What Do You Mean, The Anthropocene?

“Humans have wandered the Earth for thousands of years, but never has our capacity to alter the Earth’s ecosystem at a larger scale been more prominent than it is today” – Kat Lahr. Here, this quote beautifully captures the time period that we are now living in – the Anthropocene. But what exactly is the Anthropocene? According to Steffen et al (2011: 843 & 847), The Anthropocene refers to a geological epoch that is distinctly different from other epochs as a result of human activity on this planet, most likely starting during the Industrial Revolution. Factors that have led to this epoch include: the increased use in fossil fuels, leading to increased levels of CO2; the destruction of natural biomes in order to clear space for humans and their activities; the creation of new materials that cannot be found in the natural environment, such as concrete and plastics; and leftover debris from nuclear weapons. These activities are leading to what scientists are referring to as the sixth mass extinction, as fauna and flora species are dying out at a much faster rate than they would naturally (Waters et al 2016: 2-8). This blog post aims to prove that Humanities is just important when it comes to analysing the soundscape of the Anthropocene in order to provide information about the environment around us, as pointed out by Gisli et al (2013:7).

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For two days I was paying very close attention to the sounds around me whenever I entered a new environment, and for the most part, I was constantly reminded that I am living in the Anthropocene. I left my classroom and I was genuinely shocked when I realised that I could not hear a bird or an insect, or even the sound of the wind in the trees. Instead, all that I could hear were people’s footsteps, loud voices and generators outside the buildings. Going home, the only sounds that could be heard were the sounds of a variety of different modes of transport, however, I was slightly relieved when I arrived at my house because I was able to hear the sounds of many birds, barking dogs and the trees swaying in the wind. After being at home for a short while, I had to go fetch the children that I look after from their school in Pretoria. I was disappointed, once again, to not be able to hear sounds of the natural environment, but instead, I heard the sounds of children screaming, jungle gyms groaning and creaking and cars driving through the parking lot. I find it extremely disconcerting to be living in a time where the sounds of the geophony, “sounds made by the physical environment”, and biophony, “sounds made by animals, plants and other organisms”, are drowned out by the sounds of the anthrophony, “human generated sound”, (Whitehouse, 2015:57).

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For the next two days I attempted to listen to the sounds of birds in the Anthropocene. I am fortunate enough to live in a suburb that still has a lot of flora, and therefore, fauna. I do not have to get up before the rest of the Anthropocene wakes up in order to hear the beautiful and calming sounds of birds. Yes, the sounds are much louder at about 5am, but I am able to listen to the bird song throughout the day, then at night I am able to listen to the songs of the crickets. It is only when I leave my home that the bird sounds begin to fade. Even at a place such as the Irene Dairy, apart from the occasional chicken cluck and cow moo, the Anthropocene still overrides the sounds of nature. That was extremely upsetting to me because a farm is a place that one might expect to hear more sounds from the natural environment. Whitehouse (2015: 53-54) asks two rather important questions: What is it like to listen to birds in the Anthropocene and how are the responses to what is heard influenced by the understanding that the Anthropocene brings that humans have profoundly the mix of sounds that can be heard? To answer the first question, I would say that it is quite alarming when listening to birds in the Anthropocene because not only is it really difficult to hear birds in most places, but when one can actually hear the birds, it is normally just doves or pigeons. A while ago, one might have been able to hear a large variety of bird sounds, such as guinea fowl, plovers and owls, but now the variety is extremely limited. This draws attention to the dwindling biodiversity as a result of human activity. We destroy their habitats in order to build our own without any consideration for their lives. To answer the second question, having an awareness of the Anthropocene and how human activity affects biodiversity, it is rather distressing when the sounds of birds cannot be heard. This is because it makes one realise just how much of an effect our activities have on the environment and it makes one wonder when the human race might drive itself to extinction.

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After speaking to a lady who went to school in the 70’s and the 80’s, I was surprised to learn that one of her favourite memories as a child was when her father brought home glow worms in a small container for her and her sisters to look at. Glow worms lit up the surrounding veld all those years ago and now they are almost nowhere to be found, and that is why I was so surprised to hear about this memory. I do not think that I have ever seen a glow worm. She also pointed out that the majority of the surrounding area to where she lives was veld, but now the land has almost all been developed. It is very upsetting to me that I do not, and probably will not, have the opportunity to see a mass of glow worms light up the natural world. It also highlights the fact that ecosystems are disappearing and biodiversity is decreasing, as the glow worms are no longer around for today’s generation to experience. Human activity has altered the environment, causing this to happen. Maybe we would be able to see glow worms if humans had not decided to destroy the veld in order to build homes and businesses and shopping malls (which can be found at almost every street corner). When I was younger, there was also mainly veld where I lived, however, that veld has now been demolished in order to build a G4S and an Agri building, as well as roads. An interesting thing to point out, however, is that the society that we live in today has enabled scavengers, such as crows and rats to thrive. They are able to feed off of the excess produced by humans, such as the rubbish that gets chucked on the floor that may contain some food.

In conclusion, the sad reality is that when listening to the soundscape around us, we are able to realise that we are living in the Anthropocene. This is because the majority of the sound that we hear are part of the anthrophony, rather than the biophony and the geophony. Why do we not hear the sounds of the natural world? Human activities in the Anthropocene have led to the loss of biodiversity and ecosystems in the world. Humans are making their mark on the planet, and it is not necessarily a good one, as we live our lives to please ourselves without stopping to think about the lives of the fauna and flora around us.

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References

Ellis, E. (2013). Anthropocene. [Online]. Available at: http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/150125. [Accessed: 9/4/201].

Gisli, P et al. 2013. Reconceptualizing the ‘Anthropos’ in the Anthropocene: integrating the social sciences and humanities in global environmental change research. Environmental Science & Policy 28:3-13.

Lahr, K. (ed.) 2015. Parallelism Of Cyclicality. (Thought Notebook Journal 4). Thought Collection Publishing.

Steffen, W et al. 2011. The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369:842-867.

Waters, CN et al. 2016. The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science 351(6269):[sp].

Whitehouse, A. 2015. Listening to birds in the Anthropocene: the anxious semiotics of sound in a human-dominated world. Environmental Humanities 6:53-71.

 

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