State of the art

A growing number of artists are turning to the Anthropocene for inspiration. Here, I’ve brought together several artists who explicitly reference the concept for the first online Anthropocene Exhibition.

All images kindly reproduced with the permission of the artists. 

Image: Radhika Gupta

Some years ago, a celebrity chef in the UK proclaimed cooking had attained the status of high art. Art critic Brian Sewell quipped that the day a Michelin-starred meal could be described as “profoundly disturbing” was the day these chefs could call themselves artists. Sewell was right to ridicule. Art has an emotional impact like no other.

Among many other things. the concept of the Anthropocene is profoundly disturbing. If the Anthropocene was simply a matter of geological classification it would remain hidden in a distant corner of dusty academia. Instead, the word captures who we are. It captures how far we have come. It separates us from all previous generations. It helps us make sense of our world and our new responsibility. The concept is beyond geological hair-splitting. Artists have struck a rich vein.

Not all the artists here would describe themselves as artists. 

Félix Pharand-Deschênes


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Félix Pharand-Deschênes is an anthropologist and data visualizer living in Canada. He is founder of Globaïa. (Felix is also a close collaborator and friend of the author.)

David Thomas Smith

Anthropocene-David-Thomas-Smith-The-Copper-House-Gallery-Dublin-yatzer-11 burj dubai

Image: David Thomas Smith

Anthropocene-David-Thomas-Smith-The-Copper-House-Gallery-Dublin-yatzer-6 glass houses spain

Image: David Thomas Smith

Anthropocene-David-Thomas-Smith-The-Copper-House-Gallery-Dublin-yatzer- silicon valley

Image: David Thomas Smith

Anthropocene-David-Thomas-Smith-The-Copper-House-Gallery-Dublin-yatzer-4 three gorges

Image: David Thomas Smith

David Thomas Smith biosphere 2

Image: David Thomas Smith

Anthropocene-David-Thomas-Smith-The-Copper-House-Gallery-Dublin-yatzer-3 three mile island

Image: David Thomas Smith

David Thomas Smith is an Irish documentary photographer. More.

Stephen Walter

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Image: Stephen Walter

Abbey Mills. Credit: Stephen Walter:

Abbey Mills. Credit: Stephen Walter:


The Island. Credit: Stephen Walter.

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London Sub. Credit: Stephen Walter.


London Sub. Credit: Stephen Walter.

Throwaway whole. Credit: Stephen Walter.

Throwaway whole. Credit: Stephen Walter.


Whitehall. Credit: Stephen Walter.


Venice of Drains. Credit: Stephen Walter.

Stephen Walter lives and works in London. In July 2013, Walter’s solo exhibition Anthropocene opened at the Londonewcastle Project Space in London. More. 

Jason deCairesTaylor


Image: Jason deCairesTaylor


Image: Jason deCairesTaylor


Image: Jason deCairesTaylor


Image: Jason deCairesTaylor


Image: Jason deCairesTaylor


Image: Jason deCairesTaylor

Jason de Caires Taylor is based in Cancun, Mexico and combines diving with sculpture. The sculptures pictured here have been designed to be assimilated into the environment and will eventually promote coral reef growth and so challenging the viewer to see the positive attributes in humanity’s creativity in the Anthropocene. More.

Radhika Gupta

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radhika gupta anthropocene

Radhika Gupta

Radhika Gupta is a recent graduate in design from the Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore, and is based in India. More.

John Stockton

Cartritus 1

Image: John Stockton

Cartritus 2

Image: John Stockton

John Stockton is an artist based in Nottingham, England. The images above come from his “Cartritus” collection. They are formed from objects found on roadside verges that have been discarded, ejected or otherwise fallen off cars and other vehicles. More.


landsat garden city Kansas landsat bolivian deforestation NASA’s LandSat Earth as Art courtesy of the US Geological Survey.

Water in the Anthropocene

Irish writer James Joyce’s gibberish masterpiece Finnegans Wake is a tale of the night. It begins with an allusion to the global water cycle.

The tale is told as a stream of consciousness that takes the reader through a restless, endlessly shifting dreamscape, drifting from one half-finished thought to the next.

The main character is an oddly-named Dublin publican Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker or HCE. Versions of this abbreviation crop up throughout, and assume different meanings. In places HCE is a reference to Here Comes Everybody: the publican stands for every man.

This gives a sense for what Joyce was aiming to create: a book that captures humanity in its full state. Finnegans Wake is about people, all people, everywhere.

The first reference to HCE appears in the incredible, dumbfounding opening sentence. Even the first word discombobulates: “riverrun”, in lowercase. The book starts midsentence with a word that doesn’t even exist.

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Howth Castle guards Dublin Bay. Eve and Adam’s is a church on the river Liffey. Joyce is describing the flow of the water cycle and using it as a metaphor for life, and in particular humanity.  The opening sentence begins as the last line of the book. The book is a cycle; it is perfectly self contained. 

Yesterday, data visualizer Felix Pharand Deschenes and I released a new short film – Water in the Anthropocene, commissioned by the Global Water Systems Project for an international conference taking place in Bonn this week. It opens with a description of the water cycle based on Finnegans Wake’s opening lines, and goes on to chart how humans are altering the global water cycle.

Water availability has largely determined where human civilisations have flourished. Indeed, civilisation emerged between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers on the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq.

But recently we have begun to change the water cycle, not just locally or regionally, but on a truly global scale. We have build 48,000 large dams in less than two centuries and another 1600 are in development. We have drained half the world’s wetlands. We use an area the size of South America to grow our crops and an area the size of Africa for our livestock.

Through climate change, we are further altering the global water cycle. Wet areas are likely to become wetter, dry areas drier. And in many areas we are using groundwater faster than it can be recharged.

We wanted to create something unique and powerful. The film takes the viewer on a journey across our planet, first in its natural state, then as humans change the water cycle. 

Felix built a perfect aural accompaniment using a mix of ambient music from Earlyguard and sound recordings by Norwegian artist Jana Winderen of cracking ice, rainfall and water flow. 

Sarah Sherborne does another fantastic job narrating the film. This became a more difficult job than the first film, Welcome to the Anthropocene, because it was particularly important for the narration to match precisely to the visuals as datasets sweep in and out.

So as it begins to appear on blogs and tweets we can only hope this is as successful as the first. It was a joy to work on this project with a truly world-class team.

UPDATE (26 May, 2013):

The film has appeared on many blogs and news sites in the last few days, but not everyone is a fan of Joyce. Tasha Eichenseher at Discover says “If you can get past the melodramatic narration, there is a pretty stellar data visualization..that illustrates how the human footprint has changed the global water cycle.” Ouch! Well, you can’t please everyone.

NASA releases stunning new “Black Marble”

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On Wednesday 5 December 2012, NASA released a composite image of the Earth at Night – the “Black Marble” – showing the extent of human activity in unprecedented detail. The accompanying video (link below) takes the viewer on a remarkable journey through the night – from gas flares in Saudi Arabia to fishing fleets worldwide and bush fires across Australia.

This new global view and animation of Earth’s city lights is a composite assembled from data acquired by the Suomi NPP satellite. The data was acquired over nine days in April 2012 and 13 days in October 2012. It took 312 orbits to get a clear shot of every parcel of Earth’s land surface and islands.

Credit: NASA Earth Observatory/NOAA NGDC

NASA Earth at night

“State of the planet” film opens Rio summit

On the eve of Rio+20 – the UN’s largest summit to date –  I got a call from the UN. They wanted the “state of the planet” film, Welcome to the Anthropocene, which I had produced with Félix Pharand-Deschênes, to kick off the show. The audience:  188 heads of state and ministers. I have only known Felix for a year but the film is a culmination of our lives’ work. Here is my distorted version of events.

It is 2010. I am sitting opposite filmmaker Johan Soderberg in an über chic bar in Stockholm. He is  explaining to me how to make a film about the state of the planet go viral. An epiphany strikes him.

“Justin Timberlake stares at the camera and screams: ‘We’re all fucked!’ Then his head explodes,” says Johan. I nod, thoughtfully I hope.

Johan directs videos for Madonna and U2. He is a master of mass communication. Johan advises that for a viral hit it is essential to use a star. Someone everyone knows.

I consider the mental image Johan has presented to me. An exploding Timberlake head is problematic. I remember the English director Richard Curtis’s ill-considered blood-drenched outing into communication of climate change. The director of Love Actually’s internet advertisement for environmental organization 10:10 was roundly attacked and withdrawn 24 hours after launch.

Photograph of famous person Justin Timberlake taken during the making of the Anthropocene – the epoch, not the film.

I was meeting Johan to brainstorm ideas for a short film I wanted to make for the UN’s Rio+20 Summit in June 2012. The Rio+20 summit is essentially Plan A for Planet Earth. My organization, the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme and others were organizing a science conference, Planet Under Pressure, in advance of Rio+20 so the film could be launched there. That was the vague plan at least.

I wanted less shock and more awe. Besides I work for a scientific organization. We don’t do shock tactics and exploding heads. We don’t do swearing, not publicly at least. We don’t do advocacy.

What we do is global-change research. In my mind I had an idea about doing something on a scale not achieved before.  I wanted to create a short film that crystalized the science showing the vast scale of human civilization, the explosion in our impact since the 1950s, and the implications and risks for humanity and the planet’s life support system. I reckoned I had two or three minutes max before humanity lost interest. Johan said I had less than a minute.

The central feature had to be the Anthropocene: the concept that humanity has propelled the planet out of its previous epoch, the Holocene, and into whole new territory. This notion has gained traction among scientists since Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and others proposed the concept in 2000.

With its data visualization expertise Google was the obvious partners for such a project. I tried to connect but hit dead end after dead end.

A breakthrough came in the summer of 2011. I contracted a data visualizer Félix Pharand-Deschênes to do some graphics for the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. I’d been an admirer of Félix’s work for some time. He is a French Canadian anthropologist with a global perspective and a love of data visualization. For several years he’d produced some novel visualizations of global human impact. More recently he’d moved into animations of the global human footprint.  Soon we were talking about building the first educational website on the Anthropocene and I started thinking again about the short film again.

By this stage we’d roped in Simon Torok from Australian research agency CSIRO and Sturle Hauge Simonsen from the Stockholm Resilience Centre for the project. We put the money in place for the Anthropocene website and started work. But I felt opportunity was calling. What if I could incorporate the short film into the website? The budget had no room for any extras We barely had enough for the site and were calling in many favors. But I argued it would be useful as a promotional tool for the site and so we agreed to make the film.

By February 2012 we had the basic narrative of the data visualization then started work on layering up the complex animated graphs and completing the voiceover. The challenge was to condense 250 years of history plus a monumental heap of data into three minutes.

But it was more complex than that. People respond to narratives not streams of facts. It was important we told a story. The story of how one species changed a planet. And, coming from research organizations we had to narrate a story without recourse to hyperbole or exaggeration. It had to remain independent, impartial and objective. Yet the film had to resonate with audiences everywhere. It had to engage. We needed a convincing narrative that went further than anything to date to capture the immense scale of the human enterprise.

While the film articulates the scale of change, and the very real concern about the state of the planet, we did not want to dwell on catastrophe, we wanted to capture the great change for good too: the green revolution, poverty alleviation, eradication of several diseases, the power of global interconnections and communication technology, the improved wellbeing for many. The bottom line is: we now control the global narrative. We have shaped our past. We are shaping our present. We can shape our future. There is a message of hope.

Working impossible hours we completed the film for the Planet Under Pressure conference in London in March this year. In 345 words and with jaw-dropping visualizations from Félix and UK film company Capture, the film takes viewers on a rollercoaster ride from the explosive beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the north of England to the incredible global interconnected society that rules our daily lives. Félix animated and composited hundreds of datasets with millions of data points – cities, roads, railways, shipping lanes, cables and pipelines, to arrive at the final landscape of the Anthropocene. The post-production company Capture layered up the Great Acceleration graphs. When I saw the first rushes I knew we were creating something completely unique. “Welcome to the Anthropocene” was born.

After the launch we had a slow start before the film reached a tipping point online spreading like a virus. We appeared in Time magazine, the New York Times, BBC, Daily Telegraph, the Age, the Atlantic.

To date, we’ve had 700,000 hits on the Vimeo video sites hosting variations of the movie and countless blogs and websites have reposted it.

We had a minor hit on our hands. From the outset we had billed the film as 250 years of history to the Rio+20 summit. The ultimate aim was for it to be shown at the summit. After the Planet Under Pressure conference I contacted the UN and the Brazilian government to ask if they would consider showing the film during the summit. As the weeks rolled by we roped in more people and organizations to call for the film to be screened.

In the week before the conference we appeared on the UN’s radar. One day before the opening ceremony of the UN’s largest gathering in its history, I got a call saying  Welcome to the Anthropocene would open the summit.

“What do you mean ‘Open the summit’?” I asked.

“UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon will arrive on stage, make some opening remarks and then show the state of the planet film,” the UN responded. “How would you like the Secretary General to introduce the film?”

After the UN hung up my mind entered a state of discombobulation.

A large smile spread over the face of my colleague Reed Evans who had overheard the conversation. “What was all that about?” She enquired but she had already guessed the answer.

The summit is a once-in-a-generation event that brought together 188 heads of state and ministers along with 50,000 people. For months we had worried that science was absent from the agenda. We agonized over how to reach world leaders and opinion formers. How do we get them to hear about let alone care about the state of the planet and the implications inherent in the concept of the Anthropocene? And here we were, centre state at a historic moment in international politics. We could not ask for a better platform.

But perhaps it was not too surprising. The Anthropocene demands we accept a new responsibility, a responsibility for the Earth’s life support system.

The Anthropocene is the greatest story ever told. As a species we move more rock and sediment than all natural processes. We are altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere and the ocean. We are changing the global water cycle, nitrogen cycle and carbon cycle.

Two thirds of the world’s most important deltas are sinking due to mining and extraction. We use an area the size of South America to grow our crops. We use an area the size of Africa to graze our animals. Never have so many had so much. Entire countries go on holidays to other countries. But one billion remain malnourished. And we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction — the first caused by one species. We have the impact of an ice age or meteorite impact.

This is new. We have never been here before. When our grandparents were growing up they lived in a different world. A world we can never go back to. This is an enormous communications challenge.

In an interview somewhere online Félix says this project is the culmination of his life’s work. I know how he feels. My professional interest in humanity’s colossal impact on our planet’s life support systems began when I was a teenager.

At around the age of 13 or 14 a poster I’d ordered from NASA arrived in the mail. It was a composite satellite image of the Earth at night. In that pre-internet era I spent weeks poring over the poster. Tracing the cities along the trans-Siberian railway. Spotting the lights from Japanese fishing fleets coaxing fish to the surface. Circling the flare stacks atop oil rigs across the Arabian desert.

Later on, I almost became an anthropologist. Instead, I studied astronautic and aeronautic engineering. My interest moved to the planet as a whole and humanity as a whole. Plus, I wanted to go to space.

Back then I remember reading accounts of the astronauts’ amazement and wonder at the world they’d left behind. How inconsequential humanity seemed from those dizzy heights, they said. The only sign of our passing, they said, was the Great Wall of China and wakes of ocean-going ships passing between continents. But I knew that was only half the story. My job is to tell the other half.

Global temperature 1880 to 2011

Recently, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies released a time series of global temperatures from 1880 to 2011. The data shows how Earth continues to experience higher temperatures than several decades ago. The average temperature around the globe in 2011 was 0.51 C higher than the mid-20th century baseline.The global average surface temperature in 2011 was the ninth warmest since 1880.The finding sustains a trend that has seen the 21st century experience nine of the 10 warmest years in the modern meteorological record.

NASA 2011 Global Temperatures, 9th warmest year since 1880

Mapping 2011’s natural catastrophes

In 2011,  Newsweek published an environmental ranking of the world’s largest companies. Insurance giant Munich Re took the number one position. When it comes to understanding risk and uncertainty, nobody does it better. It is hardly surprising the company takes sustainability so seriously. Here is Munich Re’s 2011 natural catastrophe global map, published 4 January.

Munich Re totalled 820 natural catastrophes in 2011. 90% were weather-related – however, nearly two-thirds of economic losses and about half the insured losses stemmed from geophysical events, principally from the Japanese and other earthquakes. Normally, it’s weather-related natural catastrophes that domiate losses. On average over the last three decades, geophysical events accounted for just under 10% of insured losses. The distribution of regional losses in 2011 was also unusual: around 70% of economic losses occurred in Asia.

Munich Re notes that while its analysis deals with insured losses, the biggest humanitarian catastrophe in 2011 stemmed from the prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa. Coupled with political instability, the drought resulted in countless deaths from starvation.

US research agency NOAA has also published a similar map but focussing on 2011 climate events.

Extreme events in 2011

Rank Event When Occurred
1 East Africa Drought Ongoing
2 Thailand Flooding July–October
3 Eastern Australia Flooding December 2010–February 2011
Austral Summer
4 Consecutive La Niña Events Throughout 2011
5 Brazil Flash Floods January 6th–12th
6 Tropical Storm Washi (Sendong) December 16th–17th
7 Arctic Sea Ice Extent Throughout 2011
8 Colombia Rainfall March–May
9 Mexico Drought Throughout 2011
10 European Drought September–November

Reference: NOAA-NCDC 

2011 Top ten Anthropocene data visualizations

Some stunning visualizations came online in 2011. Here’s my top ten.

1. Globaia’s Anthropocene Mapping 1.2

2. International Space Station time lapse from North to South America

3. 300 years of fossil fuels in 300 seconds

4. Visualizing the global digital divide (Gregor Aisch)

5. History of the world in 100 seconds, according to Wikipedia. Watch the time ticker bottom right. Historic events in Wikipedia are cross referenced with latitude and longitude coordinates.

6. Globaia, From Ecosphere to Anthrosphere

7. NOAA, 800,000 year carbon dioxide record. This is a visualization of arguably the world’s most important dataset: the palaeo record of carbon dioxide. It shows unambiguously how far beyond natural boundaries we have travelled in just a few generations.

8. National Geographic, 7 billion

9. NOAA, the Big Heat visualized

10. Facebook. Facebook is the pinnacle of the Industrial Revolution: the industrialization of friendship. (Paul Butler, technically 2010).

(I am using the term “data visualizations” quite loosely to include animations and movies.)

And there’s more…

It’s Christmas, let’s throw in a few more crackers from 2010:

BBC the Joy of Stats. Hans Rosling’s whistle-stop tour of the last 200 years (2010)

BBC, How Earth Made Us (2010)

The Great Acceleration

The Great Acceleration. Click to enlarge. Image: Felix Pharand from Global Change and the Earth System (IGBP Synthesis) Steffen et al.

The start of the Anthropocene is the subject of intense debate. Our ancestors first began altering the landscape 10,000 years ago when they invented agriculture. Did this mark the onset of a new epoch? Did the Industrial Revolution signal the transition?

This set of 24 graphs, redrawn recently by Phelix Pharand, illustrate an explosion in the human enterprise around 1950. Was 1950 the kick-off? One lifetime away! Geologically speaking, this is a convenient date to begin: the first atomic bombs, detonated in 1945, have left a global radioactive signal in the geological record.

Each of the 24 graphs, known collectively as the Great Acceleration, begins in 1750, the start of the Industrial Revolution, and run through to 2000. If you want a closer look, click through to my Great Acceleration presentation on Slide Share.

I am working with colleagues right now to update these graphs through to 2010. We will be adding more graphs illustrating other relevant trends. Set for release in March 2012.