A discussion was held this afternoon at UCT (Upper Campus) by the Department of English in association with Environmental Humanities South. It was one the Africa, Reading, Humanities events that have been happening on campus throughout the semester. This particular discussion was titled: PEOPLE, POWER, PLANET: Imagining Energy in the Anthropocene. Speakers included Lance van Sittert, an environmental historian based in the Department of Historical Studies at UCT; Philip Aghoghovwia, a Postdoctoral Fellow from the Department of English Language and Literature at UCT; and the highly revered Rob Nixon who is the Rachel Carson & Elizabeth Ritzmann Professor of English at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011).
The discussion focused around energy and environmental imagination in the current Anthropocene. What is the ‘Anthropocene’? Anthropo is Greek for “man”, or “human”, and cene, also Greek, means “new”. According to Dana Luciano, author of the article The Inhumane Anthropocene (22 March 2015), the ‘Anthropocene’ is basically “the proposed stratigraphic name for a new slice of geological time, an epoch made distinct by significant, measurable human impact on the earth and its climate.” Richard Monastersky writes, “Through mining activities alone, humans move more sediment than all the world’s rivers combined. [Humans have] also warmed the planet, raised sea levels, eroded the ozone layer and acidified the oceans.” Thus, the concept of the Anthropocene argues that humans may have irreversibly changed the planet, and by the looks of things, certainly not for the better.
All the speakers raised very interesting and poignant points. A lot of focus was put on the relationship of the environment and violence. Lance van Stittert’s closing point was on the intention of the Anthropocene Intervention, that being better managing the future, re-engineer the planet to mitigate some of the effects that humans have induced upon the Earth.
Philip Aghoghovwia referred to an exhibition of the photographs featured in book Last Rites Niger Delta. The Drama of Oil Production in Contemporary Photographs. The level violence in the Niger Delta is horrific both on the landscape/environment and on the lives of the populations living on the oil extraction sites. Violence is used as a marker of energy production in Nigeria. When I hear stories such as these, I think to myself: “Why do we continue to destroy, vandalize, and virtually rape the Earth when all It has done for us is give? What ware we going to do when the Earth either has nothing left to give, or decides not stop giving and instead, fight back? We do not own the Earth; we will never own the Earth. Yet the significant majority of mankind thinks the opposite, that it can charge around gun-blazing obliterating ecosystems, cultures, futures…”
Rob Nixon concluded the presentation part of the discussion. Nixon addressed the issue of smog focusing on two case studies: China and the US. He raised some very interesting points in reference to respective climate justice protest actions both in cases. He showed images of protestors wearing masks, which represented both the inability to speak (i.e. victims of censorship), and having limited breathing capacity (i.e. shortened lifespan). He paid mention to the fact that when massive multinational corporations sink their teeth into the Earth violating its resources, the voices of the people (who perhaps are those who can channel the cries of the Earth) are silenced and shunned. In the case of the US, Nixon introduced the “I Can’t Breathe” campaign. The campaign was formed in remembrance of Eric Garner’s last words, “I can’t breathe”, as he died from asphyxiation at the hands of a NYPD officer.The “I Can’t Breathe” movement is a metaphor that addresses the direct violence and ideological choke-hold regarding the inequality of African American communities in the United States. Nixon termed it institutionalization of asphyxiation.
My take-home message: If we do not change our ways fast, there will be nothing new – there will be no future.