Age of the Anthropocene

“We’ve killed off the dodo, released unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and raised sea levels: welcome to the Anthropocene, the geological age in which humankind has permanently left our mark on the planet.”

This was the description I gave to my new unit, ‘The Age of the Anthropocene’ hoping to catch the attention of second year students keen to explore the impact and meaning of global environmental change. It worked: students from History, English Literature, Religion and Theology, Philosophy, Ancient History, and Study Abroad students joined me this autumn to explore how the notion of the ‘Anthropocene’ has gained traction as a definition of time that recognizes the unprecedented Earth-altering impact of the human species. We engaged with debates among scientists and humanities scholars over the concept, while also exploring how it has captured popular and scholarly imagination.

One of the activities that I looked forward to was holding an inaugural Bristol ‘Anthropocene Slam’ – inspired by the original Anthropocene Slam at the Nelson Institute, Centre for Culture History and Environment (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2014); the Anthropocene exhibition at the Deutsches Museum (Munich, 2014-16); and the BBC/British Museum initiative, ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’. The challenge was to select an object/visual/sound that encapsulates and communicates the Anthropocene to a wide audience. Here, the students describe the unit, the Slam, and present their selection of objects which best communicate the Anthropocene to you, the public.

What is the Age of Anthropocene unit?

The Anthropocene is the notion that humanity has become a geological force in its own right, moving us in to a new epoch. Proposed by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, it has inspired this unit ‘The Age of Anthropocene’, which explores the origins, reality and future of the changing planet. Expect hard-hitting truths about the changing relationship between humans and the environment, using the most innovative of recent scholarship, but also material and technology sources.

What is the Anthropocene Slam?

Slam! Now I’ve got your attention. For the Anthropocene slam we were each tasked with presenting a material source ranging from audio to bleach bottles, which represented our perceptions of what the broad concept of the Anthropocene meant. Our overall purpose was to present the Anthropocene with clarity, in the most effective fashion. Our broad scope reflected how the Anthropocene affects all areas of life. 

Object 1: Fordite /Detroit agate

Proposed by Thecla Horton

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Image via theoldmotor.com, copyright unknown

I chose this as an item that I think most represents the Anthropocene for a number of reasons. Fordite is layers and layers of old car paint, from when cars were hand spray-painted, which built up in the painting bays on the ‘tracks’ and ‘skids’ that cars were painted on. The colourful layers show many years of this, these layers were then ‘baked’ when the car bodies went into ovens to set the paint. This process is now extinct as cars are no longer hand sprayed.

Firstly, I think it is a good representation of the Anthropocene as a product of the automobile industry-a significant driver behind the oil industry, mass consumption, and a significant contributor to global warming. The fact that the production of this material is now extinct seems symbolic to the proposed idea that we are entering the 6th mass extinction. Technology and our world is moving so quickly that even these man made materials are becoming rare.

It looks natural and beautiful even the name, Fordite/Detroit agate, is suggestive of a natural mineral, the pattern of multiple layers making it look like it is millions of years old.  Yet it is a fossil of the beginning of the Anthropocene. While fossils have taken millions of years to form, the human impact on the planet has happened so rapidly and violently to produce fossils within just a few years, and then for it also to become virtually ‘extinct’.

Object 2: Photograph of Male, Maldives

Proposed by Toby Lane

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Image: Creative Commons/Flickr/la_camera_obscura

This is Malé, the capital of the Maldives. Situated in the Indian Ocean it is home to over 130,000 people and is the fifth most densely populated island globally. It is the world’s lowest lying nation with the islands that make up the Maldives being on average only a few feet above sea level. Sea level rise consequently jeopardises the future existence of the Maldives and the way of life for all those who live on the island. The example of the Maldives epitomises the problems offered by the onset of the Anthropocene but also its unjust nature. Those who live on Malé have contributed little towards anthropogenic climate change but will be massively affected by the decisions and excesses of others. Furthermore the fate of Maldives is almost entirely outside of its inhabitants’ influence and the country lacks the ability to defend itself. Malé itself is only protected by a 3m high sea wall which took 14 years to construct at an expense of $63 million (99% of which was funded by Japan). Finally, a study of the Maldives also emphasises how little time is left in order to take action on climate change if catastrophic levels of disruption are to be avoided. In April 2012 President Nasheed of the Maldives declared that “If carbon emissions continue at the rate they are climbing today, my country will be underwater in seven years.”

Object 3: Emojis

Proposed by Noa Leach

Emoji story by Noa Leach ©

Emoji story by Noa Leach ©

Object 4: Video of a turtle (warning: scenes of an animal in distress)

Proposed by George Mumford

Object 5: Pollution mask

Proposed by Matt Davis

A man and child wear masks to visit Shanghai’s Bund. Via Creative Commons/CNN

A man and child wear masks to visit Shanghai’s Bund. Via Creative Commons/CNN

Since the end of the Second World War and the onset of the ‘Great Acceleration’ phase of the Anthropocene air pollution has risen rapidly.

In the build-up to the 2008 Olympic games held in Beijing the Chinese media became fixated on the city’s choking pollution. During an air quality crisis in February 2015, the concentration of ‘hazardous particulate matter’, known as PM 2.5 since they are 2.5 micrometers in diameter or less, rose to nearly twenty times the safe level.

Due to the health risk many people who live in China’s major cities have started wearing pollution masks in an attempt to keep themselves safe from PM 2.5, that are small enough to seep into a person’s lungs or bloodstream. The cause of the ridiculously high air pollution has been attributed to the Chinese industrial sector as the nation’s heaviest polluters. Despite the use of pollution masks a recent report has claimed air pollution is killing around four thousand people per day in China, and accounts for one in six premature deaths.

Air pollution masks represent much about human interaction and the general consequences of the Anthropocene. It has been predicted by scientists that continued burning of fossil fuels and high pollution levels will make much of the Earth’s surface uninhabitable by the year 2100. Pollution masks represent how Beijing has arguably become the closest city yet to be rendered unfit for human habitation due to the effects of the Anthropocene, and although the government is taking action to reduce pollution, the staggering number of deaths caused already begs the question ‘are they acting too late?’ The mask also represents the human reliance upon technological remedies to the Anthropocene, a quick fix that makes the immediate threat smaller and yet fails to address the cause of the problem, that of a constant striving for economic growth, over consumption and a frame of mind that prioritizes the pursuit of human progress over nature.

Object 6: Bunch of Keys

Proposed by Beth Gaffney

Photographer: ©M Dudley

Photographer: ©M Dudley

This object consists of a household key chain, three different sized keys, a combination padlock, and a supermarket points fob. This object symbolises Paul Crutzen and John McNeill’s third stage of the Anthropocene: ‘The Age of the Stewards’, which marks mankind’s recognition that human activities are indeed affecting the structure and functioning of the Earth system as a whole and is filtering through to decision making. Just as a steward is an official person responsible to take care of something, mankind uses keys to lock something into a safe space. This illustrates how humans have come to acknowledge their responsibility for the earth systems, which they value for continuance of human life.

However, keys are generally forgotten about; they remain hidden in our pockets for most of the day and are often misplaced. This suggests that mankind “knows” the importance of protecting the Earth systems, but often forget to act appropriately in everyday life. Mankind’s planetary ecological consciousness has not formed.

In addition, the different sized keys illustrate how human individuals have been given various “solutions” to protect the environment. However, neither of these three keys fit into the padlock. The keys also sit alongside a plastic supermarket key fob. The solutions provided by market environmentalism often falsely legitimatize the idea that one can continue his or her consumption habits without adjustment, and no broader systematic or structural changes are required. For example, polluters pay distant others, frequently located in the global south, to engage in emission reduction activities as a substitute for reductions at the source. These solutions prioritise the western anthropogenic world and are tokenistic.

By Dr Marianna Dudley (Lecturer in Environmental Humanities), Lucy Bennett (Religion and Theology), Matt Davis (History), James Foss (History), Beth Gaffney (History), Thecla Horton (History), Lydia Hunt (Philosophy and Theology), Yejin Jeong (Study Abroad), Toby Lane (History), Noa Leach (English), Rupert Liddell (Ancient History), George Mumford (History), Roisin Murphy (History), Olivia Nathan-King (Religion and Theology), and Cassie Rist (Religion and Theology) . Thanks go to Bristol Museum Curator Bonnie Griffin for joining our workshop and sharing her expertise, and to Cabot Innovation Fund for their support.

South Asian Migrants and Bristol

Our new colleague Dr Sumita Mukherjee looks at the place of Bristol city and university in the modern history of South Asian migration:


David Olusoga’s BBC2 programme Black and British: A Forgotten History has brilliantly demonstrated the ways in which peoples of African descent have been living in Britain since the Roman times, how they have been part of the fabric of British life and society for centuries, how migration and multiculturalism are not twentieth-century phenomena.

It should go without saying that just as men and women of African descent have lived and played their part in British history for centuries, so have men and women from Asia, including men and women from the Indian subcontinent. Much of my research has focused on Indian men and women who came to Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, before the more large-scale migrations of the post-war era.

A study of the effects of such migrations could focus on the city of Bristol. Bristol has many long-standing connections with Indian men and women. These links are publicly noted in College Green with the statue of Indian reformer Rammohan Roy. He came to Britain in 1831, was present at King William IV’s coronation, and politicians and philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Macaulay and Robert Owen all clamoured to meet with him. He was a vocal champion of women’s rights, and human rights more broadly.

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Rammohan Roy statue at College Green, Bristol. Original image & CC licence here.

In 1833, staying in Bristol with Minister Lant Carpenter and his daughter, Mary, Roy died of suspected meningitis. He was buried in Bristol. A few years later, Dwarkanath Tagore, the father of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, shifted Roy’s grave to Arnos Vale and erected a monument; Roy’s tomb at Arnos Vale Cemetery is grade 2 listed, a tourist attraction and remains a site of commemoration for members of the Brahmo Samaj, the reformist group he founded.

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Image of Rammohan Roy tomb at Arnos Vale (author’s own image).

Mary Carpenter moved to Red Lodge after the death of Roy, and it was there that she hosted, Keshub Chunder Sen, another Brahmo Samaj reformer, on his tour of England in 1870. Carpenter tried to make Sen comfortable by preparing  ‘curry and rice’ for him in her Elizabethan drawing room, and together they formed the ‘National Indian Association’, first in Bristol (September 1870) and then in London (1871), as a place for Indian visitors to meet like-minded British people and to discuss reform issues.

Bristol was eulogised by many Brahmo Samajists and so Mary Carpenter hosted many other Indian visitors in the nineteenth century who came to pay their respects at Roy’s grave, and to build networks among like-minded reformers. They include Sasipada Banerji, whose son was born on 10 October 1871 at Carpenter’s house and named Albion, after his birth place. The family returned to India in 1872, but Albion came back later to Britain to study at Oxford.

Indeed, in the early twentieth century, the largest foreign student body at British universities were Indian students. Many Indians were encouraged to visit Britain to pursue higher education, having been educated in institutions in India that were modelled on British schools and colleges. In the academic year 1930-1, Bristol University had 28 Indian students. As John Reeks has discovered, one of those students, Man Mohan Singh, attempted to be the first Indian to fly from England to India in 1930. He was unsuccessful.

Another noteworthy example is Sukhsagar Datta, who came to Britain in 1908. He married Ruby Young in 1911, and joined the University of Bristol Medical School in 1914, qualifying as a doctor in 1920. He first worked at the Bristol General Hospital, and eventually the Stapleton Institution (now called Manor Park Hospital) until his retirement in 1956. Datta joined the Labour Party in 1926 and became chair of Bristol North Labour Party in 1946.

Bristol continued to host, and became home, for many more men and women of Indian origin. Many of these stories have yet to be uncovered; their names are hidden in censuses, their faces obscured in photos. Their stories are interwoven with other migrant groups, and together they have shaped the architecture and history of Bristol and Britain.

Malaysian Linkages, Old and New

Andrew Hillier – who recently completed a PhD at the University of Bristol – shares his research in this blog, which addresses the history of Malaysian diaspora by exploring its spaces, places, furnishings and memorials. 


Walter and Betty Medhurst arrived in Melaka (Malacca) in 1817. A printer by trade, Walter had been sent by the London Missionary Society (LMS) to the Ultra-Ganges region, to assist Robert Morrison and William Milne in the task of printing and distributing translations of the Bible and other tracts. But Medhurst was fired with evangelical zeal and his principal aim was to become a missionary himself. Two years after his arrival, having acquired a reasonable command of Chinese and shown a fervent devotion to the Gospel, he was ordained and spent a further two years in Malacca before moving to Penang. His fervour did not always endear him to his colleagues and as a result, a year later, he was transferred to Batavia (present-day Jakarta), where he lived for the next twenty years. The objective was to enter China and begin the mass ‘conversion of the heathen’ and so, when the first treaty ports were opened in 1843, Medhurst immediately embarked on this task.

As the first of my forbears to ‘go east’, the Medhursts are the starting point for my thesis, in which I explore the relationship between family and empire through the lens of four generations, who lived and worked in east and south-east Asia. Although they only spent four years in Malaysia, this was a formative time for Walter and Betty and, whilst Medhurst wrote of his experiences in China: Its State and Prospects (1838), I wanted to see the places for myself. In the event, apart from a fine memorial to William Milne in the Dutch Church in Malacca (plate 1), I found little evidence of the LMS, since, after the opening of the treaty ports, it removed its operations to Hong Kong.

However, the visit proved rewarding because there is a lively interest in the history of both Malacca and George Town (as Penang’s port-city is still called), spear-headed by Khoo Salma Nasution, who also runs her own publishing house. This contributed to the two port-cities being jointly listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in July 2008. In the words of the Declaration, their rich multi-cultural heritage had been preserved and maintained over several centuries and could still be seen in their ‘…unique architecture, culture and townscapes’. Of this, three elements were of particular interest.

Plate 1

1. Memorial tablet to William Milne, Dutch Church, Malacca.

First, the vibrant plural society of Chinese, Malay and Indian, which greeted Medhurst on his arrival, can still be found in both the buildings and the everyday life. Secondly, whereas Britain was the only European power to colonise Penang, in Malacca, the presence of the Portuguese and, later, the Dutch had plainly influenced the port-city’s development. Thirdly, leaving aside the European presence, what had given rise to the plural society in both settlements was the mass migration, principally of Chinese but also of Indians, Indonesians and others, which had begun in the 1500s. Accordingly, by the early 1800s, within the framework of Britain’s formal empire, there was an informal empire or diaspora, promoted by the Chinese both economically and culturally. Moreover, family had played a key role in stimulating and consolidating this process.

To understand this, it is logical to begin with Malacca because it was there that the Portuguese first landed in 1511, and established a safe haven for their voyages to and from the Spice Islands. Whilst there is little tangible evidence of this now, by inter-marrying, they added to the island’s plural society and left an enduring Catholic legacy. When the Dutch arrived, they introduced a very different version of Christianity and European culture, which shaped the city’s development during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. By the time the British formally acquired the Settlement in exchange for Bencoolen in 1824, the port had lost its importance, with Penang providing better facilities and Singapore already becoming a busy entrepôt. As a result, it is the Dutch influence which continues to exemplify the European presence.

It is evident in the simple lines of the Dutch Reformed Church which overlooks the central square, in the administrative buildings, such as the Stadthuys, and in the street architecture, where the Dutch style of merchant house, locally known as a ‘shophouse’ was introduced. A typical example can be found in Heeren Street, adjoining Jonkers Street. Totally derelict twenty years ago, it has been carefully restored by the Heritage of Malaysia Trust. It illustrates how Dutch building methods and materials were used in the construction of such houses and how, later, it served the needs of a Chinese merchant and his family. The shop’s façade contains one large shutter which would fold down to serve as a counter for displaying wares (plate 2).

Plate2

2. Facade of restored shop-house, Heeren Street, Malacca, 2016.

Inside, there is a central open courtyard, with the family rooms being at the rear (plate 3). On the bench are examples of the original Dutch bricks which were shipped as ballast and then used for building. Fittingly, inside, there is a Vermeer print to show how closely the design matches that of similar houses in Delft. Here, therefore, we have strong linkages between Dutch and local Malaysian society.

Plate 3

3. The Inside courtyard of the shop-house

About 50 metres down the same street is a strikingly different building – one built by a rich Peranakan Chinese, or as they are more usually called now, a baba-nyonya. These were the Chinese who, from the 1500s, came over to settle and, often leaving a wife at ‘home’ on the mainland, to whom they would return from time to time, married a ‘local’ woman, either Malay or Indonesian. Contrary to Western colonial culture, where such inter-marriage was frowned upon, this class became respected and often affluent and formed a key part of the local community.

This is all brought together in the baba & nyonya Heritage Museum, the former home of a baba, Chan Cheng Siew (1865-1919), whose father had first migrated from China and who, having made a fortune in rubber and other investments, built this lavish mansion for himself and his family (plate 4).

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4. The Former Home of a Rich Peranakan, Malacca.

Whilst it is Chinese in its overall appearance and much of its furnishings, with chairs and tables made of Chinese black-wood and decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay, the fashion was to import and use British materials: plasterwork, tiles from Stoke on Trent, wrought iron pillars and beams manufactured by Macfarlanes in Glasgow and art nouveau glass for windows, chandeliers and artefacts (plates 5).

Plate5 Plate5(2)5 5. Eclectic Peranakan Style importing British influences.

Further down the same street is Hotel Puri, the ancestral home of Tan Kim Seng, a third generation Chinese, born in Malacca, whose grandfather, like many others, first came from the Eng Choon district of Fujian in the eighteenth century. The current house, which was built in 1876, retains many of the original Chinese features as well as a library where the story of the Tan dynasty is displayed. By chance, I got talking to a cleaning lady who told me the history of her family, which was Indian, third generation Malay. Taking me to a map, she described the trajectory of their lives which now extended to Singapore, Italy, Britain and Canada, which she still visited. Thus, Malacca’s plural culture, underpinned by family connection, continues to thrive.

A similar pattern can be found in Penang where, in the nineteenth century, wealthy Chinese and Peranakan families established themselves, living and working alongside the British. It is illustrated by two houses, previously derelict but which have been restored by entrepreneurs dedicated to preserving Penang’s heritage. The Blue Mansion was built by one of Penang’s richest merchants, Cheong Fatt Tze, who arrived penniless from Guangdong in the mid-nineteenth century, and went on to amass a fortune through rubber, coffee and tea investments, and was appointed Consul-General to the Qing government in the 1890s. The house comprises 38 rooms, 5 courtyards and seven staircases and is a typical mixture of Chinese and European taste. One of its most distinctive features is the ‘cut and paste shard’ porcelain decoration on the outside of the building, the restoration of which could only be done by craftsmen brought over from the People’s Republic of China. Cheong left eight wives and six sons but none of them were able to continue his legacy.

The Pinang Peranakan Mansion was owned by a very different type of Straits Chinese. Chung Keng Kwee made his fortune through tin mining and other more dubious enterprises and was one of the principal leaders of the Chinese secret societies, until they were outlawed in the 1880s. Born in 1821, Chung came from a family of farmers living in a remote Hakka village in the region of Zengcheng, east of Guangzhou. Coming to the mainland in search of his father, he quickly established himself as an astute businessman and was appointed leader of one of the secret societies. Frequently in dispute with other Chinese Clans, the rivalries culminated in the Larut Wars which indirectly led to the Pangkor Treaty (1874) and the introduction of a British Resident as ‘adviser’ to the Sultan. Whilst the house has been restored to reflect this family history, the contents are primarily Peranakan, albeit it is difficult to define that style precisely.

The importance of family in these processes is exemplified in the ancestral home of the Khoo Clan, Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi. The Khoo family originated from Sin Kang Village in Fujian and was one of the Five Big Clans that formed the backbone of the Hokkien community in early Penang. According to the Kongsi curator, Lawrence Cheah, the birth of the first Khoo clansman in Penang took place in 1775. His son married a local woman and their children were thus baba nyonya. The earliest Khoo clansmen to Penang earned their livelihoods as fishermen and small-time merchants but, when Francis Light established the port-city in 1786, the Clan began to build their fortune, bringing over from China not only their own kinsmen but also substantial contingents of Chinese labour.

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6. The Khoo Ancestral Temple, Penang

In 1850 the Clan bought the land on which their home now stands, presided over by its giant ancestral temple. In the adjoining rooms, the Clan’s history is displayed, with memorial tablets recording its members’ achievements, amongst whom are a number of UOB alumni (plate 7).

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7. Bristol Alumni, Khoo Temple.

Each year, coming from all over East and South-east Asia and further afield, the Clan assembles at the Kongsi and nowhere could better represent the importance which the Chinese still attach to ancestral worship and filial piety than this set of magnificent buildings.

Whilst the formal British presence is represented by standard colonial architecture – Fort Cornwallis, former government buildings and a number of churches – the everyday life can be found in the street architecture and arcades, and, of course, in the Christian Cemetery. In this tranquil, if somewhat unkempt, setting, the hazards and heartache of colonial life can be found inscribed on gravestones and memorials. The following provide a few poignant examples.

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8. Tombstones, Christian Cemetery, George Town.

Considering these lives in the context of this society, two questions occurred to me. First, what sort of contact took place between the British and this affluent Chinese/ Peranakan community? That there was a degree of intellectual interaction is evident from the Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia, produced and edited by James Logan between 1847 and 1858, and the proceedings of various learned societies – see Su Lin Lewis, ‘Between Orientalism and Nationalism: The Learned Society and the Making of “South East Asia”’, 10 (2013) Modern Intellectual History, pp. 353-374. But it would be interesting to know how this developed when imperialism became more strident. Secondly, given the appetite for British materials and furnishings, how was the exercise of designing, ordering and shipping from Britain performed? Might there be private archives with records of such transactions and what would they tell us about these relationships? Given the number of UOB alumni, perhaps there is scope for forging linkages between the University and Penang to explore these sort of questions.