Saul Cunningham, Bradley Opdyke, Joan Leach, Libby Robin, Martha Sear, Will Steffen, 16 July 2018
MARTHA SEAR: Hello everybody. My name’s Martha Sear. I’m one of the curators here at the National Museum of Australia and it’s a great pleasure to welcome you here to the Museum tonight. Thanks for coming out. It’s been a cold, cold day and we’re very delighted to have you here tonight to speak about the possibilities of an Anthropocene day. Let’s begin with the acknowledgement of country. I’d like to acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples who are the traditional custodians of this land on which we meet and to pay respect to their elders both past and present. I extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in attendance today.
So the National Museum of Australia’s had a long history of engagement with environmental histories, dating back to its inception really, and so the Anthropocene has been a key idea within the Museum for a long time. So it’s a great pleasure to be hosting this discussion tonight about the possibility of an Anthropocene day here at the National Museum. Can I begin by really thanking the ANU’s Fenner School of Environment and Society who initiated this discussion with tonight’s panel. And we really hope this is going to be the first of many evenings of good conversation that draw on the collaboration between the Fenner School and the National Museum. So thank you so much to David Salt for organising today and to the school for its enthusiastic collaboration with us.
And now I’d like to welcome Professor Saul Cunningham who will be introducing the speakers and will be tonight’s MC. Good day, Saul.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: Thanks very much, Martha, and thanks to everyone for coming along. So my name is Saul Cunningham. I’m the director of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the ANU and as Martha said, this is a jointly organised event, a little bit of an experiment, and if you’re all smiling and happy at the end of this then hopefully that will be a sign that we should do it again, that it should be something to look forward to.
So I get the job of being the MC and I won’t really say too much except just some introductory words, hopefully to get you in the right place to think about why we’re doing this. So at 5:29 am on the 16th of July, that’s today’s date, in 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb was tested in the New Mexico desert. And that test signalled the birth of the atomic age, the coming of the end of World War II. And looking back we can see that it also corresponds more or less with the beginning of what we now call The Great Acceleration, which is a time of unprecedented growth in human population, growth in technology, and growth in resource consumption. And many researchers have suggested that the beginning of The Great Acceleration was also the dawn of the Anthropocene. This idea of a new geological epoch in which humans dominate the Earth system.
So today, 73 years after that atomic test, there’s a growing discussion about human sustainability and whether we have the resilience to respond to global change. And the idea of the Anthropocene and its significance is now being debated across many different disciplines. The growing calls for a fundamental change in human values, in human behaviour, and in our culture if The Great Acceleration is not to lead to The Great Collapse. And I can see more people coming in which is good. Welcome.
So this forum brings together speakers from the ANU and the NMA and we’re essentially proposing that we might proclaim the 16th of July as Anthropocene Day, to mark a moment in the year when humanity can reflect on the nature of our engagement with the Earth system that sustains us.
In reflecting on this relationship I don’t suggest that we should be wallowing in misery. I don’t think that would be too productive. We can’t be too gloomy about this. I hope that we can reflect on all the remarkable things that human cultures have done around the world, the remarkable things that we do on Earth. And at the same time perhaps we will think about what changes we could make that would help us continue that remarkable story for thousands of generations to come.
So the question we’re really discussing with this idea is does the world need another day of reflection? Is the notion of Anthropocene Day — could it help us frame the challenges that are in front of us, and if it does is the 16th of July the right day? Focusing on this idea of the first atomic test being the marker that might be used in the geological record. So to help us answer these questions we’ve brought together five Anthropocene experts, each being a perspective from a different discipline. Each speaker will share their experience and insights on the theme of the Anthropocene and then hopefully you can make your own judgment.
So I’ll be introducing each speaker in turn. We’ve allocated about 10 minutes to each speaker and if anyone goes too much longer than that I’ll be giving them the evil eye from my seat down there. And then if everyone keeps to time we’ve got a further 30 minutes of Q&A from the audience. So do think about the questions that you’re interested in asking of any of the speakers. We’ll have a panel session in these chairs at the front.
So that’s all I wanted to say and it does look there are no longer people streaming through the front door, so a good time to go on to our first speaker. And — oh, I should have used this before. So our first speaker is actually not going to be here in human form. Our first speaker is Will Steffen, who’s going to appear in the form of a video. Will Steffen’s one of Australia’s foremost Earth system scientists. He’s a long history in the international global change research serving as the executive director of the International Geosphere Biosphere Program, the IGBP, and the executive officer of IGBP’s Global Change and Terrestrial Ecosystems Project. Will was the inaugural director of the ANU Climate Change Institute and was a former director of the Fenner School, the role I have now.
He’s also served as a science advisor to the Australian Government Department of Climate Change, and is currently a member of the Australian Climate Council. So Will is currently trekking in the Andes, which sounds very nice. But such is his passion for the topic that he’s recorded a short video for us in which he’ll describe the circumstances of how the idea, this name Anthropocene arose, and he was a witness to that event. So let’s see if we can make this work.
WILL STEFFEN: The idea of the Anthropocene, the concept and the term ...
The idea of the Anthropocene, the concept and the term was born in the year 2000 in a small city called Cuernavaca in Mexico. There was a meeting there of a big Earth systems science program, the International Geosphere Biosphere Program, which was undertaking a 10-year synthesis of everything that it had learnt. It was time for the paleo-scientists to talk about what they have learned about past changes in the biosphere and so on. And they kept referring to the Holocene. You know, the Holocene this, the Holocene that. The Holocene being the 12,000-year interglacial period that Earth is still in. Well, that really annoyed one of our most eminent scientists, a guy named Paul Crutzen. Paul is an atmospheric chemist, he’s a Nobel laureate. He won a Nobel Prize for his work on the ozone hole. And he was getting very agitated. You could see him getting agitated in his seat. And he finally just burst out, ‘Stop saying the Holocene. We’re not in the Holocene anymore. We’re in the, in the ...’ And he stumbled a bit thinking about what he should say and then he just blurted out, ‘We’re in the Anthropocene. ‘
And of course the obvious intent was that humans had now changed the Earth’s system so fundamentally that we had actually left a geological epoch and we were moving into another geological epoch. So that was back in the year 2000. We published a newsletter in the IGBP newsletter series a few months later. The first peer-reviewed literature on the Anthropocene came out in 2002 in the eminent journal Nature. And that was written by Paul, and he explicitly suggested that the Anthropocene should be a geological epoch and that it should replace the Holocene. So from its very, very beginning the Anthropocene was really grounded in two very fundamental areas of science, Earth system science and the geological sciences which of course are the time keepers for planet Earth.
I think the value of the concept, the idea of the Anthropocene is that it encompasses so much but in a coherent way. It’s clear that humans have always interacted with the environment, but since about the middle of the 20th century something new happened in terms of humanity’s ability to impact on the planetary environment as a whole, as a single system. So it first of all it encompasses more than just environmental change. It encompasses the idea that the Earth is a single system, and it’s co-evolved the geosphere and the biosphere for over four billions years. So it encompasses that beautiful interplay between many parts of the natural Earth system that’s evolved to give us the global environment that we enjoy today.
But at the same time, and in the same framework, it brings humanity. It brings humanity not as an outside force perturbing the Earth system, but something internal to the system, a new set of pressures and feedbacks within the Earth system interacting with the geosphere, the biosphere and now the human sphere to chart a new course for the Earth system as a whole. So in terms of the research community it was a wonderful concept, a wonderful framework to bring together not only an entire range of natural sciences — ecology, atmospheric science, oceanography, stratigraphy, other areas of the geological sciences — it also brought in the human sciences. It brought in social science, it brought in political science. It brought in the humanities in a big way. Anthropology, history and so on. But the thing is, the Anthropocene provides a coherent framework, a coherent platform on which a whole range of disciplines right across all areas of knowledge generation — natural sciences, social sciences and, very importantly, humanities — can come together and try to understand how the planet is changing, why it’s changing and where it might be going.
Well, one of the obvious questions is when did the Anthropocene start, and we need to get a date for that. One of the dates that was proposed, in fact one of the first people to propose it was Jan Zalasiewicz, who’s the chair of the Anthropocene Working Group. And he’s a stratigrapher by training. He suggested the 16th of July 1945 might be a good starting date. That was the first detonation of an atomic weapon test in the desert of New Mexico in the USA. In fact Jan was saying this is the perfect marker because it’s very clear in the stratigraphic record, it’s globally distributed, it’s synchronous. And he said, if we choose this as the marker for the Anthropocene we can actually pin it down to a couple of seconds as to when that bomb blast went off. And he said that would be the most precise definition of a new geological time interval that we’ve ever had.
So there’s a big attractiveness in terms of the precision of this. So one of the pros is this is a good marker in the stratigraphic record. It’s accumulating in sediments around the world, it’s globally synchronous and it does mark the middle of the 20th century which is the preferred start date for the Anthropocene. So that’s one of the pros. The cons, however, is it focuses too much on atomic bombs and the atomic world as being central to the Anthropocene. It isn’t. It’s sort of a minor player in the grand scheme of things. The real central part of the Anthropocene is how humanity has changed the structure and functioning of the whole Earth system. It’s how we’ve changed biomes, it’s how we’ve changed functioning ecological processes. It’s how we’re taking geological carbon and putting it in the atmosphere and changing the energy balance of the entire planet. This is the sort of heart and soul of the Anthropocene.
But also it’s the human part, how humanity has developed over the 200,000 years that fully modern humans have been on the planet. And particularly over the last few centuries from the Industrial Revolution. But particularly since the mid-20th century with the start of what’s sometimes called The Great Acceleration. So another way of looking at why the mid-20th century is a good start date is look at some of the historical works by people like John McNeill, who wrote a seminal book called Something New Under the Sun. And he said the most important part of the start of the Anthropocene wasn’t really the technology, wasn’t really the atomic bomb test. It was changes in human institutional structures which cut loose what we now call the neoliberal economic system, which has been extremely effective at exploiting all sorts of so-called resources around the planet, and at the same time changing the very structure and functioning of the planet.
So it’s a neat, tidy start date, the atomic bomb test in New Mexico. And that’s one of its best advantages. But on the other hand if there’s too much focus on that it covers up or distorts really the main narrative of the Anthropocene. Look, I think having an Anthropocene day one day every year where we stop and reflect on what the Anthropocene actually means is a really, really good idea. It could have a lot of benefits. If you start from the research community where the Anthropocene term and concept began, one of the things it forces us to do is get out of our disciplinary silos. And that is really hard to do in universities, even today in 2018. But we’ve got to do it. We can never understand what’s happening to planet Earth by sticking in our disciplines and saying, ‘I understand what’s happening to the geology. I understand what happens in the ocean. I understand what’s happening in the atmosphere.’ You cannot understand what’s happening to planet Earth unless you build highly integrative, highly trans-disciplinary projects that fully engage the social sciences and humanities as well as the natural sciences.
So an annual reminder that we need to build a new type of research community is very good. But of course it goes beyond that, because ultimately dealing with the Anthropocene is a social and political question, a deeply human question. So the whole idea, not surprisingly, has spread way beyond the natural science community. It’s even spread beyond the social science and humanities community now to engage a lot of people in the artistic communities in the political side and so on. Which is a really good thing.
So I think the Anthropocene concept is a great way to connect research with the rest of the community that supports us. So having an Anthropocene day that of course has some strong research themes but goes way beyond research to talk about how does this affect human societies, how do we think about this. How do we conceive who we are, what our societies are, what we meant to ... How we should meant to be living. And in that regard it would be really important to engage indigenous communities around the world who have acted as stewards for this planet for thousands of years and get their views on what contemporary societies are doing in terms of the Anthropocene.
So there are many facets. Different themes could be emphasised in different years and so on. So you could see it building to an annual event that really deeply challenges humanity to say: Who are we really? What is our role on this planet? How do we live more in sync with the natural systems of planet Earth. So I’m strongly in favour of an Anthropocene day. It would be great to start one here in Canberra. It would be great for education institutions, research institutions, the National Museum of Australia, all sorts of other groups to come together and bring all sorts of different contexts, ideas, perspectives on the Anthropocene, which I still think is a wonderful integrating concept.
One of the most interesting questions about the Anthropocene is, how do you say it. And different people say it in different ways. I tend to say Anthropocene. Others say Anthropocene, and so on. It really doesn’t matter in the end. We understand each other quite well and the important thing is that we really focus on the concept.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: Well, I thank Will for keeping to time. It occurred to me that if he didn’t and I just gave him a dirty look it wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference. Anyhow, thanks Will. Sorry he can’t be here to sit on the panel later on.
So our next speaker is Bradley Opdyke. Bradley is a paleo-climatologist based at ANU Research School of Earth Sciences. His research interests include stratigraphy, sedimentology and glaciology. Bradley looks at global change through the eyes of an earth scientist, working in time frames way beyond those of mere mortals. He will be discussing the biophysical evidence, the stratigraphy, and the significance of the Anthropocene. Bradley.
BRADLEY OPDYKE: Thank you, Saul. I appreciate what Will just told us, and I’ve been involved with doing Earth science research since 1983, and my first project was actually measuring surface water and atmospheric CO2 levels in 1983. Does anybody here know what the pCO2 of the atmosphere was in 1983? Does anybody remember that far back? Well, I’ll tell you. It was 340 ppm. And for those of us that do carbon cycle work and modelling there are a few threshold CO2 levels. One is 180 ppm, which is the last glacial maximum. So when it was really cold, here in Canberra it was nine degrees colder on average 18,000 years ago per annum, on average during the year.
So during a transition between 18,000 years ago and 11,000 years ago when we go into the Holocene we go up to about 260, 280 ppm. We’ll say 280. That’s the pre-anthropogenic level. So 280 to what I was measuring in 1983 is a change of ... from 280 to 20, another 40 is 60. Sixty ppm. Do you all know what the pCO2 is today? It’s over 400, you know, we’re pushing 410. And this is all part of this Great Acceleration that Will Steffen is talking about. So there are a proliferation of different temperature anomaly curves versus time, but this is one that I particularly like because it shows you going back in time there are cycles. There are natural cycles in the Earth’s temperature. And if you go back on really long time scales, we could talk about Milankovitch cycles, which are every 20, 40, 100,000 years. And there are shorter cycles that are related to solar activity. And one of the neat things about this particular diagram is it shows how as we — even though it doesn’t show the CO2 trend — as the CO2 goes up, what you see is the natural cycles dampen down and you end up with this fantastic acceleration around 1960, which we’re still on in terms of accelerating warmth on planet Earth.
And I don’t know, it was probably about 12 years ago I gave a public talk which was recorded, which is still on YouTube. And there’s a prominent scientist here at RSBS who’s now retired. And he used to ask me when I first got here in the 1990s. He was like, he was a bit of a climate sceptic, and he would ask me, he’d say, ‘Brad. Why are the paleo-oceanographers and the paleo-climatologists so concerned about global change and CO2 rise?’ And part of it is that part of our training is to understand how subtle these natural changes, the Milankovitch changes, the changes in where the heat from the sun actually impacts the planet, give us these enormous changes in climate. And in comparison to that we are hitting the Earth system with a sledgehammer. And those sledgehammer blows start right in the middle of the 20th century. And so whether you choose 1945 or 1960 or 1970, in a sense it really doesn’t matter. We are hitting the Earth systems so hard right now. And you can quantify it — I won’t go into the numbers — that we have overwhelmed the natural system in terms of climate change.
So when you look at the data this just happens to be temperature anomaly for, I guess this is the globe. I thought ... Oh, no, no. This is Australia. This is just the Australian data coming from the average of basically the 20th century. And so when you look at the data there’s no debate about climate change really. And people ask you sometimes when you get out into the sticks and have friendly debates over beer in, perhaps, Wagga Wagga, or something like that. But do you believe in climate change? And you say, ‘Well, it’s not religion. You just have to look at the data.’ And when you look at the data there’s really no doubt that things are changing.
And global temperature and carbon dioxide, they correlate pretty well. And that takes you from 1880 to 2016, and yes, we’re way up there in terms of ppm CO2. And this is another thing that we as paleo-oceanographers and paleo-climatologists look at. We try to go back in time and try to figure out, okay, how far back in time do I have to go to get to 400 ppm atmospheric CO2, or 500, or 600, or a 1000? How much warmer really was it on the planet? And those are the kinds of data and records that people like me try to put together so that we can actually inform the models, and inform you as the general public. And right now we have to go back quite a ways. I’ll give you a sense of that here. It’s a bit of a messy diagram, because the time scales are changing from millions of years to thousands of years to just a handful of years.
And what you’ll notice there is that scatter of dots there, there’s 400 ppm in a dotted line across the bottom there. And so to go back in time just to even get to ... Whoops, I’ve hit the wrong button. Oh, oh. Wrong way, I guess, all right. There we go. This way. No. There we go. No. All right. Just there. If you go back, let’s say, two million years and that is right around the Plio-Pleistocene boundary. And there’s sort of a trigger for me to talk about time intervals. And so I’m putting my stratigrapher’s hat on. And so if we do choose to claim a new geological epoch for Anthropocene you need to go to the international committee on stratigraphy, or commission on stratigraphy, and they’re the ones that show you or allow you to drive a golden spike into some section of rock which is where that boundary actually is.
So if we did it at 1945 or 1960, actually driving that golden spike into a section is going to be actually pretty difficult. Might actually end up being in an ice core. So that would be kind of fun, and different. But to go to 400 ppm, just as an example, if we go back that far. If you go back to the Pliocene ... Does anybody have a clue how high the C level was back in the Pliocene last time the atmosphere was at 400 ppm?
BRADLEY OPDYKE: How many?
SPEAKER: 90 metres.
SPEAKER: 100 metres.
BRADLEY OPDYKE: No. No, actually it wasn’t that much higher. It was about 20 metres higher, okay. If you wanted to go sort of 100 metres-ish higher you come back here, okay. And so that’s basically where you get the transition between ... Antarctica was glaciated about 33.9 — yes, we know it that precisely — million years ago. And that’s when you’re up there, and that’s where we’re heading, but right now, the here and now, if the Earth was in equilibrium we’d have 20 metres higher sea level. Twenty metres. So say goodbye to London, say goodbye to New York. Tokyo, Yokohama, Shanghai. Goodbye. Calcutta, Mumbai, forget it. Melbourne, yeah, lot’s of Sydney, Brisbane. Forget about it. If we were in equilibrium. Right now the rest of the Earth’s system is racing to catch up with that equilibrium. That’s when this all starts to get kind of depressing so I’m going to leave that behind now.
But that’s the kind of thing we do. And we also look at places like Lake George — and this is just sort of going to be light relief, and I don’t know, how much time do I have left? Not much. Okay. How much do I have?
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: A few minutes.
BRADLEY OPDYKE: Just a few minutes? Yes, we just took a core out in Lake George recently, and if you look at this core we have this blue here signifies when we had laminated sediments. That means that Lake George was full, and full Lake George in the present geomorphology or shape of the hills around it is about 37 metres deep. So it was for a long, long time, up till about a million years ago, it was a really deep lake. And there’s a lot of evidence from other cores that we’ve looked at that the rainfall around here was about three times what it is today.
So this is another way we can contribute as climate scientists in terms of vectors of what we can look forward to as the globe warms. And I think we may actually live to see a filling Lake George. And even though we don’t have to worry about sea-level rise living here in Canberra. We may have to worry about Lake George rise and the cutting of the federal highway. So I think I’ll just leave it right there and we’ll invite your questions later on. Thank you.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: Bradley, that makes me think of those pictures of the Lake George Yacht Club. You must have seen those once, yes. Maybe they’ll make a comeback. Okay. So our next speaker is Professor Libby Robin. Libby’s a historian of science and environmental ideas and the Anthropocene is one of the ideas she’s spent considerable time researching and reflecting on. She’s based at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, and tonight she’ll talk about Anthropocene and how it provides a bridge for engagement across the humanities and biophysical sciences.
LIBBY ROBIN: Thank you Saul. I strongly support the idea of an Anthropocene day and the 16th of July is as good as any other historical moment. When we’re talking geological time, as Bradley’s been doing, which day of the year it is hardly matters. But it’s a day where we respond as humans reflecting on the big new idea of humanity as a geological force working on planetary scales. We need to pause. We need to swallow hard and reflect. And a special day is good to think with.
The Anthropocene is the environment writ large. It’s dynamic, interactive. It’s about us humans and it’s not. The environment has a history. It was created as the environment in the late 1940s in the atomic age. It was a tool in post-war reconstruction, a way the Western world could defy nature. What? In order to manage it. It wasn’t until the 1960s that scientists star scientists started describing themselves as environmental scientists, even as late as the 70s, by which time environmentalism was beginning to emerge. There was still widespread certainty that the environment was just science. The first minister for the environment and conservation, Moss Cass, was given the portfolio by Gough Whitlam as a junior science ministry. A sop to someone interested in science who Whitlam hadn’t expected to get numbers to get into the cabinet. Cass tells this in a recent book.
The environment was strange, unimportant at the time, and the appointment was political but it was not about environmental or conservation politics. Environmental politics didn’t emerge till later. The environment became politically polarising with the advent of the Greens. The first Green Party in the world being in Tasmania in 1972, soon followed by New Zealand. The very influential Grün Party in West Germany was founded in 1973, and environmental discourse began to move towards the left. That worldwide movement against uranium mining rising strongly by the mid-1970s was a prominent [inaudible] shift. The leftness of Green politics by the late 1970s, stranded many of that environment’s most prominent campaigners who had worked tirelessly to save bushland, urban parks, forests and whales. These conservationists felt their relationship to nature had nothing to do with their political preferences. They loved nature. They defended it against industrial sprawl. Scientists felt this particularly acutely.
Science was part of evidence-based policy making. It was above politics and certainly not left or right. But as adversarial legal battles advanced, often funded by interest groups, politics hardened. The moral and economic dimensions of the environment were left to other parties, and science became conscripted into generating data. In some cases in the 60s and 70s, a lack of systematic surveys could be used to campaign against developments. The fear of losing unknown species was effective and stopped agricultural development in Victoria’s little desert 50 years ago.
Red lists of endangered and vulnerable species became the focus for new evidence-based policy making. But they also documented and publicised alarming declines in biodiversity and rising extinctions. By the mid-1980s Michael Soulé described conservation biology as a science of crisis, likening it to emergency medicine. It was there to save biodiversity, a word of the same time. What you see, what you count, what you know, these all depend profoundly on the mental framework, the metaphor you have in your head for nature, or the world, or the physical environment. The crisis of biodiversity, the crisis of global warming, which emerged in the hot northern summer of 1988 when James Hanson spoke to the US congress about NASA’s latest atmospheric science and the greenhouse effect. Crisis management was all around, but there’s only so long that people can maintain the crisis. Yet some of the most important things happen at longer and shorter time scales than the human attention span can cope with.
Leslie Hughes, one of Australia’s most prominent climate scientists, describes the conundrum thus: ‘As a scientist I feel a compulsion to deliver the facts as we currently understand them,’ she says. ‘But too much gloom and doom is paralysing. Apocalypse fatigue can send people under the metaphorical doona.’ The Anthropocene is new framework that includes and extends the old framework of the environment. The Anthropocene works at both human and planetary scales. It reaches beyond science and politics to open a discussion on long-term planetary futures, to operate on multiple time scales. It’s open to moral dimensions of change. I mean environmental justice, fairness. It draws attention to the fact that while humanity has changed the planet, not all humans have been part of that process. Anthropocene times are so dynamic, so accelerating, so novel, so that novel ecosystems are all around us, in plain sight. Nature can be found in the city, in wasteland, along the roadsides, and it can, and still does, surprise us.
Canberra ecologists are proud of the success of endangered small marsupials at Mulligans Flat — cheek by jowl with the extremes of urban edge of Gungahlin. Although not everyone likes the fence that enables this. It’s hard to comprehend the scales of change of our present times. Longitudinal studies are seldom long enough to expose the changes, and most studies start again with year zero, resulting in shifting baselines. Most grants start and finish in tiny timeframes in planetary terms. Yet intergenerational ecological study in Australia, sites like Koonamore in South Australia or the Desert Channels sites in the Bush Heritage Reserves in Southwest Queensland, may be crucial to mapping the Anthropocene world that is upon us, to documenting uncertainty and variability over century spans at least. Conversations over generations, Bradley’s remembering his own data from 1983, that sort of thing. This is what makes it real. And they’re crucial to imagining the history of places and landscapes that fell into dust bowls and rabbit plagues as early as the 20th century. The crucial thing that Koonamore has is sequence of photographs of the same places every year since 1926.
Allowing space for the imagination can spur new science and other ways of thinking. Systematic scientific data is helpful but so is the long-term photographic record — old diaries, letters, data sets. These can enrich the baselines from which we’re judging change. Art is as important as science in understanding the dynamics of landscape and in planning for the future. It can push beyond knowledge and wisdom. The genius of art, as philosopher Tim Morton argues, is to suspend the heavy hand of judgment and open up the world to curiosity, wonder and lightness. The Anthropocene invites humanists to join scientists and expand its scope as metaphor, a tool for action. Not merely a description of the planet as represented by slices of rock strata. Indeed Paul Crutzen, who proposed the concept, is an atmospheric chemist, not a stratigrapher. His focus was carbon in the atmosphere, not rock layers.
Earth is much more than its terrestrial environments, although the stratigraphers who are evaluating the proposal for a new epoch have to find the markers in rock strata, future fossils if you like. Crutzen, like other climate scientists, realises the limits of science and modelling for catastrophic futures. Good metaphors offer ways to approach catastrophe, to make it possible to speak about climate change. Ecologist Richard Norgaard writes of metaphors we might survive by. He seeks ways to ensure that good science informs moral decisions and actions, and that conversations include rather than deny human capabilities.
Scientists need hope too. They are not finding it in their numbers and models. The emotional management of toxic knowledge is a burden that crosses from the professional realm back into the domestic. For the people in the know, it’s not easy to sleep at night. The Anthropocene is a concept that gets beyond global warming and atmospheric carbon. It includes rapid changes in human societies and what it means to live with such change. It invites in holism and more than scientific expertise. As Mike Hulme, and other climate scientists, who’s suffered for his science, puts it, ‘We can’t afford to reduce the future to climate.’
Paul Crutzen remains an optimist, not because he disbelieves the models, but rather he believes that hope for vibrant possible futures rests beyond science, in art and in literature. So, a day of reflection that brings together historians, scientists, artists, concerned citizens, all to work together to contemplate the headlong rush into the future that the Anthropocene brings has all sorts of reasons to be successful. Some of them we can’t even imagine yet.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: Thank you Libby. So our next speaker is Doctor Martha Sear. Martha is the Head Curator of People and the Environment at the National Museum of Australia, where we are. She’s worked across a range of different subjects including taxidermy, the circus, childbirth, women’s work, and rural Australian responses to heat. That’s a fantastic list. But enduring interests have been human and animal interactions and understanding the history of exhibition making. Martha will discuss how the Anthropocene is an idea of growing importance in museums. Thanks.
MARTHA SEAR: Thank you. So tonight we’ve gathered to talk about the possibilities of creating an Anthropocene day to support public engagement with unprecedented human-driven change to planet Earth. The question that I would like to ask us to consider is, if we wish to bring people together to reflect on and to respond to the Anthropocene, how can we do that in a way that truly reflects the character of our new reality? The Anthropocene brings loss, unpredictability and disruption. It challenges long-held Western notions of time, space and selfhood. It demands a new relationship between the human and the non-human. It loosens the keystones of our social, political, economic and cultural systems and shakes the architecture that we’ve built to house knowledge. To flourish in the Anthropocene we will need to create new ways to focus attention and make meaning together that reflect this shifting physical, metaphysical and psychological terrain. Considering the creation of an Anthropocene day is an opportunity to think about the ways that we can do that together. Can I take a moment to consider what history and museums could bring to the task.
As we begin, it may be worthwhile taking a moment to reflect on the history of day-making. Our calendar is full of days and each of these days has a history. Earth Day, World Refugee Day, Australia Day, Anzac Day. Some have roots deep in our Holocene past. Spring festivals, saints days, days in honour of deities or ancestors. Some such as those around harvest sought to celebrate or assure the regularity of Earth’s systems, and to thank and perhaps placate the gods who might be fickle or vengeful. It may be worth remembering that many of the rituals within Western tradition were based both on a belief in the orderliness of life on Earth, and a fear of its potential unreliability, a fear many of us have become disconnected from in modern industrial societies, but a fear which we will have as a growing presence in our lives in the Anthropocene.
Something is attuning to these ancient ways of thinking about the world to understand our present relationship to the natural world, and I’m thinking here of people like Isabelle Stengers who imagines an intrusive, indifferent Gaia and not a nurturing Mother Earth with whom we will need to learn to compose. ‘Learning to compose,’ she says, ‘will need many names. Not a global one. The voices of many peoples, many knowledges and earthly practices.’ Michael [inaudible] too has written of how nature has begun to intrude into human culture at the very same moment that human culture begins to severely alter nature. And he points us to the nature reach beyond, so towards new forms of knowledge formation, and here I would note that gathering, ritual celebration and mourning are all ways to generate knowledge.
Many thinkers including [inaudible], Freya Matthews and Deborah Bird Rose encourage us to listen to non-Western voices here. The vast and vibrant ceremonial practices of indigenous peoples the world over and the ancient and ever-responsive orientation to country of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on this continent will all have something profound to offer, whatever Anthropocene Day becomes. And Freya Matthews really sums this up. She says, ‘The point is not to explain the world but to sing it.’ So many wise voices are guiding us towards the creation of a new kind of everyday Anthropocene ritual practice which connects ancient and enduring practices in our new present and that we can take into the future. And many of those voices are also pointing us to the value of story in this work.
Tom Griffiths has made an eloquent case for narrative as a method that, as he says, ‘carries multiple causes along together, enacting connectivity’. He says, ‘The stories we live by determine the future so in harnessing the power of narrative in listening to, rediscovering, and generating true stories we change the world.’ Tom also points us to the kinds of stories we need to tell. Radical histories, he calls them, that bridge the immense scales of the local, the personal, and human time with the global, the collective, the deep past and the deep future.
So I guess to sum up, the rituals and stories we create as part of a truly anthropocenic Anthropocene day will benefit from listening intently to First Peoples, to storytelling that connects vast scales of time and space, and to understanding the nature-focused practices of the past with a discernment that notices how the world that created these practices is changing. History also shows us that if we want to bring people together into meaningful ritual, we need to actively shape and create those rituals to build them into a capacity, and our own capacity to adapt and change and to allow those rituals the space to grow as well. There are lessons here for us in perhaps unlikely places, in Anzac Day for example.
My brother, Tom Sears, has done a lot of research into the origins and transformations of Anzac Day as a primary ritual which seems so established in its form and pre-eminence in Australia, and shown that it was created very rapidly and very consciously in the aftermath of the First World War. Not only through officially sanctioned forms but through locally generated community activities and initiatives. The practices which endured were those that had elements that we’ve already talked about. If you think of the dawn service, a congregation that connects those standing together to the rhythms of the Earth, that connect local places all around Australia to the distant battlefields of Europe and the Middle East. Standing in silence in the darkness, a darkness that invites simultaneously attentiveness to the predawn chatter of birds and the gathering glow on the horizon, as well as the intimacy of personal memories and reflection broken by a recitation and a call and response in the words, ‘Lest we forget,’ that has its echoes in the Old Testament, as well as a recursive loop that joined remembering a damaged past with present-day impacts and enduring future influences.
So there are some resonances there for us as we think about Anzac Day, this sort of primary ritual within Australian society, and the kinds of environmental damage that we might be — and human damage that we’re seeing as a result of the Anthropocene. So there’s a parallel here for us to draw on. And as Tom says in some of his written work, there’s sort of transcendent rituals with complex histories and deep roots woven together into a day of participation that connects the local to the global, the personal to the collective, and that can transform damage, grief and disruption into wholeness and continuity has made a day like Anzac Day very translatable, very welcome in the post-digital Anthropocene age that we live in right now.
But Tom also sends a note of caution. Anzac Day is a thoroughly, a day thoroughly enmeshed in the deep shadows that fall from the end of empire, orientalism, othering, particular characterisations of citizenship and civic participation, notions of sacrifice, permanence and progress, which are all very historically specific processes that have contributed to the making of the Anthropocene itself. So I guess we have to sort of put that note of caution and questioning onto ourselves. It’s probably inevitable, even necessary that our own effort to create a day, our own day-making will also carry with it the vestiges of the immense entanglements that have created the age of humans. Finding ways to salvage treasure, deeply understand ... Excuse me ... and consciously, humbly, truthfully reimagine the rituals, remains, relics and residues of the past. In that work may lie the very heart of being human in the Anthropocene. And that’s why I think museums have a key role to play in this work.
They’re well placed to bring people together to connect with objects, experiences, places, communities and storytelling, and they could be re-imagined in a new relationship to ritual and ceremony as well. There are a lot of examples of this. I’m just going to check how much time I’ve got so that I know how many exciting examples to give you. I’ve got a couple minutes.
There’s a couple of things that come to mind. One is the volunteer custodians of the five museums in Hay in 2005 collaborated with their visitors to create a new participatory exhibition about how rural Australians have coped with the heat. That was the project I mentioned in my bio. Stories were told of newborn babies sleeping inside meat safes draped in wet sheets, buildings that could work with even the gentlest breeze to make cool, and ways to read the clouds and the birds for signs of relief. And interestingly out of that participatory conversation worries about climate change and its meaning emerged very naturally among all the other stories. It was a greatly heartening experience of the way that a rural community could engage around climate change through its own histories and its own awareness of the impact that a much hotter world would bring.
We’ve also been working, and there are a number of people here who have been working on this. The Museum has been working with some really terrific people. Ian McCalman, Libby [Robin], Jenny Newell, Kirsten [Wehner], Cameron Muir to explore through an ARC grant project how the Anthropocene is being lived across this continent in a project called Localising the Anthropocene: Australia in the Age of Humans. A lot of the stories we’ve gathered as part of that, and it’s really thanks to Cameron’s incredibly dedicated efforts and immense creativity and deep understanding that’s brought these stories to bear. Have a look, there’s a website called Everyday Futures where there’s a range of stories that have come to light which bring together personal reflections about objects, people’s emotions and the way that they feel about the places they live in and how they’re changing.
The stories tell everything from paddock regeneration to the thylacine buggy rug, so there’s lots of amazing tales to be told, tales of the kind that Tom Griffiths has spoken of. And finally, here at the National Museum of Australia, a team of us led by George Main, who’s out there somewhere. Thank you George. Many of us who are here too, working together to create a new gallery for the Museum called Life in Australia, a gallery which will foreground the active nature of the Australian continent, its particular rhythms and powers and the places that people have taken within its dynamic webs of connection. And in that gallery the Anthropocene is one of the three main themes that we are exploring. The intent of the gallery is not to offer a view of Australia’s environment but enable visitors to take up a view from within it, so very much in the mode I was talking about earlier.
I think it will have within it the similar kind of, there will be a sense of participation and ritual that lies within the journey of visitors through that gallery. And we hope that that journey will bring them to a sense of enchantment. George has spoken beautifully throughout our work. But this capacity to experience enchantment is quite critical to turning people’s attention and to understand what the Anthropocene is and what it will mean for us all. And he cited the environmental philosopher Patrick Curry. He says that that realisation that you are in and of the world, and its profound and subtle meanings, entails an experience of enchantment which means literally to be inside a song.
So just to conclude, my sense is that history museums have much to offer as we consider the spaces for Anthropocene reflection. If we wish to found a day for the Anthropocene perhaps we can begin by aiming to strengthen ceremony and practices across a wide range of human cultures that sustain enduring connections to the land. In particular, here in Australia our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. And also create possibility for an upswelling of new Anthropocene-specific practices within the broader Australian community and across the globe that incorporate new kinds of storytelling and meaning-making with a hope that it might bring us that enchantment, that it might bring us deeper inside the song. Thanks.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: Thanks Martha. I guess I realise on reflection that I hadn’t thought a lot about if we have an Anthropocene day what do we do. And I actually recall a conversation with David about that it involves sausage sandwiches and balloons, and I’m beginning to think it’s not such a great idea. So thank you. So our final speaker is Professor Joan Leach. Joan is the director at the ANU Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. Her research centres on public engagement with science, medicine and technology, and she’s been active in the Australian government’s recent initiatives towards inspiring Australia. She’s a lifelong student of rhetorical history, theory and power. And tonight she will speak on the challenge of engaging society with global change and the possible impact of an Anthropocene day. Thanks Joan.
JOAN LEACH: Thank you. And tonight I think I’m paid as the communication person. As I look out I’m feeling that rustle that you feel after so many minutes. I think people here are kind of wondering when they’re going to get a chance to talk. I know that from a lot of research that about 47 minutes is about all you can go and I’ve reached it just now as I approach the podium. So I’ll try to be brief so that we can get to our panel discussion. So I’m going to agree with my colleagues. It would be churlish to do anything else. And I’d like to emphasise how important I think this idea of the Anthropocene is, and what a good idea it may be to have an Anthropocene day. Obviously we’ve talked about what a useful concept the Anthropocene is to think with. It organises our thinking in interesting ways, and in potentially dangerous ways.
So I’m going to start by saying I’m very positive about this idea but you’ll hear some concerns I have kind of bubble up. One of the things that thinking about an Anthropocene does is it divides our thinking into before and after. Whether that before is 1945 or whether that before is 15,000 years ago when agriculture started. And I don’t want to disagree with my scientific colleagues who don’t like the 15,000 year date. They prefer the 1945 date. A stratigrapher can tell us more about that. But it does divide us into before and after, which is a kind of a dangerous way of thinking. I’m going to come back to that in a minute.
The other thing it does is it of course helps to orient us to the human agency that now in some senses we are forced to see how we’ve defined our own planet Earth. This too is not unproblematic. Now, I was trained in classical Greek, and I know anthropos, anthropoi are men, and I know we call them humans. But for the Greeks it’s a bit more tricky than that because the anthropoi were kind of contrasted to the barbaroi, right, the barbarians, everybody else. And of course the anthropoi were different from the gynaikes, which were women, right. And that history kind of lurks, right, because there’s a sense in which those of us here tonight are keen to talk about the Anthropocene. But others around the world perhaps don’t have that position to reflect on how their cultures have changed the world in precisely the same way. So that’s just some theoretical musings.
But I really actually want to talk about the realpolitik of having an Anthropocene day, and that’s what I’ll kind of do for the next few minutes. So how do these themed days that we were just hearing about work as communication campaigns? Do they work as communication campaigns? So, I was curious today, what is today? Right. If we have all these days what is it today? Well, today is Corn Fritters Day, which I thought sounded very, very good. Corn fritters, I’m all for those. Guinea Pig Awareness Day, which I was a little less excited about, and Get Out of the Doghouse day, which my eight year old on school holidays greatly needed.
But in Australia the most successful themed day is Fish and Chip Day. And a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk with Peter Horvat who works at the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation, who helped to organise Fish and Chip Day. And I said, ‘Okay, in a few weeks I’m going to be talking about Anthropocene Day. Tell me what made Fish and Chip Day just such a rollicking success.’ And he pointed to a couple of things. The idea that Fish and Chip Day was going to kind of draw attention to sustainable practices kind of got overreached, I would say, by a huge competition for the best fish and chips in Australia, which he tells me are reliably in Melbourne. And the ability of Fish and Chip Day to drive business to small businesses across Australia.
But what was interesting about it was he said there were three things he pointed to. One is the positive framing around Fish and Chip Day, okay. So there are a lot of things to bemoan about our world’s oceans, another thing a stratigrapher can tell us. Many things to bemoan about our oceans. But the idea of Fish and Chip day was to celebrate the fact that Australia actually does excel in sustainable fisheries. And to make that clear to people. To raise awareness, okay. So we talk about raising awareness. But it’s interesting, he said, if Fish and Chip Day was successful all year long we would no longer have sustainable fishing practices in Australia. So to raise awareness for one day but not necessarily continued action, okay. And that’s something sort of built into the idea of doing it for one day.
And finally the idea was to actually do something. And we talked a lot about reflection being something, and of course as academics we all like to reflect and we can get together and we can reflect and that reflection is useful. But for a day to be public and to gain a lot of momentum, the idea is that you need to do something. You need to eat fish, eat corn fritters, pet your guinea pig, do something to make it up to a loved one, or whatever that is, but you need to be doing something.
So an Anthropocene day, I submit to you following these leads, needs something to carry it along. And so thinking about that positive framing from something of the Anthropocene day I think is a bit of a trick, right. When we think of the Anthropocene I think of a failure in global governance. I think of our inability to solve global problems. I hear stories of competition, not cooperation. And sometimes when we think about climate or climate change we face backward, we look backward. For example, the data that we were looking at, we stand at this horrible pinnacle. We’re always up there at that other end of the graph looking back to where we kind of wish we were. So it’s that backward-looking that the Greeks would have called a forensic kind of approach to talking, right. So that we obsess about where we’ve been.
It’s also the case that climate change is not unproblematic in the sense that it has a politics, as both of our previous speakers alluded to. And it puts us in a deliberative kind of mood, so that it’s an argumentative kind of space that we have to enter when we’re talking about climate and politics. And I wonder how much the Anthropocene will shake us out of that deliberative posture and put us into something that the Greeks also called [inaudible], that celebratory moment. And I think you were alluding to this when you were talking about singing. This notion that storytelling can put us in a place where we can celebrate the positive. Saul, you also began tonight with talking about celebrating human achievement.
So there’s a sense, I think, in which the framing of an Anthropocene day needs quite a bit of discussion if it isn’t going to be a whole bunch of academics sitting around holding our head in our hands thinking, Oh dear. The second aspect of Fish and Chip Day was this notion of raising awareness. And here I also have a few questions about Anthropocene Day, and what exactly we want to achieve by such a thing. Do we need to raise awareness about the state of climate? Well, I think the answer to that is yes and no. If you have a look at the polls that are done, Lowy poll, ANU poll, Pew Trust, and you pick them all out, awareness of climate change is very high. Now awareness of something called the Anthropocene probably is not. I wonder if that makes a huge difference.
Awareness is quite high, but what we do about that, right, is where all the differences start to kind of occur. So if the point of a day is to raise awareness what is it we were to raise awareness about. I’m not sure I’ve got a clear notion but maybe some of you in the audience do and we could discuss that. Finally, is this issue of doing something, right. Eating fish and chips, or whatever it’s going to be. What is it we will do on an Anthropocene day? And I have to say I am attracted to a day of reflection. But there aren’t a lot of other options, because Libby Robins here tonight, she brought Anthropocene slams to Australia, an opportunity for people to come together and display art, tell stories, do some analysis and kind of really engage with the artifacts of the Anthropocene. That’s one thing that we could do. That will be an interesting idea. Intergenerational conversation, I would say, is probably another very important thing that we can do.
I am lucky, or unlucky enough as it’s school holidays, to have a young child. What’s fascinating to me is when she comes home from school she’s the one who drives a lot of the environmental awareness in my household. We have a worm farm because she’s keen, right. I think it’s very hard to sustain such things, but because children are keen. So she’s driving that change in our household, so intergenerational conversations, I think, are very important, and theming an Anthropocene day around that seems to be a nice opportunity.
Our cultural institutions obviously have a huge role to play. Here we are inside one of my favourite, and one could imagine, if one talks about the origins of Anthropocene in 1945, that there could be a progress all the way across Canberra from the War Memorial to the NMA, bringing out different aspects of Australian culture that matter for us thinking about our place in the world and in relation to the Anthropocene.
Finally, one of the things that we could do on an Anthropocene day is talk to scientists in a different way. So one of the things that I think gets missed although it was mentioned by my colleague, was how does climate change make scientists feel. Some of the most compelling stories I’ve heard about the Anthropocene, and what it’s like to live through it, come from scientists not showing graphs, but them talking about their fear, their frustration, what keeps them up at night, what they want for their children, what they want for their students. Those kind of conversations I think are very important. A former student in our centre who now works for Questacon, Joe Duggin, did a wonderful online project called How Does it Make You Feel, which were letters from climate scientists talking in very personal terms, not just about their data, but about what the Anthropocene means.
So that could be another thing that we could do on a day of the Anthropocene. But I think for us to start moving this from a nice idea that brings us all out on a cold Canberra night, because I imagine we’re all kind of vibrating at the same frequency, we think a Anthropocene idea might be a good idea. If we start thinking about what it is that we do, I say we need to start thinking about how we frame it, what is it going to raise awareness of, and what are we going to do. Thank you very much.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: Well thanks Joan, and thanks to all of our speakers. Now that Joan’s sat down I’m going to ask you to all sit up again, stand up again, and occupy the seats up here. Meanwhile I hope people in the audience are thinking about their questions. Our speakers have all got microphones and I believe we have some audience microphones to hand out to people who have questions. Do we have someone who can ... I think one of those chairs is for Will.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: Okay. So we’ll just go for it. Rosie can choose our first questioner. Thank you.
SPEAKER: So, I’m interested in the descriptor The Great Acceleration to describe the rapid increase in population and consumption. I’m just wondering if you think we can hope for a rapid deceleration?
LIBBY ROBIN: The Great Acceleration is really interesting because it is about population and about use of things, but it’s also about changing scientific values and the point is that there’s 24 J-curves all looking like hockey sticks, all going up at the same point. And so we see carbon in the air, we see the rise of world poverty, the rise of world wealth, both going up at the same time. There’s some contradictions in the graphs. So the idea of deceleration, or taking the foot off the accelerator at least, I think is right across. So it’s not just about population or any one factor. It’s not just about climate. That was the idea, the Anthropocene people when they first got together they were all climate scientists. They were all interested in climate, and they were worried about reducing discussions about the future to climate. So they were trying to get away from one factor at a time.
So I think that the really critical thing about the Anthropocene idea is that it carries more than one idea together. And I think it’s one of the reasons why art is very helpful to us because it’s so holistic. It appeals to your emotions, it appeals to your head and your heart and your hands all at once, as it were. And so you can’t focus on one factor and not look at the whole picture. And I think that’s the critical part of getting any sort of deceleration, population being one of the things that would be obviously helpful to take pressure off the planet. But it may be that consumption is something that is equally efficient.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: So, Rosie, have you picked out another questioner?
SPEAKER: Oh. Hello. I’ve actually been involved with environment here for a long time. I was in Moss Cass’s department. I had direction with Moss, and have been in the department when Heighton, wonderful days of Hawkin and Rich Owen and so on, and was at the summit in Rio, and then, I mean, Australia signed this climate change convention, the biodiversity convention, and I was rooting for the UN when we had the Johannesburg Sustainable Development Summit, and I’m still involved in the environment here in the political leve,l and this is more of a statement I said, but I do have a question at the end. But I am very pessimistic. I think things are getting worse and worse and we had the graphs of what’s been happening with climate but we have equivalent graphs on what’s happening with species. There’s reports of mass loss of species around the world, not only extinctions but actually major loss of numbers of species and so on, of animals and so on and so on.
So I guess, I’m not sure ... I thought the last ... Joan, I think you raise some good points about what these days do, and that we have an Earth day but I don’t think that’s observed much these days. I think actually the, my view is that, because we all know this, it seems more of a long-term problem, it’s not immediate, and for various reasons people are less focused on the nature environment, so that’s just really getting worse. So I’m not sure. But one thing I’ve always thought and I’d just be interested in a comment from the Museum’s side, and I didn’t realise that I think you said this was a history museum, and that perhaps this is what I observe here, but I’ve always felt that a National Natural History Museum would be a good idea, but, well ...
It’s perhaps to think about an Anthropocene day, but even within the context of the National Museum of Australia if there would be opportunities to have an ongoing type of thing about humanity and the Earth and Anthropocene and so on, and then a special day, but not just one day, but if the only scope within the Museum to have an ongoing ... Just by example, the Museum of British Columbia on Vancouver, I was there a few years ago, and that had a wonderful display I know on climate change and so on, and perhaps it’s not appropriate for your charter but wonder if you’d like to comment on that, the possibilities of a national display on the environment and so on.
MARTHA SEAR: Yes, and I think my colleagues here — that is in a way what the ambition for Life in Australia is, the new gallery. So the Museum’s had a long engagement with the idea of exploring Australia’s interaction with ... the human’s interaction with the environment in Australia, and that is sort of, it was foundational. It was there in the report that — Libby can speak to this even more powerfully than I can. It was present from the very beginning when the thought of a national museum being created was there, and it’s been a part of this Museum’s DNA since it was founded.
And for those of us who work now work within a long heritage of people including Libby, Mike Smith and a range of other people who’s made longstanding contributions to bringing together a kind of trans-disciplinary approach to understanding that human environment interaction within the continent. But it’s really heartening to hear what you’ve said. We’re looking to work in partnership with our colleagues at CSIRO, at the Bureau of Meteorology Geoscience, at the ANU to try and bring that knowledge that’s being gained through all of the endeavour that goes on within those organisations to give it a place to be talked about. Whether it’s in the galleries or in a forum like this, that’s very much our goal and our mission. And I imagine that collaboration will only become greater and more fruitful as we go forward.
And once we have a permanent gallery that really speaks to questions about biodiversity and addresses issues of the Anthropocene, the keystone for that conversation is put in place, so we’re looking forward to more nights like this and more conversations like this as well.
SPEAKER: Yes. Thank you, [inaudible]. I think itself that if you look at what happened in 1945 — and the atomic bomb was tested and the Americans did use it in Japan — but as a historian I know full well that the Japanese government was on the verge of surrender before the two atomic bombs were actually dropped. And I actually think that the real problem has been really neoliberalism, the rise of neoliberalism in the 1970s. Up until that point of time in America and in Europe, and I think in Australia to some extent, ordinary voters had control of their governments. And then we had Thatcher and Reagan, the new right think tanks. Incredible campaigns to convince people of free market ideas. And we lost control of our governments.
And no better example than this ridiculous debate going on [inaudible] every day within the coalition about what they’re going to do on climate change, and what they’re going to do on energy. It is so totally removed from reality, and removed from what polling is saying, what peoples’ concerns are. And this is the case just in so many of the Western countries, and I think it really is the core problem that we’re facing and that we have to deal with. But then that’s just my opinion and you might like to respond, agree or disagree.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: Any comment from the panel?
SPEAKER: I think it’s interesting kind of like the idea of moving it from a sort of a technological marker to a cultural marker. That begs the question of what’s the stratigraphic evidence for the rise of neoliberalism.
SPEAKER: I’m not sure I can give it a stratigraphic context but I think we probably all at some level understand that the whole dogma that underlies that of consistent growth is impossible in a finite world.
SPEAKER: [inaudible] consistent growth will be getting it down …
SPEAKER: Right. Right. But that I’m not sure how we attack that or change that perception that we have to grow forever. Is yes, that may be all part of the Anthropocene discussion.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: We have another question.
SPEAKER: Yes. Thank you. I can suggest one activity for the Anthropocene day. It would be to perhaps turn off power and eat tofu. But I don’t know how that would go down in Canberra in the middle of July. I embrace the thought but I do fear that the group introspection may be quite small and limited when you consider some of the comments coming out of today’s parliament. But if it does help focus our energy policy a little bit more productively then it would be terrific.
The one fear I have is as soon as you state the concept of the Anthropocene you invoke the possibility or the inevitable post-Anthropocene, and the thought of that, of course, what that might look like is challenging and potentially morbid.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: So Joan, I think you raised the point of before and after and [inaudible]. Do you want to comment on that?
JOAN LEACH: I’m having a bit of a pessimistic day too, I fear. But look, I mean, I think you’re right. But I think there’s reasons to feel optimistic. I will try, oh here, let me grasp it. It’s something to feel optimistic about. I mean, one of the things you brought up Libby was how art can help us imagine, and so I think there’s moments of constitutive imagination that we have to kind of perform. And in thinking about what alternative futures look like, and that’s also something I think our scientific friends can help us with, and I know, I mean, he’s looking me like I don’t want to do that. I look back that way. I don’t want to be looking forward.
But I think engaging some of our scientists in that act of constitutive imagination and giving us some options about what possibilities really look like. You know, what happens off the other end of the, you know what I mean. And so you see these curves and things but what does that really look like? And I thought your chart was great when you were saying, ‘Okay, we have to go back two million years to find water levels, you know …
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: CO2 levels.
JOAN LEACH: CO2 levels that kind of correlate with ... Okay, so what does it look like going out? And what does it have to look like? Is it tofu and lights off? Or what do we have to do to do X and Y. And there’s been a bit of that, but I think that has not been a big marker. And having artists and others tell us, ‘Give us images of what that can look like and ways to think differently,’ so that’s …
LIBBY ROBIN: And artists are not all optimists either.
JOAN LEACH: No, no, that’s right.
LIBBY ROBIN: I think that there’s a whole lot of [inaudible]. I think there’s a whole of grief there. And we perhaps need to not always try and be happy. We perhaps need to acknowledge grief, and that that may be part of the importance of such a day.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: Brian, do you have a microphone?
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: Oh, sorry, I didn’t see. Yes.
SPEAKER: Look, I agree with Joan. You need to frame this really positively. The Anthropocene is a statement that humans have reached a scale where they can influence the Earth. That is a statement that’s [inaudible]. At the moment we’re doing it unthinkingly. We need to do it positively. That can be framed in terms of challenge to which children can arise at school and more generally in the outside world. So I’d like to ask each of you how you could frame the challenges of the Anthropocene in a positive way that people can rise to. I mean, I was born in 1960s. I lived through an era where space flight was something that was achievable. People were dreaming, it was a challenge, it was hard. And that kind of thing can be made again if you frame it properly. How would you do it? What were your suggestions?
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: It’s a great challenge. Who’d like to ...
LIBBY ROBIN: The idea that we have to challenge ourselves or be competitive may be the problem and not the solution. I think that we ... I like the idea of asking children what their responses are, but making it pretty open-ended, not creating the answer. I think the space for imagination, the space for creativity, a nurturing sort of space where people feel secure to try something risky, because there’s no question, the planet depends on that.
SPEAKER: [inaudible] my children [inaudible] pretty much a negative message [inaudible] and I’ve [inaudible] but my children come home from school and they don’t want to answer. Like we’re negative, negative, negative [inaudible].
LIBBY ROBIN: Well, I think we should have fun on Anthropocene day. Maybe that’s the quick answer.
JOAN LEACH: Yes, I mean and the other thing is I’m not arguing for an ideological whitewash here. I’m not saying, you know ... I’m not. But there’s all kinds of interesting things that you can talk about. I mean, let’s think about the gig economy and how an entire generation of people are thinking differently about work. There’s an opportunity there, you know. It’s another thing when we say, ‘Oh, this is negative, negative, negative.’ But if you talk to some people involved in this they, ‘Wait a minute. I’m starting to see the world quite different.’ And so I think there are possibilities. And we can look at all of this as part of the Anthropocene because it is connected through sort of neoliberal economic models and the way that our democracies are working and not working.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: One comment I might make before we go to the other panellists is, I think …
SPEAKER: Is the microphone on?
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: I’ll use this microphone. I think having the word future in there, so I think it’s got to be about the idea that there is a future, and perhaps this is touching on Joan’s point about the looking backwards. I think if we use language, I don’t know what the right term is, but about there being a future Anthropocene that we can inhabit and have control and hence go to the imagination of what might that look like, I think has promise. But it’s about framing it as the future rather than what environmentalists, what myself too often do, which is a kind of by definition everything was better in the past. And that’s a trap, clearly.
LIBBY ROBIN: I think some of us in museums have been trying to think about beginning this conversation with something that people already care about or love, and often the place that they live in is something that they understand and have a connection to, and that within that they begin to see or begin to understand what potential change that might come with sea level rise, or they walk on the beach and see plastic, or they, from those nucleation points and sort of trying to bring people together to say, ‘What have you noticed, what’s changing that you’re noticing,’ and then connecting them with people in their community who might be doing something about it, who might also have noticed it, has we hope the potential to turn people towards the sense of their capacity to draw on their sense of love to care for what in their immediate world is of great significance to them. And then I guess we can begin a process of applying that in more general ways as well.
I’m sure there are many people in the audience here who have worked in that way that could speak powerfully to it, but that just strikes me as one of the ways that within the museum sector we’ve started to begin that more positive engagement with people.
SPEAKER: And I think if Will Steffen was here, he spent a lot of time in Sweden. He likes telling about the politics of consensus in Sweden and how they will get together as a community and set goals and go for it as a whole nation, and of course what they’ve done in terms of renewable power [inaudible] latitude is astounding. But they have this ability to have a conversation that we in the US or in Australia seem to be losing the ability to have as a nation. And maybe that could be one of the goals for an Anthropocene day is to make it the intent. To actually bring everybody in from the right and left, say, ‘Do we have some common goals here and let’s go for it.’
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: Rosie. Can you take us to our next questioner.
SPEAKER: It’s on? Yes. John Dao. I’m a recent graduate from Saul’s Fenner School. I did most environmental courses. And the take-home message to me out of all the courses that I did was that we’ve got to get away from the knowledge of what caused the Anthropocene and what stage we’re at and we’ve got to start concentrating on adaptation strategies. What do you think of the idea of basically making the Anthropocene day a day, and this was in your last responses anyway, to the future, but how do we adapt rather than trying to worry about ... Because it’s a done thing really. There’s no chance that we’re going backwards. So how do we adapt to the upcoming challenges?
MARTHA SEAR: I was wondering if we could take the next question from Brian Walker who’s our resilience person, who might actually tie in nicely with that one.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: And in fact I’ll just give the warning that we do have to wrap up at 7.30 which is coming any minute. So Brian, if you can address this question and perhaps address what we’ve been discussing that would be fantastic.
BRIAN: Well, actually I was going to address Joan because she asked what should we do, and it seems to me that one of the problems that I’ve encountered all along is that we seem to think that one message will get through to everyone, and that’s the biggest single mistake we make. And I think the whole cause, the architects of the current Anthropocene, are the people who don’t want to hear, and that’s the difficulty. There are none so blind as those who will not see, and that’s the difficulty of trying to talk through to the neocons. If you believe impeccably in economic growth as the only solution to all the problems of the world then it’s an extremely difficult task. And so what you’ve got to do is tailor the message. And it’s not just climate change. Its rising antibiotic resistance is a huge problem that will probably hit people worse than climate change within the next decades.
So it seems to me that we’ve got to use all of what’s going on in using Will’s term of the interlinked Anthropocene, and then think on Anthropocene Day, what message would you put together and tailor for that audience, and for that audience. And if we could do that on Anthropocene Day, and then get some people to start doing it, to actually have that discussion, then we get around to this notion of how you can connect with people across the society. But I really think the failure that I’ve experienced all around is trying to have one message that’s supposedly going to hit everyone. Because it just doesn’t work.
SAUL CUNNINGHAM: Well, thank you Brian, and thank you for all those questions. I’m sorry that it’s been a relatively brief session and that at 7.30 we need to wrap up. I’m afraid we do. So I’m going to say thank you to our panellists and ask you all to thank them again.
And I do thank you all for coming along and contributing to today, and hopefully that’s not the end of the discussion and maybe a year from now we’ll have the first event of the actual Anthropocene Day. Let’s see. Thanks very much.
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Date published: 06 December 2018