Notes From the Margins…

Anthropocene: the Human Epoch

  • June 12, 2019
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In the last few years scientists have attempted with increasing urgency to draw attention to our impending ecological catastrophe.  But the deliberations of scientists don’t always have the impact they should have, partly because climate change and the degradation of the biosphere are complex subjects in themselves, and also because the careful and cautious language used by scientists often mutes the alarming nature of what they describe.

Art has a crucial role to play in helping us to understand our predicament and perhaps in finding ways out of it, and cinema and photography are essential instruments in showing us what is actually happening on a global scale.   Last night I watched the stunning Canadian documentary Anthropocene: the Human Epoch at the Sheffield Documentary festival.  Directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier, and the photographer Edward Burtynsky, this film has received a lot of plaudits and awards since its release last year, and with good reason.

The concept of the Anthropocene was first coined by the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen in 2000 to describe the present era as new geological epoch as a result of anthropogenic (human) activity, that was distinct from the Holocene that preceded it.

Crutzen and the scientists who accepted this thesis argued that human activity had radically transformed the biosphere and the earth’s surface, through a combination of activities including fuel and mineral extraction; pollution and contamination; agriculture and over-hunting; urbanisation and industrialisation, road construction and the use of pesticides, fertilisers, concrete and plastics.

This hypothesis opened up a range of questions and scientific debates that are still ongoing.  Does this physical transformation really constitute a new and permanent transformation in the earth’s geology?   How do we establish this? When was the geological ‘golden spike’ that ushered in this new epoch?  Is this transformation really due to ‘anthropogenic’ human activity in general or is it the result of the ‘capitalocene’, as Jason Moore and others have argued – a consequence of the peculiarities of capitalist growth.

In 2009 a multidisciplinary group of scientists established the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) to consider whether the concept of the Anthropocene should be formally adopted to describe the present geological time interval.  The AWG’s investigations and deliberations have had a decisive influence on Baichwal and de Pencier’s mesmerising film.

The film travels across continents, looking at different anthropogenic phenomena, from the vast rubbish dump of  Dandora in Nairobi, the closed Siberian city of Norilsk – the most polluted city in the world – the lithium lakes of the Atacama Desert in Chile, and the Hambauch stripmine in Germany, where the titanic Bagger 288 excavator is gouging out massive tracts out of the landscape.



The Anthropocene lends itself easily to photography, particularly in the new era of drone photography, and the film is filled with startling images of landscapes transformed by ‘terraforming’ – the transformation of the earth’s surface –  and resource extraction, that are both beautiful and also terrifying, such as the Carrara marble mines in Italy, where Michelangelo once got his marble:



Or the Haumbach stripmine in Germany:



Such imagery can easily turn the Anthropocene into a kind of morbid aesthetic spectacle, that can leave its audience awed, crushed and mesmerised at the same time by the magnitude and seeming inevitability of the transformation it describes.

It’s to the credit of Baichwal and her team that they don’t do this.  There are certainly some crushing moments.  In one scene, the camera captures the majesty of a forest in British Columbia, closing in on an ancient tree teeming with life – and then a chain saw cuts it down.

The photography of coral reefs in Indonesia similarly captures a breathtaking variety of shimmering colours and life forms that ravish the eye, before giving way to images of bleached coral.  In one of the most poignant images in the film a Kenyan soldier stands guard over a rhino that has become ‘functionally instinct’ – but still needs to be protected from the human predators responsible for this.

Even as Anthropocene invites us to see humanity as an agent of destruction, it also focuses on the men and women at the cutting edge of these new ‘invented’ environments: the Russian miners at Norilsk; the Kenyans scraping out a living at the Dandora landfill; the Hong Kong ivory carver who now carves from mammoth tusks instead of elephant ivory.

In doing so the filmmakers ‘humanise’ the species-driven activities they describe and ask their audience to see how humanity has caused this planetary transformation, but also to consider how our position as the dominant species might enable us to take action to prevent it from getting any worse.  This isn’t a ‘political’ film, as such.   It’s not an indictment of any particular economic system, but a philosophical and artistic reflection on the impact of the human species on the planet and the obligations that this impact now imposes.

Like James Balog’s film Chasing Ice on the impact of global warming on the Arctic and Antarctic, it mourns what we are losing and what we have already lost, and urges us to take action to prevent us losing even more.

That’s a message that can’t be repeated enough, and for that reason alone, this magnificent film really needs to be seen by as many people as possible.



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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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