendly climate. Should the stratigraphers agree, the Anthropocene will have begun sometime in the mid-20th Century with the detonation of the first nuclear weapons and acceleration of population growth. A final decision is due in 2021.

The idea is that humans have now had such a huge impact on the planet that we will visible in the Earth’s rocks for millions of years to come. It will, at the rate we’re going, be a period defined by ecological crisis: erosion, invasive species, extinction, climate change, pollution of all kinds. Not everyone agrees with this: some say the Anthropocene should begin with farming, others with the widespread use of fire, others say it’s impossible to delineate such grand times when we’re living in them.

Whatever happens in the rarified corridors of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (I feel their offices must be underground), the slippery Anthropocene has already taken hold as “a metaphor for our times”. The writers of this anthology work through the various meanings that this metaphor can take on.

As the editors explain, the book grew out of the Everyday Futures project, which invited people to write about objects and environmental change. Many of the shorter pieces in this collection follow this format: a teacup retrieved from an observatory burnt in Canberra’s 2013 bushfires; “Dubbo dust” collected from dust storms sweeping across inland New South Wales; the colour purple (for Ashley Hay a symbol of introduced species and a new designation for temperatures above 50°C on weather maps); a satellite tracker-turned jewellery; a fence enclosing a conservation area; an enormous open pit mine in Kalgoorlie.

These postcards from the Anthropocene intersperse longer pieces by the likes of James Bradley, Jane Rawson, Tony Birch and Ellen Van Neerven – all writers who have been working on these issues for many years. While the rationale behind the various parts – “Holding on”, “Seeking vantage points”, “Tearing away” etc – is not always obvious, latter sections are clearly about marine ecosystems, solutions to the ecological crisis, and the importance of story-telling.

In sum, they capture a first draft of the history of last couple of years leading up to the Black Summer, a time when it suddenly felt like climate change was really happening, to all of us, not just to polar bears and mountain glaciers and people in Bangladesh. It’s a fascinating stocktake of a collective mindset. Of course, events have overtaken us again and we’re now more worried about surviving a virus. How to describe what is happening to the environment? It is obviously tragic, morally outrageous, but I have often been drawn to the term “global weirding“. Whatever is happening, things are getting very strange, which is forcing many of us to examine ourselves in a new light.

The problem of the Anthropocene is that it makes us confront ourselves as “planetary” beings. Although we might act on tiny, local scales, our actions are felt globally. Throughout the collection, the writers attempt to wrestle with this collapse of scale, they’re searching, as Cameron Allan McKean writes while exploring dead coral reefs, for ways of “encountering the planetary human”.

Science is surely key to these encounters, giving as it does a way to connect the local to the global. Climate scientist Joelle Gergis, in her acclaimed essay republished here from The Monthly, calls for “a clear-eyed and compassionate look at the facts” and describes her horror on learning of the latest climate models that effectively remove our chances of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

But ultimately, this collection is most interested in our personal responses and the stories we tell. The editors invite them, acknowledging that the writers are opening themselves up to readers who might find their responses “weak or mawkish or simply ridiculous”. The authors work through their griefs, their hopes, their uncertainties in full view. I have to admit, midway through the collection I was exhausted. Reading the titles alone – “Kelp” “The End of Abundance”, “Rubble reef” – was enough to make my heart sink and stomach clench. I’m tired ok, and reading 40-odd essays about the end of the world is a lot.

On the flipside, there are moments of great beauty and poignancy throughout. Jane Rawson writes of the “things I have lost” in moving to Tasmania to enact a climate adaptation plan, only to find fire coming over the hillside weeks after arriving. Suzy Freeman-Greene describes the “hubris” of people in the 1930s riding sea turtles, and offers a timely reminder that we still celebrate brutalising animals for sport every year, even when there’s a pandemic on. I was delighted by Ray Thompson with his surveying tools and quiet revolution of Australia’s farmland; Kate Phillips’ dedication to conserving butterflies; Alison Pouliot’s loupe which she uses to see invisible worlds. Interestingly, several of the pieces look to humble wood as a source of possibility and regeneration in the Anthropocene: Billy Griffiths on an ancient red gum sculpture, Gib Wettenhall on building a shed out of green wood, and George Main on a white cypress homestead. What other resource can be fashioned into shelter and fuel, and regrows itself with appropriate care?

Three of the longer pieces stood out to me. Novelist Delia Falconer’s essay, “Signs and Wonders of a New Age” (republished from the Sydney Review of Books), is a wunderkammer of all the strange disappearances of species, and reappearances of lost human artefacts, in recent years. She begins in Sydney, noting the absence of mullet in the harbour, wondering if this is normal or a sign of things gone awry. We have become, she suggests, modern haruspices and augurs, searching for meaning in the patterns of animals. She continues, documenting horror after horror, until she gets to the unprecedented collapse of Bogong moth populations over a couple of summers, a story so outlandish I still can’t get my head around it. It’s a simple idea, to gather all these phenomena together, and it works to devastating effect.

The longer pieces by Jo Chandler and Josh Wodak are among the best things I’ve read on the ecological crisis. In “Weekend in Gondwana”, Chandler journeys to Tasmania’s Central Plateau to meet the ecologists trying to save pencil pines. It’s pleasantly chilly weather, a “350 ppm-or-less kind of day”, reminding her of “high Holocene winters”. She walks across cushion plants “up to a thousand years old, sorry, so sorry!” She continues in this way, fashioning sprightly metaphor out of the language of climate and ecological sciences. She’s aided in this by mad-fire-scientist/prophet-of-doom Professor David Bowman, who describes the advent of dry lightning-induced bushfires in the Tasmanian wilderness as “an alien spaceship coming in and just attacking the island with lightning bolts”.

Bowman is a proponent of radical ecology – a whatever-it-takes approach to saving species, such as installing sprinklers around the precious pines, or translocating them to sub-Antarctic islands. Key to this is failure: him and his colleagues have no idea if their efforts to plant the pines on the Central Plateau will succeed, but even if they don’t, they will learn something. He imagines the caretakers of the new world as Gaians, “the society that comes after the Anthropocene”. It’s mad, but a little madness is surely what we need in these crazy times.

That sense of madness, menace and possibility is also infused in the writing of Josh Wodak, in his essay “Rapture, Rupture and Eruption”. Wodak travels to Bali to investigate Biorock, a patented life support system for coral reefs developed in the 1980s. This involves a metal platform hooked up to a solar-powered generator, which creates the perfect ocean chemistry for corals to settle and grow. Meanwhile in the background, Indonesia’s dozing volcanoes rumble. It’s the perfect place to grapple with the planetary human. Given all the destruction our activities have wrought on the environment, a similar intensity of intervention will be required to regenerate it. But doing so exposes us to the forces of nature – the possibility that a volcano erupts and “you end up with a city buried in the same materials used in Biorock – plastic, metal and glass”.

They’re arguing, I think, that we need to get closer to the world, expose ourselves to, as Wodak writes, the “volatility of the world itself”. This resonates, I suspect, because it feels hopeful and active and a bit dangerous. Volatility, uncertainty, strangeness: they’re all words for possibility.

Gay rating: not gay

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