Material World: Exhibiting the Anthropocene

Glass Beach, photo by Joshua Sortino on Unsplash.

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Introduction

Imagine an archaeologist or geologist of the deep future.
She is at work, intent, uncovering & examining an object or its traces that speaks of our present time.
Peek over her shoulder. What is she looking at?
What object exemplifies our moment on the Earth – & tells how that moment came to be?

Humans have been exerting so much influence on the planet’s workings of late & creating what for all intents & purposes are permanent changes to it, that some have argued we are living in a new age not just in human history, but in Earth history: the Anthropocene.
In winter 2020, students in Western University’s course on “The Anthropocene: History of a Human Planet,” taught by Prof. Alan MacEachern, considered what material object best exemplifies our transition to & present existence in this new age.

The students were creating a physical exhibit of their chosen objects – a toy dinosaur was located, a bag of chemical fertilizer borrowed – when history itself got in the way, in the form of COVID-19.
So the exhibit has moved online.

This project is inspired by Future Remains: A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene, co-edited by Gregg Mitman, Marco Armiero, & Robert S. Emmett, 2018, & by an assignment developed by Tina Loo at UBC. Thanks to them, & thanks to NiCHE for hosting this exhibit.

“The Round” T86 Honeywell Thermostat
Russell Flinchum, “The Round Thermostat,” Cooper Hewitt, 2013.

What’s the weather outside? If you are reading this indoors, you might not know the answer. Up until the nineteenth century, the struggle to keep warm was an ongoing challenge. Fireplaces could only heat the immediate surroundings and required a heavy supply of firewood. By the mid 1850s, however, households in Europe and North America began to adopt furnaces, which burned fossil fuels and pushed heated air throughout the building. In 1885, the Honeywell Corporation introduced the “damper-flapper,” which allowed people to control the exact temperature of their house. The heating system would eventually be combined with air conditioning and ventilation technology to form the modern HVAC unit.

While these systems are usually hidden, one component remains visible: the thermostat. In 1954, Honeywell introduced a smaller, sleeker, and cheaper version of this. “The Round” T86 and successor models quickly became the most common thermostat in homes around the world. The ubiquity of this dial marks significant transitions that occurred by the end of the twentieth century: from fires to furnaces, from wood to fossil fuel, and from open to sealed buildings. Much of the modern world, including the data server this website is stored on, is dependent on the maintenance of these temperature-controlled devices. The thermostat has become an essential but overlooked feature in creating the Anthropocene and climate change. It has provided humans with a level of control that is both convenient and troubling, making the weather outside seem far less relevant that it actually is.

~ Ameena Abid

Rubik’s Cube
Rubik’s Cube, mid-turn. By Diazwerks, Flickr.

The Rubik’s cube, invented by Ernō Rubik in 1974, is more than just a toy. Scientist Douglas Hofstadter called it “an ingenious mechanical invention, a pastime, a learning tool, a source of metaphors, an inspiration.” Since its inception, the plastic puzzle has become an international phenomenon, inspiring a wide range of Rubik’s products that are sold worldwide.

The Rubik’s cube perfectly exemplifies three key aspects of the Anthropocene, a term that refers to the permanent geological impact that modern humans are having on the Earth. Firstly, the Rubik’s cube, being a puzzle, requires complex cognitive skills that Homo sapiens have developed over hundreds of thousands of years. This intellect was necessary to create the tools and communities that eventually allowed humans to dominate the earth. Secondly, the Rubik’s cube is made entirely of plastic, which alludes to the environmental damages caused by the mining and use of fossil fuels, the development of plastic products from those fuels, and the disposal of non-biodegradable plastics. Finally, the international production, distribution, marketing, and sales of the Rubik’s cube points to the role of globalization in creating more products for humans to use and dispose– and more critically in producing greenhouse gases which will leave an irreparable geological imprint on the planet’s systems. Thus, the Rubik’s cube is a crucial artifact of the Anthropocene.

~ Ashley Kwok

Opium

Chalky smoke billowing from ornate wooden opium pipes filled dwellings with a perpetual haze. However, the impact of heating white poppy seeds over burning lamp oil stretched far beyond the four walls of 18th century Chinese opium dens, extending deeply into international affairs.

Prior to this, a lack of demand in China for European exports forced Europe to pay for highly sought-after Chinese goods in gold and silver. Seeking to offset this trade imbalance, Britain smuggled cheaply produced Bengali opium into China. A third of the country’s male population became addicted, filling Britain’s coffers with Chinese silver. When Chinese leaders sought to eliminate the opium trade, Britain responded with military force, setting off two mid-19th century “Opium Wars.” Britain did not loosen its stranglehold on Indo-Chinese trade for another century.

The modern impacts of opium were not felt strictly in the East. Opium’s alter ego, heroin, found widespread purchase in the wake of globalization. The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was met with an American-backed resistance effort funded primarily by the development of heroin refineries. This proxy war produced a power vacuum that was promptly filled by a faction called the Taliban.

Opium, The Drug Users Bible, CreativeCommons.

A trail first blazed by Britain, the use of opium to further political aims has become a well-traveled road. From blatant production to tacit funding, the drug has surfaced repeatedly as a political tool, devastating millions and directing the path of global history.

~ Laila Ackison

Cotton
Cotton branch plant, Pixabay user Erb55, 2016.

If seeking an object as important at the beginning of the Anthropocene as it is in 2020, cotton is ideal. Assuming that the Anthropocene began at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, not the earlier time periods of the agricultural revolution or the Age of Exploration as argued by certain scholars, the desire to speed up and mechanize the processing of cotton led to this very industrialization. After the industrial revolution, cotton remained an item central to human history because of its ties to a variety of other important parts of the Anthropocene. Cotton, a seemingly unobtrusive object, ties into themes of imperialism, slavery and environmental degradation throughout history.

Cotton is still an important resource and is commonly used to fashion garments and bags today. However, it is awater-intensive crop to cultivate which leads to a plethora of other environmental impacts due to its production. Cotton itself is a natural fibre and so will break down quickly, disappearing in the distant geological record. But by its influence in recent centuries, it will have had a permanent impact on the Earth.

~ Rosemary Giles

Telephone
Telephone, Tim G. Photography, 2013.

The telephone carries many different names today, including cell phone, mobile phone, landline, and smartphone. From Alexander Graham Bell’s invention in 1876, the telephone has had a prominent role in the Anthropocene. What started off as a device meant strictly for communication became a device that could surf the web, check emails, record voicemails and do much more. The telephone has allowed many industries to flourish. For example, the telephone in the medical field allowed for general practitioners to consult and deliver care at a distance, allowing for a more comprehensive and safe way of interacting with patients who are at risk. The invention of the telephone became a turning point for society, allowing for more ways to communicate than ever before. However, with every great invention comes the consequences of its existence. As telephones became more popular and manufactures started producing mobile phones in extensive numbers, the effects of its disposal multiplied. The average user keeps a mobile phone for 18 months before discarding it for a new one. With more devices being produced, there is not enough disposal services in order to ensure these devices are being disposed in the most environmentally friendly way. Discarded phones release dangerous toxins if not disposed of correctly and as a result, can be harmful to both humans and the planet. The telephone affects the Anthropocene both by bringing people closer together and polluting the world that they share.

~ Raghed Al-Areibi

1978 Coke bottle
2-litre plastic Coke bottle, New Zealand, 1981. Steve Williams, Flickr.

It is hard to imagine the classic Coke bottle as anything but a container for a refreshing beverage. But it might be time to think of it as a component of a growing threat and permanent mark of the Anthropocene. This contour PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottle was created in 1978 by Coca-Cola, following the company’s switch to non-disposable packaging in the 1960s. The recyclable plastic placed the responsibility of proper disposal on the consumer, all while giving the company a green reputation as concern about plastic pollution rose. Since then, the bottle has grown exponentially in popularity and billions are now sold globally. However, this iconic bottle is also increasingly being found on shorelines, half buried in public parks, and floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. What was once known for being the symbol of refreshing fun is evolving into the symbol of the planet’s plastic pollution crisis. In 2019, the Annual Brand Audit ranked Coca-Cola as the number one plastic polluter in the world. But the responsibility for our world’s plastic pollution cannot be placed solely on corporations. The mass consumption and negligent disposal of these products by consumers is also a large portion of the issue. The combination of individual and corporate impact on the plastic crisis is very consistent with how human action created the other physical marks of the Anthropocene, such as global warming. Only with continued efforts to increase the accountability of corporations, and mindful action by consumers will we begin to address our plastic problem.

~ Lindsay Annis

Big Mac
Big Mac, McDonald’s.

The Big Mac’s satisfying combination of beef, cheese, lettuce, pickles, and a mayonnaise-based sauce has won the appetites of individuals around the world. However, the Big Mac is more than simply a fast food sandwich, it represents the radical, human-generated transformation of our planet. While McDonald’s has been criticized for its role in environmental destruction, it would be inaccurate to describe McDonald’s as a heartless corporation willing to sacrifice anything for profit. In fact, McDonald’s is more praised for its environmental efforts than most of its competitors. It is not the restaurant’s shortcomings that find the Big Mac in our Anthropocene exhibit but the popularity and behind-the-scene costs of producing the beloved sandwich. Like an invasive species, McDonald’s and its famous cheeseburger has served to reduce the diversity of food culture around the world. While this process pertains to a human existence rather than the intermingling of humans and the natural world, the globalization of the Big Mac represents homogenization in the natural world as a result of human domination, a trend that is becoming more rampant as population levels soar. The beef required for the world’s most popular hamburger is problematic, as raising cattle is an exhaustive process on the environment. Producing Big Macs is directly and indirectly responsible for alarming rates of deforestation around the world. Methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and ammonia are all generated by cattle as well. The developed world’s insatiability is essentially represented by the Big Mac. Perhaps a future of lush forests, clean air, and bellies full of Big Macs may not be feasible.

~ Sam Cokes

Internal combustion engine
Engine cover, photo by author Ben Danziger.

Contrary to popular belief, internal combustion engines are not powered by small explosions of gasoline. The modern four-stroke variant engine was introduced in the 1880s, and has been constantly improved since then. The adoption of combustion engines for manufacturing and transportation has been a landmark development in recent history. Today, these engines power anything from lawnmowers to planes; it is not a stretch to say that they power much of the global trade we enjoy today. The internal combustion engine is crucial to the Anthropocene as it has been the backbone of much of the modern world’s infrastructure. Even a common car engine, like the one shown, is relevant to the history of population centres. It was the convenience and growing ubiquity of cars, thanks to their engines, that allowed for the development of suburbs and highways. Even the spacing between houses and roads is an example of how people have factored personal transportation powered by combustion into the building and shape of communities. In an age where there is so much talk of personal consumption, the entire existence of personal transportation is fundamental to the challenges we face today. 

~ Ben Danziger

Tetraethyl lead

Meet one of the most common chemicals of the 20th century: tetraethyl lead. The discovery of this compound was made by chemist Thomas Midgely at the General Motors research laboratory in 1921. As a gasoline and paint additive, it would quickly become a staple of industry in the United States. It allowed US carmakers to focus on building bigger and more powerful engines, even as their European and Japanese competitors focused on more fuel-efficient, economical vehicles. But the reason why this exhibit is a piece of the Anthropocene that I would like to display is because Tetraethyl Lead was also one of the most disastrous scientific developments made in our modern history. By 1970, the chemical was so widely used that it was estimated in the US that up to 5 million metric tons of lead was deposited into the environment, poisoning between 2.3-3.9 million children under the age of 5. Those children were assessed at a level 50 times above the lead tolerance that the Centre for Disease Control deems poisonous today. Although lead was known to have been poisoning industrial workers in the 1920s, the power of industry and capital perpetuated tetraethyl lead’s use on a global level. Even with its ban in most countries around the world, its effects can still be felt in the development of our youth left behind in the contaminated environments of yesterday.

~ Davide Ditaranto

Menstrual products

Long before the invention of modern feminine hygiene products, the Ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian women used cloths and rags to contain their menstrual blood. Over time, women found different ways to accommodate to their menstrual needs. During the First World War, many utilized cellucotton, a plant-based material used as bandages that had been on wounded soldiers. The company that would become known as Kotex was established in the 1920s and by the 1940s was the leader in menstrual products. Before the use of official menstrual products however, most women used non-sterile objects such as cloths which would have left room for infection over time, thus leading to major health problems in a women’s future. The most popular modern feminine hygiene products include sanitary pads, menstrual cups, and tampons. The item shown for this exhibit that exemplifies the Anthropocene is non-reusable menstrual and feminine hygiene products. These products exemplify the Anthropocene especially because it is contributing to the buildup of large amount of plastics being disposed all around the world daily. The plastics from these products also contain toxins that can be harmful to animals as well if digested. Once broken down into smaller particles these plastics are known as micro-plastics. Micro-plastics can be very harmful to animals and fish because once they are digested it can lead to a blockage in the digestive tract of an animal which can cause them to get sick and die. The killing of animals also can lead to extinction of animal species as well.

~ Amber Gadiare

Menstrual products, Flickr, on BC government website.
Coal
Tipple boy, West Virginia, 1908, Flickr Commons.

Coal is a black, flammable sedimentary rock which is burned for energy. It is made from the remains of animals and plants which have been compressed by the weight of the earth over millions of years. This fossil fuel has altered the Anthropocene in many ways, from its effects on societal behaviour to its environmental impacts. Coal became a popular source of energy during the Industrial Revolution, replacing the need for wood for cooking and heating homes. This opened more land for agriculture, and in turn, coal led societies to increase their food security and grow their populations significantly. It also helped advance a consumer behaviour that was driven by ever-increasing advancement in technology. However, as coal became increasingly popular, the environmental impacts became clearer. Surface mining, one of the few methods for obtaining coal, completely alters the landscape of the earth by exposing coal resources with dynamite and destroying the surrounding land. Additionally, the burning of the fossil fuel produces air pollution, particulates, and ash residue. The emissions from combusted coal, such as CO2, contribute to climate change and produces changes in the natural systems of the earth. As humanity begins to recognize our impacts on the Anthropocene, domestic laws and international treaties have been put in place to lessen the use of coal and reduce its harmful impacts. However, until fossil fuels like coal are replaced by renewable energy sources, they will continue to have negative effects on the earth systems.

~ Acadia Bromke

Coke bottle

Coca-Cola Company was recently named the world’s largest contributor to plastic pollution. In its journey from being a popular nerve tonic, to developing into “America’s beverage”, to becoming the world’s most popular soft drink, Coca-Cola has produced vast amounts of plastic pollution from discarded beverage bottles. Because of its ubiquity around the world and its effects on the environment, the Coca-Cola beverage bottle is an appropriate object to represent human impact on the Anthropocene. Such plastics disrupt ecosystems and habitats with their undesired presence, and leave all but permanent relics of our current age on the planet’s geology. According to a study in “Science Advances,” the earth is covered with 8.3 billion metric tons of plastics). The production of plastics is only increasing, so the recycling of plastics needs to yield better results. While there has been some effort from the Coca-Cola Company, the onus is still put on the consumers to improve things and this has increasingly been proven to be ineffective. By holding bigger corporations financially accountable for their plastic production, we can reduce our plastic footprint in this world.

~ Anjana Chirayath

empty Coca-Cola bottle on shore
Plastic Coke bottle, Maria Mendiola, 2019, Unsplash.

Printed circuit board
PCB
Printed circuit board, Dalo_Pix2, CreativeCommons.

Few inventions of the last century have enabled more human progress than the printed circuit board (PCB). Often referred to as the ‘motherboard’ of the computer, the PCB serves as the nervous system of all electronic devices and forms the basis of our global information society. Unfortunately, the precious metals involved in its construction are environmentally damaging in both their extraction and disposal. Rare minerals such as ‘coltan’, a vital component of all cell phones and computers, are mined in countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they fuel violent conflict between rebel factions and reduce habitat for critically endangered species. On the other end of the supply chain, electronic waste is the fastest growing waste stream in the world, reaching 44.7 million tonnes in 2016, or 6.1 kilograms for every person on earth. PCBs are dismantled and resold as scrap metal by informal workers in the developing world, poisoning communities and local ecosystems with heavy metals and toxic organic pollutants. Although some theorists claim that the electronic revolution has enabled our society to consume fewer resources through greater efficiency, there are others who claim that the production and disposal of electronic products imposes externalized costs on developing societies in a process known as ‘toxic colonialism’. The ambiguous legacy of the PCB as both an economic blessing and ecological curse is the same paradox which lies at the heart of the Anthropocene: the hard truth that progress always comes with a price.

~ Gareth Gransaull

Forest harvester
Pika 75 harvester, brochure in Museum of Lusto, Finland website.

The Harvester is a mechanized vehicle capable of cutting, debarking, trimming, hauling, and transporting lumber. Since its invention, lumber production rates have soared across every country that employs these machines. Sakari Pinomäki, a Finnish company, built the first PIKA in 1973, creating a multi-function harvester machine. Its invention meant that the lumber process was no longer a multi-step and mult-tool workload needing a lot of manpower.

Lumber efficiency has increased globally by an average of 4% per year since 1973. Now, the forests of the world are at great risk to be easily cleared by fleets of harvesters, and countries have undertaken new forestry policies to ensure the protection of their forests

With this new power humanity has discovered in the harvester, a newfound responsibility is needed to maintain the forests in the Earth. As such, not only is the harvester a decisive machine for the Anthropocene because it gives human new dominance to the earth, it has forced humanity to reevaluate its own perceptions and policies of the Earth’s resources.

~ Mikkiel Habash

Toy dinosaur

The toy dinosaur represents a transformational shift to the use of plastic. Historically, toys were made of natural material that decomposes over time, such as wood, terracotta clay, or fabric. The modern toy consists of plastic and will not disappear over time. The switch is due to convenience for the manufacturer and the consumer. Making plastic toys is significantly less time consuming, and it allows for the use of one mold indefinitely. Consumers pay less for the product and are less worried about the child damaging it. When it comes to disposal, such toys simply go in the garbage. In a landfill, the plastic slowly separates into small microplastics. These pieces spread throughout the planet. These plastics play a significant part in the Anthropocene.

An apparent irony of plastic dinosaurs is the concept of dinosaurs dying, turning into petroleum, and then being turned into tiny versions of themselves. However, the basis for this myth relies on a common misconception of plastic coming from dinosaurs. First, there were not enough dinosaurs to produce the volume of oil people consume. Second, oil comes from marine organisms, so dinosaurs live in the wrong habitat. However, a great irony of plastic dinosaurs does exist. It signifies that the human race’s move towards disposable plastics is one step to humans becoming the dinosaurs themselves.

~ Erin Hall

Infant formula

Upon closer examination, bottled infant formula – a seemingly innocuous object of modern times – can reveal many characteristics of the Anthropocene, an epoch in Earth history characterized by an unprecedented level of human-driven change to the environment and increasing global inequality.

File:Infant formula.jpg
Infant formula, National Institute of Korean Language, CreativeCommons.

First, the purpose of bottled infant formula reveals a key element of the Anthropocene: humans seeking to replace natural processes through chemical manipulation and new substances. In this way, bottled formula demonstrates the sentiments that humans in this new era hold towards innovation and modification. The rising popularity of a synthetic, chemically manufactured, environmentally damaging milk option over that of breast milk, a virtually emission-free method of feeding infants, is indicative of the Anthropocene.

Second, that the object requires mass production from the dairy industry and involves the use of plastic and waste, demonstrates the human impact on the environment – a key attribute of the Anthropocene.

Finally, the distribution of formula exemplifies the inequality crisis of the Anthropocene. The ill-considered introduction of manufactured formula to the Third World, where unsanitary feeding conditions resulted in higher infant mortality, raises important questions of agency and global inequality in this new epoch. Infant formula, created by developed nations and forced onto developing nations with drastic effects, exemplifies well the Anthropocene and the unequal nature of human impact and thus responsibility for it.

~ Emma Hewitt

Nitrogen fertilizer
Glasson fertilizer, company website.

Nitrogen fertilizer is one of the most detrimental objects on our planet, due to its overuse. It was developed thanks to the Haber-Bosch process which, first commercialised in 1913, creates ammonia via reacting nitrogen with hydrogen under high temperatures and pressure in a metal catalyst. This has allowed mass production of fertilizer that increases crop yield, which has helped sustain our growing population. As energy historian Vaclav Smil writes, “With average crop yield remaining at 1900 levels the crop harvest in year 2000 would have required nearly four times more land and the cultivated area would have claimed nearly half of all ice-free continents.” However, the major problem with nitrogen fertilizers is their overuse, which leads to eutrophication. Overused fertilizer not taken up fully by crops, and runs off into waterways, leading in algae blooms which decay and starve all life there, such as fish, of oxygen. The result is a dead zone. Beyond the direct killing of fish, eutrophication threatens the food supply and livelihood of those who rely on fish, and damages fresh water supplies. Overall, nitrogen fertilizer has a place in our museum due to its misuse having a dramatic impact on living beings – human and otherwise – on the planet.

~ Louisa Jordan

Coal
Coal, Jeff Beall, Flickr.

Coal is one of the most important fossil fuels in the world. It is a solid, carbon-rich resource that forms over millions of years, as dead plant remains get buried and are altered due to the heat and pressure they are exposed to below the Earth’s surface.  Archaeological evidence suggests that coal was first mined in Ancient China for iron production, and later used in North America and Europe for decorative purposes. For much of human history, coal was not used to produce energy. It gained popularity as a fuel during the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, first in Great Britain and then throughout the world.  Increasing populations and the shift from manual to machine labour created a high demand for coal to fuel furnaces and steam engines.  Since the Industrial Revolution, coal has become humankind’s main source of energy globally.  Coal exemplifies the Anthropocene as the human use of coal has had significant impacts on both the climate and the environment.  The burning of fossil fuels such as coal releases carbon dioxide (CO2) into the Earth’s atmosphere.  Increased atmospheric CO2 levels has led to increasing global temperatures, resulting in more extreme weather, rising sea levels, and habitat and species loss.  Environmental issues such as damage to waterways, air pollution, land segregation and the disposal of mining waste are also significant results of mining coal.

~ Julianna Conway

Pet food
Advertisement for Gro-Pup, Ladies’ Home Journal, 1889.

Around the world, pets are seen as part of the family. Dogs and cats, since their domestication 15,000 and 8,000 years ago respectively, have become “man’s best friends.” Though they once depended on food from wild sources, slowly but surely, pets’ diets changed to reflect their new living situations. Starting in the late 1700s, an industry to feed domesticated animals was created. From table scraps to leftover horse meat to “fortified biscuits,” dog and cat food changed slowly over 200 years. However, pet foods gained traction once companies were able to convince owners that their animals would be better off eating food explicitly made for them. By the 1950s, the pet food industry was pouring millions of dollars into marketing techniques aimed at pet owners. With the support of veterinarians, companies were able to convince a large portion of the population that they should be feeding their beloved pet the proper nutrients to prevent dietary imbalances. Now, the pet food industry is valued at over $94 billion. To keep up with demand, companies use animal byproducts to “reduce waste” and provide protein-rich food sources. Unfortunately, large amounts of waste come from mass production. Pet food has a large carbon footprint and not only plays a significant role in the growing food shortage but also contributes to overproduction.

~ Madison Lipson

Cigarette
“Fun that May Kill,” Harper’s Young People, 1879.

The Anthropocene is defined by scientists as a time in the Earth’s history characterized by humanity’s impact on the environment. This impact is largely because of the production and use of items such as the cigarette. The cigarette was invented in 1865, and with it came a rise in the production of tobacco, which led to increases in deforestation, chemical pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and water consumption. Tobacco is one of the world’s greatest contributors to worldwide deforestation, thanks to forests being cleared for tobacco plantations, wood being burned to cure tobacco leaves, and more wood being needed to create cigarette paper and packaging. The farming of tobacco produces chemical pollution, with the soil and farmers becoming diseased as a result of excessive use of harmful insecticides, growth regulators, and herbicides. Even the British American Tobacco Company estimates that the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions being released due to tobacco equals the amount of emissions of nearly three million transatlantic flights. What’s more, a great deal of water is needed to produce the world’s cigarette supply. It is estimated that the energy consumption of all tobacco companies is enough to produce two million automobiles, and the Altria Tobacco Company alone is said to have used 36 million litres of water in a water-stressed area in 2014. Finally, the environmental impact of cigarettes extends beyond the product’s creation and use: it is also of the world`s most littered objects.

~ Korey Morgan

Light bulb
Incandescent light bulb, Edison General Electric Co., 1891, photo Harrold Dorwin, Smithsonian.

Pictured above is the first incandescent light bulb, invented by Thomas Edison in 1879. The incandescent light bulb was transformative in the late 19th and 20th centuries, leading to the change from gas lighting to electrical lighting. This change contributed to the introduction of the light bulb to the home, which was exported on a mass scale across the globe. These early models were very inefficient, leading to the overproduction of electricity, contributing to excessive greenhouse gases being produced. In the UK in 2010, it is estimated that 900,000 tonnes of wasted CO² emissions were produced every year because of these inefficiencies. Multiplied on a global scale and this has catastrophic consequences.

Light has also essentially removed the night-and-day divide that had previously been in place leading to 24/7 global metropolises that constantly work and produce greater pollution.The incandescent light bulb also effects local ecosystems, mostly through light distractions and pollution. Twenty percent of all land in the world is heavily polluted by light which has disastrous effects on wildlife. For example, turtles are attracted to shoreline lights instead of the sea and are picked off by predators. In extreme cases, light can threaten the survival of some species. Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, there is some argument that there is a loss of biological consciousness and understanding of humanity’s place in the universe due to not being able to see the night sky. Ultimately, the light bulb was crucial to the development of the Anthropocene.

~ Henry Murray

Global Positioning System
Constellation of GPS satellites, by Paulsava, Wikimedia Commons.

Today, Global Positioning Systems (GPSs) are ubiquitous. They give us the ability to navigate anywhere in the world in real-time. The GPS was first created by the United States military as a means of tracking their nuclear submarines, but its practical applications soon pushed it towards commercial markets. Upon its release in the 1990s, the GPS quickly became heavily integrated in the shipping industry. It was an invaluable tool for managing supply chains. As the technology improved, the GPS became widely available to the average consumer. It was soon a staple on car dashboards and cellphone home screens.

Now a fixture in any business transaction, the GPS has become a symbol for the level of consumerism that has brought about the Anthropocene, and without it modern supply chains would collapse. In the US alone, Amazon ships upwards of 2.5 billion packages every single day. Ensuring each one contains the right products and ends up in the correct location requires real-time knowledge of each parcel’s location. Precise exchanges, timed to the minute, have introduced a level of operational efficiency that allows for the seamless distribution of shipments. In doing so, the GPS facilitated the capitalist network that consumes and wastes the planet’s natural resources. While not directly responsible for the destruction, the GPS hastened the effects of the Anthropocene by creating the conditions needed for the rapid movement of goods and materials. The GPS’s abilities are therefore a double-edged sword, as useful for generating a profit as they are for generating a route.

~ Tarquin Opperman

Animal husbandry

Animal husbandry is the practice of raising animals to produce food. Indeed, domesticating livestock more than ten thousand years ago meant that early hunter-gatherers could obtain a nutritionally stable diet. But at what cost? Well, simply, at the cost of a healthy Anthropocene. Farming revolutions in the 1960s transformed meat from a means of survival to a commercial good. Consequently, farms grew, and production intensified, causing severe impacts. A near five-time increase in the consumption of animal products over the last 60 years has created human health risks. Higher consumption of red meat and animal products lead to elevated risk for heart disease, type two diabetes, certain cancers, and obesity. Additionally, amplified production can mean overly dense farms and poor sanitation, resulting in animal-borne diseases like salmonellosis, influenza, and Mad Cow Disease. Perhaps most disastrously, the livestock industry now rivals the largest greenhouse gas emitting industries, spewing 8.1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. Livestock and their feed crops use half of all habitable land, making them the leading force in deforestation. In this sense, humans are trading biodiverse regions and threatening the survival of one-quarter of all species for the ease of eating meat. Is this trade worth the price? Animal husbandry is greatly affecting the Anthropocene, by harming the health of humans and the environment.

Day 2 of 8
Beef, photo by Tallok, CreativeCommons.

~ Megan Parno

Sea glass
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Sea glass, Massachusetts, photo by Paul W., CreativeCommons.

Sea glass is broken glass that has been physically and chemically weathered through prolonged exposure to oceanic surf, symbolizing the final resting place of glass materials. Since glass takes over 1 million years to decompose, it embodies the Anthropocene both as a permanent reminder of contemporary humans’ influence on the planet and as a symbol of the role glass has played in civilization’s technological advancement.

Professor Jeffery Schnapp has said that the “history of materials is one with the history of civilization,” Sea glass is unique in \ that it represents the past, present, and future of human civilization, over the course of which we developed the capacity to influence the natural world around us. Glass was an indispensable material to the first trade exchanges among classical civilizations, it was used in many of the instruments and discoveries of the Scientific Revolution, and it was a key component of the industrial production processes developed during the Industrial Revolution. Sea glass found today reflects the importance of glass in modern production and supply chains. Finally, sea glass represents our potential for a more sustainable future. By reclaiming and reusing sea glass in upcycled products, collectors are reassigning value to a waste product and extending the material’s useful life. Due to its inert nature, it is also a fundamental material of the circular economy and other imagined forms of sustainable capitalism and production.

~ Madison Pasternak

Watt steam engine
Watt steam engine, 1788, Science Museum, London, Encyclopedia Britannica website.

The Watt steam engine was first patented in 1769 by Scottish inventor James Watt. Unlike previous generations of steam engines, the Watt engine contained a critical new component—the crankshaft, which allowed for the up and down movement of a piston to be converted into a rotary motion. This was an important technological breakthrough because it expanded the possibilities and the number of uses for the steam engine. Many modern-day methods of transportation including the automobile, trains and even airplanes rely on the use of combustible fossil fuels to power rotary motion as they propel forward. The Watt engine was also much more efficient than its predecessors as it did not require cooling with cool water between each stroke. Watt and his business partner and financial backer Matthew Boulton were aware of the fact that their product had great potential. In a conversation with King George III Boulton described Watts’s invention simply as “power”. The advent of the Watt steam engine is a perfect example of an object which exemplifies the Anthropocene as its groundbreaking improvements would allow the human race to have a much larger footprint across mother earth. In the decades and centuries following the invention of the Watt engine transportation options greatly increased, whole new industries were born, larger sums of fossil fuel resources were extracted, and the production of goods of all kinds exploded.

~ Chris Poulos

Menstrual products
Menstrual products, photo by Marco Versch, 2019, CreativeCommons.

In the 1920s, an ad appeared in magazines promoting a revolutionary product: a disposable sanitary napkin. It was made from cellucotton, a material used by nurses during WWI. The product became an instant must-have for many women, who following the war had joined the workforce and therefore needed an item on-the-go that could be disposed of discreetly during the day. A decade afterward, another product was marketed to help women deal with their period: the tampon, which was patented by Tampax in the 1930s. Due to increased availability in stores of these new disposable menstrual products, and excellent marketing campaigns, more and more women abandoned their home-made methods of absorbing menstrual blood, such as rags. These new products became a staple of women’s hygiene. Unfortunately, the disposability of pads and tampons, while they offer an advantage to the modern woman, also have terrible impacts on the environment, contributing to pollution and the increasing climate change that we are currently experiencing. Most pads and tampons are made of – and individually wrapped in – plastic. The plastic contained in these products can take thousands of years to decompose, and in the meantime, they can pollute the oceans and end up in the stomachs of fish, finding their way back to us through the food chain when we consume fish. The plastic and chemicals contained in pads and tampons, when they reach the landfills, can get soaked up by the soil, affecting the food that we eat and the water that we drink.

~ Marcella Puggioni

Palm oil
Palm oil and ape, collage by author Alison Rodowa.

Palm oil exemplifies the Anthropocene as humans have taken this commodity and created a destructive industry that is permanently affecting how our planet looks and functions. Palm oil use dates as far back as 3000B.C. Today, palm oil is used in a range of everyday products such as food, shampoo, soap, cosmetics, detergent and biodiesel. Its production takes place in tropical parts of South America, Africa, and Asia. The industry has led to deforestation, biodiversity loss and climate change. Remarkably, palm oil production takes up 10% of all global land used for crop production. Forests are clear cut and burned to make room for palm oil plantations. Although representing a limited proportion of global deforestation in terms of area, palm oil plantations create an excessively large proportion of global warming emissions as they tend to be established on former swamp forests. Trees are natural carbon sinks, so the act of burning the trees both releases CO2 into our atmosphere and ends the forest’s capacity to sequester carbon. The end result is more greenhouse gases in the air, and so a warming planet. Palm oil prodution also leads to biodiversity loss as a vast number of animals housed in these tropical forests, such as orangutans, are losing their natural habitats/ecosystems. The deforestation, biodiversity loss, and climate change caused by the palm oil industry make it the perfect symbol of the Anthropocene.

~ Allison Rodowa

Plastic water bottle
Water bottles, Washington, DC, photo by MR. TinDC, Flickr.

Plastic bottles have come to form part of our everyday lives. The material from which plastics are made, synthetic organic polymers, have become an indispensable part of our world because of their usefulness and versatility. Plastic water bottles are made from polypropylene, a form that is dangerous because its light density allows it to float in water and not degrade. Our oceans and lakes, grasslands, and rainforests are being lined with plastic waste because of our dangerous human tendencies. The plastic water bottle is an object that exemplifies the Anthropocene, an age where human activity dominates Earth’s processes.

Perhaps you are someone who purchases plastic water bottles regularly, as opposed to drinking tap water or seeking out alternative, environmentally friendly, water filtering devices. Too many humans become increasingly lazy and ignorant. We don’t bother to seek eco-friendly alternatives or to understand the deeper impacts of our actions. And so, plastics like those used to make a plastic water bottle have become so widespread in the environment that they will long be a marker of our geological age. Rather than the Anthropocene, it might be just as appropriate to call our time the Plasticene.

~ Naomi Rubenzahl

British pound
British pound coin, unknown photographer.

Russian-American writer Ayn Rand once famously said that “money is only a tool.” By saying this, she implicitly recognized the possibility that currency could provide for innovation, motivation, and development of society. My object is the British Pound, which during the Industrial Revolution in Britain played a pivotal role in the free flow of capital, development of business, and overall economic growth. Three points help to demonstrate the importance of the British pound to the Anthropocene. First, the pound’s importance rested largely – at the time and as it does today – on the psychological motivation it provided for workers. Second, the development of country banks throughout England distributed more capital into the hands of the people, who, with the power to borrow money, could finance their companies and so increase industrial productivity. Third, the accumulation of British national debt during previous times of war had redirected capital and investment away from bonds and into private industry. Thus, it was not the development of the pound per se that was so important to the Anthropocene’s rise, but rather how the pound was used by humans at a specific time in history. The use of the pound to fund businesses that would go on to contribute to humanity’s impact on earth, including oil drilling and large-scale factories, should not be overlooked.

~ Josh Shenker

Coffee

Coffee has become a daily ritual for millions of consumers around the world as a result of globalization. Therefore, coffee can be used as an example to represent the unethical sourcing and environmentally damaging processes of globalization. These processes have come to represent the Anthropocene because of their historical and continuing high environmental impact. Coffee highlights the benefits of globalization through its convenient access and cheap price. These benefits only serve to attract consumers, making them ignore globalization’s high environmental and human cost. By continuing to buy this product, consumers have chosen to prolong the unethical practices involved in coffee cultivation, such as soil depletion, clear-cutting, and the vast use of fossil fuels.

Borden’s coffee ad, Ladies’ Home Journal, 1889.

It is through these practices that coffee has become involved in the Anthropocene. Still, consumers can lessen coffee’s environmental and human impact by practicing ethical consumerism, which allows consumers to shape how the market functions with their purchasing power. If more consumers buy environmentally friendly and ethically sourced products, more companies will sell these products. Regarding coffee, this involves looking for a product that employs direct trading with its growers; this is a process that ensures environmentally friendly growing practices and fair wages by directly with the coffee farmers. Unlike fair trade, direct trade has regulations that enforce sustainable growing practices that farmers must follow to keep their increased and fair profit through the direct trade label. It is human choices that have come to create the Anthropocene, and while direct trade will not stop all of coffee’s environmental impacts, such as the use of fossil fuels for transportation or of single-use plastics, it will lessen it. Even small choices can make significant impacts regarding the future of the Anthropocene.

~ Tyler Smart

Banana-flavoured amoxicillin

Getting children to take medicine can be a difficult job. It’s hard to convince a child of the pain-relieving and life-saving properties of something that tastes so bad. Since young children are especially vulnerable to disease and illness, artificial flavourings are used to make medicines such as cough syrups and antibiotics more palatable. One such example is banana-flavoured amoxicillin, one of the most popular flavours of the liquid antibiotic. Developed in 1958 and first used in 1972, amoxicillin is one of the most commonly used antibiotics for ear, nose, throat, and respiratory infections. Making sure children (and adults) finish their full course of antibiotics therapy is important for preventing the development of bacterial resistances and superbugs. Already, resistance has made some of our antibiotics powerless. The problem of making medicine that children will take has been mostly solved using artificial flavourings. In addition to banana, amoxicillin is available in cherry, wild-fruit and strawberry. Even if many children or adults could not remember amoxicillin’s name, the flavour of the antibiotic is familiar and nostalgic. Referred to just as ‘banana medicine,’ banana-flavoured amoxicillin is symbolic of two aspects of the Anthropocene. First, it speaks to our dominance over microscopic pathogens as a result of antibiotics and vaccines, which has increased our lifespans but also altered the Earth’s microbiomes. And second, it reminds us that the food science of artificial flavouring has changed the way we eat —and even take medicine.

~ John Mich Ward