26-05-2020

Online open discussion, about the Anthropocene Age in the online 22 nd TDF

Anthropocene the human epoch 3Anthropocene - the human epoch 

How does human presence on Earth jeopardize the future of our planet? In the context of the 22nd Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, the participants of the online open discussion, which took place on Sunday, May 24, on the Festival’s YouTube channel, had a discourse on the Anthropocene Age and its geological, environmental, social, philosophical, political and cultural implications. The discussion was attended by Yiannis Boutaris, president and founder of Arcturos, Kostas Stasinopoulos, curator and art historian of Serpentine Galleries and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNFCC), Konstantinos Voudouris, Professor of Geology at AUTh, Vanessa Archontidou, alpinist and Chrysostomos Stamoulis, Professor of Theology at AUTh.

The Festival organizes an original and provocative tribute on the Anthropocene Epoch.

The speakers were welcomed by the artistic director of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, Orestis Andreadakis, who characteristically said: “What exactly does the word Anthropocene -still unknown to many- mean? And how does the presence of humans on earth upsets the balance of all beings on the planet — not just the humans? The Anthropocene is a geological age, which begins in our days, perhaps at the end of the industrial revolution, perhaps in the early 20th century. For most, it begins after the end of World War II. It is an age, where the presence of man affects the environment to such an extent, that its traces are visible everywhere and on all levels.”

Afterwards, Konstantinos Voudouris, Professor of Geology at AUTh, took the stage. According to Mr. Voudouris “Earth was created 4.5 billion years ago. Earth has a history of 24 hours, and our presence corresponds to 2-3 seconds. Today we are living in the Holocene period, the period that began after the melting of the glaciers in which the balance of the climate was restored, which is a bit like today’s — and began 18,000 years ago. There are strong indications that humans are leaving a distinct mark on the planet, with the presence of radioactive dust after the Second World War and the use of atomic bombs. There has been a modification in the Earth’s surface. Man is modifying the thin layer of our planet, with infrastructural undergoings. Minerals have been produced due to the presence of humans. The increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is another sign. At the same time, there has been an observed decrease in biodiversity — which is crucial, as we all breathe the same air. Animals, humans, plants. Other signs are the presence of plastics and soot layers. Man leaves his mark. I don’t know if we should count this mark from 1950 or from 1750 — where the first phase of the industrial revolution began, but certainly humanity is leaving a distinct mark, compared to the previous period. The International Commission on Stratigraphy will present a finding, in the following years, as to if this period, should indeed be called the Anthropocene period —and will help raise public awareness, so a balance can be found. From today’s dystopia we must traverse to a utopia of an improved relationship with nature. Not all people leave the same footprint. Tribes in Africa or the Aborigines in Australia do not leave the same environmental damage as man in developed capitalist countries does. So, there is also a political side to this as well.”

Then, Orestis Andreadakis, gave the speech to the former mayor of Thessaloniki and president-founder of Arcturos, Yiannis Boutaris, saying that he is one of the first Greeks with an active track-record in ecological action. “What difference do you see in the reaction and participation of the public from when Arcturos began and today?”.

As Mr. Boutaris explained, the reaction of the public is important. “When the bear is born, it has the size of a small mouse and remains close to its mother for over two years, until it comes of age and learns to live in the forest. Captive bears, have no training on how to live in the forest. The brown bear lives mainly in the Pindus mountain range and on the border between Bulgaria and Drama. With our persistence, we managed to change the path of the Egnatia [motorway], moving it a little further south. Egnatia’s original crossing, was through a large bear habitat — and cutting it in half would have endangered its entire populace. From the late 90s onwards, when this whole story began, till today, the 250 animals that had been identified as belonging to a bear populace, in Greek territory, now exceed 6,700. The measures taken, helped, in “raising” the Greek bear. The bear, is at the top of the pyramid of the animal kingdom, and so through it, the entire forest ecosystem is protected.”

Alpinist Vanessa Archontidou was the next to take the floor by answering Mr. Andredakis’s questions over what one can ascertain, when coming into close contact with pristine parts of our planet. “What one realizes when travelling to the most pristine places of the planet, is how they have been affected by human activity — in one way or another. How? Many think, that the only human presence in high mountains is that of climbers. However, the peak of Everest, where I had the honor of reaching in 2019, is not threatened by the 500 people who climb it each August; but instead from the rise in temperature. What all of us climbers see is that the glaciers are slowly melting. And in fact, at such a rapid pace, that we can’t say anymore, that the high mountains are untouchable, like we use to say. Glaciers, now open up huge rifts and the weather is unpredictable, as seasons no longer exist. To me it is clear that human activity is the source of these changes — however we decide to name our age; either Anthropocene, or Holocene (if we decide to still name it as such). Especially during the period of the pandemic we went through, where we were forced to reduce our activities and saw the resulting changes. The atmosphere cleared in most parts of the world. You could now see Everest from India, something that hasn’t happened in many decades. Man is the source of these problems, and if we say that we want to change things, then we need to think first about some basic issues. First, we must raise awareness. Art, cinema, documentaries play an important role. My next project, as it is, is a documentary in Antarctica. I want these images I’ve seen, to be conveyed and for a substantial conversation to take place; an education for the upcoming generations — because at this moment, there is only an indefinite discussion taking place.”

The discussion continued with Kostas Stasinopoulos, curator and art historian of Serpentine Galleries and Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center (SNCFF), answering the following question asked by Mr. Andreadakis: “contemporary art monitors the phenomenon of impact on the environment. We have seen it at the Biennale, in many exhibitions, in Serpentine’s activity in which you are a curator. In your opinion, what is the role of art within this spectrum?”.

Mr. Stasinopoulos explained that, “working with artists and scientists, we comprehend ecology as a way of life and thought. We not only showcase the work of artists which concerns the environment, but we desire to change ourselves as an institution and curation. And this happens if we grasp that we are not a singular unit, but part of a whole ecosystem instead. Artists have the ability to imagine the world whole again. […] Art is not a commentary or a transcription of history, it is an active member of history, and therefore an active part of all of us. Many artists, for some decades now, have been wrestling with the issues we are discussing today, and we will certainly be discussing even more moving forward. Our ambition is to support the tasks of art and the work of artists; especially in precarious conditions such as those we are experiencing — and to seat artists alongside everyone else at the main table of discussion and action, for the environment… To tackle climate change and toil, together for the world we want.”

The first round of questions closed with Chrysostomos Stamoulis, Professor of Theology at AUTh. “For many centuries the notion has existed — or may still exist, that man, since he is molded in the image and likeness of God, is of the same property of its creator and therefore has the right to impose his will and power on soulful and soulless beings. Does this hold ground theologically? What are the contemporary theological views on the subject?” Mr. Andreadakis asked.

As Mr. Stamoulis himself, explained “it is true that sometimes there have been overestimations of man in relation to the rest of God’s creation. That is, we have reached the point where we have led ourselves, to a decisive rupture, between man and creation. In Christian teachings, both man and the rest of creation — which was once called, non-rational creation; are creations of the same God. Which means that two ontological categories exist in theology; the uncreated and the created. Thus, we are not something different from the rest of creation, it is just that within creation, there is a hierarchy of various positions, perspectives and understandings. […] If we understand this, then we understand that the whole world is the natural home of man. Thus, the relation with this home is one of honor, respect and an understanding that within this home, our house, our environment, God himself resides. In contemporary theology we can talk about how creation isn’t God, but God is everywhere within creation. God is in every molecule of this created reality. Christian theology turns against any action that violates creation.”

Mr. Voudouris pointed out that “the concept of the Anthropocene is not a neutral one. It has a political weight. We need to come up with a new model of prosperity, which will emphasize the real needs of humanity to shrink all economic magnification; such as the production of  arms, for a new relationship with nature to be formed, with more bicycles, more film festivals and theatres; less wars; more nurses etc. This kind of model of prosperity. With self-knowledge, for man to see this relationship with nature not as an opportunity for dominion, but as a creation that coexists with nature. It doesn’t matter if we call this era the Anthropocene. Water resource management is poorly done today. Whether climate change comes or goes, we need to take measures for proper management, of groundwater — either if that is to protect its quantity or quality, etc.”

Ms. Archontidou intervened at that point noting that “if we chose to use the term Anthropocene, it is a capitalistic and not anthropogenic term. Capitalism, however, does not work without a market and if there is no market, there is also no sense in producing. This is where the concept of individual responsibility comes into play. Our way of life will have to change if we want to be in harmony with nature. We ‘ll have to stop creating markets for things and habits that require more energy and therefore more destruction. We are searching for renewable energy sources. For ways to be more environmentally friendly. What we haven’t seen, however, is that the energy we’re looking for in renewable sources is for the discovery of the same energy or maybe for more than we currently have. We have never thought that we need to change our lifestyle so we can need less. We want to have our cake and eat it too. It’s up to us to make this change with individual responsibility and education.”

As Mr. Andreadakis pointed out, “the tribute to the Anthropocene is connected to the days of quarantine and the pandemic… and with the questions of the day-after. We were face-to-face with this unprecedented situation and now we will try to return to normality. What exactly does return to normality mean? To what normality?”

On this, Mr. Stasinopoulos observed: “The scientific community with the phenomenon of climate change is sounding the alarm of danger that a pandemic is a matter of time. When we try today to understand where the coronavirus came from, from which animal it was transferred to man, and which nation bears responsibility, we don’t seem to have a collective understanding of ecology and how we connect with the world. We continue to think of man as an isolated unit and not as one, of very many, species that exist in the world. Perception is a normality, in which we do not want to return to, and for many years now artists have produced important work. And as we can see from the Festival’s documentaries, more and more of us will be talking about it. Normality reminds me of a phrase by Bruno Latour, in his last book Down To Earth: Politics In The New Climatic Regime: when they pull the rug under you, you must look at the ground that you had been walking on all along. In this Anthropocene age, where the influence of man defines the future of humanity, this -is- the rug. All this pre-existed. It was the ground we were walking on. On this ground we are not alone. This normality, I do not desire.”

Taking his turn, Mr. Stamoulis said that “if the normality of yesterday or today consists in six million children not having the opportunity to take a single bath in their lifetime, the slogan shouldn’t be “return to”, but “go against” normality.”

Ms. Archontidou made a wish “to ultimately protect nature and not our way of life. Let’s watch as many documentaries as possible, because art operates as an awakening of return, to a new normality.”

Mr. Voudouris, expressed his own wish “for more bicycles, more documentaries and improved training. As this is how self-awareness will be achieved.”

Questions from the audience followed, concerning the meat industry. “To produce one kilo of beef, 15,000 liters of water are required. These liters concern all the needs of the animal to be fed, and so we suggest, as a measure of adaption to climate change, diets that do not waste lots of natural resources.”

As Mr. Orestis Andreadakis highlighted, “the issue of nutrition and the environment is primarily a political issue.” Mr. Boutaris now took word, saying characteristically: “A drastic change in mentality is of most importance. I don’t want to go back to the norm that existed. When we look back at the last two months — where cities were free of congestion, of noise, we’ll say, “have we maybe been making a mistake so far?”. We need to think about changing our cities. Let’s also think about overconsumption. Let’s not enter the market to fill our bags. What can I do with fifteen suits? Two-three years are enough. Overconsumption is a big trap.”

Mr. Boutaris claimed that “human activity on the planet leads to the depletion of minerals, metals, the destruction of forests and even the creation of large cities, with huge problems. Personally, I’m not bothered, too much, by the coronavirus — in the sense that we have had such epidemics in the past. Hundreds of millions have died. At some point the treatment drug will be found, and after some years another virus will appear in its place. This is the situation because one of the characteristics of human existence is violence. After overcoming the issue of finding food, what do we do? We kill. Violence is expressed through war. And greed is the reason behind this violence. At the moment more than 800 million human beings, in the world, do not know if they will have food and water tomorrow. On the other hand, in the European Union, huge amounts of food being cultivated is thrown to waste. What we have learnt from the coronavirus is that an international organization, which will deal with such things, must me founded — to have the same perception as to how viruses should be dealt with. We must give credence to healthcare and education. I see my grandchildren — they don't want to go to school. How will we make children want to go to school? For schools to be more friendly to the young. Additionally, the biggest issue to me, is to promote a balanced food crop.”

Overconsumption of food, and whether vegetarianism is necessary, where just a few of the audience’s questions which we delighted in, with interest and discussion. “Is the Anthropocene, maybe, a forewarning rather than a scientific artefact?” Mr. Andreadakis asked his guests.

According to Mr. Voudouris, “It’s a warning — regardless of whether it is established as such. We need to redefine our relationship with nature; to build smart cities, not of 26 million like Shanghai. Something like this creates huge problems in the management of resources and the environment.” He also encouraged members of the audience to watch films that deal with all these issues.