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: consumers. Not so much of products, but of that which our products are essentially made of – the Earth itself. Consuming basically means digging, cutting, drilling and killing. Not always pleasant. Something that is done with a sense of ambivalence, as when altering a landscape forever. Something witnessed with a passing sorrow, as the felling of a majestic tree. Sometimes it may even be revolting, as in huge chemical processes, smelting and churning, which can be vaguely nauseating, like rivers of lava from a volcano. It is precisely in this sensually disquieting way that humanity’s new status as an «overwhelming power of nature» is presented in the film.
Through photographer Edward Burtynsky’s impeccable images we get a very direct sense of what it means that humans are now becoming a force of nature. The imagery is coldly objective and often beautiful in its grimness: these patient recordings of industrial mankind, presented as an unnatural process on a monstrous scale, aims to perfectly present our dubious interactions with nature so that we can contemplate with our senses and bear witness with our hearts and minds.
Human and hellish
Yet, this film avoids becoming a monotonous panorama of destruction. The segments are real visual stories, and there is a strong sense of place, of locality, and humanity. Sudden, interjected segments show real humans – not mankind the monster, the destroyer of worlds – but people like you and me. Even in the inhuman landscapes and industrial smelting plants in Siberia, we meet workers who laughingly acknowledge the grimness of their surroundings, but who still feel at home, who chat over lunch – before returning to their ominous machines. A local rapper performs for the camera in an open-air garbage dump in Kenya, a place that is equally infernal, partly overgrown mountains of plastic and trash where huge, pelican-like birds are rummage for food together with human scavengers. They live together in a new, worn-out, and sick kind of nature, an image, perhaps, of human civilization decomposing, no longer capable of maintaining the distance to its own consumerist debris.
Fact and judgement
In a way that is ultimately fruitful, the film allows itself to waver between distanced neutrality and moral condemnation. Some of the chapters, like the one about the marble quarries of Carrera or of tunnels and mines, are not really morally upsetting, presented more as fascinating testimony to our terraforming, our physical transformations of the Earth. A much bleaker chapter portrays villagers in Germany attempting to defend their ancient stone church from the merciless expansion of an open-air coal mine, before machines, only to be swallowed by the yawning chasm, finally crunch it. In another scene, an enormous coastal dike is constructed from huge concrete modules in preparation for rising oceans – a new Chinese wall, both hopeful and sinister. Even if we succeed in protecting ourselves, the under-water clips showing bleached corals remind us that much more is at stake than our own survival.
The unsettling duality between the neutral documentation of the facts and moral inquiry into the destructiveness of mankind captures the crux of the Anthropocene. As Benjamin Bratton recently stated in his provocative book Terraforming (2019), our moral repudiation of humanity’s planetary impact can easily get in the way of acknowledging how radically we are changing the Earth. On the other hand, our factual acceptance must not get in the way of our moral rejection of destructive changes.
The bonfires of ivory act like a blazing barricade against an unacceptable future
There is a deep sense of irony in the segment where a Chinese ivory sculptor explains how he used to carve his luxurious creations in material from African elephants and claims that, acknowledging the problem of poaching, he has now shifted to mammoth ivory. Even if we should trust him and his providers, the solution is not too uplifting: the reason why ancient ice-age tusks appear ever more often in the Siberian tundra is the melting of the perma-frost due to climate change. At the end of the film, the burning elephant tusks return, testifying to the limit we are pushing up against in our current «terraforming» – that of species extinction and a plundered Earth.