The Anthropocene. The Cultural and Cultural-Policy Consequences of a New Geological Age.

by Bernd M. Scherer

Copyright: Andreas Hartmann

Bernd M. Scherer, director of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, at the opening ceremony in the Theatre for Lower Saxony in Hildesheim.

The new era is announcing itself along dramatic lines. What you see here are “hockey stick curves” – so named because of their initial long, virtually horizontal run that then sharply rises into the hockey stick’s blade. They have a dramatic form, and they indicate an unusual course of events on our planet. Namely, they illustrate important parameters of the earth’s development: from population growth to the rise in gross national product, foreign investments, dam construction, the consumption of fertilizer, the spread of McDonald’s restaurants, worldwide transport, and international tourism, and finally the decline of rainforests and global biodiversity.

When the Earth-system scientists Will Steffens and Paul Crutzen set these curves in relation to one another, the idea of proclaiming a new epoch in the earth’s history was born: the Anthropocene, the human age. It is, after all, a crucial feature of all of these developments that they are human-induced and thus represent humanity’s footprint on the earth. Because all of these curves rise dramatically after 1945, geoscientists also speak of the “big acceleration”. The British geologist Jan Zalasiewicz summed up the situation in this way: “When at same time in the future aliens came ta earth and dig through the sediments, they will say about our time: something happened here that radically changed the earth.” (quoted by Jörg Häntzschel in “Am Beginn eines neuen Erdzeitalters”, [2013-01-14].) Jan Zalasiewicz heads the working group that is investigating whether, on the basis of the existing evidence, a new geological age can be heralded.

The expression “the big acceleration” gets to the heart of the matter. The development of science and technology, coupled with a capitalist economic system, has catapulted us literally into a new temporal and spatial dimension. Human action is transfiguring the planet as a whole. It is advancing into the most remote corners. Already, year for year, human impacts on the earth are greater and more comprehensive than those of all other natural forces combined. Human beings are the greatest power of nature. At the same time, through our activity – and the quote from Jan Zalasiewicz points to this – we are inscribing ourselves into geological time. Our interventions won’t change the planet for just generations, but rather for hundreds of millennia. Human history is becoming geological history. Geologists are taking the place of historians. We can understand the “big acceleration” when we look at its heart chamber, the cardiac chamber of the twentieth century: the refinery (see Benjamin Steininger).

Fossil resources are fed into the refinery. These fossil substances were formed in pre-human times, over hundreds of thousands of years. That is, on the one hand, the natural history of the planet delivers these resources to this heart chamber. In the heart chamber, through the technical process of catalysis, these substances are then metabolized so that they speed up and literally fuel the mobility and industrial development that we saw through the twentieth century. The catalytic process is a technology that was developed in the late nineteenth century. In catalysis, processes that in nature take years happen in just minutes. In this way, catalysis became the central accelerator of the twentieth century. The scale of the energy transfer that takes place in this process can be deduced from the fact that fossil substances that had formed over hundreds of thousands of years were used by twentieth-century humans in a single year. It is this conversion of geological time into human time that lays the foundation for humanity’s role as a shaping, planetary force.

How is this paradigm shift to be interpreted culturally?

The groundwork for this development was laid at the beginning of the seventeenth century when Descartes introduced the dualism between res cogitans and res extensa. With this, he divided the sphere of material things from the sphere of thought. The existential relationship to nature, which man originally understood himself to be part of, was cut off. Nature, thus deprived of its spiritual power, presented itself to humans as a mere resource to be exploited. For the process that followed, I would like to offer you two models of thought, both of which can be traced back to stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

In the first tale, Ovid revisits the Greek story of Erysichthon, who intrudes into the sacred grove of Demeter, goddess of the earth and the harvest. Erysichthon’s aim is to fell trees for the construction of a great ceremonial hall in which to hold grand banquets for his friends. Erysichthon’s undertaking breaks with the tradition of his father, the ruler Triopas, who heretofore has respected the grove as a holy place and thereby earned the goodwill of the goddess. In light of the intentions of the son, who refuses to heed even Demeter’s warnings, the affection of the goddess turns to rage. She summons the goddess of hunger, who instils in Erysichthon such a voracious appetite that he finally begins to consume his own body.

From a classical ecological perspective like that of, for example, the Swiss economist Christoph Binswanger, Ovid’s story reflects the basic quandary of our time. Demeter’s grove stands for the last natural resources, which are essential for the planet’s survival and regeneration. Against the finiteness of these resources, which must be protected as sacred, stands our immoderate economic activity. The primary driving force of this activity is to be found in the modern monetary economy. In the seventeenth century, this economy took a momentous step with the introduction of paper money. The value of money was no longer tied to the finite amount of a metal such as silver or gold, out of which coins had been minted up to this point. Rather, it was now defined by the numbers printed on a practically worthless piece of paper. This established the basis for the steady increase in currency – which in turn became the propulsive force for the exploitation of a finite nature.

Ovid tells another story that leads to a different appraisal of our situation. It is the story of the artist Pygmalion. Bad experiences have caused Pygmalion to hate women and keep away from them. One day we find him in his workshop profoundly confused. He has formed out of ivory such a beautiful statue of a female figure that he has fallen in love with it. He thereupon asks Venus to make a present to him: a woman who has the beauty and grace of his statue. When he returns home and approaches the statue, she slowly turns toward him. The ivory has come to life.

This tale of Ovid’s, which revolves around the transformation from inanimate matter to life, from the anorganic to the organic, is lent support by Diderot in the eighteenth century with reasoning that he puts forward in scientific form. The argument goes as follows: The stone of the statue is ground to powder then mixed with humus and soil. Finally, vegetables are planted in this earth. The vegetables are then eaten by people. In this process, the inanimate statue is transformed, step by step, into life.

The artist Pinar Yoldas joins this tradition of thought with her project “An Ecosystem of Success”. The starting point for Yoldas’s project is the primeval soup theory, according to which life on earth began four billion years ago in the oceans. Here, anorganic matter was turned into organic molecules. Today we’re confronted with a situation in which the plastic waste produced by human beings is drifting, like whole continents, on the seas. Yoldas poses the question: what kind of life could take form from this human-made plastic soup if the ocean once again became the place in which life arose out of anorganic substances? Her answer points to a post-human ecosystem. She creates organisms in which organic and anorganic material become thoroughly mixed. In Yoldas’s world, the animals and plants that prevail will be the ones that can use plastic to their advantage.

This second model of thought differs fundamentally from the first. In the first model, the Demeter story, there is a clear separation between man and nature. Humanity stands opposite a world that is clearly structured. Aware of the finiteness of natural resources, we must develop an appropriate ethics from which we can derive precepts for our actions. Such an ethics of responsibility demands that we make it known that we are exploiting the earth’s last resources and, in so doing, destroying the basis of our life.

In the second model, that of Pygmalion, Diderot and Yoldas, human beings are apart of a world characterized by metabolic processes. Man is just one agent among many that influence these processes. Therefore, this world is not available to us in a clearly structured form. There is no fixed ontology on the basis of which we could develop normative rules. How the world is, and how we are to behave in it – that is, the epistemological and the normative questions – are two aspects of the same processes of negotiation and experience in which both the agents and the objects are constituted. As the Yoldas example shows, the agents’ and objects’ respective parts can only ever be determined for a single given situation.

For the time being, the sea is serving as the disposal site for the detritus of human civilization. But it will later become the agent out of which grows something new, something which humans will find themselves imperilled by. From the perspective of the second model of thought, the first model’s concept of resources is obsolete. In the end, it is a linear historical model that underlies it. Of course certain things are finite, such as fossil fuels. Yet in their combustion, what is taking place is essentially just transformational processes of a material and energetic nature.

What are the implications of this model for cultural policy?

Pinar Yoldas’s figures are beautiful and fascinating, but they are also vexing and disturbing. They are monsters. The word “monster” contains within it the Latin word demonstrare. They make visible an imagined development in which humans don’t attend to the creatures that they have made. This story has a literary prototype. It is the tale of Victor Frankenstein, told to us by the Briton Mary Shelley at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. It begins as a success story. The scientist manages to create a living being. But because he concentrates so exclusively on its functional aspects, his creation looks so horrible that nobody is willing to look after it. Excluded from the world of humans, it becomes aggressive and kills.

In my view, the lesson to be drawn from the Frankenstein story is: if we want to avoid the monsters and at the same time acknowledge that humans are a part of nature, and that nature and the material world are partly created by humans, then a form of communication must be found in which all agents in this process, who not only act but are also affected by the actions of the others, come up for discussion. For this reason, the old idea of the forum should be revived. In the Roman Forum, society came together to discuss its development. The fora that play a comparable role today should incorporate three aspects above all:

1. Things as agents: we must change our relationship to the world of things. Things, whether occurring naturally or created by us, are not simply limitless resources available to serve human interests: Rather, they have a life of their own, their own logic that we must again learn to respect. This is a knowledge of the material world that pre-industrial societies possessed. When a human being tills the soil, for example, he impacts the earth; but he can’t do this simply at will. That is why, when an experienced farmer plants his crops, he takes into account weather conditions and the cycles of time. His consideration of these factors is an expression of his understanding of himself not only as an agent, but also as a part of a set of interrelationships. That is, the world of things must be represented in this forum. As a rule, it will be people who give these things expression in language. When various societies in Latin America acknowledge the rights of nature, then it is precisely this rule that is being observed.

2. Human agents: I have up to now always spoken of the human being, the Anthropos, as an agent in the Anthropocene. It is indeed as a species, but not as particular political and societal actors, that humans appear as a force in nature. The specific agents are individuals, societies, states, companies, etc. A look at the development of the last two hundred years shows that with regard to the societies of Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia, there has been a great asymmetry in the exploitation of resources. This asymmetry has continued right up to the present, if also changed in part. A rise in sea level means something different for a city like Calcutta than it does for a city like New York. The solutions proposed for problems that the North has caused are still often worked out in such a way that they address the problems of the North at the expense of developments in the southern hemisphere. From this stems the requirement that in the forum, in the fora, all societies must be represented, as all are impacted by the changes described. Because the transformations have different effects depending on the region, the solutions will also differ strongly between regions: climatic changes have different effects in colder zones than they do in warmer zones; societies on the coast are affected differently than those in the mountains.

3. In our societies, knowledge is stored in expert communities. But everybody is affected by the processes of change. In the fora, the very first undertaking will be to develop a common language which allows all agents to make sustainable decisions.

These are some of the framing cultural-policy conditions for the development of fora. Because our impact as a species on earth is causing ever greater wounds, time is of the essence. Let us begin to take care of our monsters before they take care of us.