Conversations in the Anthropocene

Introducing the Anthropocene
Colin Waters is Secretary of the Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy, the body investigating the Anthropocene as a potential geological time unit. His working group is putting forward a proposal towards the recognition of the proposed new epoch. They started in 2009 and up until last year, they were pulling together all information that was available. “For example the biological changes that have happened are irreversible. Once species are transferred across the planet, you can’t put them in a box and put them back in their indigenous state”, he has explained while being our guest in Delft: “Even things like carbon dioxide, this will last as a signal for thousands of years. Even if we are reducing our carbon emission immediately, we are still looking at emissions which are going to be elevated above natural levels for thousands of years. At the present, there is no indication that we are changing that trend.” The human impact may be like a meteorite impact. At the end of the Cretaceous Period when the dinosaurs became extinct, a spike of iridium (an extra-terrestrial element) changed the conditions on Earth. “You still find a layer of a few millimeters thick which is high in iridium, and we can use that as the basis of the start of the new Paleogene Period following the Cretaceous.” It has been “a state change, a game-changer, to a state which now is very different from what it was before and is not recreatable to a large extent either.” What is our share, as designers?

Architecture is perhaps one that we have not mined sufficiently in the past that can provide information that is new to us and help build the story that we are developing. – Colin Waters

Environmental Agency
In exploring the relationship between local action and global effects, first, I have raised the question of the environmental agency which comes along with conflicts, crises, or any changes in our living environment. Architect Jan Willem Peters had witnessed the generic ways of action by NGOs taken in post-conflict areas. In an alternative community-based strategy he aims for designing and rebuilding a more resilient environment. In my view, both may be seen as outsider’s recovery plans after a global conflict with environmental consequences anyhow. When outsiders come in, they can influence the local culture, or rather, even miss the cultural sensitivity of the area, indeed. Generally, this is seen as a threat. Unaware of localities, outsiders may damage local living environments. Yet, the intent of the NGOs must have been to rebuild better. The human impact may be the same, and not necessarily the outsider is to blame for taking action on different terrain. In comparison, in examples put forward by Christophe Girot in landscape architecture and urban design, this may also be the case when foreign tree species are brought into a certain habitat and become part of the local. When such outsiders come in, they influence the local nature, and likewise, miss the ecological sensitivity of the area. Yet, critics often are less strong. The tree is not accountable. Local nature can adopt these trees, and trees can acculturate. Isn’t this the same with human impact? In understanding human actions across the world, in essence, we can question what is our agency? Assimilation may be a natural process. As support, Girot has emphasised that separating nature from humankind would be a fundamental mistake.

Human Impact
Also, we may question who is local? Girot: “Each problem has different scales of what you can call local and not local. Is it interesting to see who is local to global issues, like climate change? Is it the scientist who is familiar with a certain term? Or is it the people who live on an island with rising sea levels? They are simply local to a different problem. […] Therefore, the key is to identify what you are local to. Now ‘the local’ does not have to be an expert or authority, but a collaboration between people that are local to different problems seems to be the most adequate way to process things.” It means thus that we have to be very careful not to enter as an expert who explains but to understand what our impact, or better our contribution can be. Mutual learning. Still, in an abstract manner, if we allow, in certain cases, foreigners to come in and act more or less independently, and in other cases, to work with communities trying to understand the locality of the territory, can we answer the environmental challenges in the end? More so, if we understand human nature as part of the ecology that we are in, can we then challenge any global issue? In terms of global environmental issues, decisions on a mitigating solution and/or intervention lay on a variety of decision levels, thus with different representatives, in the view of Girot: “This idea that I find is very boastful and very western is the idea that we can control everything.” Godofredo Pereira, an architectural researcher, has repeated that indeed we need to be very careful and resist the temptation to try to find answers for all of them: “I don’t think there is an answer to addressing the climate change at large”, as he has stated. Girot has added: “I think we always manipulate nature and I tend to think that it would be good to think about nature as a human project.” This thought brings us to the concept of the Anthropocene.

The Share of Designers
Clearly, when you label the Anthropocene, you put the human in the centre. Do we understand ourselves? Isn’t humanity part of nature? Still, for designers, the question of ‘if we are accountable’ is not really the issue, because we are. We anticipate the fact that we use our planet in different ways. We act on different systems, as Sabine Mueller has emphasised, while we also use different materials and products, as illuminated by Jan Jongert’s speech. The respective efforts can be to be adaptive to systems and to reuse materials and products. We seem to do the opposite for at least the last five decades of our planet. Colin Waters is arguing that the Anthropocene is a new era on the basis of this observation. He includes multiple perspectives in his research, among others, the material aspects. Yet, can we redirect this by introducing local sensitivity, adaptivity, and circularity? Systems are already altered, and for example, plastics, aluminum, or steel are already present. The Anthropocene may be here, and no matter what designers don’t change this. Even further, an urban architecture practice like Mueller’s, or circular designers like Jongert stimulate the use of non-natural and alien networks or interdependencies and materials to be applied in our environment. It is a matter of accepting that they are already embedded in our world. It is just a matter of rearranging one interdependency or taking one material and put it somewhere else. The common approach may be “a matter of “keeping the ball in the air”, as Mueller suggests. I see it as celebrating the Anthropocene, which means that you keep adding economies and ecologies. Yet also, those practices may be justifying the rate of consumption that we already have and not having an impact on reducing the footprint on the planet, as someone from the audience has reflected. In other words: Is an environmentally sensitive approach to design enough to challenge larger global issues? It must be human nature to continuously change conditions anyway. Though, no matter if true, this does not omit me to express once more my emphasis on the importance of the locational context of design as well as recognition of existing human relationships associated with their realisation. So, [no] Further?

Read below the full stories:
Harteveld, Maurice, Christophe Girot, Jan Willem Peters, Godofredo Pereira, Sabine Mueller, and Jan Jongert (2018) Conversations, In: Towards the Edge of The Anthropocene: [no]Further. (Urban + Landscape Week). Delft: Delft University of Technology, pp. 104-121

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