Anthropocene: the Human Epoch

“Environmentalism from the Sky?”

Zoë Druick (Simon Fraser University)

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018) crystallizes an environmental theme latent in Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky’s earlier films about large scale human interventions into the natural world produced over the last dozen years. Referencing the current prominence of this theme doesn’t necessarily lend much clarity to their project, but it does raise a number of compelling issues about how to best represent the current emergency. Beginning with Manufactured Landscapes (2006), an exploration of Chinese industrialization, and continuing with Watermark (2013), an investigation into the exploitation of water in contemporary societies, the latest installment uses a narrator (Alicia Vikander) and intertitles where the others did not, presumably in an attempt to bring a more explicitly interpretive and critical frame to the epic topic. Like the other films in the trilogy, Anthropocene inhabits a position of fascinated horror when faced with the scale of human-produced geological changes to the global landscape through extraction, terraforming, intensive urbanization, and industrial agriculture. Whether enormous, smoke-billowing bonfires of elephant tusks seized from poachers in Nairobi, a backhoe struggling in a danse macabre with a huge slab of Carrera marble in Italy, or flyovers of perfectly circular lithium evaporation fields in Chile’s Atacama desert, the filmmakers have scoured the globe to find unique and compelling images of humans extracting and violently exploiting the planet’s resources.

Burtynsky, now 64, has spent decades making large-scale aerial photographs of altered landscapes, from the tar sands of Alberta to the oil derricks of Texas and the ship-breaking beaches of Bangladesh. His work tends toward what Clint Burnham has called a “gentrification of the sublime” managing to find a pleasing beauty and order in the environmental devastation he depicts, often from afar (the literal meaning of sublime is, in fact, aloft). Burtynsky’s use of the aerial view in order to create often gorgeous images that reference modernist abstraction has led to significant success in the global art world. But the scale at which he works risks becoming so large that any human or political link to the world it depicts becomes overly-attenuated. Often people appear as tiny, inscrutable details engulfed in massive landscapes. Critics charge him with failing to acknowledge the politics behind the devastation.

It doesn’t constitute an excuse but, as Frederic Jameson observed three decades ago, finding ways to visually represent the global capitalist system that might adequately illuminate the devastation it has wrought is as difficult as it is necessary. From their sublime aesthetics to their clouded politics, the Baichwal-Burtynsky trilogy can be put in relation to the popular global documentary genre that took to the air with Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1983) almost four decades ago and has become ensconced into flyover rides and planetary nature series such as Our Planet and Planet Earth. This would make Burtynsky into a Canadian, modernist version of David Attenborough, Yann Arthus-Bertrand (Human, Earth from Above) or Ron Fricke (Samsara), concerned white men all, effortlessly travelling the world armed with the latest high-tech equipment in a modern-day version of adventure or mondo filmmaking. When they appear at all, these filmmakers are positioned as flying solo; they don’t tend to combine their work with that of environmental activists no matter how much concern they may register for the plight of the world. It’s a form of documentary filmmaking usually marked by egos as big as the landscape they depict and a dearth of self-reflection (for more on this, see my article on the work of Bertrand).

That said, Burtynsky’s team includes Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier and, arguably, their contribution to the films serves to humanize both the photographer and his subjects. Seeing the faces and hearing the voices of factory workers in Norilsk, Russia’s most polluted city, or garbage pickers in the largest dump in the world (Dandora, Kenya) in Anthropocene, gives these people a human dimension denied to the mass of silent workers in Chinese factories encountered in Manufactured Landscapes, although we never do get to see who they are interacting with behind the camera. Watching Burtynsky confer with publishers and gallerists in Watermark also served to situate him, albeit not self-critically, within the international art world in which his images circulate and take on value. The newest film is embedded in a larger transmedia Anthropocene Project that includes a glossy book that serves as a catalogue for a travelling museum exhibition, a series of short VR films, and an educational package for teaching environmental science in Canadian secondary schools. The project is tied in turn to the Anthropocene Working Group, an association of Earth system scientists formed in 2008 dedicated to introducing the word Anthropocene to mark a post-Holocene geological period that began two centuries ago, with the industrial revolution, and took on an added intensity after the Second World War with what has been termed the Great Acceleration. In the Anthropocene, the argument goes, humans have changed the face of the earth, through extraction, terraforming and anthroturbation, making us – rather than ice flows, volcanoes or meteorites – into the primary geological force. The term has been hotly contested by environmentalists, scientists, and scholars across the arts and social sciences for its inability to name power relationships in the processes of environmental degradation and, even, for its utopian narratives that presume that a human-driven technological intervention may yet be able to turn things around.

Anthropocene is thus tied to the heightened stakes of current environmental emergency in a way that the previous films were only tangentially. Nevertheless, Anthropocene maintains a strategy developed in the earlier work to engage as an open-ended aesthetic commentary on human-made disaster that distances itself from the critique of global capital that has made other analyses of the current conjuncture more legible. Armed with global satellite imagery, helicopters and drones, the temptation is to show the Earth from above as though that strategy alone will help to give the viewer a bigger picture in which to situate a smattering of seemingly isolated scenes and images. Yet what Anthropocene, along with other films in the global documentary vein, actually tend to do, whether or not by design, is sacrifice comprehension of the global political economic situation to a set of widely divergent facts, some spectacular, many horrific. Like the others in the trilogy, this film joins up disparate places, effortlessly—and, it must be admitted, pleasurably—shuttling the viewer from place to place, and no doubt interpellating us with the very apparatuses of technological power that are foundationally at issue.

Despite strategies here to combine the view from above with the voices of ordinary people down below, Anthropocene suffers from the problems bedeviling the global documentary genre in general where the extraction of images with high-performance technology is often presented as disconnected from—even an antidote to—the exploitation of humans and ecologies on the ground. Realization may be the beginning of change, as the sparse narration concludes, but only if it leads to an ability to take politics back from the militarized klepto-capitalism that has ushered in enormous disparities between humans (what Rob Nixon calls the Great Divergence) and brought a shocking list of the planet’s non-human inhabitants to the brink of extinction in the first place. In an era when the science of climate change is loudly denied by many, documentary filmmakers nobly struggle to find ways to make audiences in the global north pay attention to the crisis before us. But appealing to our sense of privileged perspective and ability to make change through technologically enhanced looking, without recourse to the messy world of politics, may only make matters worse. Philosopher Clare Colebrook has put this conundrum well: “The cinematic experience of the end of the world, far from being attuned to planetary catastrophe, reinforces the modern tradition of including the world within human and managerial temporality.” Anthropocene stands as an illustration of both the seductive affordances and the profound pitfalls of such an approach.

“Aesthetics of Extinction”

Chelsea Birks (University of British Columbia)

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch – the third collaboration between filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier and photographer Edward Burtynsky – is organized around the claims of the Anthropocene Working Group, a team of scientists striving to garner official recognition of the earth’s transition from the Holocene to the Age of Humans. As narrator Alicia Vikander explains solemnly at the beginning of the film, “The earth is 4.5 billion years old, and its history is recorded in the rocks.” This deceptively simple statement already hints at a profound ambivalence. The notion that human activity, limited to the last hundred centuries, could affect the earth enough to be “recorded in the rocks” simultaneously critiques and endorses the arrogance of human exceptionalism, a tension inherent in the film as well as in the idea of the Anthropocene more generally. While the project of the Anthropocene Working Group is clear – they want formal recognition of the Anthropocene as a distinct geological epoch – the aims of Anthropocene: The Human Epoch are less so, and as a result the film raises questions about the role of art in responding to anthropogenic changes to the environment.


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Anthropocene follows a seemingly straightforward structure, composed of seven chapters highlighting seven ways that humans have re-engineered the surface of the earth. Despite this clear categorical trajectory, the film mobilizes a series of fascinating problems and contradictions. The most obvious contradiction is a familiar feature of Burtynsky’s work, which photographs industrial processes at a scale so enormous that it provokes awe and horror in equal measure. Anthropocene is no exception, as spectacular drone footage of lithium evaporation ponds, potash mines, landfills, and marble quarries suggests a somewhat perverse admiration for humanity’s dual capacity for creation and destruction. Anthropocene insists on human labor and consumption as material processes, beginning and ending with the earth. A worker in the lithium pond sequence, for example, explains that he is proud of the work they do, since lithium powers electronics from cell phones to electric cars. Though we customarily think of digital processes as abstracted and immaterial – in “the cloud,” dispersed across networks rather than inhering in a physical body – Anthropocene ignores the ephemeral qualities of twenty-first century life. The film depicts no board rooms, no shareholders, no graphs plotting economic growth, and no advertisements extolling consumer culture. There are only landscapes laden with raw materials and the people and industrial processes reshaping those materials. In ethical and political terms, this materialism is both a strength and a weakness. Anthropocene makes direct links between resource extraction and consumption, therefore skipping over the cultural and economic motivations for these industrial processes: the lithium batteries in our cell phones and electric cars come not from Apple or Tesla, but from enormous ponds under the Atacama Desert. By ignoring the levels of abstraction that sustain capitalism, the film raises provocative questions about who is responsible for the massive terrestrial scars on display. On one level, the film implicates the spectator, as the direct link between raw materials and consumer goods forces a confrontation with processes normally kept out of sight. If resource extraction is the problem, however, then Anthropocene might also implicitly blame the workers actively altering the shape of our planet, rather than the systems that condition and demand these processes. The film also leaves a major question unresolved: if human activity is so tied to terrestrial re-engineering, how do we achieve a more sustainable relationship with the earth?

Vikander’s impassive narration provides few answers. Though her comments seemingly follow the voice-of-god format of nature documentaries, there is no Attenborough-eseque tendency to interpret here: her interjections are sparse and generally spell out facts and statistics (“Technofossils are human-created objects, such as plastic”; “Eighty-five percent of forests have been cleared or degraded”) rather than explain their implications. The overall effect of the film is curiously geological in that it flattens all human activity under a singular god’s eye perspective. Cities from Osaka to Paris to Dar es Salaam are shot from above to look like indistinguishable blocks of urban sprawl. Industrial activities – boring through mountains in Switzerland, carving out Carrera marble in Italy, metallurgy in the most polluted city in Russia – are all subsumed under a singular aesthetic and formal pattern, articulated as different forms of the same human tendency to reshape and destroy our environment. Reviews of the film frequently link this apparent aesthetic simplicity to the same conflict that I have been describing, suggesting that the film’s beautiful images simultaneously glorify and condemn industry. However, while these reviews sometimes critique this tension as unintentional or contrary to the overall message of the film, I would like to suggest that unresolved sentiments towards human achievement are not a hidden flaw that undoes the film’s purported environmentalism; instead, they are crucial to understanding Anthropocene’s environmental ethics. While the aim of science is to explain or elucidate, art is less didactic, and the value of Anthropocene: The Human Epoch has less to do with the way that it alerts its audience to data and more to do with how it evokes the aporia of human exceptionalism. The film’s fascination with the possibility of extinction suggests a self-aggrandizement tantamount to self-erasure, a paradoxical desire to witness our own collective death. Human arrogance is a root cause of environmental degradation, and Anthropocene acknowledges that change requires that we confront the seductive appeal of our own power.

One thought on “Anthropocene: the Human Epoch

  1. Thanks for such thoughtful considerations of this film!

    A couple thoughts, with no coherent argument:

    I saw this film at a local film festival and a woman was so moved by the film that she had a breakdown and had to be removed from the theatre. She was deeply upset, wailing out “We have to stop this madness! It is so horrible.” Clearly the film has moved some people, as such overwhelming pics, no matter their provenance or mode of making, are wont to do.

    But I think of Burtynsky as the artistic equivalent of green capitalism, underpinned by a (to my mind grossly misled) belief or fantasy that somehow we can change things without changing them in the most important ways. This manifests itself in many ways in that film, but the one that sticks out in my very weak and inaccurate memory is the way he is presented as an artist–so tediously familiar. Do we really think we’re going to be able to remain the same people (or keep eating the same food and wearing the same clothes from Banana Republic) if we really do what we need to do to somehow prevent climate change from wrecking the place?

    But I also think of the recent “movement” in British Columbia called something like #forestryfeedsmyfamily, which has arisen to protest the lack of support for “forestry communities” that are suffering with the downturn in the forest products market. If you go to their website or facebook page or whatever other form of (a)social media they use, you will see images of trucks carrying logs and manly lumberjacks with their big machines and, most bizarrely, lots and lots of images of clear cuts, which are one of the greatest ecological crimes ever conceived. But they post the images as if they were pics of work well done.

    By which I simply mean to say that the problems with Anthropocene (another real problem is it’s just boring; my kid said “God, we hear that every week in school…”) are not restricted to its aesthetic strategies but the context in which any image production occurs today. Jameson, whom Druick cites, pointed to this problem (he was not unique) in his postmodernism essay, where he argues that the lack of critical distance is a characteristic phenomenon of postmodernism. Since he wrote, it’s only gotten worse. I can imagine Teck Mining Co. using some of his pics in the lobby of their corporate offices.

    But I also wonder if representation of the problem is even the issue. Rob Nixon is cited. For him, in “Slow Violence,” the attritional violence of climate change and other slow-baking eco-horrors is primarily a representational matter. Somehow–though he is not good on explaining this–the representational challenges of such violence make it harder to act against. I feel like I have excellent representations of the situation available to me: I’ve been reading Marx for decades and I’m completing a degree in what is essentially environmental science. What more do I need to know how doomed we all are? Do I know what to do? Or how to do it? The real problems (amongst others) are, for one, that the available forms of action are deeply compromised and, for two, the simple, yet oh so complex, set of structural barriers to meaningful collective action. Or as Zoe calls it, the messy world of politics. Which makes me think we need representations of how to be different people and different collectives with a different relationship to the earth.

    Though maybe that is changing and at least people are starting to see past the barriers to action. It was pretty damn heartening to see 100,000 people march in Vancouver this Friday in the climate strike march.

    That said, I sure hope Burtynsky et al don’t make a film about that!


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