Welcome to the Anthropocene

Deutsches Museum

The Earth in Our Hands
Special Exhibition until September 30, 2016

URBANISATION AND RESOURCES

Urban Metabolism

Cities are entirely human creations and now an organisational principle of the world. More and more people move into cities; the distinction between urban and rural areas dissolves.

Like a spider’s web, urban centres create global networks that converge in cities, but increasingly reach into less inhabited areas of the earth as well. As central nodes into which people, ideas, and things move, urban areas have become “processors” of resources. Cities are the place where most resources are used and transformed, but also where new ideas start their journey around the globe.

Just Turn the Knob: Warm Water in the Home

One basic human need is to keep warm and clean. Innovations in heating technologies and energy supply networks have given more and more people access to warm homes. In 1894, Johann Vaillant filed a patent application for a gas boiler. Its “closed system” revolutionised water heating, allowing for hygienically heated water uncontaminated by combustion gases.

Appliances such as the gas boiler were dependent on power grids. Thus, they were mostly used in cities, where growing numbers of households were connected to expanding gas or electricity networks; only densely populated areas ensured sufficient income for power companies.

Over time, heating appliances disappeared behind walls, but their energy consumption is still remarkable: In Germany, 60% of energy consumption in private households is for heating and an additional 16% goes into warm water production. Maybe it is time for new city-based energy solutions?

Mining a Rare Earth

Many technological consumer goods contain rare earth elements. Not all of these chemical elements are actually rare, but rare earth elements are frequently mixed in other minerals and their mining and isolation is difficult, costly and often dangerous.

Because of their range of special properties, rare earths are globally coveted for the production of modern technologies. Although geologists know of 440 deposits worldwide, China still provides over 90% of rare earth elements.

Some of the light rare earth elements may be substituted, but shortages of heavy rare earth elements impair the production and limit the capacities of many “green technologies”.

When prices for primary rare earth elements increase further, recycling of electronic goods like mobile phones that are found in the large “urban mines” of disposal sites will become essential. Yet, identifying and isolating the elements from complex objects remains difficult and entails danger for humans and the environment.

Cane Toads and Street Kids

On the box of a pair of Gideon shoes is the note “This box holds a story…”. Gideon shoes use Australian fair paid labour to create their shoes under ethical work conditions. But they also use uniquely Australian materials. 

The cane toad is one of Australia’s most problematic species causing huge impacts to ecosystems and human health. There are also more kangaroos in Australia than people, leading to necessary population control programs. While most of the meat is exported worldwide, its hide is used for durable leather gloves and shoes.

Gideon Shoes use these unwanted resources, —cane toad and kangaroo hide—and turn them into fashion items. Revenue is used to fund the Street University, which provides community services and education to disadvantaged kids.

MOBILITY

Dams - Human-Made Barriers

Whether by land, air or sea, humans move around the earth faster, in greater numbers and more often than ever before. As consumers, travelers, and refugees, we set the world in motion.

Over the centuries, we have become both carriers and barriers. Plants and animals travel with us and our cargo, and we stall movement by creating barriers that redirect or even stop natural material flows. Through our mobility, we are changing the planet.

The Container Revolution 

The intermodal container revolutionized transport. Containers began to be used in freight shipping in the 1960s by US companies along the most heavily trafficked routes to Europe and Japan.

In order to use containers most effectively, specially designed ships were required. Harbours built larger storage areas and installed automatic loading equipment. Goods need to be packaged only once for transport over long distances, whether by lorry, freight train, or cargo ship. The costs per tonne per nautical mile for harbour fees, storage, and stowage, or for long storage periods have dropped considerably.

Standardized shipping units have made the worldwide transport of goods plannable, comparatively reliable, and more efficient - ideal for satisfying the growing appetite for consumption around the world.

The Case that Moved the World

Until the 19th century, shipping of live plants was difficult. Stationed on deck for sunlight, they were exposed to harsh weather, salt spray, and temperature fluctuations. They rarely made it alive to their final destinations.

In 1829, all this changed when English doctor and naturalist Nathanial B. Ward somewhat accidentally devised the Wardian case. Plants were put in this glazed wooden crate with watered soil, where they profited from the water vapour created during daytime heat, helping them survive long voyages without damage.

The Wardian case became a reliable container for moving live plants from their original habitats to other parts of the earth, particularly faraway European colonies in Asia and Africa. Botanic gardens like Kew in London or the Botanical Research Centre for the German Colonies in Berlin became hubs of the movement. This Berlin case is one of the few surviving originals in the world.

Invasive Species: A Global Trend

Very few plants can survive in Antarctica, but recently some species, such as the hairy bittercress and the dandelion that can be found in Munich, have started growing there. When scientists and tourists visit in the Antarctic summer, seeds and plant parts are carried unintentionally to the icy environment. Many things can carry seeds: Velcro, camera cases, boots. Some estimates suggest that 70,000 seeds and plant parts may be carried to Antarctica every summer.

With climate change warming the area, invasive species are finding it much easier to establish themselves in Antarctica. Many of the consequences will take years to show themselves. But scientists have already started noticed interactions between alien species, such as the hoverfly and the dandelion or the hairy bittercress, which increase their impact.

There are no trees or shrubs native to Antarctica. In fact, there are only two species of flowering native plants, Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis).

HUMANS AND MACHINES

Everyday Technologies

The technological creativity of humans is unique. Herds of machines populate the Earth, connect with one another and permeate our lives and activities. Whether they move, assemble products, make calculations, think, or fight – all have been programmed, automated, and authorised by us.

The children of our imagination, they also pose the question whether and to what degree they will someday take on lives of their own. The technosphere is changing us and the Earth for a long time to come. What kind of machines we should be developing and using is a central question for our global society.

Humidifier “Defensor 505”, 1973

As the numbers of household appliances increased, climate control devices began to be advertised in the 1970s for providing more living comfort and healthy indoor air.

Master and Slave

The SYNchron-TELe-MANipulator, or Syntelmann for short, consisted of a human-operated exoskeleton, the “master”, and a “slave”, connected via cable. It was not autonomous, but rather controlled from a distance.

In order to perform tasks in environments too hazardous for humans, such as the deep sea, outer space, or nuclear power plants, movements were transmitted electronically from the “master” to the mechanical manipulator, which was up to 100 meters away. It was equipped with sensors, cameras, and motor-powered joints. However, Syntelmann never advanced beyond prototype stage.  

Today, exploratory robots still have difficulty coping when remote control by humans is not possible or malfunctions. The robots used in the nuclear reactor Fukushima, destroyed in 2011, had limited movement ability due to large amounts of rubble. The unpredictable conditions were beyond the robots’ abilities; instead, 25,000 human workers cleaned up the accident.

An Experiment That Changed the World

Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner, and Fritz Straßmann used equipment such as this in the 1930s for their experiments to create “transuranium” elements, atoms with a nucleus heavier than that of uranium.Instead, they discovered nuclear fission. 

This chance discovery was soon followed by attempts to harness the energy released during nuclear fission. The possibility of an endless supply of energy delighted many, even while hundreds of thousands died from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945.

In the 1950s, Otto Hahn fought against nuclear weapons and bomb tests that contaminated the Earth with radioactivity. But, like many, he continued to have a positive view of nuclear power. By 1956, the first commercial nuclear power plant had started in England.

Today, nuclear weapons continue to be a threat to world peace; nuclear energy is a heavily debated topic, as the risks are weighed against the problems of replacing limited fossil fuel reserves. A safe, permanent way of disposing of radioactive waste has still not been found 75 years after the discovery of nuclear fission.

NATURE

Nature's Services

As long as humans have existed, we have lived in and with nature. Our conceptions of nature are quite varied and have changed over the course of time. Nature provides us with food and materials; it is a place to relax, a source of inspiration, and much more.

In the Anthropocene, there is no such thing as a nature without humans: we investigate nature, use it, control and alter it. The ways we can affect nature have constantly increased. Nature and culture are becoming one. We are causing old natures to disappear and creating new ones. Only time will tell whether these new natures are viable.

Seeing the Earth with New Eyes

Rembrandt’s pastoral landscapes, Cézanne’s rolling hills, Turner’s foggy seas, and Friedrich’s romantic scenery – such imagery shapes the way we think about nature. But the landscape around us actually looks quite different. Through agriculture, fishing, industry, mining, and cities humans have created “cultural landscapes” around the world.

Sometimes human influence is clearly and frighteningly visible and sometimes it only reveals itself years or centuries later. But not all new landscapes are bad or ugly; many have a special beauty of their own. Images of neo-natures created by humans ask us to look at the Earth with new eyes and to take responsibility for it.

Searching for Nature’s Order

In the Enlightenment the modern desire for order became a driving force in the sciences. And nature was included in these efforts: Deciphering the hidden order of nature was henceforth the ultimate goal of many scientists. The Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus opened a new chapter in biology with his creation of a classification system for plants and animals.

Minerology, too, was popular among many, including the writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. While serving Duke Karl August in Weimar he was tasked with reviving the mining industry in Ilmenau; during this time he acquired an extensive mineral collection.

In Karlsbad Goethe became acquainted with the gem-cutter Joseph Müller, who sold specimens of the local stones as souvenirs to resort visitors. Müller asked Goethe to use his expertise to organize his stone collections; the poet readily agreed. Goethe hoped that by examining individual stones he would gain more general geological insights about the Earth and its history.

On the Origin of a New Species

Is the development of the five-bladed razor the outcome of human needs? Say hello to Razorius Gilletus, a new species in our techno-economical ecology.

The development of razor technology resembles natural evolutionary processes: Each model builds upon the properties of previous models. Successful adaptations are preserved in future generations, while unsuccessful ones disappear. Aesthetic properties often have no obvious function except that they help one model compete against rivals.

One could argue that razors are man-made objects and they are unable to reproduce themselves. But this is also true today in the case of many domesticized fruits and livestock. Is Razorious Gilletus a sign that evolution is more than a DNA-based process? Who will determine the course of this techno-biological evolution?

FOOD

Global Effects of Meat Consumption

No human activity has altered the Earth’s surface to such an extent as agriculture has. Food is an essential part of our lives and it is ultimately derived from plants.

In the Anthropocene humans have fundamentally altered soils, habitats, nutrition cycles, water supply,  and the climate of the entire Earth so that we can grow crops and raise animals.

There is increasing competition for the use of the Earth’s land area. Humans must search for creative solutions; frequently, we are starting to find them locally.

Unlimited Land?

Today, a third of the Earth’s land area is used for agriculture. The land gained by clearing woodland or transforming unused terrain into pastures is lost in other places due to poor usage or it is paved for streets and built up for houses – always at the cost of nature.

In the Anthropocene we resort to using even poorly suited land in order to feed the world’s population. The Earth’s arid regions are particularly vulnerable and are in danger of desertification.

Land that has been ruined requires centuries or millennia to regenerate. Worldwide we need gentler agricultural methods in order to preserve the fertility of the soil and ecosystem biodiversity, and to adapt to the challenges of climate change.

The Haber-Bosch Process

The development of the Haber-Bosch Process at the beginning of the last century made it possible to artificially produce ammonia from atmospheric nitrogen and hydrogen.

During the First World War synthetic ammoniawas used to mass produce explosives. After the war, the production of mineral fertilisers promised to ensure a food supply for the world’s population.

Fritz Haber received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for developing a way to synthesise ammonia. The device that Haber used to demonstrate the process transformed nitrogen (N2) and hydrogen (H2) gas into ammonia (NH3).

First, the gases were purified. The reaction itself took place in a pressurised chamber at 200 bar, using iron as a catalyst. The temperature was raised to 500° C to increase the yield. The condenser turned the resulting ammonia gas into liquid.

Urban Gardening 

What began as “Guerilla Gardening” in North America in the 1970s with missiles made of seeds and earth has led to the blossoming of cities around the globe. Inhabitants create urban gardens by planting in unused land between parking lots, streets, and buildings.

Whether this stems from a desire for the simple in an increasingly complicated world, or is simply a survival strategy, communal gardening has an ecological, social, and economic value. Politicians, city planners, and citizens are learning that a sustainable city must be green and fruitful.

EVOLUTION

Fragile Oceans

Humans have a strong desire to alter and shape the world around them. They intervene in biological processes, harnessing them for their own benefit. Anything not useful is eliminated, replaced with something new.

Our current lifestyle is destroying biodiversity, even though it is essential for our own survival. Aware of this responsibility, we also are working to preserve species.

Humans are part of the never-ending process of evolution. In the Anthropocene we have assumed such a dominant role that all living things must adapt to the conditions

that we have created—ourselves included.

Maize—A Grain for Everyone 

Once just a simple grass from Mexico, maize has become the most important grain crop on Earth. It is a crucial food source for the world’s population. The domestication of this plant has changed it immensely and is one of humanity’s greatest agricultural accomplishments.

Indigenous peoples in Central America cultivated teosinte, a wild grass. By the time Columbus arrived in the Americas, it had already been changed more than any other plant species; a special kind of maize was used for flour or popcorn. Today, 5000 varieties are cultivated around the world, from the tropics to rugged mountain regions.

Maize is not only used for food. It is also a component of disposable dishes, packing material, and t-shirts and used for fuel.

In recent years, hybrid and transgenic maize produce enormous harvests and make up a quarter of grain crops worldwide. This development is highly controversial, for it has resulted in diverse ecological and societal problems.

Designing Dogs

15,000 years ago, humans started breeding wolves, creating the domestic dog. “Man’s best friend” was constantly being bred for new purposes: First dogs were swift hunting companions, then strong guards. After industrialisation they became less useful as working animals and became pets used to express individual identity.

Because they are so varied in appearance and very obedient, they are particularly suitable to be kept as pets, especially in cities. Today, hundreds of dog breeds exist, all with different appearances and characters. 

Dogs function mostly as family members or companions. No other animal understands human gestures and facial expressions as well as dogs do.  Because they are subject to the same environmental factors as humans, dogs suffer from similar diseases, for example diabetes. Dogs have adopted many socio-cognitive abilities from humans in the course of domestication: they have evolved together.

Monotony in the Garden of Eden

Since agricultural societies emerged 13,000 years ago, humans have grown crops adapted to the local climates, soils, and altitudes. This diversity is an important survival adaptation; however, it has been rapidly diminishing for several decades.

Today we eat a much smaller range of plant varieties that are bred for optimal yield and grown in monocultures. But these varieties are susceptible to diseases and pests. 

Around the world there are around 1400 seed banks. Local varieties of agricultural crops, which otherwise could be lost forever, are gathered there. Since 2009, they have been united into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a well-protected, underground seed bank in Norway.

FUTURE

What will the Anthropocene look like in the future? The exhibition visitors have given form to the future and “planted” their ideas in the flower bed. See for yourself…

Credits: Story

Nina Möllers (Projektleitung), Daniela Menge, Luke Keogh, Helmuth
Trischler

Die Ausstellung ist eine Kooperation mit dem Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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