Let me take you down to the Cooks River for a while. It’s a small river system in innerwest Sydney, now running in a rough curve from Bankstown through Strathfield, flowing into Botany Bay just below Sydney Airport. Totally urbanised, in many places rechannelled and lined with concrete, it is at the same time full of persistent and diverse life; crabs, mangroves, ibis, cormorants, mullets, rats and humans all call the Cooks a certain sort of home. Sometimes it stinks, independent of weather patterns and tidal flows, and sometimes it is glorious, especially when the dusk or dawn is near. I avoid the Cooks in the stark daylight, as it gives too much exposure to the trolleys, plastic litter, and clunky riparian banks. The diffuse points of pollution that contaminate the river render it tricky to rehabilitate. Sewers leak all manner of chemicals that might delimit thriving, vivid biomes.
The compromised environmental health of this river reflects global scale environmental dilemmas. And social dilemmas, too, as the colonial forces, captured in its dead white man’s name, continue to dominate the management of this river today. Some native plants have been replanted along the shoreline in recent years, but the Cooks is a long way from decolonised. It’s strange that despite our knowledge of river systems, and how to make them healthy, we haven’t managed to fix this valued waterway. Sure, this urban river is better than it was, but don’t swim in it, or eat too many of those fish you see in the green-brown waters. The accumulated heavy metals in their flesh shouldn’t be ingested. We know the interventions that might render the Cooks well again – yet the social and cultural problems that continue to shape it somehow seem intractable. And reflect what’s happening in the so-called Anthropocene.
In 2005, the American indie singer-songwriter Smog wrote an album entitled A River Ain’t Too Much to Love. The album works as a metaphor for a turbulent relationship, not unlike aspects of humanity’s current troubled relations with the earth. I wonder whether the Cooks actually is too much to love? On a bigger scale, is Earth, and all its biological, atmospheric, lithospheric, geormorphic complexity, also too much to love?
It’s strange that despite our knowledge of river systems, and how to make them healthy, we haven’t managed to fix this valued waterway.
Five years earlier, in 2000, Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ as a way of capturing the scope of human induced global environmental change. We have moved, the Anthropocene Working Group argues, from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. Rather than humans being only subject to global forces of change, including the geologic, it is now proposed that we are also agents of such change. While proposed start dates of this new epoch range from the start of early agriculture to the Industrial Revolution to the atomic tests of the 1940s, the declaration is used to describe the scale, breadth and depth of the way we are interfering in multiple systems of which we are simultaneously subject to. Human interference is evident in reduced biodiversity levels, and in climate change; we are already seeing signs of a mass extinction event seemingly happening around us, and the effects of a warming climate across the planet’s oceans and land.
The term is not yet universally recognised by scientific bodies, but since its emergence, those concerned with sustainability and humanity’s impact on Earth have expressed a range of emotional responses including hope, grief, anger, frustration, confusion, denial. Us humans? Agents of geologic change? Forging global environmental change by our capitalist consumption?
Nope. That’s impossible. Must be an overshoot, or a conspiracy.
Or: Yep. We’re done for, and so is Gaia.
Sometimes a third path is sought, a ‘maybe’ space where people aren’t sure where they want to sit on this big question.
Leonard Cohen sang, ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in’. Of late, I’ve been looking, far, wide and with purpose, for these cracks. Because the light must get in, and it does, as Cohen said it should, whenever things get too much, too rough. Hope in darkness? That’s what the light should be giving. The impossible Anthropocene that many say we’re in – geologists, social scientists, and humanities folk alike – begs for an opening within its global, omniscient framing.
As a geographer, lucky enough to be employed in a university where I get paid to teach and think and write about ideas like the Anthropocene, I’m conscious that what resonates in the academy might not elsewhere. So I spend time talking with friends and family about big ideas to see how they track. While having dinner with some friends in Brisbane recently, one a lawyer and the other an archaeologist, I was asked about the title of my talk scheduled for the following day. ‘Digital justice in the Anthropocene’ conjured aptly blank faces. What’s the Anthropocene? They asked, and we refilled our wine glasses.
The impossible Anthropocene that many say we’re in – geologists, social scientists, and humanities folk alike – begs for an opening within its global, omniscient framing.
The Anthropocene idea has begun to enter popular culture, albeit in a modified form. The song ‘Anthrocene’ on Nick Cave’s 2016 album Skeleton Tree (recorded and partly rewritten after the untimely death of Cave’s son) captures his personal grief entangled with fear for a changing planet:
Here they come now, here they come
Are pulling you away
There are powers at play more forceful than we
Come over here and sit down and say a short prayer
A prayer to the air, the air that we breathe
And the astonishing rise of the Anthrocene.
The lyric ‘Powers at play more forceful than we’ talks of a father’s harrowing loss of a child, and then he ties it to the ‘astonishing rise of the Anthrocene’: grief, shock, awe together again. This song, embedded in an album full of sadness, links the personal to the global in a way that is echoed by rational scientists not used to sharing such pain in public spaces. The terms ‘anthropocene’ and ‘anthrocene’ have been around since the 1980s, but Cave gives it a resonance that’s hard to ignore.
There is hope that awareness of the human impact on the earth will translate into human action to mitigate it; this hope is one of the most significant cracks in the Anthropocene, one that might allow some light in. Accompanying this hope, though, is a touch of narcissism in our self-elevation as agents of geological change, part of the modernist tendency to continually place humanity outside of, or above, natural processes. The scope of the dilemma that we find ourselves in, as agents of global environmental change, could render us inactive; a sense of helplessness might creep under one’s skin when we simply globalise problems that have real regional, national and local-scale manifestations. At the same time, we need to engage with this global problem with global solutions, and change the systems that brought us to this point.
Take the case of plastic bag bans: valiant efforts to stop plastic bag consumption in one part of the world might seem futile and ridiculous when compared to the relentless single-use plastic consumption in others. Australia relied on this sort of argument for decades to rationalise not doing anything significant about climate change. Our governments have argued on a range of national and international stages that there’s no point and no need for us to act since we’re small stakeholders and, anyway, what about everyone else? Such puerile arguments have been debated and rebutted, but echoes of the sentiment remain in political responses to multi-scale environmental crises.
We have to imagine ourselves as capable of doing better before we actually can act in such a way. Geographer Lesley Head, in her compelling 2017 book Hope and Grief in the Anthropocene, says we need to ‘re-imagine humans as a force for environmental good, or at least not essentially bad or damaging, as some of the Anthropocene framing suggests.’ Here’s where the hope really flies in, like Emily Dickinson’s thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and never stops singing at all. If we reposition ourselves as having constructive agency, as proponents for doing more good than harm, then the possibilities of environmental catastrophe might be mitigated.
Come back along the Cooks River with me. It’s a contradiction, damaged and yet beautiful. You can walk along its clearly compromised length and see people kayaking and fishing there. You can walk along the Cooks’ visibly contaminated channel and still feel refreshed from its presence. If you stop at the right inlets, you’ll see red-clawed crabs scurrying into their holes and mullets that congregate where the Wolli Creek enters the Cooks. Jellyfish can be spotted on some days, a reminder of the estuarine qualities of the river; fish jump out of its murky shallows on occasion too.
You can walk along the Cooks River’s visibly contaminated channel and still feel refreshed from its presence. It’s a contradiction, damaged and yet beautiful.
So what are we capable of? In Australia we see grassroots initiatives taking up renewable energy as an environmental and economic gesture, even in the face of governments determined to stick to the old ways. Australians have individually taken to solar power in large numbers. As of mid 2016, approximately 16.5 per cent of households have solar panels providing energy to their homes. Australia leads the world with this proportion of households using solar panels. Federal and state government policy, including rebates for solar power installation and tariffs to houses feeding electricity back in to the grid via solar power production, has facilitated this. But community groups such as Repower and Solar Citizens have also played a role in helping to facilitate this widespread uptake. A blend, then, of grassroots driven action and government policy has produced a more sustainable energy future. One that is disrupting ‘traditional’ energy supply, to an extent, as we reduce our energy consumption, generally, and increase our renewable energy consumption, specifically. It’s not that we’re incapable of change, of moving to a more just and sustainable future where we wind back our ecological footprint. In some ways we’ve done so already.
An example of constructive intervention for the greater environmental good is the crowdfunding campaign that rendered the Climate Council a viable, independent institution. Tony Abbott swiftly defunded the Climate Council’s predecessor, the Climate Commission, when he came to office in September 2013. It was one of his first decisive – and foolish – acts as Prime Minister. The commissioners, led by the celebrated Tim Flannery, said that they would work pro bono to continue the important work of translating global level climate change science for Australians. Social media exploded with a range of emotional responses – some delighted that the Council would go on, most disappointed and outraged that government funding for an important institution was cancelled. Clearly there were more people supportive of the institution’s continuation and transformation than opposed to it. And this support was not just cheap online talk; it translated into pecuniary action, with the resulting crowdfunding campaign producing a $1 million initial fund from 20,000 supporters.
There is evidence that we can be more green – we have changed our behaviour so that we reduce our environmental impacts in some cases – and we can do so again. For instance, water shortages in Sydney and Brisbane have seen reduced water consumption over the past ten years long after the easing of restrictions, partly as a result of water-saving education programs. Rainwater tanks and grey water systems are being taken up in urban spaces as well, at least for certain purposes; another micro-disruption in macro-infrastructure, as households pursue more independent, and economically predictable, water supply.
It’s not that we’re incapable of change, of moving to a more just and sustainable future where we wind back our ecological footprint. In some ways we’ve done so already.
It might seem pat or insincere to associate the shift between human and nonhuman entities with feelings, to frame such a move where power sits in human and nature relations, within an emotional terrain. But we’re going to need to mobilise more than science if we seek effective action to get us out of the Anthropocene. Yes, the science is crucial, but it’s not all we need. Grappling with these Anthropocene feelings, the hope and despair, is a crucial first step in doing something about the state we’re in. We must take these along for the ride and talk to, with, and against, waves of emotion that might be holding us back or taking us forward. It might take, in Cave’s words, a prayer to the air, be that secular or faith-oriented.
Yet there is more than one frontline on the Anthropocene, and to imagine a smoothly distributed range of impacts arising from global environmental change is naïve. Not everyone will feel the harsh realities of a too hot Earth in the same way. Further, and just as importantly, not everyone is responsible for the production of the Anthropocene in the same way. If we take climate change, a key (but not the only) challenge of these Anthropocenic times, we know that the most economically wealthy countries are also the ones who have consumed more carbon and pushed our atmosphere in to this new state. We know that vulnerability to unwanted impacts of natural disasters is unevenly distributed: those who are already most economically precarious on a global scale tend to be most radically affected by those processes.
Moving further along the Cooks – we see that all those with an interest in it, human and more-than-human alike, construct it differently. Since colonisation, glimpses of this multiplicity are evident in the archives and oral histories of the river. According to historian Lesley Muir, marine officer and writer Watkin Tench reported seeing a village of Darug people living on the Cooks in 1788. Tench noted in his diary: ‘On the north-west arm of Botany Bay [the Cooks River] stands a village, which contains more than a dozen houses, and perhaps five times that number of people’. Present-day Indigenous water interests pertaining to the Cooks River aren’t as well recognised as they could be – much like Indigenous rights to the city in other respects.
As in Smog’s album where hope emerges from dark places, in the Cooks River’s resilience you can see nature, and especially water, pushing back against unsustainable practices, but only to a certain extent. The tide keeps flowing in and flushing out stagnant water while the mudcrabs keep digging their small homes in the banks of the Cooks. The deep structural problems that shape this river include leaky sewerage systems throughout the catchment as well as litter like plastic bottles. Yet there are communities of humans and more-than-humans who do actively try and improve the health of the Cooks. The local volunteer Bushcare group share their visions of a better river, and act on those hopes through collective interventions. The Cooks River Alliance, a partnership of local councils, works with communities along the Cooks River to improve the health of the system. Their most recent report into the health of the Cooks River outlines the variable health of the system, and some of the efforts underway to improve it, however it still suffers from ‘urban stream syndrome’ and has poor water quality. I hope these and other efforts continue to try and support the river. Despite all its environmental problems, there’s more there to love.
The Cooks River can be read as a physical manifestation of our mixture of apathy and incapacity in effectively changing human–nature relations. A transformation might be needed here, rather than just ad hoc measures to change this system. Much of urban water management is currently shaped by a kind of aqua nullius principle, an idea analogous to terra nullius with regard to Aboriginal rights to water. Dr Virginia Marshall has written on the imperative to overturn such mistaken thinking by giving legal recognition to Aboriginal water rights; it is an opportunity that could be leveraged to do water management differently here. Recent research has highlighted the Aboriginal history of connections to country, oral histories and archives showing the traditional and ongoing embrace of the Cooks. We could, potentially, fix the river while mending broken social and cultural relations. We could learn from the cultural diversity that flows with and through the Cooks, in rivers like the Georges further south. We could note that these compromised systems are already facilitating connections between diverse groups: for instance, a 2010 study on how Vietnamese families engage with water in Georges River found that ‘urban rivers are a way of connecting with Vietnamese experiences, as well as what is new about Sydney’. Similarly, the Cooks River is not finished, or done with, it is constantly being remade by more-than-humans and humans.
Grappling with these Anthropocene feelings, the hope and despair, is a crucial first step in doing something about the state we’re in.
The Anthropocene is also a work in progress; there are multiple frames through which to view this epochal notion. Donna Haraway has problems with the Anthropocene concept, but doesn’t throw it away: rather, she offers complementary terms to bolster the paucity of language involved in imagining our new age. As a feminist, cyborg theorist and philosopher of human–animal connections, Haraway suggests the Chthulucene, drawing on science fiction figurations. This alternative nomenclature comes with a slogan, ‘Make Kin Not Babies!’, suggesting that we need to engage with all those around us – humans, non-humans and the inanimate – and connect with these rather than produce more to love. Haraway states that ‘Right now, the earth is full of refugees, human and not, without refuge.’ In other words, we’ve rendered strange, at a global scale, that which nurtures us. Nick Cave’s powers-more-forceful-than-we are being challenged in unsettling ways.
Back to the Anthropocene, then: this is not a time for inaction. We can despair, sure, but still act in this always-present environmental crisis. There is plenty to do – and we can do it – if we don’t let these Anthropocene feelings hobble us. Identify these emotions, watch them, then let them flow along. We could call on any number of methods for working with this emotional dissonance; some of these strategies may suit, while others repel. We can continue to join together in solidarity to support the work that might shorten the Anthropocene. We can adopt strategies to detach from worrisome emotions and work with, and through, the pain. We can pray to those higher beings for comfort and to help us out of this mess, if that’s your preferred mode of reflection. Listen to the sad and beautiful Nick Cave and Smog songs. And at the same time, keep engaging and acting – with hope, fear, denial, grief and anger all along for the ride. And rework the Anthropocene to get us out of this dank, awkward spot that we shouldn’t stay in for too long, and try to better our walks along the rivers.