Elizabeth Jacobson reviews Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, film by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky
2019 | 87 minutes | Mercury Films | Narrated by Alicia Vikander
In Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Stephen Hawking notes that in January 2018 the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock forward two minutes to midnight. It’s the Journal’s measurement of the imminence of catastrophe—military or environmental—facing our planet.
The clock’s ticking toward midnight means that the Holocene epoch, which correlates with the expansion and effects of the human species on Earth—including language, written history, technological growth, urban sprawl, all our modern functions—has ended. The Anthropocene epoch has begun, as humans transform the planet and its functions to a greater degree than the totality of all natural systems. In essence, where the Holocene is characterized by the growth of all things human, the Anthropocene is characterized by the destruction and trauma to the planet’s ecosystems as a result of human activity. Humans have gone from being participants on Earth to being its dominate feature.
A fascinating and often stunning tour of our species’ immense reorganization of the Earth, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch—a new, award-winning documentary by Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, and Edward Burtynsky—chronicles some of these devastating environmental consequences. It is the third in a trilogy that includes Manufactured Landscapes (2006) and Watermark (2013). By visiting countries around the globe, viewers experience the annihilation of natural landscapes from human exploitation.
The film opens with an inferno, and we see what looks like charred tree branches through the flames—but we are not sure what these mysterious objects are. Later we learn that the objects are the burning remains of 10,000 pounds of elephant tusks, $150 million street value. The confiscated ivory has been set afire to make a statement to poachers, possibly helping to end further desecration of these mammals.
We visit the hideously polluted city of Norilsk, Siberia, “home to the largest colored metal mine and heavy metal smelting complex in the world.” Greenery and oxygen are insufficient for humans. A factory worker says, “At the beginning, it takes some getting used to. But when you adjust, it pulls you in, and becomes your own. You become a romantic.” Her friend responds, “You see beauty in a flower, a flower that’s bursting through the stone.” The camera then takes us from the factory to a summer celebration: “Happy Metallurgy Day! Happy Norilsk Day!” Grotesquely Disneyesque, where people sing, “There are no barriers when we are together, as friendships solve all hardships. It’s always easier when you are on one team. Believe in victory: run, don’t walk.” Which begs the question: To where?
“Every year, humans extract between 60 and 100 billion tons of material from the Earth, and move more sediment than all the rivers of the world combined.” We are now in Carrara, Italy, where from an aerial shot we see the astonishing cache of Carrara marble and three huge machines on top of a ledge extracting it as opera music fills the scene. This extraction began with ancient Rome. Here I am reminded of Godfrey Reggio’s Quatsi trilogy, with its paradoxically exquisite images of ecological and societal ruin juxtaposed with the poignant soundtrack by Phillip Glass.
Terraforming, we learn, “is the act of altering the Earth’s surface for human needs. Humans now dominate over 75 percent of ice-free land because of mining, agriculture, industrialization, and urban growth.” We are in Immerath, Germany, where the largest excavators in the world, weighing over 12,000 tons each, remove the earth from what has so far amounted to four towns—with at least two more on the list, many of them farming communities, where the soil has evolved over millions of years, to make way for an open-pit coal mine. This wreckage, the emptied land eventually to be turned into a lake, has displaced scores of people.
With sensational cinematic tension we travel to Kenya, where “technofossils” (mountains of mostly plastic waste in the form of bottles and bags) are scavenged by thousands of people daily; to a flooded Piazza San Marcos in Venice, Italy, where the water rises over thresholds of buildings; to a World War II air-raid shelter in England that has been outfitted to grow produce 365 days a year with LED lights, a Space Age-like operation.
This film is aesthetically engrossing, emotionally compelling, and necessary documentation evaluating human impact on our planet as it reports on issues we are experiencing currently with climate change.
Thankfully, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch does not end with fallacious hope, but rather with practical assessment: “All of modern civilization has happened within just 10,000 years, but our success as a species has tipped the planet’s systems outside their natural limits. Recognizing our dominant signal is one way of trying to pull them back to a safe place for all life on Earth. A shift in consciousness is the beginning of change.”
Will the Anthropocene be our final epoch? Stephen Hawking believed that “the Earth is becoming too small for us.” That we will have to “move out into space and explore the potential for humans to live on other planets.” A new frontier for us to demolish—or will we evolve to appreciate and respect that which sustains us?
Header photo from the film Anthropocene: The Human Epoch, courtesy Mercury Films.