Before we ossify: on forgetting, radical histories and the Anthropocene

It was a long summer. We saw unsettling things in the news, and we felt them at home – the unrelenting temperatures, steeped nights, no rain. That now-infamous global heat map showing Australia like a blistering boil of weeping red. The bloated fish after algal blooms. The crocodiles in urban flood waters and the half a million rotting cattle camouflaged in mud. Dozens of dead brumbies in parched waterholes strewn like tanbark. Ancient forests burning for weeks. I watched the Hepburn fires from my place – runaway blackberries choking the gorge sent brilliant flames into the night sky, scattering singed foxes into clearings to be doused by waiting firefighters. The patterns farmers kept making with their grain trailers as they poured feed onto barren fields, and how the mob came to them and synchronised – curvy serpents of sheep, heads down, like dirty fallen clouds. Clouds we wished were full of rain (not floods of it) hanging low in the sky. But it was just blue, day in, day out, and yellow paddocks waving.

This summer there was a median January temperature of 32 degrees where I live. My kids kept swimming in the dam after school, minding the leach zone, even though it dried inwards a few feet each day.

This summer showed us that our future is irrevocably uncertain. Humans and their hubris are omnipresent, insects are dying, we no longer relish the long, warm days. We have a ‘new normal’ that we’ll acculturate to our kids.

Most of us surely now agree, as Marx and Engels surmised 170 years ago, that ‘all that is solid melts into air’. Although today this is clearly more geophysical reality than merely metaphor for the creative destruction of increasingly commoditised and fetishised futures. The current state of play was succinctly summed up by President Trump’s egregious declaration of ‘I want great climate’. It is unclear what he means by this, or how exactly it will be delivered, but I think we can take it as an augury for the future – an ever-more uneven Anthropocene.

Post-apocalypse awaits those who can securitise for themselves ‘great climate’. The rest of us will vaporise with the fires, famines, droughts and floods. With the Murray cod, brumbies, butterflies and cattle.

But what about the past, is it melting too?

With so much focus on transitions, innovation, adaptations and mitigation – these resolutely future-facing suppositions – it seems pressing to inverse the viewfinder and ask ‘what do memory scholars make of the Anthropocene, the everyday melting of futures?’

This new geological epoch is after all the materialisation of a forgotten past. Climate change effects are the tracings and inscriptions of planetary memories being recollected, and reconciled with, as we burn fossilised fuels millions of years old. The geological record as archive, being emitted now, manifests as a derangement of historical time, forcing us to experience an increasingly dystopian museology in the present. A modified Derridean hauntology where the past hurtles towards us from the future; spectres of climate apocalypse immersed in the everyday.

Climate activist and author Bill Mckibben recently wrote that ‘the extra heat that we trap near the planet every day is equivalent to the heat from four hundred thousand bombs the size of the one that was dropped on Hiroshima’. We even measure anthropos impact against memory – a memory of the radiometric signatures that heralded human beings as overwhelmingly planetarily dominant, and contributed to the conception of this so-called new geological age. The detritus we spew into the atmosphere, into the future, will certainly carry memories of us with it, even if our species doesn’t manage to survive as progenitors of mass disruption. A surge in post-apocalyptic fiction narrates this scenario for us – morbid memories from imagined nonhuman futures.

So it seems memories are indeed intrinsic to understanding the Anthropocene. This disturbed modality of geological reading represents a return of planetary knowledge – stratigraphical remembering – and a memorialising of both the voracious reach of human impact and of the imagined futures without us. Dialectically, and perhaps more illuminating, memory scholars warn us that forgetting of our more-than-human past in the headiness of this unprecedented anthropogenic rift is further accentuating environmental crises and humanity’s collapse. An ‘escapist forgetting’, Paul Ricoeur would argue, that allows the human victors to conveniently vanquish the more-than-human past.

It is worthwhile recalling Jane Jacobs’ final book, a short treatise titled Dark Age Ahead, published in 2004. Although she is generally and widely acknowledged for her rosy prognostications on convivial urban design outlined in her tome The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which has become almost foundational reading in the triumphalist Urban Age, in this particular cautionary book she prophecises impending collapse as a response to mass cultural amnesia and subsequent social and economic decay. To preface her discussion, Jacobs muses on the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, which she reminds the reader are depicted as Famine, War, Pestilence and Death. She adds a fifth demonic horseman to aid her discussion on apocalyptic futures – Forgetfulness.

Jacobs forewarns her North American readers that they are dangerously close to cultural collapse, which she believes is largely a result of mass amnesia; a modernity that forgets. Climate change, it is clear, is a cultural failure more extreme than the social and economic decay Jacobs specifically speaks to in this book. A failure, Amitav Ghosh despondently writes, which mobilises as ‘a Great Derangement: our lives and our choices are enframed in a pattern of history that seems to leave us nowhere to turn but toward our self-annihilation’. Its reach, however, is equally accentuated by forgetfulness. As Jacobs writes in her introduction:

the purpose of this book is to help our culture avoid sliding into a dead end, by understanding how such a tragedy comes about, and thereby what can be done to ward it off and thus retain and further develop our living, functioning culture, which contains so much value, so hard won by our forebears. We need this awareness because, as I plan to explain, we show signs of rushing headlong into a Dark Age.

Beyond her extraordinary prescience, the book implicitly pursues this notion of forgetting as one of the dominant, and underplayed, catalysts for devastation. It is a small step from here to recall Walter Benjamin’s appropriation of Paul Klee’s ‘Angelus Novus’ as his interpretation of the Angel of History. With perplexed widened eyes, outstretched wings and jagged teeth in an opened mouth, ‘when we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet’. Thrust with back-turned toward the future, the mound of rubble accumulates skyward. The gale which propels him, Benjamin tells us, is called progress.

With this persuasive allegory, Benjamin insists we keep our focus on past suffering if we are to advance precisely because we ‘are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren’. Collective memory of our own ruined and ruining histories is the source of real revolutionary progress. Insistent and unhindered advancement focused only on a future emancipation, Benjamin alludes, is fallacy.

However, as Clive Hamilton recently wrote, ‘replacing the old future defined by progress with a new future defined by endless struggle requires a period of grieving’. And, he laments, ‘not many people have the stomach for that.’ Instead we watch the rubble of our climate-changed futures pile up at our feet, like some deranged and inverted Angel of History, and we march through the horror of it with a deluded and smug reliance on technological redemption: aggressive geo-engineering.

And so we deny the past – the agonising beauty of our more-than-human world, our Holocene, our stable, certain past, our destruction – because the weight of it, of what we have done, is unbearable.

In How Modernity Forgets, Paul Connerton argues that we have not quite succumbed to the mass cultural amnesia Jacobs prophesied, but more specifically have lost our ability to foster a public past. ‘Our entire contemporary social system’, Frederic Jameson states ‘has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past’. This refusal to remember certain things, to rally behind them and to grieve for them, redacts their history.

‘Our world is hypermnesic in many of its cultural manifestations, and post-mnemonic in the structures of the political economy’, Connerton writes. There is a clear contradiction between reiterations of a past bloated with commemorative, partial (and humanist) histories, and systems of governance that generate structural forgetfulness about injustice, destruction and despair. The hubris of Anthropocene discourse, cloaked as innovation and progress, bombards us daily, and is a vivid example of this genteel redaction. As John Berger wrote in one of his final pieces published in 2016, musing on the ‘planned diversion’ that he believed characterised the public commentary of climate change in our post-political age:

… what is being publicly said and the way it is being said promotes a kind of civic and historic amnesia. Experience is being wiped out. The horizons of the past and future are being blurred. We are being conditioned to live an endless and uncertain present, reduced to being citizens in a state of forgetfulness.

It does appear that the past, as planetary, as more-than-human, is also melting in the Anthropocene. This is clearly not the geological past, which haunts us relentlessly, but the past we tell ourselves. Rather than recovering the ‘radical histories’ that Environmental Historian Tom Griffiths eloquently rallies for, humanity appears more fixated on memorialising its own death with apocalyptic, geo-engineered and cli-fi futures, while political leaders in this deranged historical moment hug coal and postulate ‘great climate’. Progress, for those no longer bothered to remember our more-than-human past, continues to drive them triumphantly face-forward into a future that is increasingly unevenly distributed.

We can take another line from Marx and Engels, the one preceding their oft-cited maxim, and apply it to our current predicament: ‘all fixed, fast-frozen relationships … are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify’. Our largely post-mnemonic world it seems, ensures a volatile present; a beckoning, ephemeral future for some; and an increasingly falsified and alienating past. All in all, despite the ‘new normals’ we bequeath to our children, we’re running out of time.

The Anthropocene, how we choose to signify and normalise this geological epoch in public discourse, is rapidly becoming the new opiate of the masses. A salve and sedative that cauterises political action, that thoroughly depoliticises. By bringing shocking awareness of planetary collapse into the everyday, its reality rips away the future and the past, and leaves us paralysed (or laughing) in the uncertain present. We are, more than ever, ethically obliged to remobilise ‘radical histories’, a steady backward gaze, and our visceral trust in the more-than-human. Adaptations, transitions and mitigations are certainly needed, and our children have taken bravely and brazenly to the streets to demand this, but the retention of memory, of the ‘old normals’, allows us to generate the grieving, and the hope, so necessary to survival. It will help us to go onwards; cautiously adapting to, and in equal measure sympathetically denormalising, our current, unbearable more-than-human condition.


Image: Marx and Engels, Berlin / Bruna Benvegnu

Claire Collie

Claire Collie is a landscape sociologist, mother and gardener. She tweets @clairevcollie

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  1. Thanks Clare, I m a Valley boy grew up in the wild bush to the North of Traralgon in the 1960s and 1970s. People here deny human induced climate change and coal is king.

    It is the memory of past , where we had freedom and the bush looked like native growth that sustains us now.
    The points you make about forgeting the past and experirences of people who came before struck home for me. We do have a culture of “the present,”.
    Thanks so much for such a thoughtful piece.

  2. The Anthropocene is a salve and sedative that cauterises political action, that thoroughly depoliticises, also insofar as it lets capitalism off the hook—the capitalocene being the period that brought us the predatory view that values workers, women, the Oriental Others of the global South, the flora and fauna and ultimately the planet itself only as objects exploitable for profit, and therefore also the mentality that the Earth is an infinite resource and infinite garbage dump.

  3. On a lonely early morning, small rare rain gave and I found Claire Collie re-minding me. Whilst recently in spate of grieving I was told to forget the past and live now. My response fell on alcohol deadened ears but I rejoice in Claire’s feisty female words and ideas. Thankyou ongoing thanks

  4. Hi Claire,

    Thanks for a thought-full and challenging piece. Unfortunately, so many of us are unable / unwilling to face with ‘sober senses’ what is going on both within and without, which condemns so many species and ecosystems to a seemingly perilous future. Where do the new stories and storytellers come from?

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