'Anthropocene' Performance Series Interrogates Humankind's Impact On Earth

Jan 9, 2017

The lights of Spain and Portugal as seen from the International Space Station.
Credit NASA

Humans have had a greater impact on the Earth than any other species in history.

“I mean, you can see it from space,” said Steve Tonsor, director of science and research at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “If you see images from space at night, you see all the lights of human activities. That is really a sign of our consuming fossil fuels and turning them into light energy. If you see the images from space during the day, you see the vast acreages of land that humans have manipulated.”

So extreme is humankind’s effect on our home planet that scientists have begun to propose that we are entering into a new geologic era: the Anthropocene.

“In technical terms, the Anthropocene refers to … an era where literally the sediments that are laid down (and) become the rock of a million years in the future bear the signature of human activities,” Tonsor said.

While the notion of the Anthropocene has not been officially adopted as part of the Geologic Time Scale by the International Union of Geologic Scientists, it is currently under serious consideration.

It is also the inspiration for a new performance series hosted by the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

“It has always seemed to us that we have an incredible potential to bring the perspectives of the arts and the sciences together to deliver programming to the public that talks about things they really care about from both the artistic and the scientific perspective,” said Jo Ellen Parker, president of the museums.

The series, titled “Strange Times: Earth in the Age of the Human,” is the first of what Parker said she hopes will become an annual endeavor bringing together all four museums: the Carnegie Museums of Natural History, the Carnegie Science Center and the Andy Warhol Museum.

Parker said the 12-part series will touch on questions related to climate change, energy policy, environmental policy and other topics.

“These are all very pressing topics that the public is engaged in thinking about from a number of perspectives, so it seemed very timely,” she said.

The first event on Jan. 10, titled “Tomorrow’s Parties,” brings to Pittsburgh British theater collective Forced Entertainment. The “playful, poignant” performance imagines hypothetical futures – some utopian, some dystopian.

Parker said she is particularly looking forward to the final event on April 20, a talk with novelist Annie Proulx, which is co-hosted by the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture Series. Proulx is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Shipping News” and “Brokeback Mountain.” Her new book, “Barkskins,” explores the deforestation of the planet.

Parker said she hopes audiences leave each performance feeling that “something in their real, current life has been illuminated.” Tonsor added that it is natural to interrogate problems as immense as climate change from both artistic and scientific perspectives.

“These are not just scientific problems,” he said. “They’re problems of how we use science and technology and how it defines human existence. To solve the problems, we need to think in much broader terms than just science. We need to think about all aspects of human life and use all the tools that we have available.”

“Strange Times: Earth in the Age of the Human” runs from Jan. 10 to April 20 at various venues across Pittsburgh.

Photo credit: NASA.