The Anthropocene: An Engineered Age?

By Cristoph Rosol (Research Scholar, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)

An intensive two-year undertaking is nearing its final stages at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt. The Anthropocene Project was established to experiment with novel and transdisciplinary reflection on, and approaches to, issues that define the Anthropocene – the ‘age of humankind’. Among these issues, climate engineering epitomises the complex interplay of the ‘artificial’ and the ‘natural’.

In a way, climate engineering turns the debate on whether humankind has the potential to be a ‘geological agent’ – that is, to profoundly modify the physical and biogeochemical fluxes in a way that merits the official acknowledgement of a new geological age – upside down. While the Anthropocene debate still revolves around questions of the global scale and the longevity of an unintentional human impact on Earth, climate engineering proposals and scenario calculations take this potential for granted, briskly running ahead to assess the technical means and the effects of intentional interventions. It seems to be not a matter of whether industrial man plays a role as a grand metabolic force, but rather how best to use this role to maintain a liveable planet for the rest of human civilisation.

The planetary scope of human agency and its implications for the sciences, humanities and arts is at the heart of the collaborative projects and investigations that have been set in motion as part of the Anthropocene Project. Thus, the project is especially interested in how discussions of climate engineering arise and resonate, and how research, politics, international law, civic engagement, conflictive settings, and public perceptions are brought together through the lens of climate interventions. It is fascinating to traverse the specific rationales that connect seemingly disparate entities, such as estimates of carbon budgets, long-term chemical alterations of atmospheric composition, socio-political realities, and the feelings of individuals ‘on the ground’. Empirical methods and methods of design create an intriguing bond. Technocratic imaginaries step in, and frustrating real-world complexities seem to follow suit.

Let’s be a little speculative here. It would indeed be very interesting to see how the search for engineering solutions to the climate problem will impact the research itself, be this geoscientific, ‘geosociological’ or ‘geoartistic’ in nature. In the case of the former, it might be noted that much of the history of modern Earth sciences could be read in the context of arguments for and against human intervention in nature and the humanisation/culturalisation of the natural world. What if climate engineering ushers in a new understanding of the climate system itself by literally creating new world views? While the laboratory has always existed to reproduce the laws of nature, Earth itself now turns into a laboratory – a 1:1 scale model of itself. The same might also apply to the arts, which might become to view the entire planet as an artistic studio, a site for artistic intervention and curation, and a venue in which to display what was once called nature.

The Haus der Kulturen der Welt is very honoured to host a round-up presentation of the Climate Engineering Conference 2014: Critical Global Discussions and conclude the official programme with a panel discussion on “The Anthropocene. An Engineered Age?”