CLIMATE: By making us witnesses to our consumption of the Earth, Anthropocene – the Human Epoch is a planetary portrait that makes room for nuanced irony and wonder, even while urging moral outcry.
Anders Dunker
Dunker is a Norwegian philosopher, and regular contributor.
Published date: October 11, 2019

Fire, a wall of roaring fire – as you’ve never seen it. Ecstatic, hypnotic, ferocious flames – as if you could stick your head into a furnace and witness the ultimate destruction up close, yourself unscathed, safe. This is how the film starts, exciting and sublime. Only gradually can we fully confirm our disquieting presentiment: that we are not really spectators this time, not to this drama, and that we are not safe – not at all.

The camera hovers over strata of weathered rocks at the beginning of the film, while Alicia Vikander’s phlegmatic voice explains the term that gives the film its name: the Anthropocene, reminding us that the real meaning of this epoch is geological. Human changes to the planet are happening on such a scale that they could, in principle, be traced by geologists millions of years from now. The first such effect of the anthropos might be the sudden extinction of numerous mammal species in the Pleistocene epoch, possibly because of all-too-efficient hunting techniques of ice-age humans. That was even before we entered the stable Holocene epoch and the agricultural era and we began our prosperous, but equally dangerous, expansion.

A radical rupture

Seen from the point of view of geology, the proposed naming of our current epoch, the Anthropocene – epitomized by anthropogenic climate change – is not about moral guilt, but rather that of establishing the lasting planetary effects of human actions as a scientific fact. Yet the film begins with a scene as morally charged as can be: Tons upon tons of illegally poached elephant tusks that have been confiscated by the Kenyan government are laboriously being heaped up, prepared to be burned in public. The bonfires of ivory act like a blazing barricade against an unacceptable future, and simultaneously as beacons of distress, signaling a break with the past and the over-exploitation of nature that has been going on since our stone-age beginnings.

Distance and intimacy

The trio writing and directing the film do not fully take on the task of explaining what the Anthropocene is, but rather deploys the concept of «the human epoch» as a frame, within which we can see ourselves as what we really are: …

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