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This morning FOP watched artist Trevor Paglen speak about “humans as geologic agents” (view the video here). His talk was recorded at the Sputnik Observatory for the Study of Contemporary Culture in 2006.
Paglen’s short talk offers up interesting questions around just how much human activities have reshaped the surface, and in turn, the geologic history of the earth.
We thought that a little geologic context would be helpful when considering the question of human intervention into geologic history. Luckily, we have handy tools like the Geologic Time Scale (see below) to assist in positioning ourselves in this history.
Humans evolved from Homo erectus into Homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago. That is somewhere towards the end of the Pleistocene (10,000 to 2.58 million years ago). The span of time representing the Pleistocene up to the present is highlighted in the little box below.
An important geologic era has yet to be adopted into official geologic time scales. But a few artists and scientists are beginning to define it: the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene, though disputed in its starting date, encompasses exactly the kind of human interventions that Paglen describes: inverting mountains for mining, accumulations of nuclear fallout (and waste) and non-biodegradable plastic. Basically, the Anthropocene is marked by the newest strata of the earth’s layers and is made up of things uniquely human in their design.
This brings up a few interesting questions. Humans have been living in relation to the planet for 200,000 years but have only been BIG shapers/rearrangers of the surface of the earth for (arguably) the past 100 years. FOP is drawn to the insight shared among scientists that humans have been designers for the entire extent of our 200,000 year existence. We have had to design built environments and rearrange the surface of the earth in order to survive this long. Humans have put geologic materiality to our use for the entire 200,000 years of our existence. But what kind of designers have humans become in the past 100 years? Why the big impact in these most recent years? And, is that impact really that BIG, that lasting, when you consider it in relation to the entirety of geologic time, past and future?
If humans have been around only 1/23,000th of the planet’s history, is our impact on the earth’s geomorphology really that big, or does it just seem that way to us? And, given the humbling brevity of our history, might a more provocative question be: what kind of geologic agents do humans want to become in the future? Mammals have an average species lifespan of 1 million years (although species have survived for up to 10 million). That gives us about 800,000 years to become more responsive to planetary forces as designers.
Paglen calls humans the biggest shapers of the surface of the earth, and this might be true of the last 100 years. Until we widen the view and take in the reality that we simply exist on the edge of a immense span of time that will keep going, with or without us. When the planet has this much time, it becomes THE most significant geologic agent, hands down, every time. And, though humans might be able to invert an entire mountain into a copper mine 3/4 of a mile deep in a 100 years, the earth can and will do what is always has done: break continents apart in seconds or turn volcanoes into craters in a matter of hours. What might it mean for humans to design with deep time in mind?
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