Part of a series of blog posts I wrote on the Anthropocene for Umeå University’s Forskarbloggen in 2013.

Today is Earth Day, a day on which we demonstrate our support for environmental protection across the world. More than 1,5 billion people participate in environmental awareness-raising events in more than 190 countries. Like Earth Hour, which took place a month ago, Earth Day is a symbolical and educational event, intended to make us think about what we can do to protect the environment. In his new book The Genius of Earth Day, environmental historian Adam Rome writes about the origins of Earth Day. He brings to life a time when environmentalism was a new and exotic part of our everyday lives. In 1970, when the first Earth Day took place in the United States, the environment was generally a local concern. The idea came from the American Democratic senator Gaylord Nelson, who thought a national “teach-in” could help create engagement and awareness for environmental issues among young people. This was the beginning of the 1970s wave of environmentalist organizations, institutions, laws and regulations that swept over the entire western world. Today, environmentalism is no longer exotic. The environmental movement is broader than ever, but also shallower. We all like and care about nature, but it is often the “Like” of Facebook – it’s easy, it feels positive, and doesn’t require all that much from us. “The environment” itself, on the other hand, includes everything, from our own backyards to phenomena that can only be understood on a planetary scale. What can a largely symbolical event like Earth Day teach us in such a context, if anything? We suspected in 1970 that we were in trouble, and that our own choices as a society were to blame. 43 years later, we are pretty much sure of this. The world now seems a much more complicated place than in the early 1970s. In this series of blog posts for the Researcher Blog, I have explored the environmental implications of the Anthropocene,…

Part of a series of blog posts I wrote on the Anthropocene for Umeå University’s Forskarbloggen in 2013.

Over the last year or two, I’ve noticed how both Neanderthals and the distant human past have started appearing over and over again in discussions of life in the modern world. At the core of this Paleo-revival is a belief that the distant evolutionary past holds lessons for how we should live today. Since evolution works on very long and slow time-scales (the theory goes), our bodies are quite simply not well adapted to life in the Anthropocene. All we need to do is to copy the diet/lifestyle/habits of Stone Age man and we can avoid the negative effects of the modern world on our bodies. Neanderthals, on the other hand, seems to have become a kind of evolutionary noble savage, a distant and exotic Other upon which we can project our ideals and wishes for how a simple life outside of the Anthropocene might be. A red thread running through this argument is pure nostalgia, a desire to go back to when things supposedly were simpler and when the problems we had to deal with were not quite as wicked. If the current state of the world is a result of human activities, then Paleolithic man is only marginally complicit, having existed at a time when we still had a choice. The Neanderthals, on the other hand, are completely innocent and can not be blamed for the Anthropocene. The illustration below – one of many “evolution of man” spoofs that circulate on the internet – demonstrates this idea wonderfully. The Paleolithic age, more commonly called “the Stone Age” started about 2,6 million years ago and ended about 10000 years ago, during which humans evolved from Homo habilis to Homo sapiens sapiens, in other words what is fundamentally modern humans. Today, consumers can emulate Stone Age life in many ways. For instance, the Paleolithic diet started appearing as a modern nutritional plan in the 1970s, and its proponents argued that…

Part of a series of blog posts I wrote on the Anthropocene for Umeå University’s Forskarbloggen in 2013.

Today I’d like to take you out for a field trip. My intention is not just to take you to some of the most scenic natural and technological locations in the Anthropocene, bit also to reflect a bit on the increasing entanglements of nature and technology. One of several project ideas I’ve been exploring the last year or so is a study of the ways in which “nature” and “the digital” have become intertwined since the 1960s, more or less. I say “nature” because there are, in fact, many natures. Some we see. Others we eat. Some we travel through. Some are hidden from us. Our idea of nature has expanded quite dramatically as a result of both new scientific instruments and new nature management regimes. The natural world becomes both bigger and smaller at the same time, extending out in space and down into our own bodies. We know from science studies that we generally can’t know this “nature” directly. This idea of nature is becoming very hard to separate from the digital tools and media we use to observe, interpret, and manage it. Our ideas, our standards, for what is natural is distributed and maintained in digital tools and media like databases, computer models, geographical information systems, and so on. I can point to Paul Edwards’ prize-winning book on computer modeling and climate change, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data, and the Politics of Global Warming as one recent example of studies really highlighting this perspective. Such a perspective on nature pulls us in a few different directions. Up, towards abstraction and global management systems, like Edwards and his vast machines. But also down, out into the field, to the bodily experience of nature. I call these distant and close natures, directly borrowing from Stanford literature professor Franco Moretti’s ways of reading literature on different scales. And in what I have chosen to call annotated landscapes, the close and the distant overlap. If we think…

Part of a series of blog posts I wrote on the Anthropocene for Umeå University’s Forskarbloggen in 2013.

Easter is a good opportunity to contemplate the death and resurrection of nature. One of the most prevalent narratives about nature in the Anthropocene is one of decline – of species extinction, biodiversity loss, degraded ecosystem services, encroachment on wilderness areas, natural disasters, global climate change, and so on. People have left their fingerprints on everything and the world is a poorer place for it, or so the story goes. Such narratives of decline and catastrophe have been important catalysts in the formation of the environmental movement and continue to be major challenges that we’ll need to deal with one way or another in the future. As argued earlier, all of these can also be defined as a wicked problem or part of a whole wicked tangle of problems that can’t be solved through simple fixes. Note that I chose to call this a narrative about nature. This is not the same as saying that these problems are fictional and thus don’t exist (they do). Narratives are storytelling mechanisms that organize and connect events in time and space. They are one of the ways in which we attempt to make sense of the world around us, as individuals and as societies. If we want to make any headway with the environmental problems that we face in the Anthropocene, we need to think critically about the narratives we tell to ourselves and to others about nature and culture. At the core, narratives about environmental decline begin with the idea of nature as once whole, pristine, and untouched. Once upon a time there was an environmental baseline that we not only measure, but also judge environmental change against. If there are people in the story, they tend to live in harmony with nature, knowing their place in the ecosystem. Environmental degradation often follows with the introduction of new technologies or when people start showing up in places where they don’t belong. For example, one…

Part of a series of posts exploring the Anthropocene for the Umeå University Forskarbloggen in 2013.

Walking around a large grocery store like Ica Maxi at Strömpilen can be most instructive for thinking about the Anthropocene and our relationship with nature at large. First, while pondering what to have for dinner, we can contemplate the transportation and logistics infrastructures that brought all this exotic food from all corners of the world to our shopping carts up here in the north, fresh and ripe and ready to eat. In this sense, there is nothing “natural” about much of the food that ends up on our plates; it can only exist as part of a technological life-support system. Second, we can observe how many products make claims about nature, naturalness, and connections to place. “100% Natural,” “Ecological,” “Sustainable,” “Green,” “Biodynamic,” ”Organic,” “Pure,” “Authentic,” “Local,” “Short-traveled” – the list goes on and on. We can’t help but care about such claims since they speak to the very direct relationship between the products we buy, the place they come from, and our bodies. By claiming to be natural, the food promises to be good for us, or at least not to be directly harmful. The American writer Nathanael Johnson explored the tensions between “naturalness” and technology in his brand new book All Natural*: *A Skeptic’s Quest to Discover If the Natural Approach to Diet, Childbirth, Healing, and the Environment Really Keeps Us Healthier and Happier. In his interpretation, we suffer from “ecological anxiety,” a vague but insistent feeling that despite all the obviously good things about modern society, something has gone wrong on the way. We are missing something that we used to have, know, or feel, back when things used to be “natural.” As a result, we are drawn to products, solutions, and lifestyles that claim to be “natural.” Others eschew “natural”, aiming instead for the clinical reliability of modern technology. This fundamental divide becomes particularly obvious in healthcare, but we can also find it in food. Michael Pollan has,…

Part of a series of blog posts I wrote on the Anthropocene for Umeå University’s Forskarbloggen in 2013.

flaming candle in dark obscure studio

Photo by Karina Zhukovskaya on Pexels.com

Did you observe Earth Hour this previous Saturday? Did you turn off all the lights in your house between 20:30 and 21:30? I did. At 20:28, I lay down on the couch in the dark. I could count two green and five red little standby indicator lights within my field of vision, plus the slow, white battery pulse of my laptop sleeping on the table. It was a peaceful moment, of sorts, the silence only penetrated by the humming of the aquarium pump and house ventilation system. My dogs started wondering what was up, so I took them out for a walk. Around Carlslid, the area where I live, less than half of the houses were dark. In one of these, a giant flatscreen TV lit up the room more than the scattered candles, an absurd sight that made me laugh out loud. How can we understand an event such as Earth Hour? What is the point of such events? What are the motivations of the people who observe Earth Hour, and of those who don’t?  Which problems are they trying to deal with and which values do they attempt to live up to? Earth Hour started by WWF in Australia in 2007, and spread worldwide from 2008. Today it is a more or less global event, visible from space. Earth Hour co-founder Andy Ridley stated that “Any movement of change begins with symbolism – it’s a needed step to prove enough people care about an issue.”  The goal of Earth Hour is to make a difference, but not through any actual reduction in electricity usage during this one out of  the 8760 hours in a year. By turning off the lights, we may shine a light on ourselves and the ways in which we have chosen to live our lives. Earth at night, illuminated. Photo by Chris Hadfield at the International Space Station. Many say that Earth Hour is pointless since it doesn’t actually…

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