Carl Sagan once said that we are a way for the universe to know itself; the tool by which we undertake this mammoth task is called science, a search for the underlying truth as determined by observation and experiment irrespective of prejudice or viewpoint, by building hypotheses and testing them, discarding those found to be flawed and refining those supported by evidence.
The purpose of this is neither to be comforting or kind but to be accurate and honest, and often the truth revealed is, as described by Al Gore in his two documentaries on climate change, inconvenient, for the politicians who make policy, for the corporations who consume irreplaceable resources and for the populations whose individual voices seem insignificant in comparison.
It was once felt that it was the Earth which had the mightiest voice of all, slowly moving through ice ages as the tectonic plates drifted to form new continents, unaffected by the myriad kinds of animal, vegetable, insect and bacterial life which swarmed on its surface, but in recent years there has been a growing belief that this is not so, that humans now influence the planet more than all the other organisms combined.
Within the last century, could we have moved from the twelve thousand year-long Holocene geological epoch into the Anthropocene? Filmed in twenty countries across six continents, Canadian filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky have collaborated on Anthropocene: The Human Epoch to consider and present the startling and damning evidence in a film which recalls the works of Godfrey Reggio and Ron Fricke.
Once the province of science fiction, altering distant worlds to suit our needs, we are already guilty of terraforming on our own home planet, glaciers and ice caps pushed back, forests cut down, vast tracts of land chewed up as by the 12,000 ton mechanical beast which eats the very earth at Hambach coalmine, the largest open-pit mine in Germany which has consumed four towns since 1978 with another two now threatened with relocation.
In London zoo, visitors take photographs of endangered species on cellphones powered by lithium batteries assembled in a plant in Michigan with barely a human in sight, the resources extracted in vast chemical lakes in the Atacama Desert in Chile, a web of supply and demand where awareness and conscience are absent; in Germany a village church is torn down by a mechanical arm like something out of The War of the Worlds, while in Nigeria the home of the Redeemed Church of God can seat a million.
The statistics presented by narrator Alicia Vikander are shocking: humans now dominate over 75% of ice-free land through mining, agriculture, industrialisation and urban growth, while “technofossils” are an exponentially growing concern, the thirty trillion tons of waste which does not decompose, much of which has been sent to third-world landfills such as that shown in Kenya, and the loss of biodiversity is so vast it can only be estimated.
The devastation stunningly photographed, the footage is disturbing yet entrancing, and despite the dire warnings there are messages of hope, conservation work in Nairobi, astonishing projects such as a Swiss railway which demonstrates that if mountains cannot be moved they can be tunnelled through where the vision and resources exist; if we are indeed in the Anthropocene, we need to understand that if the human race shapes the world how best it might be done for the benefit of all life.