Archives of Loss
Living with the Anthropocene: Love, Loss and Hope in the Face of Environmental Crisis
by Cameron Muir, Kirsten Wehner, Jenny Newell (eds.)
Published October 2020
Living in and with the Anthropocene is a practice of witnessing – the visible and invisible, the material and immaterial, the local and biospheric, the personal and collective.From ‘Kelp’, by John Charles Ryan in Living with the Anthropocene.
Living with the Anthropocene: Love, Loss and Hope in the Face of Environmental Crisis collects 44 personal essays by Australian writers on the subject of the Anthropocene. These range from two page reflections grieving environmental declines to long-form contributions employing a number of contexts – familial, cultural, biological or taxonomic, ecological, industrial, political – to think about our role in these declines, and how we might act to mitigate them.
The Anthropocene is a designation of the current era of massive, human-driven ecological change. It is a category that has been proposed by scholars, and not yet sanctioned as a geological epoch succeeding the Holocene. There are also debates about how to date it: for example, from the spread of agriculture up to 15,000 years ago, from the start of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century, or from globally increasing resource extraction in the 1950s.
Cameron Muir, Kirsten Wehner and Jenny Newell, the editors of this anthology, provide an overview of these discussions in their introduction. They also note criticisms of the term: for example, that ‘the Anthropocene’ can frame our thinking so as ‘to normalise and foster human hubris, the idea that just as people are destroying the planet, we are capable of “fixing” it.’ Ellen van Neerven offers another perspective in their contribution to the collection, ‘Pose, Your Future Descendants are Watching’, by emphasising that Anthropocene is a ‘dugai’ (whitefella) term; they imply that it imposes a Eurocentric worldview on Aboriginal peoples, who have rich ways of understanding humans’ relations to more-than-human life, and to ecologies under stress. Gilbert Caluya has elsewhere argued that there is a universalism at the heart of Anthropocene discourse, and that it risks reinstating the white liberal subject of the Enlightenment (the suggestion being that historical contexts, with the culpability they bestow on particular groups of people, may be occluded by the term). This anthology’s recognition of ambivalence over the designation only adds to its sophistication. But despite political limitations of the term, it is demonstrably useful in focusing our attention on ecological change and its relationship to human activity over time.
It is easy to fixate on statistics about environmental decline. Here are just a few from this anthology: ‘Even with the 1°C of warming we’ve already experienced, 50 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef is dead. We are witnessing catastrophic ecosystem collapse of the largest living organism on the planet’ (Joëlle Gergis, ‘The Terrible Truth of Climate Change’); ‘Over a twenty-year period in the United States, 900 million – 90 percent – of monarch butterflies were lost and the population of rusty patched bumblebees dropped by 87 per cent’ (Justine Hyde, ‘The End of Abundance’); ‘In the course of my research I was finding over and over again that there were almost no animals left on Earth who weren’t us or the animals we’d bred to serve us’ (Jane Rawson, ‘But How Are We Supposed to Have Any Fun?’); ‘We are now seeing “once in a hundred year” events almost daily, along with news of irrevocable loss’ (Delia Falconer, ‘Signs and Wonders of a New Age’). In her essay ‘The Stories We Tell’, Sophie Cunningham offers a nearly one-page list of animal extinctions to date: though her list is not exhaustive, it intentionally evokes the form of the litany to convey the magnitude of the unfolding disaster. In a recent essay in the Sydney Review of Books, James Bradley asks: ‘Why… do we privilege narratives of collapse over stories of endurance and adaptation in the first place?’ Bradley, who has also contributed to Living with the Anthropocene, muses that we might fall back on representations of environmental crisis in popular American films, which tend to wallow in tragedy. Though there may be a larger question here about our reflexive pessimism, to me this fixation on decline in Anthropocene discourse has been produced by its grounding in news media, which thrives on unfolding calamities.
By contrast, this is an anthology of storytelling that contextualises experience of environments in ecological (rather than anthropocentric) histories, in order to think the future differently. It foregrounds its literariness, showing how writing might embed ideas within our psyche and convince us of their truth, and the urgency of our attentiveness to them. As the editors argue, environmental crises are the result of ‘histories of violence against Earth’s human and non-human inhabitants… from this perspective, the Anthropocene is not primarily about scientific definitions of an era of techno-geographical time but rather about cultural problems.’
Living with the Anthropocene contains eight thematically divided sections; each of these contains at least one excellent essay, often more. The first essays in the collection, Tony Birch’s ‘Having Gone, I Will Come Back’ and Joëlle Gergis’ ‘The Terrible Truth of Climate Change,’ introduce an important theme. Birch narrates the softening of his attitude towards ‘climate grief’. He writes that he initially considered this state of paralysis as an indulgence, when decisive action seemed required. His attitude changes following the death of a beloved younger brother; Birch is caught in his own whirlpool of grief, one that hinders his work and makes him retreat from the social world. This is an essay that probes relationships between collective and personal grief, in order to acknowledge emotional difficulty; the essay then affirms the need to lean on each other to get through grief.
If Birch’s essay is a working through of this feeling, Gergis’ is an expression of it in relation to the facts of climate change, and (again) as compared to personal circumstances: she considers her climate grief against how she felt visiting her father in hospital, following ‘emergency surgery for a massive brain haemorrhage’. A climate scientist, Gergis was one of the Australian lead authors on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) sixth assessment report. She conveys key figures: that a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere compared to pre-industrial levels would produce an estimated 2.8 to 5.8°C of warming – from the latest models, likely closer to 5°C; that with 2°C of warming, ‘a staggering 99 percent of tropical coral reefs [on which 25 percent of marine life are dependent] will disappear’; that even with the Paris Agreement, the global average temperature is predicted to rise by 2.9 to 3.4°C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. ‘Examining the Earth’s climactic past,’ Gergis writes, ‘tells us that even 1.5 and 2°C of warming sees the world reconfigure in ways that people don’t yet appreciate. All bets are off between 3 and 4°C, where we are currently headed.’ Her response oscillates between grief and rage at our inadequate interventions. The former state is conveyed movingly in this paragraph:
Increasingly after my speaking events, I catch myself unexpectedly weeping in my hotel room or on flights home. Every now and then, the reality of what the science is saying manages to thaw the emotionally frozen part of myself I need to maintain to do my job. In those moments, what surfaces is pure grief. It’s the only feeling that comes close to the pain I felt processing the severity of my dad’s brain injury.
While the first three essays directly address the calamitous state of our ecosystems, several later contributions, like George Main’s ‘Hidden Ecologies of a Weatherboard Wall’ and Ashley Hay’s ‘Colours Purple’, approach this state obliquely or associatively. I found some of these the most captivating, in the way they moved from one subject into another (Birch and Gergis do this more locally, by connecting different kinds of grief). Main’s essay opens with a slow visual description of the planks of white cypress pine in the walls of his family property of Retreat, on Wiradjuri country in southern New South Wales. He then traces Wiradjuri and colonial attitudes to this fire-prone tree, and local histories of encounters between Wiradjuri people and pastoralists. Main contends with the violence enacted on Country and the effect of this on its ecosystems; he looks to regenerative agriculture as a way forward – and also a way back, to more holistic relationships to land and environment.
In her highly associative essay, Hay expresses her love of the vivid purple flowers of the tibouchinatree – particularly those ‘on the street that leads from my son’s school to the railway station’ and at her grandparents’ house in Thirroul in NSW. She reflects on the colour’s relationship to climate: the production of mauve in the nineteenth century, as a synthetic dye, using large quantities of coal; the painter Edouard Manet’s claim that the ‘true’ colour of the atmosphere was violet, and Claude Monet’s (more generally, the Impressionists’) representation of the air using shades of indigo; the phenomenon of ultra-violet radiation, and the introduction of the UV index in 1992; the use of purple in Bureau of Meteorology maps to signify extreme heat, above and beyond 50°C. Hay’s short essay uses beauty, as it is embedded in personal memory, to allude to increasing danger.
Nadia Bailey’s poetic ‘The Register of Significant Trees’ begins with purple too, or rather what she describes as the ‘violet-blue’ blossoms of the jacaranda tree, noting (with many qualifying descriptions of its hue) that ‘this colour resists categorisation’. Her essay is a tribute to singular trees: a jacaranda on the grounds of the University of Sydney, which died because of a wood-decaying fungus – the news causing her to weep uncontrollably; the Kalatha Giant mountain ash in the Yarra Valley; and a golden wych elm on Punt Road in Melbourne. Each tree is described tenderly, with minute details of its appearance and way of being. The following is from her entry on the Kalatha Giant:
The trunk is so large you can step all the way inside. Look up: its hollowness soars skyward. At the top, a tiny solar flare… That camphoraceous scent, crineole, fills the air. What you feel when you stand inside is what churches can only aspire to.
Bailey muses that her attentiveness to nonhuman lives stems from her ‘solemn animism’ as a child:
I tasted everything; nature as communion wafer. Rose petals have a delicate quality. The stalk of the oxalis is so sour it triggers an involuntary rush of saliva in the back of the throat. Honeysuckle blossoms hold within them a drop of sweetness. I think of my childhood self, performing daily devotions to the more-than-human world. If it prayed, it was to something almost but not quite abstract. Something tree-like.
‘The Register of Significant Trees’ models a way toward caring about environments, by first noticing them in detail. This appeal, to look carefully at more-than-human life, relates to a narrative device that recurs in a few other essays: that of going on a journey of biological discovery at a particular locale – of looking for. This device is most effective in essays centred on diving, where the authors look for, and find, something in the depths – be it life, or traces of death. These are James Bradley’s ‘A Landscape Already Lost,’ a long essay on cuttlefish and its tentacled relations, and Cameron Allan McKean’s ‘The Horror of a Rubble Reef,’ on witnessing dead and dying coral on the Great Barrier Reef. McKean’s essay contains some of the most memorable imagery in the anthology, including the ghostly figure of a fourth diver ‘who should not be there’. This figure represents for the author ‘the planetary human figure inside … the “anthropogenic” in climate change’. He or she is the universalised ‘humanity’ that is now charged with so much destruction, including of the Great Barrier Reef.
John Charles Ryan’s ‘Kelp’ is another standout, for its artful rendering of scientific knowledge regarding Macrocystis pyrifera (string kelp) and the author’s encounters with it. Ryan conveys his wonder at this lifeform: ‘Likened to biological engines by ecologists, kelp forests are eminently productive and biodiverse. Dense mats of kelp provide nursery grounds for abalone, rock lobster and myriad fish.’ Noting the massive decline of kelp forests across Australia’s Great Southern Reef, due to rising ocean temperatures, and looking for a way to grieve this, Ryan finds ‘archives of loss’ in writing by Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, William Henry Harvey, and Alan Bridson Cribb. Darwin’s ‘conservation message strikes me as eerily prescient,’ he writes: ‘“Yet if in any country a forest was destroyed, I do not believe nearly so many species of animals would perish as would here, from the destruction of the kelp”.’ These archives lead Ryan to an appreciation of ‘the sensuous responses of naturalists to their subjects of study’. He uses such documentation to orient his own engagements with kelp in awe, even as he grieves their decline.
Most of us are still coming to terms with the idea of the Anthropocene. This includes authors in this anthology, who exhibit different levels of sensitivity to connected or otherwise relevant debates, such as around subject positions: who is speaking and for whom. A universalised ‘we’ crops up in a couple of essays, once quite problematically: in a passage about how shocking it is to behold the prospect of ‘our’ extinction for the first time in history – conflating settler and Indigenous reckonings with this. The term ‘landscape’ is used liberally at times, without recognition that it may unwittingly distance us from our environments – as David Brooks has argued elsewhere. An essay advocating closeness to more-than-human life may unreflexively use terms that have historically produced the opposite. These instances in the anthology demonstrate habits of thought that may hinder our ecological engagements, or limit our historical understandings. They show, to cite a truism, that learning is an ongoing process.
Ryan writes that ‘the Anthropocene is a time of pervasive loss and also of profound loneliness.’ This line recalled for me one of the alternative designations the editors list in their introduction. The ‘Eremocene,’ a term coined by the biologist EO Wilson, marks an ‘age of loneliness’ (which strikes an interesting contrast to the very first phrase of the book, referring to humans sympathetic to Anthropocene changes: ‘You’re not alone’), connoting ‘the prospect of a future in which we have extinguished so many of the Earth’s life forms that we find ourselves bereft of most non-human companions.’
Reading the losses arrayed in this anthology to write this review – even as they were tempered by expressions of joy or hope at ecological resilience, or calls for action – I felt somewhat overwhelmed. In that state, I recalled the classic Freudian account of melancholy as a mourning of loss that becomes pathological, because it is perpetual. For those sensitive to environmental changes, it will be challenging to mourn the mounting losses of more-than-human life. We will need to work through our grief together, as Birch argues: otherwise we may be paralysed by melancholy.
James Bradley, ‘The Library at the End of the World,’ Sydney Review of Books, 13 October 2020.
David Brooks, ‘Possession, Landscape, the Unheimlich and Lionel Fogarty’s ‘Weather Comes,’ Cordite Poetry Review, 1 August 2017.
Gilbert Caluya, ‘Fragments for a Postcolonial Critique of the Anthropocene: Invasion Biology and Environmental Security,’ Rethinking Invasion Ecologies from the Environmental Humanities, edited by Jodi Frawley & Iain McCalman, Taylor & Francis, 2014, 31-44.
Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia,’ 1917, translated by Joan Riviere, 1925, PFL vol. 11, 247-268.