Earth Day and the Anthropocene

This post concludes our Earth Week blog series. Thank you for reading!

by Jason M. Kelly, editor of Rivers of the Anthropocene

On November 4, 2016, the Paris Climate Agreement went into effect. Signed and ratified by the vast majority of members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the agreement wasn’t perfect. But, it was an important step forward in mitigating the worst effects of climate change. Four days later, the United States elected a president who had previously claimed that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

In the months that have followed, the new president and his administration have begun implementing a wholesale attack on climate science and environmental regulations. The new administration’s policies point to the close connections between society — politics, culture, and economy — and environmental systems. Rejecting scientific warnings, it has doubled down on its support of fossil fuel consumption and economic opportunism at the expense of the environment. Its justifications and appeals to the public — economic necessity, individual freedom, and nationalism — are framed through ideologies that have historical roots going back centuries. The actions that their policies enable will have environmental consequences that last far beyond the lifetimes of those currently serving in office.

The interrelations between society, culture, economy, politics, and environments have deep histories. In fact, to imagine sociocultural and geobiophysical systems as distinct entities would be a mistake; they are entangled. Historically, environmental contexts have played key roles in shaping sociocultural systems. And, humans have had greater or lesser impacts on their regional ecologies over tens of thousands of years through clear cutting, slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting and fishing, and flood control and irrigation systems.

Over the past several hundred years, the relationship between humans and their environments has intensified as human populations have grown. Consumption of resources, magnified by the energy unleashed by burning fossil fuels, has resulted in fundamental transformations of earth systems (e.g. carbon cycle, water cycle, nitrogen cycle). And, political contingencies, cultural beliefs, and economic desires have reinforced behaviors that continue to destabilize the planet’s systems.

Because humans have become such a powerful environmental force, a growing number of scientists have suggested that we have entered a new geological epoch — the Anthropocene. Humanity’s impact on the planet can be measured in sediments and ice cores. Its actions have entered the geological record.

Understanding the Anthropocene requires more than just researching the environmental effects of human actions however. As important is understanding the role that human systems play in shaping behaviors — for example, the ways that capitalism and imperialism have encouraged certain practices of resource extraction and modes of thinking. Doing so allows us to address more than just the consequences of human action. It helps us understand the root causes as well.

At its core then, research on the Anthropocene is focused on exploring the historical entanglements between sociocultural and geobiophysical systems. This necessitates multidisciplinarity — of scientists, social scientists, humanists, artists, policy makers, and community organizers working together to tackle environmental challenges in all of their complexities. This work includes descriptive and analytical approaches, but also public engagement meant to influence policy and public attitudes. In the current political context, this type of work is one important tool in mitigating the worst effects of climate change denial and attacks on environmental protections.


Jason M. Kelly is Director of the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute and Associate Professor of History at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.


Moment of Creation: Agnes Martin in New York

by Christina Rosenberger, author of Drawing the Line: The Early Work of Agnes Martin


“I had a hundred foot-long-loft,” Agnes Martin recalled, to the envy of more than a few New Yorkers. “It had two skylights and fourteen-foot ceilings with great beams, and at the end of every beam you could see daylight.” Located at 28 South Street, this was the final loft that Martin would inhabit near Coenties Slip before she abruptly gave up painting in 1967. “Windows right across on the river,” Martin continued, noting that the East River was so close that she “could see the expressions on the faces of the sailors.” One wonders what they thought of the artist staring back at them.

Interior page from Drawing the Line: The Early Work of Agnes Martin by Christina Rosenberger (2016)
Water, 1958. Interior page from Drawing the Line: The Early Work of Agnes Martin by Christina Rosenberger (2016, University of California Press)

A highly anticipated retrospective of Martin’s work opens at the Solomon R. Guggenheim on today, after earlier presentations at Tate Modern, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This is not the first time that Martin has shown work at the Guggenheim—her art was featured in American Drawings in 1964, and in Lawrence Alloway’s Systematic Painting exhibition two years later. And if a New York venue is a homecoming of sorts for Martin, who lived in the city multiple times from the 1940s through the 1960s, she is still most strongly identified with her time on Coenties Slip.

Indeed, the physical remnants of the Slip are visible in works like The Garden, from 1958, now on view at the Guggenheim. Martin made at least four constructions from found objects in 1958, including Kali, The Garden, The Laws and Water. The constructions incorporate boat spikes, bottle tops, drawer pulls, wires and wooden pegs, and range in size from eleven inches to nearly eight feet high. Seen within the context of a retrospective, they appear anomalous—a momentary investigation of three-dimensional form as Martin refined her aesthetic vision. But like many artists on the Slip, Martin scavenged the docks to find inexpensive materials with which to counter the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. Eschewing large, expensive canvases for materials that were readily available, Martin worked out crucial ideas through the tactile and pictorial qualities of her materials.

And the water—always so important to Martin—became a recurring theme in Martin’s work as well. Night Harbor, a hauntingly beautiful oil painting from 1960, offers eighteen blue-green circles set in a grid against a blue ground, bordered by two brown bands. The circles are ringed with graphite, which catches the light—much as the waves of the ocean do, when hit by the light of a beacon. Describing her own loft on South Street, the fiber artist Lenore Tawney recalled, “At night the boats were like Venetian glass, you know they’d be all lighted up and going along on this water…So there I was right on the river, looking at the river and the boats and the lights of Brooklyn… It was as if New York was at my back.”

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Interior page from Drawing the Line: The Early Work of Agnes Martin by Christina Rosenberger (2016)

Martin, famously, painted with her back to the world—a claim that many will interrogate as they view her paintings in the Guggenheim’s rotunda. But what if one left the museum behind, in search of the moment of creation? Take the subway to Broad Street and walk south, to the river.


Don’t miss Christina’s previous post on Agnes Martin. To get a copy of Drawing the Line, visit your local bookstore and select museum stores, or purchase online at IndieBoundAmazonBarnes & Noble, or UC Press (to save 30% on ucpress.edu, enter discount code 16M4197 at checkout).


Christina Bryan Rosenberger is an art historian living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is a contributor to Tate Modern’s 2015 exhibition catalogue Agnes Martin and recently wrote on Martin’s 1978 film Gabriel for Artforum. She has taught modern art at the University of New Mexico and has served as Research Coordinator for the Center for the Technical Study of Modern Art at the Harvard Art Museums.


Once Is Not Enough

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Santa Margarita Lake-Explore #126 2/5/15” by Linda Tanner is licensed under CC BY 2.0

by David Carle, author of Introduction to Water in California, Second Edition

Water is the essence of life, the key to California’s history and its future. Today, water choices are complicated by ignorance about how water reaches faucets and farm fields and by our society’s unwillingness to step away from an historic attitude about water supply that might be characterized as: “Too much will never be enough.”

Must we choose massive twin tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta or expensive new dams that will yield only a small percentage of their constructed reservoir capacities? Does it make sense to build ultra-expensive ocean desalination plants? “Fish versus farmers?” Really? Must we go there? Why pump from groundwater basins at rates we know are unsustainable and irresponsible? Can’t we admit that returning water to the environment is not a new “water demand,” but belated recognition that far too much has been taken away?

Incredible progress is being made in this state, where cities and large water districts are weaning themselves from imported water. And much more is possible. Every Californian should know that:

  • Through conservation and highly-treated wastewater, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (which used to import 80 percent of its supply for 4 million customers) aims for 100 percent reliance on stormwater and recycling in the near future.
  • The City of Santa Monica plans to eliminate use of imported water sources by 2020.
  • Los Angeles intends to cut its imported water purchases in half by 2025.
  • Agricultural efficiencies could save 4 to 6 million acre-feet of water a year in the state (according to several published studies; equivalent to what is diverted from the Delta each year).

Thirsts can be quenched by wiser use of water within cities and on farms. Let’s use local water again and again…and again. Once is not enough. New urban development should be designed to add nothing to the overall community “thirst.” The 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act set implementation goals in the year 2040; can’t that plodding approach be accelerated? Let’s push for irrigation and crop choices that reduce agricultural thirsts, because wiser farm production benefits the entire society.

The future we choose for California will continue to be shaped by decisions about water.

David Carle is a former park ranger and the author of California Natural History Guides about water, fire, air, and soil (UC Press), as well as other books in water history and management, including Drowning the Dream: California’s Water Choices at the Millennium and Water and the California Dream. His most recent UC Press book is Traveling the 38th Parallel: A Water Line around the World (2013).

The new, updated edition of Introduction to Water in California is available for purchase now. Order your copy here.


A Drier Future: Lynn Ingram’s Q&A with Sunset

The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow
The West without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow

In the wake of California’s recent drought, Kathleen Brenzel of Sunset Magazine caught up with UC Press author Lynn Ingram for a question and answer session about water scarcity, our next steps, and other important points from The West Without Water. Merging climate and paleoclimate research from a wide variety of sources, the book documents the tumultuous climate of the American West over twenty millennia, telling tales of past droughts, deluges, and predictions about the impacts of future climate change on water resources.

“Q: Your book mentions 1976-77 as the driest single year in recorded history of the West, when precipitation levels dropped to less than half the average level throughout the state, when increased use of ground water for agriculture and cities caused a precipitous drop in the water table throughout the state, and when some of the highest regions of the Sierra Nevada lost three-fourths of their trees. How do you think the current drought stacks up?

A: “We’re calling 2015 the fourth year of drought. But the last 15 years have shown below average precipitation. Our snowpack is only at 6 per cent of normal; it was 25 per cent in 1976. We’re worse off now.”

B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam, co-authors of The West without Water.
B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam, co-authors of The West without Water.

“Q: In your book, you say that “humans have moved into the deserts, floodplains, and deltas of the West, exacting a high cost to the natural environment;” that “there is not enough water to reliably meet all desired uses and needs;” and that “a more sustainable water future in the West would include linking urban growth with water supply and availability.” What’s the most important lesson we can take from all of this?

A: “We took water for granted in the 20th century. We all need to think of water as an increasingly scarce and precious resource. There must be things that individuals and society can do to increase our resilience during future water shortages.”

To read more of this Q&A with Lynn Ingram, visit Sunset’s website.


California on Track for Worst Drought in 500 Years, Says B. Lynn Ingram

Dry riverbed in California. Photo by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, via Wikimedia Commons

We Californians know the weather has been dry, but exactly how dry? B. Lynn Ingram and Frances Malamud-Roam, authors of The West Without Water, provide some historical context for the current drought in Monday’s Los Angeles Times. Ingram and Malamud-Roam look back further than the 119 years of climate data we have on record for California, to the geologic past. Measuring tree ring patterns throughout the Western United States, the authors determined that the last drought this severe occurred in AD 1580. If our current water shortage continues apace, we will have had the driest year in half a millennium.

Learn more about the authors’ paleoclimatic predictions and the future of California’s water in the New York Times, Time Magazine, KTVN.com, and the UC Berkeley News Center.

 


Halfway Around the World on the 38th Parallel

Since their last update from western China, David and Janet Carle have traveled to Turkmenistan’s capital city, Ashgabat—halfway around the world from their home in Mono Lake, California. Read on to hear more about their cultural adventures along Turkmenistan’s extensive canal system, and follow the links to their blog, Parallel Universe 38° North: The Water Line. The Carles’ book The 38th Parallel: A Water Line Around the World will be published by UC Press in Fall 2012.

David Carle is the author of several UC Press books about California’s environment, most recently Introduction to Earth, Soil, and Land in California.


In Turkmenistan: Half-way Around the World from Mono Lake

Near TashkorganHalf-way around the world from home, the GPS told us we had reached the 61°East longitude in Turkmenistan. The 38° latitude line intersects in Mono Lake with the 119°West longitude: 61 + 119 = 180° around the globe! Local clocks are 12 hours different from California (as bad a jet-lag problem as there can be, we would learn; after Turkmenistan we were homeward bound).

We landed in Ashgabat, the capital and largest city (37º58’N) and drove straight east toward Merv, the most influential ancient city they never taught us about in World History. Half-way there we stopped at that half-way around the world longitude point and took a photo beside a reservoir that stores Karakum Canal water. The canal was begun in 1954 when Turkmenistan was part of the U.S.S.R. and diverts 50% of the water that used to feed the Aral Sea, in Uzbekistan. It moves water almost 600 miles, one of the longest aqueducts in the world, to Ashgabat and to farms along the way.


Last Stops on the 38th Parallel, For Now

Janet and David Carle have completed their travels through Europe and Turkey, investigating water issues on the 38th parallel. Their last two stops in Turkey were the vast, alkaline Lake Van, and Hasankeyf, an ancient city on the Tigris River. In the fall, the Carles will continue their 38th parallel travels in Asia.

David Carle is the author of several UC Press books, including Introduction to Earth, Soil, and Land in California and Introduction to Water in California. The Carles’ exploration of water issues along the 38th parallel will form the basis for a future UC Press book. To read more, visit their blog, Parallel Universe: 38° North.
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From David and Janet Carle’s blog, Parallel Universe: 38° North:

An Alkaline Inland Sea in Eastern Turkey

A vast inland sea with alkaline water whose strange chemistry produces large calcium carbonate structures underwater, in a dramatic setting with snow-covered mountain peaks, and a lake level that is thousands of feet above sea level…that sounds exactly like Mono Lake, our starting place for this 38th parallel exploration, but it also describes Lake Van, the largest lake in Turkey….Read More

Will Hasankeyf’s Heritage be Lost to a Tigris River Dam?

Hasankeyf (37°42’N; 41°24’E) is an ancient city carved into the rocky bluffs along the Tigris River. The site has been continuously occupied for more than 10,000 years, and its setting among rolling hills and sheer cliffs along the river is breathtakingly beautiful. The town is threatened by plans to build the Ilisu Dam on the Tigris River…Read More


Drought-Inspired Farmers & Greywater Guerillas

We caught an interesting story this morning on the California Report about how farmers are adapting to drought conditions. Turns out water-stressed plants make delicious apples.

Another piece on NPR’s Morning Edition mentioned a group in Oakland, the Greywater Guerillas. Due to years of drought there’s a movement afoot in government to make it easier to use greywater; apparently it’s a difficult process to do legally now, hence “guerrillas” in the name of the group.

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Further Reading:
Managing Water: Avoiding Crisis in California, by Dorothy Green
Dead Pool: Lake Powell, Global Warming, and the Future of Water in the West, by James Lawrence Powell

Introduction to Water in California, by David Carle

The Great Thirst: Californians and Water—A History, Revised Edition, by Norris Hundley, jr.

A River No More: The Colorado River and the West, Expanded and Updated edition, by Philip Fradkin

Photo courtesy flickr/RichardMasoner