Essay: The Elephant in the Anthropocene

Excerpted from This Is NOT An Artifact (K-Verlag)

The second decade of the twenty-first century saw an explosion in popular discourse around the notion that humanity is living in a human-driven geological age commonly called the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene encompasses all of the human-driven changes to the global atmosphere, geology, and biome: climate change, pollution, overfishing, mining, pavement, human-caused extinction; all of it.

Countless critiques and revisions of this concept have been offered up, with each attempting to re-center the conversation on a different driver of global change, with a different starting date, or “golden spike” that future geologists may point to as the defining reference for the era. Each speculative renegotiation also reassigns responsibility for the current crises. Titular mic-drops like the Capitalocene, Eurocene, Plasticene, Misanthropocene, Chthulucene, and Manthropocene have been carving a path from the Geology Department, through the Humanities, all the way to the Whole Foods™.

I find the idea of the Anthropocene to be almost unapproachable in its scope and scale. The most debated aspect of it—when it officially began—seems like a red herring. On the scale of geologic time, humans are no doubt leaving behind an enigmatic stain on the strata. We are a weird blip above the Holocene and below whatever comes next. This is as daunting a scale as it is a disempowering one. Its dimensions exceed what any one human could ever be expected or hope to relate to. 

To refocus the Anthropocene conversation on something less abstract, perhaps this is a good moment to return to the elephant the metaphorical elephant in the room. Elephants usually find themselves occupying some prime real estate in natural history museums. They are colossal ambassadors of a nature that exists “out there,” somewhere. Reassuring in their well-preserved permanence, they set the tone: you, human visitor, are small, peripheral, and temporary.

When a magician captures our attention and lures it towards something incredible, they are also consciously distracting us away from something else. It’s a technique called misdirection (also colloquially known as a red herring) and domesticated elephants literally play this role in circus performances when audience attention needs to be moved from one area to another. It gives the magician the opportunity to hide something that might otherwise shatter the illusion that they worked so hard to perfect. 

Wonder itself is a dual use technology. It can captivate at the same time as it obscures. Does the presence of the elephant make it just a little bit harder to pay attention to the parts of the story that are not apparently “exotic,” “untamed,” or “colossal,” but rather “common,” seemingly “boring,” but arguably—at least, this has been my argument in the book—no less “important.” 

PostNatural History should therefore not be thought of as a rebranding of the Anthropocene, but it could be understood as a more specific, nested, and acute piece of it: the intentional biological changes made by humans to other living things. Importantly, the focus of PostNatural History is more than just determining the motivations for such changes or the desires that animate these human actions; instead, our aim is to provide reasons to pay better attention to what we so easily assume to be the normal and boring. We offer an opportunity to draw comparisons across disparate geologies and chronologies. We do not progress towards an ultimate understanding and there are no specific learning outcomes. We do not confuse knowledge with action. If PostNatural History does anything, it provides compelling reasons to keep looking, thinking, and sharing. We are all groping in the dark and should never pretend otherwise. 

There is an ancient parable that has existed in India for thousands of years and has found its way into many other cultures more recently. It has been used to describe the importance of context, the limitations of knowability, and the need for communication among different perspectives. The setup is simple: a group of people who have never seen an elephant are led into a darkened room where an elephant is standing. Each discovers, through touch, a different part of the animal and describes it in terms that are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile. Depending on the part they happen to be touching, an elephant might feel like a tree trunk, a wall, or a snake, or many other things besides. How the story plays out from there is really up to the teller. In some versions, things don’t go well as disagreement leads some to believe that the others in the room are lying. Chaos and violence ensue. In other versions, keen communication and trust allows the group to imagine more completely what the whole of the elephant must look like. It is a cautionary tale, a warning about assuming that one has greater access to the whole truth than one actually does. 

It may be worthwhile to take one step further back, as Idries Shah invites us to do in his retelling of the story, The Dermis Probe. In this version, the story takes place in a parallel present. The reader is witnessing a live televised event, like a moon-landing, governed by some type of world council. Experts from many different scientific specializations are describing the image the viewer is seeing on the screen. The scale is difficult to discern: vast or microscopic? As the camera pans out, it eventually becomes clear that they are looking at a close up patch of elephant skin, that is, a literal elephant under the microscope. However, none of the assembled scientists in the room seem to be aware that this is what they are seeing. Each remains constrained by the assumptions of their narrow specialization, unable to imagine the whole.

What is significant for me in this re-telling is that Shah is inviting us to consider not only the plight of the people who are in the dark room, but also the context going on outside. In this version, we get a sense of the bureaucratic landscape: there is a political context, an academic hierarchy of expertise, and economic forces driving the media spectacle of it all. This appeals to me because I feel it is closer to the truth of our own reality (even if these days it also often feels like we are literally feeling for meaning in the dark).

What if we continue this thought experiment a few steps further. In practice, each of us only occupies the position of a privileged person in the dark room intermittently. We spend the vast majority of our lives on the outside, depending on the interpretations of others who are closer to the elephant in question. We are expected to trust that those who are groping in the dark are honest players, operating with our best interests in mind, and capable of collaborative reasoning  Because it is important for the maintenance of order that we believe they know more than we do and can therefore judge better than we can, there is a great deal of pressure for those inside to come to some kind of apparent consensus. 

Now let’s send into our dark room a sample of elephant authorities: a molecular biologist, an animal rights activist, and an agriculture company executive. Each brings their own set of expert tools and assumptions: the molecular biologist plucks a hair to send away for genomic sequencing, unaware if the animal is living or dead; the animal rights activist recognizes that the room is too small for any animal and begins work to set it free without considering the consequences of its release; and, the agriculture executive  estimates the market value of the nitrogen-rich dung.

Outside the room, there are other agendas in play. Some people would benefit from there not being an elephant in the room at all. They protest silently, or loudly, that if there is an elephant, then you have to deal with it. Its needs will have to be addressed. It will need to be fed. Its waste will be an ongoing concern. But there is a short term benefit for others outside the room if the elephant is left where it is; investments that depend on the status quo may retain their value. 

For those heavily invested in the status quo, a cacophony of disagreement is beneficial, even to the point where many people no longer believe in elephants at all. They are a hoax, or at the very least an exaggeration. In the eventuality that there is an elephant in that dark room, they say, it is likely a small one and might best be addressed by cryogenically freezing a sample of the elephant’s cells, such that it could be revived at a later time. Some would even go as far as to lock the room altogether, and leave the area, perhaps on a spaceship. Their parting words of reassurance are that the future will be better positioned to deal with the presence of elephants in the room with their superior technology.

It was in a scene just like this that the need for the Center for PostNatural History became clear to me. In the cacophony of ideological flag waving that was the early twenty-first century, one had to be either pro- or anti-genetic modification; biotechnology would either feed or destroy the world; genetic engineering was either a paradigm-shifting development or the oldest technology in the world. You had to be for it or against it. 

In this sense, the Center for PostNatural History is itself the room in the parable. When you enter, you don’t know what you will be confronted with. The darkness is populated with things that are usually not talked about across disciplines, specializations, and certainly not with the public. The information given is necessarily fragmentary. What is familiar to you, may be unfamiliar to the other people in the room, and vice versa. Thankfully, after ten years of being open to the public, the scene has never degenerated into violence, but countless meaningful conversations among strangers have taken place.  

As the Center grew and became many rooms,  it became a place of questions, reflection, and storytelling—an intercessor site between and among specialists and non-experts in the broadest possible sense. The collection itself is a form of inheritance over 10,000 years in the making. Each new generation is invited to consider the forking paths that lead to their present moment, and to reflect on what sort of ancestor they wish to be. How choices are made today will oblige future generations to certain kinds of care, labor, and recreation; in short, how humans make the world now will determine innumerable future relationships, just as so much of our present has been shaped by the actions of previous generations who tamed, sowed, and wondered before us.

The Center is thus more of a point of departure than a destination; it is an invitation to think and listen, to reflect and discuss. It should be clear by now that most of  the important stuff happens outside the museum. It happens when people begin to search for answers to questions that they didn’t have before; it happens in dreams, or while we lie awake at night. PostNatural History is a heady cocktail of wonder and worry that disturbs our normal patterns and propels us to reconsider our place among them.