Tankers passing through the Panama Canal

If departing from the idea that the Anthropocene era is connected to the industrial age with its intensified economic activities and growth both in population and in consumption around the world, I find the tankers that pass through the Panama Canal a proper icon of this understanding. Starting out in 1881 as one of the largest engineering-project the world had seen, the canal marks the continued technological and economic progress from the Industrial Revolution, with increasing adoption of steam transport. Officially opened in 1914, the costs were high not only economically; deceases eradicated much of the workforce during the +30 years it took to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific. All the more; the canal’s effects were far-reaching both in time and scope: It made those earlier remote places more integrated with the world economy and it is up to this day, together with the Suez Canal in Egypt, a key passage for international maritime trade.

To me, tankers have functioned as oceans’ steam engines not only in a literal way, but also figuratively speaking; as they both produce intensified effects on, and get affected by, an increasingly global economy. Some Anthropocene-scholars have commented how human enterprises changed speed after World War 2; producing an even more global economy fuelled by carbon fossils, leaving heavy imprints on Earth’s systems, thus naming the period 1945-2000 the Great Acceleration. The Panama Canal with its progressively bigger ships resonates well with this. The picture above evokes an awareness of how several aspects of modern life today have amplified during the last 50-60 years: The use and shipment of fossil fuels, especially oil. The increased production, and use, of commodities around the world. Advanced mobility of goods and foods. Transportation and global (uneven) distribution – with the seas as highways. All this affect the Earth’s systems locally and globally; leaving trails of pollution and waste in oceans, on land and in the atmosphere. The steady increase of merchandise manifests itself in the ongoing building of a new expanded canal, allowing yet bigger ships to pass through. The global economy is not expected to decline in the future, if measured in total amount of containers one tanker can carry.

Scholars deploying anthropogenic perspectives often address relationships between humans and nature, many pointing to the “interference” of humans as something unnatural; disturbing and distorting the Earth’s natural systems. Others underline the fact that Man has always been intertwined in nature in specific ways, altering and adjusting it to his needs. The man-made Panama Canal is one amongst countless such amendments and entanglements of humans and nature. Yet: There seems to be a growing acceptance that we now are overstepping biophysical boundaries with our works on the Blue planet. One of the most distinct effects of intensified human activity, especially connected to the production and consumption of oil, is increased emissions of Green House Gases (GHG), causing global warming. The consequences of this warming are diverse and thus often referred to as climate change, which include rising sea levels due to rapid ice-melting on the poles. The tankers have done their share in discharging GHGs throughout history. Another way of seeing this is to focus on the many ways the sea affects and is affected by humans, and what possibilities and limitations this brings. With the Panama Canal we have domesticated the Atlantic and the Pacific. Now, thanks to global warming, the Arctic area becomes increasingly accessible to humans, as the vanishing ice opens up passages that make the world yet more connected. Although not an intended effect, as with the man-made canals; humans are acting upon nature also through climate change. This is something that generations to come will feel even more on their bodies than we do, in ways we still not know the full reach of. This engagement with the future to come is at the core of the Anthropocene-concept.

Photo: The Hanjin Valencia in transit through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal, toward the Pacific Ocean. Copyright Sylvia Lysgård (2010).


PhD-student at the TIK Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture at the University of Oslo, Norway, working within the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS).