Engaging the Anthropocene through the Final (vertical) Frontier!

  1. Space, the final frontier? Engage!

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilisations…to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Flourishing in a family of nerdy space geeks, these words have been an almost holy mantra all of my life. Emerging from the 1960’s, some of the language is noticeably colonial, but it is something I am willing to overlook when one considers how ahead of its time – conceptually and culturally – Star Trek actually was back then. Its later incarnations – Next Generation, Voyager and Deep Space Nine – steadily built on the growing legacy of envisioning a more inclusive, self-aware society…even if they didn’t always get it right. The vision and intention was there, and I believe the take-away point was that there will always be hiccups, grey areas and difficulties when it comes to navigating new relationships and politics. Sometimes we contradict ourselves, particularly when our understanding of things is challenged or we begin to reject rigid, dualistic categories for ourselves and begin the arduous, messy task of bringing multiple knowledges together. With relatives who speak fluent Klingon, play Dungeons & Dragons, and scan the skies for UFO’s, it’s no surprise that as a neurodivergent scientist/geographer, I have made heroes of contradictory characters like Seven-of-Nine, Scully, Professor Xavier and Magneto, Bruce Wayne, and of course, Mr Spock. Cautiously, I must confess that – like a truly ripe barrel of contradictions – I am the proud owner of both a Star Trek science officer uniform and Fox Mulder’s famous ‘I Want To Believe’ poster. It’s true, but hey – embrace your eccentricities and let that little light shine, right?

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The point is that I have always looked up and out. When you care about our planet, but also face the monumental challenges facing both the natural and human worlds, hopelessness is a force that is not always easy to keep at bay. Sometimes it seems as though we have gone too far, reached the point of no return. So I have looked up. I have looked out there, dreaming of beings who didn’t exploit and damage their worlds, who had recognised their past mistakes and made every effort to evolve differently, consciously. I dreamt of heroes saving worlds through progress, technology and creativity executed gently and with compassion, and hoped for a day when perhaps they would make ‘first contact’ and share with us their enlightenment.

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The epic moment of ‘First Contact’ between humans and the Vulcans that began a major shift in human consciousness and conduct.

But in just my meagre lifetime, I have found that looking up is becoming a more and more profound experience, increasingly characterised by uncertainty and anxiety. A battle has been taking place up there, invisible yet disturbingly evident. Of course, I am referring to climate change, one of the big symptoms of what we are now calling the ‘Anthropocene’, the Age of Man. Climate change is potentially human-kind’s next clearest conceptualisation of a vertical dimension after outer-space itself, and one that has serious repercussions for the current inhabitants of our world, including ourselves.

Never before have we so desperately needed guidance from above (whether it be sought from God, Allah, Buddha, Gaia or Spock), and yet at the same time, our critical first contact with the Anthropocene arguably came from above. With phasers set to stun, we have since set out to understand and contain this Anthropocene, crossing into the mysterious Neutral Zone where humans do not live, entering the vertical dimensions of above and below to explain the symptoms ravaging our horizontal spaces.

In our short existence, it is evident that we have fundamentally changed the face of the planet, but very few ever really thought it would be that big of a deal, right? Despite the global losses in biodiversity, the collapse of ecosystems, and the alteration of landscapes, we were so sure that life would somehow continue to live long and prosper. But then we started to look at more than just the face of the planet. You see, it turns out that our human activities have violated the Prime Directive of non-interference in planetary development and fundamental biological processes…because as we look deeper into the vertical dimensions of the earth, we are finding an awful lot of just that.

2. Looking down: the vertical voyage to explore (engage) strange new volumes…

Stuart Elden (2013) bought my gaze downward by asking a simple question: “what would it mean to ‘secure the volume’?” We’ve all heard those camo-clad guys (and white-clad if you include the storm-troopers) in sinister tinted-window helmets running around battlefields hollering ‘secure the area’ in what I have always called ‘the walkie-talkie voice’. Traditional human warfare has largely occurred over horizontal surface areas, but the advent of serious aerial and aquatic modes of combat in World War II pushed the boundaries of space into vertical dimensions. Suddenly, attacks from aircraft in the skies and submarines submerged beneath the waves held the key to domination (Elden 2013)…a thousand men on the ground means nothing when a single fighter jet can drop a bomb on them all. As Foucalt (2007) aptly suggested, “the vertical is not one of the dimensions of space, it is the dimension of power”.

We are fighting a new battle now – the Anthropocene – and once again, the dimension of power is being played out vertically. The traditional battlefield has been discarded and replaced with a more 3-Dimensional ‘battlespace’ (Elden 2013). The height aspect of this battlespace is perhaps the most well-known, familiar force of the Anthropocene: climate change. But perhaps less mainstreamed and accessible is what’s going on deep underground. As we – a global community of academics, students, professionals, stakeholders, civilians, other-than-humans, and all-round earthlings – attempt to discover the Anthropocene and what its problematic symptoms may mean for us all, the underground increasingly commands our attention…and our engagement.

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The ever famous prompt of Captain Picard reminding us to get moving, to take it seriously, and to stay on task.

When Elden (2013) discusses the significance of “the historical landscape concealed underneath”, I cannot help but think about the emergence of the Anthropocene story via geology. Just as artefacts and histories are pulled from the underground, so too has the Anthropocene in the form of ‘golden spikes’ written into rock strata, ice-cores and other unexpected geological findings of our human impact in the subterranean landscape (Zalasiewicz et al. 2008; Lewis & Maslin 2015).

Adey (2013) extends Elden’s conceptualisation of ‘volume’ even further to include the volumes of books, something that I found irresistibly charming given my interest in narrative forms and story-sharing. How appropriate that the volumes of the Anthropocene story should be written in the volumetric body of the Earth: in the depths of the underground, like tattoos marking significant rites of passage, events, trials and tribulations; and in the heights of the atmosphere, like imaginings, dreams and nightmares! It is significant that what potentially represents the two biggest evidences for the Anthropocene as a global epoch– climate change and geological traces – both occur as stories told in the vertical dimensions. When Peter Adey (2010a) said that “both the ground and the air reside in vertical reciprocity”, I wonder if he was aware, or even imagined, that the stories of climatic change unfolding above were the result of older stories recorded below? I wonder what stories are being recorded deep in the body of the Earth today, and how they will be told above in the future?

3. Looking in, out, through, and under: vertical dimensions & the search for new life and new civilisations.

Adey (2013) talks about ‘bodily’ conceptions of volume, where cultural and political histories and futures are ‘grounded’ to volumetric territory through ‘deep’ connections with place, time, and being that are ‘solidified’ through our interactions with the underground. For instance, we bury our dead underground, and so too does the planet.

In 2012, I engaged with the underground meaningfully for the first time when I encountered the Cathedral Caverns in Alabama. I was awed not only by the sheer depth of the rock and earth around me, but also the depth of realisation that occurred upon viewing the fossilised remains of a prehistoric shark tooth, along with a myriad of fossilised invertebrates and plants, that not a single member of my species had ever co-existed with. It was a sobering reminder of how small I am compared to my world, my planet and the time She keeps, and that She can and will bury her dead in geological eras and move on. The sharks whose teeth are embedded in the earth-body of these underground walls, great predators of the once submerged world that I now walked upon, probably never considered that they would one day cease to exist while existence continued to roll on. It made me wonder…are we humans, in all our arrogance and self-confidence, really justified in expecting anything different?

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Prehistoric fossilised shark tooth embedded in the rock.

Just as we dream of life beyond the stars, present and future lives underground provide intriguing imaginings towards ‘securing the volume’. As a keen birder, my eyes – once again – are often trained upwards. But even our feathered friends are interacting with the underground – tropical swiftlets have developed the use of echolocation and build their mud nests on cave walls alongside their nocturnal, subterranean counterparts, the bats (Price et al. 2005; Thomassen & Povel 2006), while the similarly echo-locating oilbird lives much deeper in caves, supposedly never seeing the light of day (Holland et al. 2009). Working in the Sturt Stony Desert a few years back introduced me to life underground – something I was casually aware of, but not meaningfully engaged with. Even as I took inventories of birds and bats above, a vast community of invertebrates, reptiles and small mammals were utilising underground networks of tunnels and vertical migration to escape the heat and harsh desert conditions (Measey & Barot 2006; Warnecke et al. 2012). Life in the unforgiving desert flourishes underground! And not just animal life – water, minerals, nutrients, fungi, and so much more live hidden, shadowed lives that contribute insurmountably to life above.

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The nocturnal, echo-locating, cave-dwelling oilbird.

These interactions prompt me to wonder – could these strange new worlds, new lives and new civilisations one day include our own? Well, in many ways the underground already includes us. Just consider how much of our infrastructure is buried beneath the surface, and the critical services – like communication, electricity, air-cooling, and transport – that they provide. Consider mineral extraction and the growth of food. It all happens underground!

There has been a lot of consideration in recent times around a concept called ‘half-earth’ (Hiss 2014; Wilson 2016). It is said that we are experiencing the sixth great extinction of species on our planet. Global biodiversity loss seems to walk hand-in-hand with the growth of a single species: Homo sapiens, us. What possibilities exist to shift certain human activities underground, utilising our technology to achieve what other species cannot, and set aside that half-earth for our more-than-human kin? How would we ensure that shifting activities underground would not equate to shifting environmental and social problems underground, out of sight, out of mind as well?  Ideas have a way of creating complex questions moreso than answers, but we have demonstrated ourselves to be a pragmatic species capable of remarkable ingenuity and creativity when we put our minds – and necessarily, I believe, our hearts – into a project. These are fanciful ideas for now, but nonetheless, they are ideas that flow upwards from the underground into the realm of possibility and consideration.

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Genesis Cave from The Wrath of Khan.

4. Taking a view from below: boldly going where no one has gone before!

Elden (2013) referred to our ‘view from above’ approach, so beautifully and magically captured in images of our blue planet from space. But he also asks what about a view from below? Outer space has always been my ‘final frontier’…until now, thanks to a discovery of a love for caves and underwater encounters in recent years. There are strange new worlds underground, lives and civilisations both past and present that we have only ‘scratched the surface’ of our understanding of. Perhaps in these life stories, and the perspectives from below that they lend to us, we will find answers and ideas to situate and guide us into the new epoch. Like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, we can be explorers (or, less colonially, engagers!) and seekers – not out there, but instead within – of collaborative coexistence with our planet.

We must ‘secure the volume’ via our joint efforts and skills in order to ensure survival. We must literally read the writing on the walls, the Anthropocene etched in volumes of rock, earth-body. With so much at stake, the process of engaging the vertical Anthropocene can potentially either be a bit of a ‘shoot now, ask questions later’, Captain-Kirk-style approach; or a rigorous but often slow process of more Spock-like calculative investigation that may not provide the timely answers we need right now.

But just as Captain Kirk and Spock consolidated their differences to come together as an unprecedented force able to tackle any challenge thrown their way, so too must we if we are to be effective in engaging with the Anthropocene. The tempering of passion into the iron, stone and gold of logical contemplation of new underground possibilities forges tools and weapons that, like Captain Kirk and Spock, are intimately connected in a partnership that ensures survival, efficiency, and the capacity to imagine and test new ideas, ways and innovations. And perhaps, to re-imagine some old knowledges too.

Engaging the underground – though not new – still holds mysteries and secrets, a hidden ‘cave of wonders’ yet to be fully imagined or understood. The potential for ‘exploring strange new worlds’ and ‘seeking out new life and new civilisations’ in the vertical dimensions presents a tantalizing realm of possibilities and imaginings for our future existence – maybe those lives and civilisations will be our own, co-habiting the below alongside the above and out. Mark Smith of the Geospatial Corporation said that the “underground is truly the final frontier” (Drummond 2010). Do we dare boldly go?

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References:

Adey, P., 2013. Securing the volume/volumen: comments on Stuart Elden’s plenary paper ‘Secure the volume’. Political Geography, (34), pp.52-54.

Hiss, T., 2014. Can the world really set aside half of the planet for wildlife?. Smithsonian Magazine, viewed 29th April 2016, < http://tesf.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Hiss-20141.pdf&gt;

Holland, R.A., Wikelski, M., Kümmeth, F. and Bosque, C., 2009. The secret life of oilbirds: new insights into the movement ecology of a unique avian frugivore. PLoS One4(12), p.e8264.

Lewis, S.L. and Maslin, M.A., 2015. Defining the anthropocene. Nature,519 (7542), pp.171-180.

Measey, G.J. and Barot, S., 2006. Evidence of seasonal migration in a tropical subterranean vertebrate. Journal of Zoology269(1), pp.29-37.

Drummond, K., 2010, Pentagon-backed venture aims for ‘Google underground’, viewed 28th April 2016, <https://www.wired.com/2010/03/pentagon-backed-venture-aims-for-google-underground/&gt;

Price, J.J., Johnson, K.P., Bush, S.E. and Clayton, D.H., 2005. Phylogenetic relationships of the Papuan Swiftlet Aerodramus papuensis and implications for the evolution of avian echolocation. Ibis147(4), pp.790-796.

Thomassen, H.A. and Povel, G.D.E., 2006. Comparative and phylogenetic analysis of the echo clicks and social vocalizations of swiftlets (Aves: Apodidae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society88(4), pp.631-643.

Warnecke, L., Körtner, G., Burwell, C.J., Turner, J.M. and Geiser, F., 2012. Short-term movement patterns and diet of small dasyurid marsupials in semiarid Australia. Australian Mammalogy34(1), pp.49-54.

Wilson, E.O., 2016. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. LiverlightPublishing Corporation.

Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Smith, A., Barry, T.L., Coe, A.L., Bown, P.R., Brenchley, P., Cantrill, D., Gale, A., Gibbard, P. and Gregory, F.J., 2008. Are we now living in the Anthropocene?. Gsa Today18(2), p.4

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