Carnegie Museums explore humanity’s impact on earth’s crust


Jordan Mondell | Layout Editor

It’s become commonplace to talk about climate change, species endangerment and the impact of humanity on the earth.

But that impact has become so large that some geologists are proposing we’ve changed the very rock beneath our feet.

To explore this possibility, the Carnegie Museums are presenting “Strange Times: Earth in the Age of the Human.” The interdisciplinary series of events spans from January to May and explores the widespread impact of humans on Earth during what some say is our current geological epoch — the Anthropocene epoch.

While the term “Anthropocene” may be unfamiliar to the general public, co-producer of “Strange Times” Edith Doron said everyone has experience with the theme.

“[People] have been exposed to research, books on biodiversity, or know that term,” Doron said.  “Climate change crisis, pollution, political ecology — it’s in a pocket of culture in all sorts of ways. This is all in the horizon of the Anthropocene.”

What is the Anthropocene epoch?

Epochs, or divisions of time within the field of geology, are subdivisions of periods, another category of time. Currently, we are in the Quaternary period and, formally, the Holocene epoch. Some, however, propose that we have entered a new epoch — the Anthropocene.

According to Dr. Josef Werne, professor of geology and environmental science at Pitt, geological time is defined by the rock record. He said the “rock record” is geological evidence preserved in sediments and sedimentary rocks that says something about past climate and/or environmental conditions.

When there’s a major change in the rock record, or layers of the earth, the name of the time period changes as well.

“People are saying … [that] humans have become such a dominant force on the planet that we’re changing the way the rock record records things,” Werne said. “Human activities can alter this, for example, by causing more erosion, which changes a sedimentary deposit, or by causing acid rain, which dissolves some rocks.”

Although we are officially still in the Holocene epoch — which began about 12,000 years ago — a number of scientists and geologists believe the recent impact of human activity, including agriculture and climate change, calls for the naming of a new epoch. The Anthropocene epoch has a proposed starting date of about 1800, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, according to the Working Group on the Anthropocene — which is working to have the term “Anthropocene” formally accepted as the current geological period.

The term “Anthropocene” comes from the root “anthropo,” meaning human, and indicates this epoch is defined by the impact of human activity on the planet.

There is debate, however, about when this epoch began, or even if human activity will actually create a noticeable difference in the rock record — something that Werne said won’t be known for millennia. Although Werne said the impact of human activity is obvious in ecosystems and natural landmarks — such as lakes — it takes longer to change the rock record.

“We won’t be able to tell that for a long time. It might also be something that, we get our act together and figure out how to do things in a way that doesn’t impact the planetary system so much and we get this tiny little stripe [in the rock record] that no one can identify millions of years down the road.”

Traffic on the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles, Calif. backs up on March 27, 2015, the second day of a heat wave. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
Traffic on the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles, Calif. backs up on March 27, 2015, the second day of a heat wave. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The peculiarity of human activity

To explore the Anthropocene and humanity’s impact on the earth, Carnegie Nexus — a program piloted in September 2015 to foster collaboration across the four Carnegie Museums— is producing the “Strange Times” series. Through myriad films, lectures and performances at the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History, the Carnegie Science Center and the Andy Warhol Museum, the “Strange Times” programming delves into the Anthropocene through not only a geologist’s perspective, but through the lens of the arts and humanities as well. The program is also collaborating with the Carnegie Mellon International Film Festival to put on three films and discussions — March 24, March 31 and April 7 —  about humanity’s impact on earth.

To probe the strangeness of humanity’s relationship with the Earth, the series held a conversation between conceptual artist Mark Dion and herpetologist José Padial — who studies amphibians and reptiles — on Feb. 23. The series continues with a performance exploring field recordings with the contemporary classical music group “Bang on a Can” March 25. A conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx on her new novel “Barkskins” — which tracks a family’s generational relationship with trees and deforestation — wraps up the series April 20.

The “Strange Times” organizers aim to examine how human interaction with nature and the planet over the past 200 years or so has been markedly different from the human activity that came before the Anthropocene epoch. Because of this relatively recent difference, the program underscores the “strangeness” of our current geological and environmental impact.

At its core, the programming aspires to capture the strangeness of human interactions with the Earth, according to Doron, who is the Carnegie Nexus Senior Program Manager. The title of the series stems from the first two lines of “Ode to Man,” a famous chorus in Sophocles’ “Antigone.” The lines read, “There is much that is strange, but nothing / that surpasses man in strangeness.”

“You have to see the entire chorus folded into those two lines,” Doron said, explaining the

the significance of the text on the series title. “Because the rest of that chorus, all the verse, is about our distance, and troubled relationships with nature, and to the way we understand our being, and beings in general. Because of the strangeness about us.”

The Bruce Mansfield Power Plant, FirstEnergy's largest coal-fired plant, can be seen in this photo on Nov. 23, 2015. (Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch/TNS)
The Bruce Mansfield Power Plant, FirstEnergy’s largest coal-fired plant, can be seen in this photo on Nov. 23, 2015. (Andrew Rush/Pittsburgh Post-Dispatch/TNS)

Educating Pittsburgh through interdisciplinary collaboration

Doron, as well as Ben Harrison, curator of performance arts and public programs at the Andy Warhol Museum, are the two co-producers behind the project. When brainstorming a theme for the series, they both felt the urge to explore the Anthropocene.

“One of the words I had on a post-it was the word ‘Anthropocene,’” Doron said. “I knew it from the humanities and visual arts. When I met Ben Harrison of the Warhol, he sort of jumped at the idea because he comes from the performance art side of things. That really created the backbone.”

On their own, each of the four Carnegie Museums cater to a specific audience, but Harrison believes this collaborative series will encourage viewers to experience events they normally wouldn’t consider attending.

“[We’re] building on an existing audience as opposed to starting from scratch, but I think because it’s cross disciplinary, we’re hoping to find those gaps and intersections where we can cross-pollinate,” Harrison said. “It’s all about finding different entry points. Finding entry points to these very broad and difficult topics.”

Eric Crosby, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Carnegie Museum of Art, hosted the cross-disciplinary conversation between Dion and Padial. He believes interdisciplinary work bridging the arts and sciences is inevitable in the search for truth and greater understanding.

“It’s fascinating to think about the points of intersection between this history and the history of art. In many ways, the work of artists calling attention to human impacts prefigured this scientific consensus,” Crosby said. “The search for truth and greater understanding always bring the arts and sciences together.”

Together, Doron and Harrison strive to use this topic to bring diverse disciplines into conversation with one another.

“There’s so many artists for whom questions of what we mean when we say the word ‘environment’ [are] at the fore for them,” Doron said. “And they explore in very provocative ways, and we just thought, ‘This is it. This is going to be able to bring natural history, science, art, technology, literature, philosophy together in a way that matters for our audiences.’”

The impact of the “Strange Times” series on the Pittsburgh community hasn’t gone unnoticed. While the Carnegie Nexus began as a two-year program running from September 2015 to 2017 — and its only product to date is the “Strange Times” series — it has been extended until May 2018. This extension means the four museums will continue to collaborate and traverse intersections across disciplines.

“We have splintered ourselves off into these disciplinary expertises, in silos of knowledge. We don’t understand each other anymore,” Doron said. “[But] I think we’re at a turning point now.”