Rupert and I Visit the Anthropocene

A Sunday afternoon at the art gallery seemed an ideal opportunity for some intergenerational bonding between my son, Rupert, and I. So, when Rupert was visiting home recently, we went to see the Anthropocene exhibit at the National Gallery of Canada. Out of a paternal impulse I generously paid our admission to the Anthropocene, but half-way through I began to doubt that this had been such a good idea after all. Luckily, technology saved me in the end.

The Anthropocene exhibit is a collection of photographs and videos that has been drawing crowds all winter. The exhibit’s title refers to a new geologic era in which humans have emerged as a primary force altering the planet. Rupert and I come at this topic from different perspectives. Rupert is an artist and a writer, and I am an environmental engineer. But, the most important difference between our perspectives is generational.

On entering the exhibit, we encountered a video that planted a question that would carry us through to the end. Shot from a camera mounted on the nose of a train, the video shows a trip through the world’s longest tunnel, which runs for 35 miles beneath the Swiss Alps. Tunnels are one of the entirely new geomorphic forms that characterize the Anthropocene era. The question — “Is there a light at the end of the Anthropocene?”

This video also evoked in me the memory of a half-forgotten future. The kaleidoscopic pattern created by the onrush of signal lights emanating from the tunnel’s vanishing point recalled the Stargate sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s film “2001 A Space Odyssey,” one of the greatest movies ever made. With its release in 1968, at the height of the race to the Moon, this movie called my generation to imagine a future in which the human species transcends our earthly origins and ventures out into a limitless frontier. However, the future promised for the year 2001 is now behind us.

Around the corner, the exhibit unfolded through more videos and more than two dozen large format, high-resolution digital images. Huge machines sculpt the earth. Human habitations extend to the horizon in all directions. A trash dump grown to the scale of a habitable landscape. A few images of wild nature were peppered in among the industrialized landscapes — virgin forests, a coral reef. There was no commentary, no interpretation, no authoritative explanation. There was only the exhibit title, “Anthropocene,” to remind visitors that we are witnessing a profound transformation of the Earth.

As engaging as the images were, the overall message was ominous. The transformed landscapes have come into existence at the hands of my generation who celebrate, or justify, them as signs of progress. But, if things continue on their current trajectory, the remaining natural landscapes likely will be lost within Rupert’s lifetime. Finally, Rupert and I entered the last gallery, one last chance to have it all explained, and for me a chance at redemption.

The room appeared to be empty until Rupert handed me an iPad from a rack on the wall. Holding it just so, I saw that, in fact, the room contained two virtual installations — a pile of elephant tusks and, improbably, the world’s last male northern white rhinoceros, blinking and twitching its ears. The artists created the virtual installations by stitching together thousands of digital images. An app allows people to view them from every angle using the iPads or their cell phones.

Mercifully, this intrusion of technological wizardry provided a distraction from the exhibit’s overall message. My sense of guilty culpability was relieved. Exasperation at my clumsiness with the iPad dissipated any intergenerational resentment that Rupert might have been harboring.

The distractions of technology aside, it is easy for my generation to be unmoved by the transformation that we are witnessing around us. Our future is behind us. We lack the motivation to alter the status quo, even as our inaction propels the world forward on it present path through the Anthropocene.

Inaction is less of an option for Rupert and his generation. Their future still confronts them. In this there is, I think, hope. Late last year, scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report that challenges humanity to transcend our dependence on fossil fuels and venture toward the goal of building an equitable, sustainable world. Stanley Kubrick might have titled it “2030 A Climate Odyssey.” This is a vision of the future for Rupert’s generation to embrace and perhaps, in time, remember.

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William Nuttle

William Nuttle

Navigating a changing environment — hydrologist, engineer, advocate for renewable energy, currently writing about the personal side of technological progress