Seven Ways to Sense the Anthropocene

Checkerboard mesa strata

Stratigraphers may be the ones to decide whether the Anthropocene—or “Age of Humans”—constitutes a new geological epoch, but artists, humanists, and scientists can be the ones to help us understand and re-imagine the era in new and productive ways. Their work helps us visualize the unequally distributed consequences of the Anthropocene, drawing attention to what is often invisible and slow-moving environmental change while pointing to future possible actions.

This weekend’s Anthropocene Slam at the University of Wisconsin-Madison offered plenty of opportunity for cross-disciplinary dialogue and (re-)imagining of what it means to live in the “Age of Humans.” Here are seven projects that help us better sense the transformations of our current epoch:

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. Click to enlarge.

Martha, the last passenger pigeon, on display at the National Museum of Natural History. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution. Click to enlarge.

1. A century after Martha, the world’s last passenger pigeon, died in a Cincinnati zoo, artists at the Lost Bird Project are crowd-sourcing an origami effort to revive the extinct avian species. Fold the Flock is a project that asks participants to fold origami pigeons—and has received more than a million paper birds to date. Does paper help us remember? What can’t it bring back?

2. Plants and animals aren’t the only things facing rapid extinction here in the Anthropocene. Electronic sounds—dial-up Internet, a VCR rewinding, Tetris for Nintendo Game Boy—are also phenomena of the past, as the bizarre and enthusiastic Museum of Endangered Sounds reminds us. Ought we preserve such creations? Ought we mourn their loss?

3. Over fifty species of birds have gone extinct in Aotearoa/New Zealand since humans first arrived in the islands almost 800 years ago. This 1960s recording of a Maori man imitating the call of the already-extinct Huia offers a haunting echo of not just anthropogenic environmental change, but also the ravages of colonization.

4. If cinematic spectacles like Sharknado and Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus have proven insufficient in capturing your oceanic attention, then a real-life project might do the trick: Tagging of Pelagic Predators is a joint collaboration between biologists, computer scientists, and engineers. These experts attach satellite tags to marine travelers like sharks, tuna, elephant seals, and sea turtles. Where do the animals go as humans push them to the periphery? Does visibility give agency to non-human nature in the human-dominated Anthropocene?

5. Visualize this: the 58,000 flight paths that commercial pilots follow nearly daily in their shepherding of human travelers around the globe. A data-visualization project initiated by transportation planner Michael Markieta pushes us to notice the number, volume, and hubs of flight activity in our increasingly interconnected world. Where do humans go? Who doesn’t travel by air?

Michael Markieta's visualization of global flight paths traces the Anthropocene.

Michael Markieta’s visualization of global flight paths traces the Anthropocene.

6. The Anthropocene’s ubiquitous transportation technologies and infrastructures result in a constant, often overlooked wildlife massacre. In the United States alone, a million animals are run over each day—and that doesn’t even include the snarge from our airplanes. But with this handy survey, you can do some citizen science and provide roadkill sighting data that will inform strategies for protecting animals from close encounters of the vehicular kind.

7. How many magnets do you have on your fridge? If your answer is 55, you’re exactly on par with the Los Angeleno average that UCLA social scientists found in their nine-year study of 32 California homes. The study’s cataloguing efforts, subject of the colorfully illustrated Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, captures the staggering number of things we accumulate in our homes, and our surprisingly varied reactions—apathy, stress, obsessive control—to the stuff we surround ourselves with.

Featured image: Strata at Checkerboard Mesa. Photo by Jon Sullivan.

Melissa Charenko is a PhD student in the History of Science Program. Her work focuses on the history of palynology and paleoecology, particularly the various ways the past and possible futures are represented and reconstructed. She has shown her short film, 24-7B, at Tales from Planet Earth, and was a co-collaborator in 1, a cross-disciplinary exhibit held in Western Australia in 2014. Contact.

Spring Greeney is a PhD student in the History Department working on a cultural and environmental history of American domesticity from Catharine Beecher to Betty Friedan, complicated by all the vigorous housewives and reluctant homebuyers populating this 150-year story. She is also a runner. Contact.

Adam Mandelman serves as Managing Editor for Edge Effects and is a Ph.D. student in the Geography Department at UW-Madison. He is completing a dissertation entitled “The Place With No Edge: Boundaries and Permeability in the Mississippi River Delta, 1845-2010.” He also maintains a blog about watery places and other themes in nature-society geography. Website. Twitter. Contact.

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4 Responses

  1. Rob Nixon says:

    Thank you all for these diverse, fascinating examples of how artists, humanists, and scientists, often collaboratively, can help us re-imagine dramatic and consequential change in surprising ways.

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