Generation Anthropocene: How humans have altered the planet for ever

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We are living in the Anthropocene age, in which human influence on the planet is so profound – and terrifying – it will leave its legacy for millennia. Politicians and scientists have had their say, but how are writers and artists responding to this crisis?

In 2003 the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia to mean a “form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change”. Albrecht was studying the effects of long-term drought and large-scale mining activity on communities in New South Wales, when he realised that no word existed to describe the unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed about them by forces beyond their control. He proposed his new term to describe this distinctive kind of homesickness.

Where the pain of nostalgia arises from moving away, the pain of solastalgia arises from staying put. Where the pain of nostalgia can be mitigated by return, the pain of solastalgia tends to be irreversible. Solastalgia is not a malady specific to the present – we might think of John Clare as a solastalgic poet, witnessing his native Northamptonshire countryside disrupted by enclosure in the 1810s – but it has flourished recently. “A worldwide increase in ecosystem distress syndromes,” wrote Albrecht, is “matched by a corresponding increase in human distress syndromes”. Solastalgia speaks of a modern uncanny, in which a familiar place is rendered unrecognisable by climate change or corporate action: the home become suddenly unhomely around its inhabitants.

Albrecht’s coinage is part of an emerging lexis for what we are increasingly calling the “Anthropocene”: the new epoch of geological time in which human activity is considered such a powerful influence on the environment, climate and ecology of the planet that it will leave a long-term signature in the strata record. And what a signature it will be. We have bored 50m kilometres of holes in our search for oil. We remove mountain tops to get at the coal they contain. The oceans dance with billions of tiny plastic beads. Weaponry tests have dispersed artificial radionuclides globally. The burning of rainforests for monoculture production sends out killing smog-palls that settle into the sediment across entire countries. We have become titanic geological agents, our legacy legible for millennia to come.

Rainforest burning in Brazil, 1989.
Rainforest burning in Brazil, 1989. Photograph: Sipa Press / Rex Features

The idea of the Anthropocene asks hard questions of us. Temporally, it requires that we imagine ourselves inhabitants not just of a human lifetime or generation, but also of “deep time” – the dizzyingly profound eras of Earth history that extend both behind and ahead of the present. Politically, it lays bare some of the complex cross-weaves of vulnerability and culpability that exist between us and other species, as well as between humans now and humans to come. Conceptually, it warrants us to consider once again whether – in Fredric Jameson’s phrase – “the modernisation process is complete, and nature is gone for good”, leaving nothing but us.

There are good reasons to be sceptical of the epitaphic impulse to declare “the end of nature”. There are also good reasons to be sceptical of the Anthropocene’s absolutism, the political presumptions it encodes, and the specific histories of power and violence that it masks. But the Anthropocene is a massively forceful concept, and as such it bears detailed thinking through. Though it has its origin in the Earth sciences and advanced computational technologies, its consequences have rippled across global culture during the last 15 years. Conservationists, environmentalists, policymakers, artists, activists, writers, historians, political and cultural theorists, as well as scientists and social scientists in many specialisms, are all responding to its implications. A Stanford University team has boldly proposed that – living as we are through the last years of one Earth epoch, and the birth of another – we belong to “Generation Anthropocene”.

Literature and art are confronted with particular challenges by the idea of the Anthropocene. Old forms of representation are experiencing drastic new pressures and being tasked with daunting new responsibilities. How might a novel or a poem possibly account for our authorship of global-scale environmental change across millennia – let alone shape the nature of that change? The indifferent scale of the Anthropocene can induce a crushing sense of the cultural sphere’s impotence.

Plastic and rubbish floating in the ocean.
Plastic and rubbish floating in the ocean. Photograph: Gary Bell/zefa/Corbis

Yet as the notion of a world beyond us has become difficult to sustain, so a need has grown for fresh vocabularies and narratives that might account for the kinds of relation and responsibility in which we find ourselves entangled. “Nature,” Raymond Williams famously wrote in Keywords (1976), “is perhaps the most complex word in the language.” Four decades on, there is no “perhaps” about it.

Projects are presently under way around the world to gain the most basic of purchases on the Anthropocene – a lexis with which to reckon it. Cultural anthropologists in America have begun a glossary for what they call “an Anthropocene as yet unseen”, intended as a “resource” for confronting the “urgent concerns of the present moment”. There, familiar terms – petroleum, melt, distribution, dream – are made strange again, vested with new resilience or menace when viewed through the “global optic” of the Anthropocene.

Last year I started the construction of a crowdsourced Anthropocene glossary called the “Desecration Phrasebook”, and in 2014 The Bureau of Linguistical Reality was founded “for the purpose of collecting, translating and creating a new vocabulary for the Anthropocene”. Albrecht’s solastalgia is one of the bureau’s terms, along with “stieg”, “apex-guilt” and “shadowtime”, the latter meaning “the sense of living in two or more orders of temporal scale simultaneously” – an acknowledgment of the out-of-jointness provoked by Anthropocene awareness. Many of these words are, clearly, ugly coinages for an ugly epoch. Taken in sum, they speak of our stuttering attempts to describe just what it is we have done.

The word “Anthropocene” itself entered the Oxford English Dictionary surprisingly late, along with “selfie” and “upcycle”, in June 2014 – 15 years after it is generally agreed to have first been used in its popular sense.

In 1999, at a conference in Mexico City on the Holocene – the Earth epoch we at present officially inhabit, beginning around 11,700 years ago – the Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen was struck by the inaccuracy of the Holocene designation. “I suddenly thought this was wrong,” he later recalled. “The world has changed too much. So I said, ‘No, we are in the Anthropocene.’ I just made the word up on the spur of the moment. But it seems to have stuck.”

The following year, Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer – an American diatom specialist who had been using the term informally since the 1980s – jointly published an article proposing that the Anthropocene should be considered a new Earth epoch,on the grounds that “mankind will remain a major geological force for many millennia, maybe millions of years to come”. The scientific community took the Crutzen-Stoermer proposal seriously enough to submit it to the rigours of the stratigraphers.

Stratigraphy is an awesomely stringent discipline. Stratigraphers are at once the archivists, monks and philosophers of the Earth sciences. Their specialism is the division of deep time into aeons, eras, periods, epochs and stages, and the establishment of temporal limits for those divisions and their subdivisions. Their bible is the International Chronostratigraphic Chart, the beautiful document that archives Earth history from the present back to the “informal” aeon of the Hadean, between 4bn and 4.6bn years ago (“informal” because vanishingly little is known about it). Being a geo-geek, I sometimes mutter the mnemonics of the ICS as I cycle to work, trying to get the sequences straight: Cows Often Sit Down Carefully. Perhaps Their Joints Creak? – Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, Permian, Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous …

The Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy – a title straight out of Gormenghast – was created in 2009. It was charged with delivering two recommendations: whether the Anthropocene should be formalised as an epoch and, if so, when it began. Among the baselines considered by the group have been the first recorded use of fire by hominins around 1.8m years ago, the dawn of agriculture around 8,000 years ago and the Industrial Revolution.

The group’s report is due within months. Recent publications indicate that they will recommend the designation of the Anthropocene, and that the “stratigraphically optimal” temporal limit will be located somewhere in the mid-20th century. This places the start of the Anthropocene simultaneous with the start of the nuclear age. It also coincides with the so-called “Great Acceleration”, when massive increases occurred in population, carbon emissions, species invasions and extinctions, and when the production and discard of metals, concrete and plastics boomed.

Manila Bay in the Philippines covered with plastic bags and rubbish.
Manila Bay in the Philippines covered with plastic bags and rubbish. Photograph: Joshua Mark Dalupang/EPA

Plastics in particular are being taken as a key marker for the Anthropocene, giving rise to the inevitable nickname of the “Plasticene”. We currently produce around 100m tonnes of plastic globally each year. Because plastics are inert and difficult to degrade, some of this plastic material will find its way into the strata record. Among the future fossils of the Anthropocene, therefore, might be the trace forms not only of megafauna and nano-planktons, but also shampoo bottles and deodorant caps – the strata that contain them precisely dateable with reference to the product-design archives of multinationals. “What will survive of us is love”, wrote Philip Larkin. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic – and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain.

The Deutsches Museum in Munich is currently hosting “An Anthropocene Wunderkammer”, which it calls “the first major exhibition in the world” to take the Anthropocene as its theme. Among the exhibits is a remarkable work by the American writer and conservation biologist Julianne Lutz Warren, entitled “Hopes Echo”. It concerns the huia, an exquisite bird of New Zealand that was made extinct in the early 20th century due to habitat destruction, introduced predators and overhunting for its black and ivory tail feathers. The huia vanished before field-recording technologies existed, but a version of its song has survived by means of an eerie series of preservations: a sound fossil. In order to lure the birds to their snares, the Maori people learned to mimic the huia song. This mimicked song was passed down between generations, a practice that continued even after the huia was gone. In 1954 a pakeha (a European New Zealander) called RAL Bateley made a recording of a Maori man, Henare Hamana, whistling his imitation of the huia’s call.

Warren’s exhibit makes Bateley’s crackly recording available, and her accompanying text unfolds the complexities of its sonic strata. It is, as Warren puts it, “a soundtrack of the sacred voices of extinct birds echoing in that of a dead man echoing out of a machine echoing through the world today”. The intellectual elegance of her work – and its exemplary quality as an Anthropocene-aware artefact – lies in its subtle tracing of the technological and imperial histories involved in a single extinction event and its residue.

Anthropocene art is, unsurprisingly, obsessed with loss and disappearance. We are living through what is popularly known as the “sixth great extinction”. A third of all amphibian species are at risk of extinction. A fifth of the globe’s 5,500 known mammals are classified as endangered, threatened or vulnerable. The current extinction rate for birds may be faster than any recorded across the 150m years of avian evolutionary history. We exist in an ongoing biodiversity crisis – but register that crisis, if at all, as an ambient hum of guilt, easily faded out. Like other unwholesome aspects of the Anthropocene, we mostly respond to mass extinction with stuplimity: the aesthetic experience in which astonishment is united with boredom, such that we overload on anxiety to the point of outrage-outage.

Art and literature might, at their best, shock us out of the stuplime. Warren’s haunted study of the huia finds its own echo in the prose and poetry of Richard Skelton and Autumn Richardson. Their work – sometimes jointly authored – is minutely attentive to the specificities of the gone and the will-be-gone. Place names and plant names assume the status of chants or litanies: spectral taxa incanted as elegy, or as a means to conjure back. In Succession (2013), Skelton and Richardson studied palynological records to reconstruct lists of the grasses and flowers that flourished in the western Lake District after the end of the Pleistocene. The area “is still inhabited by the ghosts of lost flora and fauna”, writes Richardson, of which there are “traces that even now, centuries later, can be uncovered and celebrated”. Diagrams for the Summoning of Wolves (2015), a purely musical work, shifts from celebration to intervention: it is intended as a performative utterance – a series of notes, rituals and gestures that might somehow enable “the return itself”.

Rory Gibb smartly notes that the work of Skelton and Richardson is different in kind from conventional eco-elegy: it evokes “a more feral feeling of being stalked by ecosystemic memory”. Such a feeling is appropriate to the Anthropocene, in which we have erased entire biomes and crashed whole ecosystems. Their writing often moves back through the Holocene and into its prior epochs, before sliding forwards to imaginary far futures. They send ghost emissaries – foxes, wolves, pollen grains, stones – back and forth along these deep-time lines. Instead of the intimacies and connections urged by conventional “green” literature, writing like this speaks of a darker ecological impulse, in which salvation and self-knowledge can no longer be found in a mountain peak or stooping falcon, and categories such as the picturesque or even the beautiful congeal into kitsch.

Perhaps the greatest challenge posed to our imagination by the Anthropocene is its inhuman organisation as an event. If the Anthropocene can be said to “take place”, it does so across huge scales of space and vast spans of time, from nanometers to planets, and from picoseconds to aeons. It involves millions of different teleconnected agents, from methane molecules to rare earth metals to magnetic fields to smartphones to mosquitoes. Its energies are interactive, its properties emergent and its structures withdrawn.

In 2010 Timothy Morton adopted the term hyperobject to denote some of the characteristic entities of the Anthropocene. Hyperobjects are “so massively distributed in time, space and dimensionality” that they defy our perception, let alone our comprehension. Among the examples Morton gives of hyperobjects are climate change, mass species extinction and radioactive plutonium. “In one sense [hyperobjects] are abstractions,” he notes, “in another they are ferociously, catastrophically real.”

Creative non-fiction, and especially reportage, has adapted most quickly to this “distributed” aspect of the Anthropocene. Episodic in assembly and dispersed in geography, some outstanding recent non-fiction has proved able to map intricate patterns of environmental cause and effect, and in this way draw hyperobjects into at least partial visibility. Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (2014) and her Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006) are landmarks here, as is Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (2014). In 2015 Gaia Vince published Adventures in the Anthropocene, perhaps the best book so far to trace the epoch’s impacts on the world’s poor, and the slow violence that climate change metes out to them.

Last year also saw the publication of The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, by the American anthropologist Anna Tsing. Tsing takes as her subject one of the “strangest commodity chains of our times”: that of the matsutake, supposedly the most valuable fungus in the world, which grows best in “human-disturbed forests”. Written in what she calls “a riot of short chapters, like the flushes of mushrooms that come up after rain”, Tsing’s book describes a contemporary “nature” that is hybrid and multiply interbound. Her ecosystems stretch from wood-wide webs of mycelia, through earthworms and pine roots, to logging trucks and hedge funds – as well as down into the flora of our own multispecies guts. Tsing’s account of nature thus overcomes what Jacques Rancière has called the “partition of the sensible”, by which he means the traditional division of matter into “life” and “not-life”. Like Skelton in his recentBeyond the Fell Wall (2015), and the poet Sean Borodale, Tsing is interested in a vibrant materialism that acknowledges the agency of stones, ores and atmospheres, as well as humans and other organisms.

Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road. Photograph: Alamy

Tsing is also concerned with the possibility of what she calls “collaborative survival” in the Anthropocene-to-come. As Evans Calder Williams notes, the Anthropocene imagination “crawls with narratives of survival”, in which varying conditions of resource scarcity exist, and varying kinds of salvage are practised. Our contemporary appetite for environmental breakdown is colossal, tending to grotesque: from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) – now almost an Anthropocene ur-text – through films such as The Survivalist and the Mad Max franchise, to The Walking Dead and the Fallout video game series.

The worst of this collapse culture is artistically crude and politically crass. The best is vigilant and provocative: Simon Ings’ Wolves (2014), for instance, James Bradley’s strange and gripping Clade (2015), or Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake(2014), a post-apocalyptic novel set in the “blaec”, “brok” landscape of 11th-century England, that warns us not to defer our present crisis. I think also of Clare Vaye Watkins’s glittering Gold Fame Citrus (2015), which occurs in a drought-scorched American southwest and includes a field-guide to the neo-fauna of this dunescape: the “ouroboros rattlesnake”, the “Mojave ghost crab”.

Such scarcity narratives unsettle what we might call the Holocene delusion on which growth economics is founded: of the Earth as an infinite body of matter, there for the incredible ultra-machine of capitalism to process, exploit and discard without heed of limit. Meanwhile, however, speculative novelists – Andy Weir in The Martian, Kim Stanley Robinson in Red Mars – foresee how we will overcome terrestrial shortages by turning to asteroid mining or the terra-forming of Mars. To misquote Fredric Jameson, it is easier to imagine the extraction of off-planet resources than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.

The novel is the cultural form to which the Anthropocene arguably presents most difficulties, and most opportunities. Historically, the novel has been celebrated for its ability to represent human interiority: the skull-to-skull skip of free indirect style, or the vivid flow of stream-of-consciousness. But what use are such skills when addressing the enormity of this new epoch? Any Anthropocene-aware novel finds itself haunted by impersonal structures, and intimidated by the limits of individual agency. China Miéville’s 2011 short story “Covehithe” cleverly probes and parodies these anxieties. In a near-future Suffolk, animate oil rigs haul themselves out of the sea, before drilling down into the coastal strata to lay dozens of rig eggs. These techno-zombies prove impervious to military interventions: at last, all that humans can do is become spectators, snapping photos of the rigs and watching live feeds from remote cameras as they give birth – an Anthropocene Springwatch.

Matt Damon The Martian.
‘It’s easier to imagine the extraction of off-planet resources than it is to imagine the end of capitalism’ … Matt Damon in The Martian. Photograph: Moviestore/REX Shutterstock

Most memorable to me is Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, Annihilation. It describes an expedition into an apparently poisoned region known as Area X, in which relic human structures have been not just reclaimed but wilfully redesigned by a mutated nature. A specialist team is sent to survey the zone. They discover archive caches and topographically anomalous buildings including a “Tower” that descends into the earth rather than jutting from it. The Tower’s steps are covered in golden slime, and on its walls crawls a “rich greenlike moss” that inscribes letters and words on the masonry – before entering and authoring the bodies of the explorers themselves. It gradually becomes apparent that Area X, in all its weird wildness, is actively transforming the members of the expedition who have been sent to subdue it with science. As such, VanderMeer’s novel brilliantly reverses the hubris of the Anthropocene: instead of us leaving the world post-natural, it suggests, the world will leave us post-human.

As the idea of the Anthropocene has surged in power, so its critics have grown in number and strength. Cultural and literary studies currently abound with Anthropocene titles: most from the left, and often bitingly critical of their subject. The last 12 months have seen the publication of Jedediah Purdy’s After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene, McKenzie Wark’s provocative Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene and the environmental historian Jason W Moore’s importantCapitalism in the Web of Life. Last July the “revolutionary arts and letters quarterly” Salvage launched with an issue that included Daniel Hartley’s essay “Against the Anthropocene” and Miéville, superbly, on despair and environmental justice in the new epoch.

Across these texts and others, three main objections recur: that the idea of the Anthropocene is arrogant, universalist and capitalist-technocratic. Arrogant, because the designation of the Anthropocene – the “New Age of Humans” – is our crowning act of self-mythologisation (we are the super-species, we the Prometheans, we have ended nature), and as such only embeds the narcissist delusions that have produced the current crisis.

Universalist, because the Anthropocene assumes a generalised anthropos, whereby all humans are equally implicated and all equally affected. As Purdy, Miéville and Moore point out, “we” are not all in the Anthropocene together – the poor and the dispossessed are far more in it than others. “Wealthy countries,” writes Purdy, “create a global landscape of inequality in which the wealthy find their advantages multiplied … In this neoliberal Anthropocene, free contract within a global market launders inequality through voluntariness.”

And capitalist-technocratic, because the dominant narrative of the Anthropocene has technology as its driver: recent Earth history reduced to a succession of inventions (fire, the combustion engine, the synthesis of plastic, nuclear weaponry). The monolithic concept bulk of this scientific Anthropocene can crush the subtleties out of both past and future, disregarding the roles of ideology, empire and political economy. Such a technocratic narrative will also tend to encourage technocratic solutions: geoengineering as a quick-fix for climate change, say, or the Anthropocene imagined as a pragmatic problem to be managed, such that “Anthropocene science” is translated smoothly into “Anthropocene policy” within existing structures of governance. Moore argues that the Anthropocene is not the geology of a species at all, but rather the geology of a system, capitalism – and as such should be rechristened the Capitalocene.

There are signs that we will soon be exhausted by the Anthropocene: glutted by its ubiquity as a cultural shorthand, fatigued by its imprecisions, and enervated by its variant names – the “Anthrobscene”, the “Misanthropocene”, the “Lichenocene” (actually, that last one is mine). Perhaps the Anthropocene has already become an anthropomeme: punned and pimped into stuplimity, its presence in popular discourse often just a virtue signal that merely mandates the user to proceed with the work of consumption.

I think, though, that the Anthropocene has administered – and will administer – a massive jolt to the imagination. Philosophically, it is a concept that does huge work both for us and on us. In its unsettlement of the entrenched binaries of modernity (nature and culture; object and subject), and its provocative alienation of familiar anthropocentric scales and times, it opens up rather than foreclosing progressive thought. What Christophe Bonneuil calls the “shock of the Anthropocene” is generating new political arguments, new modes of behaviour, new narratives, new languages and new creative forms. It asserts – as Jeremy Davies writes at the end of his excellent forthcoming book, The Birth of the Anthropocene – a “pressing need to re-imagine human and nonhuman life outside the confines of the Holocene”, while also asking “how best to keep faith with the web of relationships, dependencies, and symbioses that made up the planetary system of the dying epoch”. Systemic in its structure, the Anthropocene charges us with systemic change.

In 1981 the research field of “nuclear semiotics” was born. A group of interdisciplinary experts was tasked with preventing future humans from intruding on to a subterranean storage facility for radioactive waste, then under construction in the New Mexico desert. The half-life of plutonium-239 is around 24,100 years; the written history of humanity is around 5,000 years old. The challenge facing the group was how to devise a sign system that could semantically survive even catastrophic phases of planetary future, and that could communicate with an unknown humanoid-to-be.

Construction of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, an underground nuclear waste dump.
Construction of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, an underground nuclear waste dump. Photograph: Eric Draper/AP

Several proposals involved forms of hostile architecture: a “landscape of thorns” in which 15m-high concrete pillars with jutting side spikes impeded access; a maze of sharp black rock blocks that absorbed solar energy to become impassably hot. But such aggressive structures can act as enticements rather than cautions, suggesting here be treasure rather than here be dragons. Prince Charming hacked his way through the briars to wake Sleeping Beauty. Indiana Jones braved wooden spikes and rolling boulders to reach the golden idol in a booby-trapped Peruvian temple. Sometimes I wonder if the design task should be handed wholesale to the team behind the Ikea instruction manuals: if they can convey in pictograms how to put up a Billy bookcase anywhere in the world, they can surely tell someone in 10,000 years’ time not to dig in a certain place.

The New Mexico facility is due to be sealed in 2038. The present plans for marking the site involve a berm with a core of salt, enclosing the above-ground footprint of the repository. Buried in the berm will be radar reflectors, magnets and a “Storage Room”, constructed around a stone slab too big to be removed via the chamber entrance. Data will be inscribed on to the slab including maps, time lines, and scientific details of the waste and its risks, written in all current official UN languages, and in Navajo: “This site was known as the WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Site) when it was closed in 2038 AD … Do not expose this room unless the information centre messages are lost. Leave the room buried for future generations.” Discs made of ceramic, clay, glass and metal, also engraved with warnings, will be embedded in the soil and the shaft seals. Finally, a “hot cell”, or radiation containment chamber, will be constructed: a reinforced concrete structure extending 60 feet above the earth and 30 feet down into it: VanderMeer’s “Tower” made real.

I think of that configuration of berm, chamber, shaft, disc and hot cell – all set atop the casks of pulsing radioactive molecules entombed deep in the Permian strata – as perhaps our purest Anthropocene architecture. And I think of those multiply repeated incantations – pitched somewhere between confession, caution and black mass; leave the room buried for future generations, leave the room buried for future generations … – as perhaps our most perfected Anthropocene text.

Decline of bees poses potential risks to major crops, says UN

Animal pollination responsible for 5-8% of global agricultural production by volume, says UN biodiversity panel, as it issues warning over their decline


Populations of bees, butterflies and other species important for agricultural pollination are declining, posing potential risks to major world crops, a UN body on biodiversity said Friday.
“Many wild bees and butterflies have been declining in abundance, occurrence and diversity at local and regional scales in Northwest Europe and North America,” said an assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

It said declines had also been detected elsewhere in the world and that possible causes include habitat loss, pesticides, pollution, invasive species, pathogens and climate change.

The report by the IPBES, which was established under UN auspices in 2012 to assess the state of ecosystems and biodiversity, stopped short of declaring a full-scale threat to food supplies.

But it stressed the importance of protecting pollinators to ensure stable fruit and vegetable output, amid concern over the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population in coming decades.

It said animal pollination is directly responsible for between 5-8% of global agricultural production by volume, amounting to between $235bn (£167bn) and $577bn worth of annual output.

In addition, more than three-quarters of the “leading types of global food crops” rely to some extent on animal pollination for yield and quality.

“Pollinator-dependent species encompass many fruit, vegetable, seed, nut and oil crops, which supply major proportions of micronutrients, vitamins, and minerals in the human diet,” the IPBES said.

Pollination is the transfer of pollen between the male and female parts of flowers to enable reproduction.

The assessment is the work of nearly 80 scientists from around the world and was released at an IPBES meeting in Kuala Lumpur.

It is the first report by the four-year-old group, which is considered the biodiversity equivalent of the UN-organised Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

In Europe, 9% of bee and butterfly species are threatened with extinction and populations are declining for 37% of bee species and 31% of butterfly species for which sufficient data is available, the IPBES said.

In some places in Europe more than 40% of bee species may be threatened, it added.

A “data gap” frustrates analysis of the situation in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, but the same drivers are suspected to be at work in those regions, it said.

Data is more solid for non-insect pollinators such as bats and birds, however, with the IPBES saying 16% of such species worldwide are threatened with extinction.

Some of the most important world food staples such as rice, wheat and other grains do not rely on animal pollination.

But vulnerable crops could include apples, mangoes, chocolate and many other commonly consumed foods, said Simon Potts, co-chair of the assessment.

“Pretty much nearly all your fruits and many of your vegetables are pollination-dependent,” said Potts, deputy director of the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research at Britain’s Reading University.

Possible policy options include better protection of natural environments and ecosystems, limiting the scope of intensive agriculture, and finding alternatives to pesticides, the IPBES said.

Greater attention to controlling pathogens among species and better regulation of managed populations of bees and other pollinators could also help, it added.

IPBES members stressed that the group does not make specific recommendations, but provides information for policy-makers.

The assessment said pollinator declines could lead to lower crop yields, raising prices for consumers and reducing agricultural profits.

A railway to Arctic riches: economic boom, environmental threat?

A handful of people shuffle into the community hall in Kimmirut, Nunavut, a tiny outpost on the southern coast of Baffin Island. It’s early December, and the small group shakes off the cold winter air and settles into folding chairs to hear a presentation about something completely foreign to Baffin Island – a railway.

“I have never seen a railway before,” a woman named Joannie tells the gathering, according to minutes of the meeting. “Could you give a better idea of what the train will look like?”

Nobody else has seen a railway on Baffin Island either. No one has built one this far north, anywhere. But now – thanks to an insatiable global demand for minerals, and climate change that has opened up northern shipping routes – a rail line across part of Baffin Island is about to become a reality.

It’s also a sign of things to come. Places like Baffin Island have always held a treasure trove of minerals, but low commodity prices, coupled with the high cost of operating in the Arctic, left many deposits undeveloped. With prices for nearly every mineral now soaring, however, mining’s last frontier has become financially viable. And with temperatures climbing because of global warming, mining in the Arctic has become logistically possible as well, because sea lanes stay open longer due to thinner ice and railways can operate year round.

In the past year, two iron ore mines in Norway’s far north have been re-opened after being abandoned for 14 years and there are plans to open an iron ore mine in northern Sweden. Greenland has been overrun with dozens of mining companies eager to dig into rich deposits of uranium, zinc and rare earth minerals that have been uncovered by melting ice caps. Russian cargo ships have started plying the icy Arctic waters carrying tonnes of minerals from mines in Siberia to Rotterdam.

The people in Kimmirut and several other communities across Nunavut are already getting an idea of what’s about to happen in Canada. For months, they’ve been poring over plans for a giant iron ore mine at Mary River, on the northern reaches of Baffin Island and roughly 1,000 kilometres northwest of Iqaluit. It is easily among the most ambitious mining ventures ever undertaken in the Arctic, and an illustration of the lengths to which companies are going to find the resources to build the world’s emerging economies.

The mine itself will be an open-pit operation spanning more than two kilometres across the top of a small mountain. There will also be a townsite with an airstrip capable of handling commercial jets, and a deepwater sea port fit for 10 ice-breaking cargo ships roughly 15 times larger than any vessel currently sailing the eastern Arctic.

Linking everything together will be a 149-kilometre railway that is designed to carry trains stretching more than one kilometre in length from the mine site to the port. The mine, the trains and the ships are intended to operate every day for 21 years and move 18 million tonnes of iron ore annually to ships that will take the metal to blast furnaces in steel mills across Europe.

The impact on Nunavut will be profound. The mine is expected to triple the territory’s annual gross domestic product growth rate and provide nearly $5-billion in tax revenue and royalties to the territory over the life of the project. It will create more than 5,000 direct jobs, many more indirect positions and offer training opportunities in an area of the country where four out of every six people live in social housing and life expectancy is 10 years lower than the rest of Canada.

But there will also be consequences. The mine will leave untold scars on the natural landscape and cut into the fragile permafrost. It will affect caribou migration, disturb walrus populations and have an impact on seals, polar bears, beluga whales, foxes, ermines, lemmings, hares and narwhals. It is an age-old tension – jobs and economic development versus the environmental costs – but one that is about to be felt in new ways in northern communities around the world, and particularly in Canada.

Mining in the north isn’t new; there are other projects in Nunavut. But it has never been attempted on this scale before. Iron ore is all about volume, and by that measure, no other mining project in Canada’s North comes close to Mary River. The nearest comparison is the Raglan nickel mine in Northern Quebec, a key holding of Anglo-Swiss giant Xstrata PLC. Raglan produces about 1.3 million tonnes of nickel annually, making it a large-scale nickel operation. But that’s still less than 10 per cent of the product that will hauled out of Mary River every year.

Residents in places like Pond Inlet, 170 km from the proposed mine, are wrestling with the project. “This project is large, very large,” said Colin Saunders, the town’s economic development officer. “The amount of jobs and opportunities that will be available to the High Arctic residents are going to be significant, very significant.

“But there’s a trade-off and you have to balance the jobs and the contracts with the environmental impacts.”

The evolution of a mine

Just about everyone in the mining world has known about the iron ore at Mary River for decades. Mining it has been a dream ever since Murray Watts, a legendary Canadian prospector, climbed into a beat-up Cessna in July, 1962, to scout around the northern part of Baffin Island.

No one took the trip seriously at the time; mining industry players figured that finding anything in the barren setting was hopeless. But Mr. Watts had long believed in the riches of the north and he had been exploring the northeastern Arctic for 30 years. After a few more trips that summer, Mr. Watts found four iron ore deposits south of Pond Inlet. The site was named Mary River by Europeans, but it had been a meeting place for Inuit hunters for centuries.

The richness of the deposit astounded even Mr. Watts. The iron content ranged from 65 to 70 per cent. That’s so pure that the ore can be picked up, dusted off and tossed into a blast furnace. And yet, despite the attractiveness of the find, no company had the financial wherewithal to mine it.

Mr. Watts died in a car crash in 1982, and four years later, the site ended up in the hands of Baffinland Iron Mines Corp., a small Toronto-based company. But development costs were just too high and the project was shelved. Interest was reignited in 2004, when Baffinland went public and raised enough money to cover some testing and surveying at the site. The results confirmed the remarkable quality of the find and that it was the one of the largest undeveloped iron ore deposits in the world. By 2007, the company had calculated that a mine would cost more than $4-billion, far beyond the ability of a small player like Baffinland to raise, especially with a global credit crunch starting to unfold.

By the middle of last year, financial markets had recovered and the price of iron ore was climbing to record levels. Suddenly Mary River was in hot demand and Baffinland was the target of a global bidding war that pitted a U.S. private equity fund against Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal SA, the world’s largest steel maker. After battling for months, and jacking their bids from 80 cents a share to $1.50, the two sides called a truce and made a joint offer last January worth more than $500-million. The takeover closed in March.

Now, with ArcelorMittal’s backing, Baffinland was finally ready to forge ahead with its dream mine at Mary River, at a price tag of $4.1-billion.

There was never any doubt the project would be expensive and gigantic. But material filed at the Nunavut Impact Review Board – 10 volumes of documents spanning more than 5,000 pages – offer a unique perspective on just how complex it is.

The rail line is the trickiest part. It will cost nearly $2-billion, or up to $13-million per kilometre, and take four years to build. Construction will require more than 1,000 workers, divided into four teams camped out along the route. The track will run from the mine site to a new port at Steensby Inlet, along the western side of central Baffin Island. Mapping the route took years because of the difficult terrain; the rail line will require 31 bridges and two tunnels, including one measuring 1.3 kilometres.

Building all that would be hard enough anywhere, but the constant cold in the Arctic means many sections of the line, including the bridges, will have to be pre-assembled and then shipped in. But even with global warming, regular transport ships still have to travel mainly in summer, making logistics a potential nightmare. “You only get one chance a year to get material up there,” said Ron Hampton, the project director. “It forces you to be very efficient at your planning.”

Permafrost poses another challenge. Baffin Island is covered with continuous permafrost about 400 metres deep. But the surface layer, about three metres thick, is subject to seasonal freezing and thawing. The train track will be set on an embankment measuring up to four metres in height and made from crushed rock to provide stability over the fragile ground. Supports for bridges will be driven into the bedrock to ensure they keep stable if climate change alters the surface.

Once the track is built, the railway will be in constant use. Along with hauling iron ore, the line will provide a passenger service for employees and transport supplies to the mine site. Each train will be at least 110 cars long and rumble down the track at up to 75 kilometres per hour. The total rail fleet will include 367 rail cars and 11 locomotives, especially made to withstand the cold.

The port at Steensby Inlet will handle year-round voyages back and forth to Europe, with one ship moving through the icy waters every 32 hours. The company’s shipping fleet will include 10 ice-breaking cargo vessels, some measuring 329 metres in length and having five times the carrying capacity as ships used at the Raglan mine. Most are expected to head to Rotterdam, a round-trip voyage that will take up to 45 days in winter.

A cultural divide

Baffinland officials have taken the proposal to communities across the region for months, with several more meetings slated in coming weeks. It hasn’t been easy. Barely 5,400 people live within 400 kilometres of the mine, and their lifestyle is different even from other parts of Nunavut. Roughly 41 per cent of the population is under the age of 15 and 40 per cent of families earn less than $10,000 annually. Many people live off the land, hunting herds of caribou that roam directly across the route of the railway.

Some meetings attracted just five people, many of whom spoke only Inuktitut. But passions ran high and opinions were sharply divided about the project. The regulatory filing includes nearly 700 pages of comments from residents and minutes from several community meetings.

“Our ancestors brought us here through their survival on country food, with no white man,” one man said. “I might behave like a white man, but it is my father’s words I use when I go hunting. I don’t know computers and can’t speak English, but I am passionate about our knowledge.”

“Thank you for trying to help us get more jobs, but the Inuit and white are different,” another man said. “They should be treated equally. When white man is trying to be on top, they don’t like Inuit. Don’t come here then, if you don’t like Inuit.”

Officials at Baffinland insist the project will respect the local culture and protect wildlife. They point to other northern mining projects that have not disrupted caribou and provided badly needed opportunity. The Mary River project “has the potential to provide significant benefits to the north and we’re just working through a process now that we need to get through and reach a point where we can develop it,” said Greg Missal, Baffinland’s vice-president of corporate affairs. If all goes well, he added, construction could start in early 2013.

But convincing people like George Qallaut, who lives in Igloolik which is across from the Steensby Inlet, won’t be easy. During one public meeting, Mr. Qallaut stood up and spoke about the 4,000-year history of the area, and about the dramatic changes in landscape the project will cause.

“The people of Igloolik and Pond Inlet have for centuries met at Mary River during the summer hunting caribou,” he told the group.

“An elder present at this meeting got his first caribou at Mary River. Two mountains will be gone in 25 years. Part of their identity will disappear. How can you compensate for this?”

The Globe and Mail

Why Climate Scientists Are So Intrigued By the Brutal Sea Voyages of the 19th Century

Life aboard a ship in the 18th or 19th century—especially in the far north or south—was treacherous. Now, the records of these brutal voyages are playing a surprising role in scientists’ efforts to understand the future of the planet.

If you’ve ever read In the Kingdom of Ice, which chronicles the race to the North Pole, or Endurance, a record of Shackleton’s Antarctic voyage, you’ve heard about what life in these unexplored regions was like: Without the communications technology or technical gear of today, ships depended on only what they had. And, the logbooks, where captains and clerks kept track of information like weather and location, were absolutely critical.

There are hundreds of thousands of these logbooks, written by hand, and they contain billions of data points about climate from an era before conventional records were kept. They’re a goldmine for scientists trying to understand our changing planet, but there’s just one problem with using them: The handwritten script and the aging of the paper make it tough for computer vision algorithms to understand—so they have to be transcribed by hand.

That’s the goal behind Old Weather, a project that brings together scientists and archivists from Oxford, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the UK’s National Meteorological Services, and a handful of maritime museums where these records are kept. The idea is to put these logbooks online and ask people to help transcribe them through the internet, filling in some of the vast gaps in our understanding of the weather and climate. According to the NOAA, 21,000 people have helped transcribe more than seven million data points so far.

For example, you can annotate the logbooks from the USS Bear, a whaling ship from Scotland that actually helped in Arctic rescue missions:


After all, our record of the climate doesn’t actually go back very far. In the US, the Smithsonian started keeping track of the weather in the 1850s. And we have some records from other countries around the same time. But there are no comprehensive records of global weather data, until the modern day…Except for the billions of records kept by ships that were criss-crossing the globe, regularly recording extraordinarily thorough data about the weather conditions for centuries. Old Weather wants to get those observations out of these crumbling books and into our climate models.

The project relaunched its website yesterday, with new logbooks and better tools for transcribing them online. It’s much easier to help them out now, and they hope that the redesign will attract more participants to the growing community. (“We have split them into shorter deployments of a year or two; so completing a voyage will be less of a commitment, and you’ll have a chance for a bit of shore leave now and again,” they write.)

“It isn’t about proving or disproving global warming,” the project’s coordinators explain. “We need to collect as much historical data as we can… To understand what the weather will do in the future, we need to understand what it did in the past.”

Temujin Doran – North

“We often believe that our own time is at last modern and we are the last men who can act with the authority and weight of the generations that came before us. The wisdom of all human history, gathered together to inform our decisions, yet after a century of knowledge we have arrived here and now, once again cursed by resource and conflict, and unable to change.

In another century, whatever happens to the world we know, those who look back will marvel at us for better or worse. Our actions and decisions will be studied for years, as they attempt to understand us better – those modern men from the past, with a vague intellect and a comfortable heart…, yet the finer they were, the frailer, and the cleverer, the more wrong headed.” – Temujin Doran

North from Studiocanoe on Vimeo.

.. an obscure & pervasive consumption that despite its seriality or multiplicity is felt as deeply personal…western cultures optical unconscious

Movement in Many Parts

Movement in Many Parts

Kearny Street Workshop/ Asian Resource Center Gallery

July 13 – September 28, 2012

Opening reception:  Friday, July 13, 5-9pm

Curated by Lucy Kalyani Lin and Weston Teruya

Kim Anno
Susan Chen
Mik Gaspy
Amy M. Ho
Noritaka Minami
Christine Nguyen
Genevieve Quick
Sanjit Sethi
Meeson Pae Yang

A Dangerous Gamble in the Arctic

A Dangerous Gamble in the Arctic

by Bill Meadows

The Arctic recently sent a strong warning that hubris has no place in one of the world’s most challenging, high-stakes environments. Shell Oil, which is ready to take a dangerous drilling gamble in the Arctic’s icy waters, should take note.

In mid-February, the Spanish company Repsol suffered a blowout at its onshore Qugruk 2 well on Alaska’s North Slope. Drillers hit a pocket of gas more than 2,500 feet beneath the surface. Natural gas and an estimated 42,000 gallons of drilling mud spewed from the well, and workers evacuated the rig to avoid the risk of an explosion or fire. After nearly a month of trying to bring the well under control — made more difficult with temperatures so cold it was impossible to operate outdoor equipment — Repsol decided to plug and abandon the well. Drilling mud cleanup will begin now that the well has been plugged.

After the blowout, the well’s hydraulic lines and other components quickly froze in the frigid Arctic air. Despite losing its well, Repsol was lucky; no workers were injured or killed, and no oil was spilled. Things could have been much worse. Continue reading “A Dangerous Gamble in the Arctic”

We Have “Learned Nothing” from BP Disaster: Obama Opens More of Arctic to Offshore Drilling

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced the Obama Administration’s highly anticipated plan for proposed offshore oil and gas leases from 2012-2017.  It focuses on exploration in the Gulf of Mexico and giving oil companies the chance to bid on drilling rights in Arctic waters, including the Beaufort and Chukchi seas and the Cook Inlet.

Because the plan targets areas with known potential for oil and gas development where exploration is currently active, the administration is ruling out drilling along the Pacific and Atlantic coasts — including an area near Virginia that had been slated for exploration prior to the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Continue reading “We Have “Learned Nothing” from BP Disaster: Obama Opens More of Arctic to Offshore Drilling”

Proof: Southern Exposure’s Juried Exhibition

Reception on Friday, September 16, 2011, from 6 – 9 pm.

I’m excited to be one of the 45 artists chosen out of 535 entries!

Proof: Southern Exposure’s Entry-Fee Free Juried Exhibition of work by Northern California Artists

Juror: Denise Markonish, Curator at Mass MoCa

Exhibition Dates: September 16 – October 8, 2011
Opening Reception: Friday, September 16, 6:00pm – 9:00pm
Gallery Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 12:00 pm – 6:00 pm Continue reading “Proof: Southern Exposure’s Juried Exhibition”