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).

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The Lawn

We live in the Anthropocene, a geological epoch in which human is shaping patterns and processes across the planet. Globalization as a result of human embedded changes on the planet is a phenomenon of the Anthropocene. Globalization has caused homogenization of green areas around the globe. Today we are witnessing similarity in urban green areas everywhere in the world irrespective to the climate conditions or geographical locations.

As a result of similar plant materials of green infrastructure, there are major risks of diminishing urban biodiversity and degrading different ecosystem services. As Landscape architect Maria Ignatieva and ecologist Karin Ahrné argue, lawns are the most influential element of urban green infrastructure and cover up to 70% of all green areas in urban environment. Thanks to the human actions that has altered ecosystems and their services, lawns can be found in almost everywhere in public parks, backyards, traffic environments, golf courses, graveyards etc.

The lawn prototypes can be probably referred to the European floodplain grasslands vegetation or to secondary meadows after clearing and grazing. In Medieval time lawn was used as decorative element for the first time. It was mainly cut turf from meadows which was transported to castle gardens. Lawns were used in the formal parterres of French gardens. It was a very important element of English landscape parks of the 18th century and the Victorian Gardenesque parks from the 19th century, where the decorative grass was used for recreational purposes and became a symbol of social prestige. During the 20th century the desire for lawns created a commercial multibillion industry to produce seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation technology and lawnmowers.

Lawns are valuable for many reasons for example as a meeting and socializing place, relaxing and recreation for people and a place for city people to have a daily contact with nature among others. They are also contributing to some ecosystem services such as cooling weather; water infiltrations and carbon sequestration, however intensive management and maintenance of conventional lawns, have made them source of pollution and have raised the environmental awareness on possible impacts of lawns on the urban environment. For example United States is consider as one of the biggest “lawn’s lover” with its 60 million kilograms of pesticides are administered to lawns each year and 1.5 trillion litres of municipal water is irrigated on the grass each summer day.

Lawn is a man-made nature. It was originally cut from wilderness and domesticated by humans over the past 200 years therefore could seen as an Anthropocene artifact. It can clearly show the relationship between man and nature and how humans changed the landscape and converted the “unwanted” and “messy” wilderness to a more “desirable” and “manicured” nature which has caused environmental consequences.


Lawns in Källparken, Sala backe, Uppsala, Sweden . Taken by: Hajar Eshraghi, September 2014

Further Reading

Eshraghi, H. (2014). Lawn as Ecological and Cultural Phenomenon; Understanding of Social, Cultural and Regulatory Motives for Establishment and Management of Lawns in Uppsala. Master thesis in Sustainable Development at Uppsala University

Ignatieva, M. & Ahrné, K. (2013).Biodiverse green infrastructure for the 21st century: from “green desert” of lawns to biophilic cities, Journal of Architecture andUrbanism,Vol:37,No.1,pp. 1-9.

Wood, D. (2006).Green, green grass. Is it a symbol of prosperity, an eco-nightmare, a booming industry or our cultural obsession? ,Air Canada enRoute Magazine, June 2006, pp: 53–56.

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The Windmill

Wind and water are traditional prime movers, strong natural forces able to change nature without any human interference. During the era of Holocene, human civilization developed and thrived. Cultivating the land humans started to change it and explore the natural forces, domesticating them for their own purposes. The windmill technology shows how human ingenuity ever since Antiquity has been able to acquire almost perpetual energy from a natural source.

A Dutch style windmill on an open field can be seen for miles. Its four large sail clad wings proudly capture the wind, producing energy to create mechanical force, facilitating hard work tasks. In medieval agrarian societies and up to the early 19th century, the windmill was a sign of prosperity. When industrialization arrived the traditional windmill was made almost obsolete, and thermal energy from burning fossil fuel took precedence as prime mover. During both world wars there was a shortage of fuel and wind technology was once more explored, only to be discarded when fuel was again plenty. The great oil crisis created a renaissance in the early 1970’s and the technology has steadily evolved since then.

The old-fashioned picturesque windmill cannot solve the need for a constant flow of energy and modern engineering has refined the relatively simple technology to something more effective making the most of exploiting the environmental forces. This evolution allows for large parks of giant turbines transforming the kinetics of wind to humanity’s ever increasing need for electricity.

It also evokes an almost unsolvable dilemma, exposing an issue of the Anthropocene as described by Zalasiewic; this period has broken down the Cartesian dualism between nature and society, resulting in a deep intertwining of the fates of nature and humankind. Nature might appear captured and tamed but the environmental impact is not yet fully understood. When concerning wind turbines placed on open fields or out in the ocean, the basic knowledge of impact is almost absent today.

Another poignant issue is the way humans react when things lose their human scale turning to high-tech. The traditional windmill was a real threat for Don Quijote, but today we see it in the light of nostalgia. The large vistas of wind turbines, planted in the Anthropocene landscape like a new breed of giant one legged birds constantly rotating their wings, evokes conflicting emotions though. Are they visually polluting our landscapes and disturbing nature’s ecosystems, or can they be seen as a vision of sublime technical invention helping humankind to sustainable energy?

In the on-going search for reliable supplies of energy many are reluctant to problematize a source that doesn’t produce waste and is considered environmental friendly. Others query the technology, afraid that the long-term effects on the surrounding landscape and those who live there are not thoroughly examined. When considering that things are getting out of hand, humanity tends to follow Don Quijote, feeling a need to confront any giant intruders. Whether true or imagined doesn’t matter, our quest is to react and call in question to fully investigate the impact of future technologies on global society.

Photographs: Magdalena Midtgaard
Merging and manipulation courtesy of Martin Midtgaard.

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The Potato

The potato was domesticated in the Americas and grown there as food for thousands of years before the Europeans first discovered it in 1537. The potato was brought to Spain from the New World, and from there spread slowly across Europe, where it is today a regular ingredient in many kitchens and dishes. The potato became an important staple crop in Europe and contributed to population growth in the 18th and 19th century; especially among the lower classes where it constituted the primary source of the daily intake of nutrients. However relying on a single staple crop and monocultures to feed the lower classes makes a system vulnerable, which became clear in Ireland in 1845-1852, when the potato crop failed and created what today is known as the Irish potato famine, where about 1 million Irish people died of starvation and poverty.

In the Anthropocene, global temperatures are expected to rise. In Lester Browns book, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (2008), many threats to modern civilization by temperature rises are explained, there among food safety and the security of food systems (2008:48-52). Rising temperatures causes more extreme weather, as floods, droughts and heath waves, and more pests which will lead to lower harvests; which with a growing population could cause both local and global food scarcity. All staple crops, as wheat, corn, rice and potatoes are sensitive to temperatures and at too high temperatures the crop will fail. There would probably also be a rise in global market prices and the effects from future food scarcity are likely not to be evenly distributed among the global population.

The introduction and the success of the potato to Europe could be a representative of Crosby’s ecological imperialism, where the Europeans spreading of species across continents is explained as biological expansion. Very recently an article by Lewis and Maslin (2015) suggested that the spreading of species by the Europeans could be seen as a marker for the start of the Anthropocene, this due to the changes in the natural ecosystems by the introduction of exotic species by human activity as trade and travel. Often the biological expansion leads to native species being affected negatively, and sometimes even goes extinct. The potato, when it became popular throughout Europe, stole the place at the table from the beet, which was before the common staple crop of large part of Europe. The potato has successfully made itself a staple crop in the whole world.

Image credits:
Woman lifting potatoes. Painting by Van Gogh, V. (1885).
By Niek Sprakel from Utrecht, Netherlands
[CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Further readings:

Brown, Lester. 2008. Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. Norton & Company. New York. 397.

Crosby, Alfred W. 2004. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900. Second Edition.    Cambridge University Press. 361.

Lewis, Simon L. and Maslin, Mark A.  2015. Defining the Anthropocene. Nature 519. 171-180.


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The Imagined Anthropocene Disaster Shelter

This is the Imagined Anthropocene Disaster Shelter

The human species certainly have a inclination to construct protective measures. Whether the shelter consists of a tent, cave or a modern underground fall-out shelter, we find them wherever there are humans in the vicinity. This image tries to vizualise the 20th century shelter throughout its lifetime. The purpose of the image is to vizualise how the disaster shelter is constantly re-interpreted in the anthropocenic age depending on what humans consider a threat. Throughout history, humans have gone from stone fortifications to underground shelters to self-surveillance and information control today.

The outer frame, or context, of the image is the city itself; one of the original shelter types made to protect from outside harm. The city is surrounded by a wall and a tower; objects that throughout antiquity and medieval times functioned as protective reinforcement of the city from raids and wars. In the 20th century, during the age of aerial bombardment and nuclear war, the city is more than ever the scene where disaster is played out and the underground shelter is therefore added. The constant fear of disaster, so vivid during the 20th century, is further vizualized by the doomsday clock seen above the city like a sunset. Set to 5 minutes to midnight it reminds the viewer of how humans constantly imagines themselves as living in the age of upheaval and therefore finds motivation to construct shelters of various kinds to protect themselves.

Looking closer at the details, the image is also a timeline from 1947 to 2015. 1947 is the year when the doomsday clock was first introduced in the magazine Scientific American as fears of nuclear war was growing in the general public. Worth noting is that, from 2007 and on, the environmental condition of the earth is also considered when the Scientific American adjusts the clock for each year. The city’s architecture also evolves from stone to concrete to chisel and screens as time progress over the same period, displaying a development from material fortification to digital fortification. Below ground, the shelter follows a similar logic. In the left corner of the shelter, there are art and goldtacks. In the right corner the shelter houses computer servers and surveillance equipment. Somewhere in the middle are we, the human beings of the anthropocene.


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The Kynna Wolf

I see the wolf as an Anthropocene artifact because it is a strong symbol for how complex the relation between humans and nature are. The wolf is one of the most important key species after humans in many ecosystems. There are always a lot of feelings involved when it comes to discussions about wolves. Ethical, philosophical and sometimes even religious opinions are expressed when it comes to the question of wolves existence. There is also a lot of practical scientific questions for example about genetics to solve. At the same time it is a political issue on both local, regional, national and international level.

The wolf is also used as a symbol for wilderness. At the same time we are trying to control the amount of wolves and want to know exactly where wolf families have their territories. Some people even hunt wolves from helicopters. I see that many of us both feels like we are a part of nature at the same time we sometimes stands outside and look at nature or the wilderness as if we are more like strangers in paradise. A paradise we now often talk about as a lost paradise. We note that the traces of humans are everywhere. I fully agree with Cronon as he wrote in 1996 ”the dilemma we face is to decide what kinds of marks we wish to leave”. For example when we choose not to have wolves in the south of Sweden we get a lot of more elks. Elks are eating a lot of plants from pine trees. Now we have the problem that pine tree forests are disappearing from the south of Sweden. It means that a whole ecosystem connected to pine forests also are disappearing. In the end we will have spruce forests where we once had pine forests. All species connected to pine tree forests also disappear.

The Wolf named Kynna came from Norway to the south of Småland in autumn 2010. She lived there for some months, mostly eating elk, and it seemed like she had found herself a territory. The authorities in the county of Kronoberg decided to hunt her. But in the county of Skåne they decided she should be free. 150 hunters in Småland where looking for her during more than three weeks. I might exaggerate when I say that the wolf in Sweden is almost a domestic animal. But Kynna had a collar so everyone could follow her on a map, published by the authorities, at the internet with 30 minutes delay. In the end, she was killed.


/Josefine Gustafsson


The photo is taken in Orsa Rovdjurspark by Magnus Johansson

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Quagga photo (1870)

This photograph, taken by Frederick York in the London Zoo during the summer of 1870, bridges past and future zebras, as well as past and future technologies, while serving as an artefact of the entangled history of imperialism and extinction in the Anthropocene. It shows an unnamed mare standing on a paved surface in the corner of her enclosure. She was the only quagga ever to be photographed alive; in all likelihood none of the five extant photographs were taken in the knowledge that the quagga would be extinct very soon, and that this mare would become representative of her kind.

The story of the extinction of the quagga is one of extremes. At first they were deemed less valuable than more vividly-coloured zebras, and although some were used as draft animals, most were slaughtered for their hides and meat – and to make way for livestock. When the last captive quagga died on 12 August 1883 in the Artis Zoo in Amsterdam, the zoo requested a new specimen to be shipped from what is now South Africa, but by then it was too late – the formerly vast herds of the Cape and Karoo have been destroyed by hunting, colonial settlement and the encroachment of domestic grazing stock. The Governor of the Cape of Good Hope passed the Act for the Better Preservation of Game on 6 July 1886, thereby explicitly prohibiting the hunting of quagga without the appropriate licence, but this almost certainly happened after the extinction of this subspecies of the plains zebra.  The ordinariness of quaggas contributed not only to their extinction, but also to the lack of scientific attention they received while still alive: today only 23 preserved specimens remain in mostly European museums. Their coats show great variation, so it is uncertain just how typical the London mare’s pelt was. In 1984 the quagga became extraordinary when scientists at Berkeley managed to retrieve short sequences of DNA from flesh obtained from some badly-taxidermied museum specimens. The quagga thus became the first extinct animal to have its DNA analysed.

Since 1987 the Quagga Project has had the aim to de-extinct the quagga through the back-breeding of selected zebras. The project is controversial: it can be seen as an expression of econationalism, it entails the relocation of animals and careful management of their reproduction, and it will never be able to recreate the composite herds of quagga, black wildebeest and ostriches which once populated the arid south-western regions of Southern Africa. Although the Quagga Project could be interpreted as an attempt to atone for this and other anthropogenic extinctions, it is deeply ironic that South Africa, a country haunted by its history of racial segregation, is home to a project aimed at reproducing a specific coat phenotype.

Through colonial settlement the Karoo and its inhabitants have been changed irrevocably. The photo of the London mare reminds us of the absence of quaggas, but also warns of the many absences an Anthropocenic future may hold.

Photograph taken in 1870 by Frederick York – in the public domain.

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Robert Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown

While it predates the invention of the Anthropocene term/concept by several decades, Robert Smithson’s artwork Asphalt Rundown (1969) both embodies and scrutinizes key aspects of the Anthropocene.

The basic premise of the artwork is that a truckload of hot asphalt is poured down the steep slope of an open-pit mine. In the fall of 1969, Smithson realized this artwork in an abandoned gravel pit on the outskirts of Rome, Italy. This video shows documentary footage of the artwork and also has voice-over by Smithson and his wife and fellow artist Nancy Holt. The narration gives a nice background to the artwork and Smithson’s interests but the audio quality is poor.

The material components that make up Asphalt Rundown are, by themselves, quintessential symbols of the Anthropocene. Asphalt is a by-product of the manufacture of petroleum, and is an essential ingredient of roadways. As such, it is symbolic of the development of the highway system in tandem with increasing automobile use, part of the legacy of the Great Acceleration. Gravel, too, is used in the creation of roads, both as a road surface in itself and as a substrate for asphalt.

Open-pit mining could also be called an Anthropocene artifact, though the practice is centuries old and thus predates most origin stories for the epoch. Open-pit mining has displaced millions of tons of soil: a vast reordering of the earth’s surface that mirrors the geological impact of humanity that forms the basis of the Anthropocene concept. Open-pit mining literally makes visible geological strata, while also disrupting them.

Smithson’s “action” or performance, the act of pouring asphalt over the edge of an open-pit mine, further disrupts the landscape as well as functionally re-covering the exposed strata. This ambiguous act reflects the mutually destructive and conservationist forms that human impact may take in the Anthropocene.


Photo credit: screen capture from Asphalt Rundown, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1M3HoZpXBc.

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Anti-pollution masks

Since fashion has transformed the meaning of a sweater or a pair of trousers, giving an added value to them, we might forget the fact that clothes are, after all, a self-defense artifact: from the oldest times, we covered our bodies to counteract the hostile effects of the environment.

Nowadays, anti-pollution masks are constantly present in many urban contexts. Some Asian cities have had to deal with the problem of a lack of sufficient stock of anti-pollution masks for the whole population. This demand goes beyond the economic laws of supply and demand; it expresses the desire of a guaranteed human health. The development of new artifacts against the noxious effects of anthropogenic changes responds to a basic survival tactic: we want to breath in an uninhabitable scenario.

In China, the extended use of that protection represents a facial evidence of the Anthropocene. Symbolically, anti-pollution masks could illustrate this shift: humans used to protect themselves against weather’s harshness; now, we are trying to protect our lungs from the implications of our own societies’ development. A species that suddenly starts to realize that themselves are their worst enemy.

The case in a city like Beijing proves that this concern is not hyperbolic. Information about the Air Quality Index (AQI) is constantly checked in smartphone’s apps and shared to the whole population by mass media. The levels of contamination affect the students’ schedule, since classes are canceled when the AQI reaches unsafe numbers: ”For primary kids the limit is 200, while the eldest students are allowed to brave the elements up to 250. Anything above 300 and school trips are called off. The World Health Organisation, meanwhile, recommends a safe exposure level of 25”.

In case we don’t stop the increasing impact of pollution in metropolitan areas, those protections are going to be an accepted part of our outfit.

Perhaps, before long, the self-representation of Western citizens will include, among jeans, t-shirts and skirts, those masks.

Image: “Mandatory Anti-Pollution Measures,” by raizorr818. CC-licensed.

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Oil rig

What makes the oil rig an Anthropocene artefact is that the oil rig can be a link to the geological layers of the Earth and the drilling rig is a machine that creates holes in the earths sub-surface. It can be used to drill water wells, oil wells etc. First humans used the rig to suck oil out of the Earth and now we are trying to pump different stuff back in the soil again to compensate for the damage we have caused. The Anthropocene suggests that humans have affected the Earth to the extent that a new epoch had to be named and the oil rig certainly shows how humans have affected the Earth and the environment.

The American petroleum industry began with Edwin Drake’s discovery of oil in 1859 and from there on the oil industry grew larger. There was a demand for kerosene and oil lamps which by the early part of the 20th century had become a national concern. This demand for oil shows how the Anthropocene had become more apparent through the continued exploitation of the Earth’s resources. (rigsinternational.com) Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer wrote that mankind’s exploitation of Earth’s resources has been astounding:

“In a few generations mankind is exhausting the fossil fuels that were generated over several hundred million years. The release of SO2, globally about 160 Tg/year to the atmosphere by coal and oil burning, is at least two times larger than the sum of all natural emissions. […] 30-50% of the land surface has been transformed by human action; more nitrogen is now fixed synthetically and applied as fertilizers in agriculture than fixed naturally in all terrestrial ecosystems.” (Crutzen & Stoermer, The ‘Anthropocene, 17)

The artefact teaches us that the Anthropocene is an epoch dominated by humans and that during the Anthropocene there have been new mechanical and technological advances which have allowed humans to exploit the Earth more than they perhaps did during the Holocene. Oil rigs also allowed humans to drill further down the Earth’s surface and modern oil rigs can achieve lengths of over 12.000 meters. (rigsinternational.com)

The oil rig certainly is part of the Anthropocene – the age of man, the oil rig can be viewed as one tool that is being used by humans to alter the Earth. Authors Emma Marris, Peter Kareiva, Joseph Mascaro and Erle C.Ellis writes that since humanity started altering the Earth the oceans have become acidified and with the use of fossil fuels we have changed the global climate. They continue with saying that humans have built so many dams that half of the world’s rivers flow is regulated, stored or impeded by human-made structures. The oil rig is part of that human-made structure that regulates the land and seas in trying to find where oil is imbedded. (Marris, Karieva, Mascaro & Ellis, Hope in the Age of Man)

Further reading:
Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, The “Anthropocene”.

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