Anthropocene?! What world are we living in?

Introduction

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Figure 1: The Universal Map of Doom. Available from espazium.com

Up until Tuesday this week, I had no idea what an Anthropocene is. Never mind that I, along with you, create, shape and model it. According to welcometotheanthropocen.com the Anthropocene defines Earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans. The term is currently used informally to encompass different geologi- cal, ecological, sociological, and anthropo- logical changes in recent Earth history.  The Anthropocene can be due to accelerated technological development, rapid growth of the human population, and increased consumption of resources. (Walters, 2015)

The aim of this blog is to introduce the theories of the Anthropocene by providing key propositions by Gisli et al(2013) from their article ‘Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: integrating the social sciences and humanities in global environmental change research‘ and Steffen et al (2011)in their article ‘The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives’  as well as Walters et al (2016) in their article ‘The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene’. This blog will also make reference to the article, ‘Listening to birds in the Anthropocene: the anxious semiotics of sound in a human-dominated world’ by Whitehouse (2015) as well as other website sources such as EspaziumIndustry Tap and Sociology in the Anthropocene.

This blog post will as an analyse the following questions; what are the key propositions of the Anthropocene? What sounds are constant? Can these dominant sounds be regarded as a soundscape of the Anthropocene? What is it like to listen to birds in the Anthropocene? How are responses to what is heard influenced by the understanding that the Anthropocene brings that humans have profoundly influenced the mix of sounds that can be heard? Regarding and interview with my parents and grandparents; How do the interviews draw attention to the disappearing ecosystems and dwindling biodiversity of our present day? How do they call attention to the ways in which humans have altered the environment? From your own school days to present, can you witness a loss of biodiversity as well as the degradation of ecosystems?

Key Propositions of the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is a process in which the earth is geologically changed through human interaction at an alarming rate. Not only geographically but the changes are also evident in the sediment and ice, compared to the thousands of years before humans were on the earth. Rates of sea-level rise and the extent of human perturbation of the climate system exceed Late Holocene changes.

The start of the Anthropocene may thus be defined on 16 July 1945 when the first nuclear testing began. The testing left a clear and global signature, concentrated in the mid-latitudes and highest in the Northern Hemisphere, where most of the testing occurred. The ‘signature’ is read in the fauna and fora of our earth today.

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Figure 2: July 16, 1945, at 5:30am at the Trinity Site in New Mexico. Image available from industry tap.com

The environment and ecosystem has undeniably suffered greatly as a result of human induced hazardous contributions such as rapidly expanding human populations, technologies of extraction and exploitation of natural resources in accordance with the nearby collapse of ecosystems (Gisli et al 2013:9). According to Waters et al (2016:2622-1) human activities such as increased consumption has led to increase in the use of “…metals and minerals, fossil fuels and agricultural fertilisers.” The Anthropocene is also defined by the fact that the fauna and flora as well as animals are determined by the use they have towards humans. Species that are useful will survive and be protected such as barley crops and cattle herds but other species such as the quagga and the soon to be extent fynbos plant will not and have not survived because they are not useful to the human race.

A Soundscape of the Anthropodcene

Below I have provided a soundscape list of the sounds that I have recorded over two days. On both days similar sounds were heard and therefore added into the same time slots.

6:20am in bed Thursday 7 April

  • rush of cars (constant sound of the ocean, crashing of  waves, occasional vrum drum sound, loud raining sounds occasionally) most frequent and constant noise
  • birds (chattering, 2 sounds and calling, one dove calling(round repeating kind of purring) )
  • sound of breath on blanket (smooth scratch)
  • 6:30 constant ringing in my ears (I am deaf in my left ear it could be that, very soft. When I zoom in on it, it’s actually very loud)
  • tapping of laptop keys (actually quite loud, despite that I have a Mac which should be the softest)
  • 7:00 alarm

9:20am walk to varsity

  • leaves rattling
  • shoes on concrete
  • cars
  • turn cells
  • lawnmower (loud)
  • someone else keys rattling
  • people talking by Oom Gerts (the campus pub)

14:30pm Gautrain Home

  • Rolling of train tracks
  • Steam sound of engine
  • male voiceover on microphone
  • small chit chat of people speaking on their phones
  • typing on phones
  • wheels scratching

What is most evident in my soundscape is that almost all of my sounds are humanly generated or caused because of human technology. Constant sounds include that of cars travelling, generators and light bulbs. These constant sounds are the ones that have created my soundscape. As Whitehouse says, ‘human activities cause ecological and sonic disruptions that really are rendering the world silent or discordant, submerging the “animal orchestra” beneath noise’ and I totally agree as the first noise I always heard was that of human machinery.

Birds; What do they actually sound like?

Listening to birds in the Anthropocene is more difficult done than said. Whitehouse (2015) argues that it is necessary to listen to birds as it creates a sense of harmony in ones life. She adds that by listening to them one can relate to the natural cycle of the seasons and nature. Even Whitehouse says that she has to train herself to listen to them, as an ecologist, implying that it is difficult. The first time that she went out into the forest she had trained to listen to birds by a recoding made on the internet.

‘Bird’ sounds of today

It seems that the ‘normal’ sounds of today are so very different from the sounds of 1000 years ago. The buzzing of bees has been replaced with the buzzing of a generator. The roaring of the ocean have been replaced with the roaring of the traffic. The sound of leaves rattling through the wind with rattling of house keys. And chattering of birds with the tapping of keyboard typing. Humans have profoundly influenced the mix of sounds that can be heard, the question is how and how has it affected the human race?

The Anthropocene represents the public death of the modern understanding of Nature removed from society (2015). Listening to birds, is no longer something conceivable as straight forward or inevitable. Listening to birds is something one has to go out and try hard to do.

The sound of the Anthropocene to me and definitely millions of other people around the world do not associate the sound of the world with ‘natural’ animal sounds. The most constant sound in my soundscape of the Anthropocene is defiantly the sound of traffic, cars moving and generators. The sounds of birds, insects and wind through leaves are a rare and special occurrence.

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Figure 3: Traffic in Johannesburg. Image available from timeslive.co.za

As Whitehouse says (2015), ‘Krause divides up sound into three categories. First is the geophony, sounds made by the physical environment such as waves, wind or rain. Second is the biophony, which consists of sounds made by animals, plants and other organisms. Finally is the anthrophony or human- generated sound.’ While this may have been true a thousand years ago, the geophony seems to be the last in our soundscape of today.

Dwindling Biodiversity in the Anthropocene

Within my own soundscape that I recorded over the past week, I found it very difficult to listen to the birds. I found it easier to see them fly or dead on the road. The birds that I did hear, I found that they were only chattering in the mornings at around 6 and 7am. The sounds were also only heard from inside my bed. When I left my flat and walked to varsity on the road, or throughout my whole day, I hardly heard any more birds. There were also only two different kinds of bird sounds. As I am not a very good bird sound interpreter, but I think that I only heard doves and one type of other bird.

This observation relates clearly to the dwindling biodiversity evident in the Anthropocene. The proof lies in the fact that I have not successfully managed to listen to more than at most three different species of birds in Pretoria, South Africa. Also in the fact that I saw more birds killed on the road than flying around in the gardens surrounding us.

The Anthropocene According to Older People

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Figure 4: Sounds of the Anthropocene. Image avail be from rampages.us

From my own school days to present, I have also witnessed a loss of biodiversity as well as the degradation of ecosystems. This realisation came when I remembered that I used to catch butterflies and make fairy gardens with worms and moss in Nursery School. In Primary School, I used to have a box of silk worms in shoe boxes and trade them with my friends. I realise that my sister, who is seven years younger than I am, never had silk worms. I babysat a family a few weeks ago and made a fairy garden with one of the children, it was his first fairy garden that he had ever made. We did not have any moss to make the floors like I used to, there were also no insects that I came across in the garden. This for me is a true sign of a biodiversity that has disappeared or dramatically diminished. What I also grew up with is the sounds of chickens roosting in the mornings as we had chickens and rabbits in our garden.

Upon interviewing my mother for her childhood soundscape, who grew up in the same house as I did said that on a architectural point of view, the house looked different. In her day, all the windows and doors had mosquito nets to keep all insects out the house. It was also not strange for her to take snakes out of her room every now and then. The property is quite large, but in her day used to be surrounded by other farms and therefore it attracted more birds and insects into the house. She also said that there were more public sounds such as a milk man, who came very morning and had a lorry sound track attached to his car, much like that of the ice-cream man. The ice-cream man also came more often than he does in my day. My Mom pointed out that there was also a lot more radio, she noticed that in her days everyone did not have headphones, therefore one often had more then one noise form a room as two siblings were playing different radio stations at a time. As opposed to today where people plug in their earphones and do not disturb anyone around them. In the afternoons, much as I used to hear, she also heard the sound of ambulances and police sirens as we live close to a police and fire station.

My Gran on the other hand, whom I also interviewed said contradicting statements. She grew up in the same area as my mother and myself. She said that there are more birds in the city then there used to be. She says this is because all the birds such as Indian miners and plovers used to be in the velt surrounding the cities. Now because of that velt area being turned into residential areas the birds have adapted into the cities and are flourishing. She also said that the soundscape of today is way louder because of human interaction, yet people are not phased by it at all. Because these are now ‘normal’ sounds for us now, we selectively block out the ‘annoying’/constant sounds of traffic.

Humans have definitely changed the soundscape in the last three generations of my family. These sounds have been caused mainly by building new buildings around Randburg, Johannesburg, South Africa. According to my Gran, there are more birds in the city now, my Mom says there are less snakes and mosquitos than there were and in my own account, I think there less butterflies and silkworms.

Final Thoughts

Our soundscape reveals that we are living in the Anthropocene because the constant sounds that we hear are human generated or caused by humans.The key propositions of the Anthropocene were discussed. Constant sounds of the Anthropocene were defined as generated by human activities. Listening to birds in the Anthropocene is difficult to do and requires a well trained ear to block out the constant sounds of the Anthropocene. The understanding of the ‘new’ constant sounds are reacted by with realising that we as humans are controlling the natural cycle of the earths evolution. Regarding the interview with my mother an grandmother, the ecosystems of today have changed in the last three generations as seen in the various differences in soundscapes as well as in the geology of the garden and even the architecture of the house.

For more articles relating to the Anthropocene as well as other environmental studies on various topics follow the conversation with #DigEcoAction.

 

References

Gisli, P et al. 2013. Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: integrating the social sciences and humanities in global environmental change research. Environmental Science & Policy 28:3-13.

Steffen, W et al. 2011. The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369:842-867.

Waters, CN et al. 2016. The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science 351(6269):[sp].

Whitehouse, A. 2015. Listening to birds in the Anthropocene: the anxious semiotics of sound in a human-dominated world. Environmental Humanities 6:53-71.

Feature image: The Englert Theatre. 2015. Beyond the Anthropocene. [Online]. Available from – http://www.englert.org/event/beyond-anthropocene-exhibit-opening-reception/. [Accessed on 10/04/2016].

Figure 1: Espazium. 2016. Traces. [Online]. Available from – http://www.englert.org/event/beyond-anthropocene-exhibit-opening-reception/. [Accessed on 10/04/2016].

Figure 2: Industry Tap. 2013. Nuclear Warheads Diluted for Use in Nuclear Power Plants. [Online]. Available from – http://www.industrytap.com/nuclear-warheads-uranium-diluted-for-use-in-nuclear-power-plants/2520. [Accessed on 10/04/2016].

Figure 3: Times Live. Fifth Worst City for Traffic Pains. [Online]. Available from – http://www.timeslive.co.za/opinion/columnists/2011/11/01/fifth-worst-city-for-traffic-pains. [Accessed on 10/04/2016].

Figure 4: Sociology in the Anthropocene. I’m sorry I couldn’t hear you over the sound of the noise pollution. [Online]. Available from – http://rampages.us/goldstein2014/2014/10/26/im-sorry-i-couldnt-hear-you-over-the-sound-of-noise-pollution/. [Accessed on 10/04/2016].

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