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"Curiosities for the Anthropocene" is an unforgettable book

Marc Lefkowitz  |  11/26/18 @ 3:00pm  |  Posted in CLE 2050

In the future, archeologists will dig up what buries our current epoch, which has been named “the Anthropocene,” and wonder what human devices, chemical traces, and manufactured landscapes say about a species that was able to put an indelible mark on the planet. If we are not here or if we forget, we’ll have books like Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene to remind us of what it means to be human.

The term Anthropocene was accepted by the Royal Geographic Society in 2006 to mark the passing of the Holocene into the Age of the Humans who “dominate many key processes.”

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By picking simple objects from the pile, Future Remains invites 26 authors, futurists, and cultural anthropologists to reflect on who we are. A mirror, for example, is the object picked by Swedish professor of history Sverker Sorlin, who writes in a poem:

The mirror was the selfie of the ancients.

Do I in this mirror here see the face of God?

Sorlin is pushing back on the sunny techno-futurists and the pied pipers like Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Catalog founder and author who assert, “we are as gods and must get good at it.”

At the center of Future Remains is a hot debate about social equity. “We” holds all of humanity culpable for the Anthropocene. Will we all be lifted above the rising seas and extreme heat by technology’s saving grace? Future Remains finds itself at the cutting edge of critical discourse on what caused the latest “ocene” and what it means to be living in it.

Princeton professor in Humanities and the Environment, Rob Dixon, writes in the book’s introduction that a phalanx of environmental activists want to change the term to “Capitalocene.” They challenge capitalism as a history of exploitation as much as exploration.

“To embrace the kind of uncritical techno idealism…is to gloss over the violent, socially divisive history of environmentally unsustainable practices that designate certain communities and ecosystems as disposable in the name of modernity’s onward march,” Dixon writes.

Joseph Masco picks the Dr. Strangelove-esque commercial “Plowshares” a bit of 1960s propaganda for geo engineering. It is easy to target the hubris that offers a green light to Plowshares, a project that detonated 35 atomic bombs between 1961 and 1973 to test their commercial use. It is harder to assign blame for “The Great Acceleration” of human consumption, that exponential expansion in travel, industrial production, and globalization that generates a compounding problem for earth systems today, Masco offers.

If the point of Future Remains is to examine the Anthropocene as an ecosystem, climate change and species extinctions are counted in Gary Kroll’s essay, Snarge, a “horrible word” made up by the airline industry for the flesh of birds they routinely pull from jet wings and engines. Millions of deer and pet dogs, thousands of people, and hundreds of whales and manatee are also “snarged” every year by people driving cars and boats, a mass killing that is being whitewashed with words like ‘by catch’ or ‘accident.’

“At its essence,” Kroll, a professor of history at SUNY Plattsburgh, writes, “snarge represents the completely irreconcilable conflict between two different forms of mobility.

“One form we simply call ‘animobility’ a helpful term used by sociologist Mike Michael that refers to motions that are fueled directly by sun and muscle, the results of millions of years of evolutionary history. The newer form of motion harnesses fossilized sunlight from millions of years ago and allows a rapid acceleration of industrialized human beings. In the blink of an evolutionary eye, this acceleration makes snarge possible and even inevitable.”

Naming—‘acceleration’ and ‘killing’—is essential to understanding the Anthropocene.

Future Remains has a way of walking the talk. Julianne Lutz Warren, a wildlife ecologist, selects the song of the extinct Huia bird, as imitated by a Maori man. For her essay, she brings back to life an audio recording lost in an archive at Cornell University as “a way of telling a story.”

Elizabeth Hennessy, professor of history and environmental studies at University of Wisconsin, picks the cryogenic freezer box as a challenge to the capture, kill and display of species in natural history museums.

“A key strategy of environmentalism in the Anthropocene is to freeze life,” she writes about efforts to take DNA samples in a catch-and-release strategy to biology field work. “In the midst of a sixth, mass extinction event (meaning) species death on a scale that has not occurred since the disappearance of dinosaurs 65 million years ago, cryogenic zoos, or so-called frozen arks, have become an important technology for protecting the earth’s biodiversity.”

Much more needs to be said and done for the millions of people in Africa and island nations of the world who will be stranded and decimated by the Anthropocene, a “misnomer that obscures the fact that only a relatively small percentage of the global population is actually responsible for and has benefitted from the conditions that produced it,” writes Laura Pulido in the essay, Racism and the Anthropocene. “Rich, industrialized countries, which are disproportionately white, will escape with vastly fewer deaths. This is not due to any kind of racial animus, but is the result of a particular form of widespread contemporary racism, indifference.”

If you’re looking for a glimmer of hope, co-editor Gregg Mitman offers that the sudden, severe, irreversibility of the Anthropocene is at odds with the views of incremental human impact, leading to “a serious underestimation of the kind of human response necessary to slow its onset and ameliorate its impact.”

Yes, “snarge would have us selling our cars and taking the bus.” The essays in Future Remains offer some prescriptives, and even a small dose of hope. Hennessy's sobering conclusion reads:

“The task of the Anthropocene is not to fill a box with life and an instruction manual with technical directions for reversing extinction. Nor is it to abandon hope. Instead, the blank pages of the instruction manual can offer a different kind of guide, a space to reflect on a more complex task: recognizing the human role in histories of environmental ruin, having the humility to know they cannot be fixed by extending limits of life, and still daring to create a better future.”

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