A Cabinet of Curiosities for the Anthropocene

The Anthropocene is a term of art for the geologic epoch that began when human activities had a global, lasting impact on the Earth’s ecosystems. While it’s exact origin date is under debate, we know that hundreds and thousands of years into the future the geological strata will be full of plastic, signs of nuclear fall out, increased quantities of carbon dioxide and other permanent signs of planetary alteration. “The Great Acceleration” refers to the past century where many of these planet-altering practices are increasing in frequency, magnitude and intensity.

Image based on data from Steffen, W., Crutzen, P. J., & McNeill, J. R. (2007). The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature. Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment, 36(8), 614-621.

Image based on data from Steffen, W., Crutzen, P. J., & McNeill, J. R. (2007). “The Anthropocene: are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature.” Ambio: A Journal of the Human Environment, 36(8), 614-621.


The externalities of economic and industrial systems–waste and discards–play a major role in both creating the Anthropocene and in marking its place in the geological record. One of the defining features of modern waste is its extreme longevity. Much of our waste now exists in geological time and will exist long after the demise of the human species not because the human species is going to make itself extinct in short order (which may or may not be the case), but because much of this material will last for periods of time that outstrip the time period any species has been on the earth, ever. The use of “deep time” to analyze nuclear waste, “zombie mines,” permanent toxicants, plastics, and other “geological garbage” has been covered on Discard Studies  before.

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In recognition of some of the novel and lasting materials that characterize the Anthropocene, The Center for Culture, History and Environment at the University of Madison-Wisconsin has created an exhibit called The Anthropocene Slam: A Cabinet of Curiosities:

The Anthropocene is just one among many moments in time when new scientific objects have altered humanity’s relationship to the past, present, and future. The coming-into-being of scientific objects such as fossils, radioactivity, genetic mutations, toxic pesticides, and ice cores, to name a few, have precipitated different narratives and imaginings of the human past and the human future. What might a cabinet of curiosities for the age of the Anthropocene look like? What objects might jolt us into reimagining environmental time across diverse scales, from the recent past to deep history? How might certain kinds of objects make visible the differential impacts—past, present, and future—that have come to shape the relationships among human and non-human beings, living in an era of extreme hydrocarbon extraction, extreme weather events, and extreme economic disparity?

In the spirit of a poetry slam, this event invites scholars and artists to “pitch” objects which could belong in this Anthropocene cabinet of curiosities.

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Some of these objects are garbage. M. Rafi Arefin, Heather Rosenfeld and Sarah Moore, for example, submitted a battery:

We draw out the material, environmental and economic impacts of the trade in used batteries between Canada, Mexico and the United States between 2005 and 2011, when over twenty thousand tons of battery waste were traded among the three countries (USEPA FOIA HQ-2013-002551). We interrogate the afterlives of two types of batteries, comparing the geography of recycling and disposal of lead-acid batteries to that of the now more common lithium ion battery. Though the ability to recycle parts of these batteries has increased, both still produce waste, which must be managed into the near and distant future. We thus compare the regulatory regimes, processing procedures, and benefits and burdens associated with recycling and disposing of these two battery types.

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Other objects include the feed from the Deepwater Horizon Spill, an “extinct device” (the now obsolete BlackBerry Curve 8300), AOL free trail CD ROMS, an insecticide pump spray (with 30% extra DDT!), and a Containment Board Game (on nuclear disasters and waste).

In addition to an art-science-waste exhibit, the event includes a keynote lecture and presentations on each of the objects. More information can be found on their website.

The Sixth Extinction: The Legacy of the Anthropocene

Free and open to the public