Feature Story

Living in the Anthropocene

An interview with Tim Johnson, Associate Director for Museum Programs, National Museum of the American Indian, and Rick Potts, Director of the Human Origins Program, National Museum of Natural History

New York City

In recent decades, rapid, planetary-scale human alteration of the environment has led many scholars to recognize a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, or Age of Humans. Living with our environmental effects over the long term requires not just a better understanding of ecology and Earth systems, but also of our history, our cultures, and ourselves.

Living in the Anthropocene is a Consortia initiative designed to help connect people across the Smithsonian who are working on projects related to the Anthropocene, and to share and promote these efforts.

 

Geologists have proposed the term “Anthropocene” to describe a new geologic era in the history of our planet, the Age of Humans. What is the significance of this?

Rick Pots
Rick Potts,
photo by Christian Tyron

Rick Potts:  The Anthropocene as a way of thinking about the world is more important to me than the Anthropocene’s status as a new geologic era. It is the awareness that humans are active players in the geological and biological processes of the Earth.

Understanding the nature of that human footprint—the ways in which we as human beings are engaged in altering the Earth on a truly planetary scale—has enormous implications for the way we think about our own future and the future of the planet.

Tim Johnson
Tim Johnson

Tim Johnson:  I think it’s very significant in the sense that we’re seeing one species of life on the planet dramatically shaping the environment, most particularly for its own interests, and doing so in a way that provides the greatest opportunity for the survival and development of that one species—Homo sapiens.

But the impacts on the resources and natural systems of the planet are really quite substantial. So, I think that the term geologists have applied to this geologic era is appropriate, particularly with respect to climate change.

 

These human-induced transformations are so vast that it seems that all areas of study—including scientific, cultural, social, and historical—and a new way of thinking will be needed to understand and address these issues. How do we begin?

Johnson:  Well, we’ve been dealing with this issue here at the National Museum of the American Indian for quite some time now. It’s become clear to us that the science and the evidence surrounding the changes and transformations that are taking place on the planet and the human causes of these transformations are very solid and defined, and have been confirmed through consensus by the vast majority of scientists around the world.

Potts:  It’s very important that human transformations of our surroundings be placed in a good, solid scientific context. Especially important is having high quality data about the rates of change humans are helping to cause. We have a growing base of good information about how human beings are interacting with a global system—for example, our planet’s climate system—and how human interactions influence Earth’s volatile climate.

Johnson:  Through our programs and our research at the museum, we’ve come to realize that the knowledge and technology required to address the issues actually already exist. It’s not that anything new has to be invented to deal with climate change and other environmental challenges that are transforming the planet.

What prevents us from taking the necessary actions on the scale that is required, given the knowledge that we already possess and given the technologies that exist to deal with these issues, are the cultural motivations and understandings that would generate the appropriate human response. Even though there is a lot more discussion around, let’s say, climate change, it hasn’t reached the saturation level that is sufficient to address the issue. Prevalent and persistent information, education, communication, and engagement with the public become crucially important. So we begin, I think, with culture and communication.

Potts:  Transformations that are arising from human–Earth interactions go so deeply. They go to the social and psychological ways in which we human beings create meaning about our lives.

So, I think it’s important to have major discussions nationally and internationally to develop a set of cultural commitments, ideas, governance, and intellectual frameworks that will be needed as we engage in novel relationships with our surroundings on a local-to-global scale. All of these factors are going to play into a very complex future in terms of how humans engage the world for the benefit not only of the rest of life on Earth, but also for human beings.

Drilling for oil and gas

Rick, you’ve said, “We need to get over our mourning for an ancient concept of nature as pristine and eternal if only people would leave it alone.” Could you elaborate?

Potts:  What I mean is that we have long had this idea, this concept of nature as pristine and largely unchanging if people would leave it alone. This idea goes back to a very ancient concept that humans are actors upon the world and the sense that humans have dominion over nature and over their environments.

However, we know that there are entire ways of life no longer in existence. They met their demise, in some cases, due to a very unstable relationship between humans and their environment.

I think we need to bring into our consciousness the idea that we live on a planet that is inherently unstable, and we’re pulling upon the same strings that in the past created unstable, uncertain conditions that led to the demise of past civilizations, past societies, and even past species that were closely related to us.

The claim of an old style of environmentalism is one that humans are ending nature. That is patently not the case. But at the same time we’re altering in very dramatic ways the interactive aspects of nature that underpin human welfare as well as the benefits to other forms of life.

Drought

Tim, you’ve commented that in the past the environmental insights of indigenous peoples were somehow considered not science, and therefore invalid. What is the situation now?

Johnson: Well, I think that’s changing. When I was younger and getting going in my museum career at the Native American Center for the Living Arts, I interviewed elders in Native communities as part of the research for exhibits and publications. More than 30 years ago, I heard a great deal of concern from tribal elders about the state of the Earth. Back then, of course, climate change wasn’t as understood as it is today and, therefore, was rarely discussed, yet there were already observations by culture bearers within our communities that the environment was changing—of acid rain killing trees “from the top down,” of insects migrating into new regions, and of animal behaviors changing. But this knowledge was presented in the context of cultural practice and not necessarily written up in papers and published through peer review—it was observational, what’s happening that is affecting our lives.

But we've come to realize that these knowledge bearers in Native communities, these cultural practitioners, had it right. What they were speaking about actually has come to pass. Infused within their expressed consciousness was also a cultural or societal perception that recognized the voracious nature of the modern world and that certain practices and behaviors were inconsistent with sustainability and ran counter to the cultural narratives and teachings of many, many indigenous cultures.

At the National Museum of the American Indian there exists on display evidence of these cultural foundations, but we haven’t nearly tapped that full potential. It’s really remarkable when you study Native cultures and get beyond the distinctiveness of the aesthetics, or the “otherness” of seeing diverse peoples, you come to appreciate what the cultures are really all about—the cyclical observations, the synthesis, if you will, with the cycles of nature and the seasons, all of that is embedded within the ceremonies and all kinds of cultural rites, practices, and artistic expression. It’s absolutely fascinating and enlightening.

Today, we see more collaboration between the American Indian community and the scientific community—which, by the way, are not mutually exclusive. For example, Native peoples have now done a lot of work with NASA, NOAA, the Smithsonian, and other agencies that are realizing the importance of gaining a comprehensive understanding of these issues and that the knowledge and perspectives Native peoples have to offer add value to the process of inquiry.

Early work with NASA included NASA’s sponsorship of the 1998 Circles of Wisdom: Native Peoples/Native Homelands Climate Change Workshops, which resulted in A Call to Action: The Albuquerque Declaration. Some 180 Indigenous delegates attended the conference.

NOAA worked with coastal Native communities to bring together the knowledge of scientists, Indigenous leaders, elders, and youth during the 2012 launch of First Stewards, a collective of Native nations concerned about the impacts of climate change on their homelands bordered by the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the Great Lakes, and the Gulf of Mexico.

And, of course, the Smithsonian, via the National Museum of the American Indian, has been active in the development of annual programs examining issues of the Anthropocene, focused primarily on climate change, since 2007.

 

Rick, you’ve found that the ability of Homo sapiens to modify the environment and ourselves has played an important role in the survival of our species. Could this inherent adaptability direct the course of our future survival?

Potts:  Yes, definitely. There is no species that modifies its surroundings more than we do. At the same time, there is no species that modifies itself more than we do. There’s a lot of focus upon the ways in which humans are putting CO­­2 into the atmosphere, changing the distribution of water over the landscapes, and creating vast opportunities for invasive species that affect the functioning of local habitats and ecosystems and their health.

At the same time, human beings have an immense ability to change our beliefs about the world, our understandings of the world, our interactions and relationships to our surroundings. And this is, of course, responsible for the vast diversity of human cultures and ways of life over the planet.

So, we can take a combination of technological and engineering approaches to ensure a better relationship with our surroundings in ways that are intentional and purposeful and actually full of meaning. We also have the capacity to develop a mindset that pays attention to our planetary responsibilities, from the local places where we live to a concept of humanity as a worldwide species.

Presentation at the Mother Earth Festival
Presentation at the Mother Earth Festival

Tim, in 2007 the National Museum of the American Indian hosted the Mother Earth Festival, an event focused on climate change, global sustainability, and human responsibility. Can you tell us about that event?

Johnson:  When Al Gore was working on the Live Earth global concert program and was looking for a location in Washington, D.C., we felt that our interests really coincided with what he was seeking to do on a global level. The program was a wonderful opportunity for us to present a Native American perspective on climate change to a global community, and a way to let people know that Native peoples were active on this issue.

We provided a location from which the Live Earth program could be broadcast from Washington, D.C., while gaining an opportunity to integrate Native knowledge and perspective, as well as scientific research, into the event. So the Live Earth program was actually launched in collaboration with the Mother Earth Festival at NMAI. Some 8,000 people encircled our building that morning while millions more watched on television around the globe. It was a tremendous success and gave American Indians a presence on the world stage.

The morning of the kickoff Al Gore was introduced by two female elders who spoke about the urgency of climate change and global sustainability. We continued the daylong festival with music and presentations inside the Museum. In between musical performances, scientists gave talks about their climate change research and so forth, and it ended up being a really remarkable, groundbreaking program.

A lot of research on the subject of climate change had been going on at the Smithsonian for quite some time. The Mother Earth Festival showed that we could deal with a very serious issue, but do so in a way that attracted people to the Museum and to the information that we were sharing. It also provided an opportunity to engage this subject on a deeper level.

Wind farm

What role could the Smithsonian play in advancing the discussion of the Anthropocene, its effects, and human responsibility?

Potts:  The Smithsonian can play an immense role. The Smithsonian has expertise in culture, the arts, history, as well as the sciences. That intersection is critical in formulating a way forward that is respectful of the diversity of cultures, the diverse history of peoples, and the different ways in which they have interacted with their surroundings and with one another. The Smithsonian plays a role in the whole variety of biological, social, and physical sciences that have got to be drawn into the discussion about the Anthropocene and the future.

And the Smithsonian is uniquely positioned in terms of its worldwide appeal. There’s a level of public trust that I think is essential in discussions at the highest intellectual levels as well as those most meaningful to the everyday person.

Johnson:  I think the Smithsonian is among the best-positioned institutions in the world because of the diversity of research units and museums that are appropriately positioned to deal with this issue. A lot of folks think of the Smithsonian just as a museum and don’t realize that we have some of the best scientists in the world studying these issues. Having these assets affords the Institution the opportunity to synthesize and pull these various units together to focus collectively on problems. When that is accomplished it is tremendously powerful.

Another interesting attribute of the Smithsonian is that we are an educational institution, but we’re an educational institution charged with the responsibility of engaging the public and diffusing knowledge, not just within the country, but also around the world. Interacting with the public is a big part of what we do. So, I think that the “Living in the Anthropocene” initiative is really well suited to the Smithsonian.

Potts:  The Smithsonian is certainly a spectacular convener of people from the sciences, the arts, humanities, historians—all aspects of culture, not only relevant to this country, but relevant to the world.

If we are going to actually advance discussion, which is a beginning point in developing a purposeful and meaningful approach to the world’s transformations, then I feel the Smithsonian should step up and become that convener of discussion. Although this might suggest the Smithsonian is best equipped to convene discussions among the world’s elite thinkers, the Smithsonian is also a people’s place. It’s a place where the everyday person wants to go to; it is a destination.

Under the current challenges of the Anthropocene, the Smithsonian needs to go out and meet people and have workshops, discussion groups, town hall meetings, and talks that heighten the level of discussion with people about the questions of the Anthropocene and how to develop an intended and purposeful future.

Hiker on mountain with laptop

You’ve been contemplating the concept of the Anthropocene and its issues for some time. What insights have you personally found to be most meaningful?

Johnson:  What I find fascinating about being part of the Anthropocene initiative is learning what people are discovering on an almost weekly basis, and what research studies are telling us about the atmosphere, changes in the jet stream, ocean currents, ocean temperatures, and ocean acidity, etc. There is a lot of information and research coming out of the Institution, but I find that the communication of that information is still lagging.

And humans are busy, right? One of the reasons we have this new age of the Anthropocene is that humans keep themselves active and oftentimes can’t sustain attention on the big issues. And clearly climate change is a big issue, but it requires sustained attention for human society to address it adequately. We continue to confirm the impacts humans are having on the planet based on the science, but unless this information gets out, it’s not going to help.

Potts:  The most important thing I’ve learned in contemplating the Anthropocene is that it’s not just a scientific question. There is a vast need to develop principles for living in the Anthropocene that emphasize the global story of humanity and the depth of interactivity that we have with the world—species and soils and oceans and atmosphere. It’s these principles that are going to be critical in moving forward, principles such as resilience, adaptability, universality, inclusion, empathy, reciprocity, and humility.

It’s important to nurture our connection to something larger than ourselves, a recognition of our embeddedness in nature, and a union of anthropocentric and biocentric thinking that benefits both the human and non-human realms. Discussions on a local-to-global scale must ultimately focus on principles that range from compassion for one another to a planetary ethic, which I think is developing in this Age of Humans.

Runners in city

Even though much of the discussion is focused on the unintended consequences of human activity, are there some positive aspects to our story?

Potts:  Absolutely. In my view, it’s critical for our discussions about the Anthropocene to focus on the intended consequences rather than wringing our hands about the unintended consequences of human action on Earth. This approach, in my experience, leads to a very creative discussion where people are thinking not just about technological solutions, but including a variety of disciplines across the humanities and sciences.

A discussion about intended consequences concentrates attention on meaningful relationships with other species and with the ecosystems that humans touch, which are now planet-wide. By entertaining the possibility of thinking positively, with a sense of hope, I think the Anthropocene will develop as a resilient future for planet Earth.

Johnson:  The intelligence of the human species has resulted in remarkable accomplishments from science and technology to the humanities. Clearly we’re all generally living longer and living lives of greater convenience, and these things that humans have done for our own self-interest really define the Anthropocene. As an intelligent species we’ve been able to shape and mold our environment in such a way that it benefits our own survival, at least short-term on a geologic scale.

Something that Native peoples often bring to this conversation is a long view on how our actions today are impacting things down the road. In my own Haudenosaunee culture you have the philosophical understanding of the seventh generation, that any decision that’s made today really should benefit the seventh generation to come. So, that remains, I think, the challenge for human beings. As much as we’ve shaped and changed our environment for our own benefit, we need to think a little bit further down the road and make sure that things balance out properly.

 

What would you like to add in conclusion?

Johnson:  I think it is crucial that we have a much greater degree of communication that reflects actual, real, determined knowledge based on evidence. It is important that we communicate with the global community in order for humans to begin to make the necessary changes in their behavior.

Potts:  It’s important for people all over the world to develop a mindfulness of our history as a species—how we interact with our surroundings, how we can be respectful and mindful of human diversity as we embrace our commonality as a species.

We can do more to develop a concept of ourselves of one humanity spread all over the globe. By virtue of human beings living everywhere, we essentially have made planet Earth into an island, and island ecosystems are always very fragile. It’s important to get our technology, cultural values, and ethics really well tuned to a sense of ourselves as a species spread everywhere on a rather small planet.

Click here for video archives of the Consortia symposia Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security (2014) and The Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans (2012).