If the global environment is to be protected and climate change halted, the skills of our most critical and creative people will have to be engaged. For that reason, Anthropocene Alliance is a work of art as well as an educational charity. Though “Art” is found in our drop-down menu, we expect its ethos —imagination, good design, experimentation, expressive freedom and risk — to suffuse everything we are involved in.
Our first two distinct artworks are also work of scholarship and criticism: a brief history of the Anthropocene in five pictures; and an illustrated review of the ticking time bomb of climate change.
The Anthropocene in Pictures
According to the Book of Genesis (11:1-9), humans once spoke a common language. Believing themselves both clever and invincible, they decided to build a great city with “a tower whose top is in the heavens.” But God punished them for their hubris by confusing their languages and scattering them “over the face of all the earth.”
In Pieter Bruegel’s painting, King Nimrod of Shinar, surrounded by his retinue, oversees the work of thousands of engineers, masons, carpenters and unskilled laborers. Partly made from brick and stone and partly from the mountain itself, the Tower resembles the ancient Roman Colosseum, symbol of corruption and violence. But unlike the ancient amphitheater, the Tower is a spiral with its arches irregular and unstable. In addition, the sea at lower right is perilously close to the base of the tower. When a storm surges, the foundation of the tower will be inundated and the edifice will collapse.
Bruegel’s allegory was a warning against greed and pride directed at the rich and powerful Antwerp bankers and merchants of his day. (Their ships are anchored in the harbor, and stevedores are shown unloading bricks from barges.) But his picture also addresses the boomerang of nature – the idea that exploitation of the environment for purposes of vanity or profit will finally lead to humanity’s own destruction. When natural surplus is exhausted, nature takes its revenge. The painting thus anticipates the essential lesson of the epoch of the Anthropocene.
Coalbrookdale is a village in Shropshire, England famous for its ironworks. Prior to about 1700, iron was smelted there using charcoal made from burning wood. After that, coke (derived from locally mined coal) was used, permitting greatly increased production. And it was iron – used for building steam engines, trains, rails, ships and farm machinery – that created the Industrial revolution. Most of the ironworks at Coalbrookdale are now closed but the Iron Bridge (1777) crossing the River Severn remains as testimony to the industrial ambitions of the era.
De Loutherbourg’s painting of Coalbrookdale at Night is at once a celebration of the energy unleashed by a coke-fired blast furnace and an early reckoning with its environmental consequences. The orange flames from the furnace suggest a natural cataclysm like the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, described then as “sublime." But the adjacent landscape is shown as blighted – largely emptied of trees, shrubs, meadows and any other traces of what William Blake at the time called England’s “green and pleasant land.” Wood and coal fires remain a major source of air pollution in London and its environs, as well as Beijing, New Delhi and other global cities. Their smoke and particulates irritate eyes, mouths and lungs and are among the most potent sources of carbon dioxide and global warming.
In the winter of 1900, the Impressionist artist Claude Monet made a series of trips to London to paint Waterloo Bridge, Charing Cross Bridge and the Houses of Parliament. He loved the city and its monuments, he wrote: “but what I love, above all, is the fog.” In all, he completed 37 pictures of London includingWaterloo Bridge: Fog Effect, which is one of his most abstract and nebulous.
Despite the Gershwin song, (“A foggy day”), London is not naturally foggy. Its murky reputation is derived from the fact that until passage of the Clean Air Act in 1956, the city was heated mostly with low-grade, sulfurous coal. The resulting smoke, combined with countercyclonic winter winds and moisture, produced a thick burning smog that chocked eyes and mouths and could even be fatal, as it was for more than 10,000 people during the Great Smog of early December 1952.
The weather during Monet’s visit in the Winter of 1900 was especially damp, contributing to the formation of smog that at its heaviest, obscured the contours of the Houses of Parliament, Charing Cross and Waterloo Bridge. No wonder Monet loved the fog – it was an Impressionist landscape even before he painted it! Waterloo Bridge illustrates what may be called the “pre-Anthropocene,” when local ecologies were transformed and degraded by human activity, but the climate of the earth as a whole remained out of human reach.
Andy Warhol is as widely recognized as any artist who ever lived. The reason is that he helped establish the very cult of celebrity that made him famous and ultimately helped elect the current US president! In addition to his portraits of Jackie, Elvis and Marilyn (no last names needed), Warhol depicted consumer products like Campbell’s soup. The 32 cans shown here are all individually hand painted, an ironic allusion to the mass production that was the real basis of capitalist production and consumption. (Later in 1962, Warhol embraced the silkscreen process and dropped the irony.)
Warhol was perhaps the first artist of the Anthropocene. He began his career in advertising, the archetypal industry of the new epoch because it stimulated vastly increased demand for consumer products – new homes, automobiles, appliances, electronics, entertainment and air travel -- that relied upon fossil fuels.
In the decades after 1950, a period named by US climate researcher Will Steffen, “The Great Acceleration,” energy and water consumption, population, tourism, fertilizer use, and transportation all grew by orders of magnitude. At the same time, atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane, stratospheric ozone, tropical forest loss, and ocean acidification grew in lockstep. And the last few years have seen a succession of record breaking global temperatures. Warhol depicted the commodity culture that more than anything else accelerates climate change.
The homepage of Anthropocene Alliance features a dramatic, color photograph called Earthrise. It was one of several taken on December 24, 1968 by astronaut Bill Anders as part of the NASA Apollo 8 mission to circle the moon and return safely to Earth. Anders described the picture’s genesis:
After the first two-and-a-half to three orbits… we rolled [the lunar capsule] over, heads up and turned around, going forward, like you would be driving a car around the moon. I don't know who said it, maybe all of us said, 'Oh my God. Look at that!' And up came the Earth. We had had no discussion on the ground, no briefing, no instructions on what to do. I jokingly said, 'well it's not on the flight plan,' and the other two guys were yelling at me to give them cameras….and we started snapping away.
Though photographers on piloted balloons and airplanes had long taken photos of the land from the sky, nobody had ever before taken a photo of the Earth from the moon. Seeing the Earth in this way – its living colors suspended over the bleak grey-brown of the surface of the moon – told a story that had been gathering force since the late 18th Century: that planetary life was a rare and precious thing, and that it must be protected and nurtured.
The modern environmental movement is often said to have been started by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which described how uncontrolled pesticide and herbicide use had decimated bird populations and created springtimes without any songs. It also specified the toll on human health of chemical pesticides. But the Christmas Eve, 1968 Apollo 8 photograph from the moon may have had an even bigger impact. Two years later, the US Environmental Protection Agency was formed and two years after that, the UK Department of the Environment. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 and Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were established in 1971.
Today, in the age of climate change, the photograph has gained even greater poignancy. It reminds us that the fate of life on Earth is now in human hands and that people everywhere have the capacity and responsibility to join together to protect it in all its diversity. Anthropocene Alliance is part of that global effort.
Stephen F. Eisenman, April 2017
Doctor Strangeweather: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Climate Change
Consider the ticking bomb scenario.
It's a staple of spy and adventure novels and films. At the end of Goldfinger (1964, dir. Guy Hamilton), James Bond is handcuffed to an atomic bomb in Fort Knox. After managing to free himself, he frantically starts to pull some wires on the device when a scientist arrives, flips a toggle and halts the threat with 007 seconds to go.
Things don’t end so well in the darkly comic, Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Stanley Kubrick). After a mad US general manages to direct nuclear armed B-52s on a mission to bomb Russia, US President Muffley calls Soviet Premier Kissov with advice on how to shoot down the planes. However, a single plane makes it through Soviet air defenses and drops its weapons, setting off a “Doomsday Machine,” timed to go off automatically in case of attack. The movie ends with a montage of actual atomic bomb detonations (mostly US tests on Pacific Islands) and the English vocalist Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again.” AfterStrangelove, faith in a winnable nuclear war, fallout shelters, and MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction (the Cold War doctrine of deterrence), all took nose dives.
There have been a few movies in which climate change is the ticking time bomb, including The Day After Tomorrow, (2004, dir. Roland Emmerich), Snowpiercer, (2013, dir. Bong Joon-ho) and the documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006, dir. Davis Guggenheim). They all did pretty well at the box office too, but unlike Strangelove, appear to have had limited impact on politics or public perception. The issue of climate change was all but invisible during the last presidential election, and President Trump is proceeding to undo the already inadequate initiatives undertaken by President Obama. While Trump hasn’t yet renounced the international climate accords agreed in Paris in 2015, he has: 1) Ordered reviews of automobile efficiency standards, offshore oil drilling policies, and Obama’s Clean Power Plan; 2) Put climate change skeptics in charge of the departments of Environmental Protection, Energy and Interior; 3) Pledged to dramatically slash the EPA budget; 4) Approved the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, allowing more oil and gas to be pulled from the ground and burned; and 5) Gutted rules to prevent methane leaks at gas drilling sites, methane being among the most potent greenhouse gasses. (That rule change was just vetoed by congress, but it may come back.) So the big question is: “Has Trump shortened the time on the climate “Doomsday Machine”? Is he Dr. Strangeweather? The brief answer is yes:
According to NASA and NOAA, 2016 was the hottest year since global recording keeping began in 1880. It was the third year in a row to set a record. Sixteen of the 17 warmest years have occurred since 2001, and the earth’s temperature has already risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last century, with most of the rise occurring in the last 35 years. Even if the Paris accords are implemented – and Trumps demurrals make that extremely unlikely – the world is still expected to warm by more than 6 degrees F. (3.4 C.) above pre-industrial levels by 2050 if not before, according to a recent paper by UN scientists (“Emissions Gap Report, November 2016”). And remember, while six degrees may not sound like much, it's actually a lot. During the last ice age (20,000 years ago), when Chicago and Boston were covered in a half-mile thick layer of ice, the temperature was only 5 degrees colder on average than it is today. Modest changes in mean temperature translate into dramatic changes in temperature variance.
The results of a planetary warming of 6 degrees or more would be Strangelovian. Rather than a gradual transition from one temperature regime to another, a warming of that size or greater, as Will Steffen and other climate scientists have shown, would be likely to push the global climate past a threshold or tipping-point, triggering sudden and possibly cataclysmic weather events. There will be long heat waves with frequent temperatures above 100+ degree in temperate climate zones, and 120+ degree days in arid, tropical or semi-tropical ones. For many regions, the coolest months in the late 21st Century will be warmer than the current warmest months. Droughts will be frequent, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, forest fires more devastating everywhere, and crop yields in the warmest zones will decline by more than 50% leading to mass starvation. With a 6 degrees F. or more temperature increase, ocean levels will rise at least 6 feet by the end of the century, according to a study recently published in Nature, inundating coastal areas around the world including US cities New York, Boston, Washington, New Orleans and Miami. One bright spot: Mar-A-Lago will be submerged.
hat all this means is that additional measures, beyond those already agreed in Paris, must be quickly implemented if disaster is to be averted. Countries must resist building new infrastructure like coal-fired plants, oil pipelines, and offshore drilling rigs that will lock-in additional greenhouse gas emissions. More than that, they will need to shift to new, state-of-the-art green technologies, which means making massive investments in wind, solar, geothermal and other non-greenhouse gas emitting energy sources, as well as new distribution and storage technologies. And they will have to do all this while at the same time heavily taxing the fossil fuel corporations or else simply mandating that they leave in the ground trillions of dollars of future profits. It isn’t good enough to have both fossil and renewable fuels; the one must be replaced by the other.
Near the end of Kubick’s great movie, Strangelove, the ex-Nazi nuclear scientist played by Peter Sellers, recommends to President Muffley (also played by Peter Sellers) that he make plans to repopulate a post Doomsday planet from survivors pre-selected to live for some years in a deep mineshaft. He proposes a 10:1 female to male ratio in order to accomplish the job most quickly. General Buck Turgidson (played by George C. Scott) then asks: “Now, wouldn't that necessitate the abandonment of the so-called monogamous sexual relationship, I mean, as far as men were concerned?” Strangelove replies: “Regrettably, yes. But it is, you know, a sacrifice required for the future of the human race. I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious... service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature.”
At this very moment, President Donald Trump, EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry may be huddled, Strangelove-style, in a secret, climate change War Room planning post-apocalyptic breeding programs even as they plot the slow and steady business of dismantling the Paris climate accords and raising the global temperature. But before we entirely despair, let’s remember the end of Goldfinger, when a government agent reaches out his finger to flip the switch that stops the bomb timer at 007.
Stephen F. Eisenman, May 2017