Art in the Anthropocene?

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This Last Word is in response to the recent 2019 Winter Minding Nature issue, which highlighted an ‘Ideas Collaboration’ with art students from the Chicago School of the Art Institute on theme of the Anthropocene. The Center has been probing what kind of role art, and aesthetics in general, can play in our mission to explore and promote human responsibilities in relation to nature — the whole community of life. As part of this investigation we began featuring artists in our publications who have a passion and mission focused on the humans and nature relationship.

The Center also searches out voices of the next generation and how they understand themselves in nature in these times. So, the occasion for a collaboration with the teachers and students of the SAIC offered an exciting opportunity. Here was an opportunity to share the insights and concerns of our future leaders and creatives via the written word as well as the audio and visual arts. The following are some introductory words of this collaboration by the SAIC teachers:

Geologists have proposed that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Distinct from the Holocene, which started 11,650 years ago at the end of the last ice age, the term ‘Anthropocene’ suggests that human beings have made an indelible mark on the Earth—that our species has become a predominant planetary force. What do we do with such an awareness of how nature and culture have become so inextricably and precariously entwined, emotionally, politically, or aesthetically?

These are some of the questions we have been asking in our course, “Anthropocene: The Future Is Now,” at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. A unique hybrid class combining studio art and the natural sciences, it is modeled on a Berlin-based project called “The Anthropocene Curriculum,” in which we both have been active since 2014. Organized by the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, the project’s goal has been to create an open, globally relevant set of educational resources that are explicitly transdisciplinary in scope and planetary in scale.

To celebrate this collaboration the Center and SAIC organized an evening of reading of the student essays by the students, as well as words from the teachers and the Center. You can find all their essays here: “A New Nature”, “New Ecological Practices of Making Space: The Great Lakes System”, “Diachronous Markers, Violent Surfaces.”

An insightful response to one of the students’ essays on the Center’s website encouraged me to offer some additional reflections to this concept of the Anthropocene. Below are the words I shared at this kick-off event.

In this most recent issue of Minding Nature the Center has had the pleasure of sharing a variety of very creative ways of understanding ourselves our past and our future set in a timescale we’ve been calling the Anthropocene. I want to center this idea of naming a new geologic epoch a little bit as part of this discussion today. My role is to offer a counter point and some alternative directions. I’ll do this by sharing some of the contributor voices the Center highlights and their thoughts and feelings about the time we find ourselves in as Earthlings. An important point to keep in mind as we re-imagine the human project going forward, is that we haven’t yet officially decided that we are actually in the “Anthropocene”. The name has been proposed, but has not been officially accepted as a subdivision of geologic time by the  International Commission on Stratigraphy nor the International Union of Geological Sciences.

I bring this up because there are philosophers and environmentalists who are quite skeptical of what the nomenclature of the Anthropocene implies—The age of man. This nomenclature evokes the human-centeredness that is at the root of our ecological predicaments. Many feel we still have an opportunity to re-imagine our path out from under this anthropocentric position. For example, we may want to refer to this new geologic epoch as the age of the Symbiocene (from the Greek word Symbiosis) or even propose a whole new Era and honor Earth’s integral living community with the name Ecozoic.

Here is list of some critiques of the term itself, Anthropocene, from Eileen Crist’s, article “On Poverty of Our Nomenclature”:

  •  The Anthropocene seems to focus mainly on technological and managerial approaches to make human dominion sustainable versus challenging the concept of human dominion of Earth in the first place.
  • The Anthropocene discourse veers away from environmentalism’s dark idiom of destruction, depredation, rape, loss, devastation and deterioration of the [non-colonial human] and natural world into tame vocabulary that humans are changing, shaping, transforming, or altering the biosphere, and in the process creating novel ecosystems and anthropogenic biomes. This vocabulary that we are [simply] “changing the world”…secures the [colonial anthropocentric ] ontological ground by silencing the displace, killed and enslaved whose homelands have been assimilated and whose lives have, indeed, been changed forever; erased, even.
  • This merger between the social and the natural [which is at the heart of the Anthropocene discourse] is maybe not about mutual integration. This merger looks more like a takeover…wherein the [powerful] have wiped out and reconstructed the [indigenous human] and more-than-human world for purposes of [appropriation]. This form of merger might not signal the ‘coupling’ of society and nature; rather it breeds scarcity for both.
  • The Anthropocene ideal tends to accepts the humanization of the Earth as a reality, even though this is still contestable, partially reversible, and worthy of resistance and of inspiring a different vision.
  • Perhaps the global predicament we find ourselves in calls for drastic pulling back and scaling down of the human presence—welcoming limitations of our numbers, economies, forms of habitation, and uses of land and sea, so that humanity may flourish together with the entire breadth of Life.

To another point. One of the concerns from those who have embraced the Anthropocene is that environmentalists tend to have an unhealthy, sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, but looking to history, honoring, and respecting the past does not have to be nostalgic and can actually be a necessary component in how we re-imagine ourselves going forward. Remembering deep time, geologies amazing contribution to the sciences, while looking forward toward Big-time, beyond political timelines and instead to intergenerational time might be just what can help us. The following ideas from geologist Marcia Bjornerud’s Timefulness: How Thinking like a Geologist Can Help Save The World expound on this:

  • Most humans have no sense of temporal proportion—durations of the great chapters in Earth’s history, the rates of change during previous intervals of environmental instability, the intrinsic timescales of natural capital like groundwater systems. We tend to be time illiterate. This ignorance of planetary history undermines any claims we may make to modernity. We are navigating recklessly toward our future using conceptions of time as primitive as a world map form the fourteenth century, when dragons lurked around the edges of a flat Earth.
  • One begins to understand that rocks are not nouns but verbs—visible evidence of processes: volcanic eruption, the accretion of a coral reef, the growth of a mountain belt. Everywhere one looks, rocks bear witness to events that unfolded over stretches of time. Little by little, over more than two centuries, the local stories told by rocks in all parts of the world have been stitched together into a great tapestrythe geologic timescale or the map of Deep Time.
  • “This brave new epoch is not the time when we took charge of things; it is just the point at which our insouciant and ravenous ways starting changing Earth’s Holocene habits. It is also no the ‘end of nature’ but, instead, the end of the illusion that we are outside of nature. Dazzled by our own creations we have forgotten that we are wholly imbedded in a much older, more powerful world whose constancy we take for granted. As a species, we are much less flexible than we would like to believe, vulnerable to economic loss and prone to social unrest when nature—in the guise of Katrina, Sandy, or Harvey, among others—diverges just a little from what we expect. Averse to even the smallest changes, we have now set the stage for environmental deviations that will be larger and less predictable than any we have faced before. The great irony of the Anthropocene is that our outsized effects on the planet have in fact put Nature firmly back in charge, with a still-unpublished set of rules we will simply have to guess at. The fossil record of previous planetary upheavals makes it clear that there may be a long period of biogeochemical capriciousness before a new, stable regime emerges.” (p. 158)
  • “Our problem is that we lack both the appetite and political-economic infrastructure for intergenerational thinking. This habit is hard to break. But a group of time transcending art projects may serve as inspiration…their purpose is to reframe the way we think about ourselves in time. They may even provide tem plates for how we might design infrastructures for intergenerational governance.”

The arts are an essential part in re-imagining new modes of adaptation and participation. We do not need to wistfully long for days gone by, but we do need to uplift the past and present stories of Others especially those stories that have been neglected and intentionally repressed: Stories of the human and more than human. Uplifting these stories creatively may offer Earthlings a wealth of insight and wisdom for going into the long future. Creative imagination is what we will need to rely on in shifting our current direction.

[1] Minding Nature, Vol. 12, No. 1, 2019,

[2] Eileen Christ, “On Poverty of Our Nomenclature,” Environmental Humanities, vol. 3, 2013, pp. 129-147.

[3] Marcia Bjornerud, Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, Princeton University Press, 2018.

  • Anja Claus

    As Senior Editor, Anja guides the development of Humans and Nature Press Digital as well as co-edits submissions to this publication.  She spearheads the Questions For a Resilient Future's Cosmos series—a series focused on reimagining our inter-connections with off-Earth environments.
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