Visualizing earthly vulnerability

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors

What do we imagine when we imagine environmental destruction? What images do we look at on our screens or hold in our minds? While the ways to narrate the story of humans in the age of the Anthropocene may be numerous, there seems to be a fairly small number of visual images that have consistently pervaded our cultural imaginaries of environmental destruction and become iconic. Two among them are the view of the Earth from outer space, and the image of the postapocalyptic Earth’s surface. They are a staple of science fictional films, such as for example Oblivion (2013), Wall-E (2008), or the sci-fi-documentary The Age of Stupid (2009), but also spread out throughout popular culture and political discourses much more widely. One way to approach this is see precisely science fiction as the key contemporary discourse that is not only able to articulate the situatedness of the human species within the historical, geological and cosmic timeframes, but also to speculate on the human and earthly futures. If the genre of science fiction, as Brian Aldiss argues in Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1988), is crucially about the human relationship to its environment and advanced technology, what better medium is there to address climatic disturbances brought on by the human industrialized activities, and the imagined future outcomes? The narrative of climate change is essentially a futuristic, speculative, science-fictional narrative, we could argue. In this narrative, how do the two emblems of the Earth from outer space and the postapocalyptic Earth’s surface function, how do they mediate our hopes and anxieties? Let us zoom in on these images more closely.

The iconic Blue Marble image, of the illuminated face of the Earth in space, was taken from the orbit in 1972 by the Apollo 17 crew, and would become one of the most reproduced photographs in human history. It shows the planet as a mesh of blue ocean, white cloud and brown continent, against the eerily vast, black cosmos. The Earth looks frail and isolated amidst the blackness. The context in which it was taken was the space race and the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union, the underlying nuclear threat, and the burgeoning environmentalist movement. The Blue Marble quickly became a symbol for global environmentalism as the image inscribes the sense of oneness and unity of humankind in the need to save our earthly home from the engulfing, black threat, be it nuclear war or climate change. When looking for a few moments longer, the image almost as if condenses into two dimensions the enormous times of the planetary evolution and the evolution of life on Earth, from the simplest organisms to plants and animals, and speeding up through the human history finally brings us to the moment of current urgency. In this evolutionary history humans are just a blip of a split second, but ominously, a force powerful enough to bring about the ultimate destruction of themselves as well as other earthlings. The image comes to stand for the wonder of life on the one hand, and on the other, its utter contingency and vulnerability. As Kelly Oliver suggests in Philosophy After the Apollo Missions (2015), the Blue Marble makes manifest tensions between the sense that humans are the centre of the universe, and the sense we are insignificant, between the awe for and loneliness of earthlings. Let us put it this way. If Copernicus gave an early modern blow to human narcissism and dogmatic presumption by displacing the Earth from the center of the universe, the late 20th century Blue Marble unfolds this to its ecological conclusion: it tears a fatal wound by signalling the imminent threat of the obliteration of humans through their very own doing.

Suddenly, the viewer finds themselves in the middle of a desert. The ominous threat has been materialized, turning the factory farms, advanced machinery, war weapons and planes to things of the past. The evolutionary history will have unfolded itself another split second into the future and dropped us abruptly among the ruins. This future document of the postapocalyptic Earth’s surface is an image of barren, devastated land, interspersed with scattered remains and possibly few human survivors in the windy and erratic climate. Nonhuman animals commonly enter the scene, such as vultures feeding on carcases. Though apocalyptic imagery is at least as old as the Bible, the depictions of God’s Judgement Day have transformed themselves in the current context into the catastrophic aftermath of human industrial exploitation and technological devastation of the environment, of the will to master nature. This is an uncanny world, haunted yet mesmerizing, frequently showing the epitomes of human civilisation in ruins: the London Eye overshadowing the flooded metropolis, the Las Vegas casinos crumbled in the desert, or the Sydney Opera on fire, among others. The Earth’s surface will have deterritorialised itself from these human layers and structures, leaving only traces for a possible future geologist, whatever species they might be. The particular power of the postapocalyptic image, as with the Blue Marble, lies in channeling the ambiguity between the sense of human importance on the one hand, and insignificance on the other. As Clare Colebrook argues in Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction, Vol. 1 (2014), the postapocalyptic geological image folds the earth around human survival, while at the same time it presents the viewer with a world in which life on Earth does continue to go on, and some nonhuman species might even flourish. It gives us a glimpse of posthuman living environments, but only in the tone of elegy and mourning, registering what will have been lost. The postapocalyptic image of Earth’s surface hails to us from the future to change the course of present actions while we still can.

Fani Cettl is a scholar working at the intersection of science fiction, environmental humanities, animal studies and biopolitics. She holds a PhD from the Central European University, Budapest.