The Anthropocene in Pictures

Andrea Bowers, Step It Up Activist, Sand Key Reef, Key West, Florida, Part of North America’s Only Remaining Coral Barrier Reef, (drawing), 2009. Photo: The author.

The origins of the Anthropocene

Two current art exhibitions in London, Saint Francis of Assisi at the National Gallery and Dear Earth at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank Centre, raise again thorny questions about the origin and course of the Anthropocene, and the responsibility of artists and curators in a time of crisis. They take completely different approaches – one is a survey of Franciscan iconography; the other a selection of contemporary art that addresses pollution and global warming. But both remind us that time is running out to heal the still widening rift between capitalist society and non-human nature.

The Anthropocene, of course, is the name for the current, geologic epoch in which people control the climate, though only in one way: they make it hotter. By burning fossil fuels and raising animals for meat, humans release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, causing a planet warming “greenhouse effect.” We’re currently on a path to a temperature rise of 2.7 degrees F. (1.5 degrees C.) above pre-industrial levels within about a decade. Beyond that, there is significant variability in predictions since everything depends upon what mitigating actions are taken. If the production and release of global greenhouse gases stopped tomorrow, the temperature would continue to rise for a few more decades, and then begin to decline. If it continues, global temperatures could rise by as much as 10 degrees F. by the end of the century, a potentially cataclysmic eventuality.

“The great acceleration”

The now generally agreed Anthropocene launch date – circa 1950 – reminds us that it wasn’t humans per se (Anthropos) who took control of the climate and other essential earth systems; it was the profit-seeking residents of the wealthiest nations acting through the mediation of applied science, major industries, and national militaries. The Anthropocene in other words, is a byproduct of the monopolistic, oligarchic, and imperial capitalism that flourished during what’s called “the great acceleration”. That’s when all the major indices of military and economic development and consequent environmental degradation registered exponential leaps. The U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in 1945, and the hundreds of subsequent nuclear tests that deposited radioactivity all over the world (until the atmospheric Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963), establish a key stratigraphic marker for the Anthropocene.

While it is relatively easy to state when and where the Anthropocene began, its deeper roots or pre-histories are harder to identify. Was Henry Ford the instigator? James Watt, inventor of the steam engine? Or do we need to go back to the traders and thieves and of the Dutch East India Company? Should we blame English King Henry VIII who accelerated the enclosure of common lands and the concentration of wealth among the noble few? What about Christopher Columbus who inaugurated the centuries of expropriation of New World people and lands that comprised “primitive accumulation” — the launching pad for mercantilism, industrial capitalism and eventually, the Anthropocene? Or were there earlier portents?

Saint Francis of Assisi

The current exhibition at the National Gallery in London, Saint Francis of Assisi, offers evidence that the robbery of nature – necessary antecedent to the Anthropocene — was recognized for what it was in the Middle Ages, and that Saint Francis called it out. Francis was born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, in Assisi in 1181 or 1182, the child of a wealthy, local cloth merchant. His mother was French — thus the child’s nickname “Francis” or “Francesco” meaning “Frenchman.” At the end of the 12th Century, Assisi and Perugia went to war, one of several regional contests between self-governing urban polities that sought to gain control of their rural adjacencies. What this meant – and why it was so important in the formation of the future Saint Francis – was that the common lands so characteristic of the feudal order in other parts of Italy and Europe, were largely absent in Umbria. Instead, there was a constant battle between manufacturers, merchants, artisans, and rural magistrates over land and resources. Peasants were bound by share-cropping contracts that limited their access to common lands. In this pre-capitalist emphasis on owning rather than sharing, using up rather than protecting, and taking rather than giving, lies the ideological origin of the Anthropocene.

Francis saw these struggles close-up. Before his religious conversion, he was a knight, captured

and imprisoned following the Battle of Collestrada in 1202. Upon his release a year later, he began a slow course of personal education and penance that eventually led to the life of an itinerant preacher. (He was never an ordained priest.) What he taught was not only subservience to God, but resistance to the accumulation of wealth and power, embrace of religious toleration, and support of the commons. The term “commons” signifies things that can be shared by all; they include land, water, and air; the labor and wealth of a society; or the affection of a family. Francis instructed his followers: “Give to all who ask…and whoever takes what is theirs, let them not seek to take it back.” “Nothing belongs to us,” he wrote, “except our vices and sins”.

Matthew Paris, Chronica Maira, Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge UK, c. 1250.

Early representations of St. Francis show him giving away his possessions, tending to the sick, and preaching to the birds of Spoleto: “My brother birds,” he’s reported to have said, “you should praise your Creator. He gave you feathers to wear, wings to fly, and whatever you need. God made you noble among His creatures and gave you a home in the purity of the air.” The subject is shown by Mathew Paris in a marginal illustration from his Chronica Maira (c. 1250) which depicts the saint at left wearing his hooded tunic and leaning on his staff while preaching to an apparently enraptured heron, crane (or stork), hawk and two (unidentifiable) songbirds.

The same scene was represented almost 800 years later by the contemporary German artist, Andrea Büttner in her woodcut diptych, Vogelpredigt (Sermon to the Birds), from 2010. Based upon a well-known, c. 1250 altarpiece in Santa Croce in Florence attributed to Coppo di Marcovaldo, the print shows St. Francis in profile at the right, accompanied by two of his brother friars. His left hand is raised in preaching, and in front of him are five rows of birds of several colors, standing on or hovering above attenuated branches sprouting from the stylized tree near the left margin. The print copies the basic format of the altarpiece in Florence, but without the gold background. In fact, the formal honesty of the treatment — which recalls woodcuts by the 18th C. animal illustrator Thomas Bewick, as well as early 20th C. artists José Guadalupe Posada and Kathe Kollwitz — is fully in keeping with the spiritual legacy of Francis. The National Gallery exhibition adroitly integrates old and new art, putting them in direct conversation.

Andrea Büttner, Vogelpredigt (Sermon to the Birds), 2010. Private collection. Photo: The author.

The most influential of Saint Francis’s writings is his famous Canticle of the Sun. It’s also his most politically suggestive. It includes the lines:

Praised be You, my Lord, with all your creatures;
especially Brother Sun, who is the day, and through whom You give us light….

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in heaven You formed them clear and precious and beautiful….

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Water,
which is very useful and humble and precious and chaste….

Praised be You, my Lord, through Sister Mother Earth,
who sustains us and governs us and who produces
varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Praised be You, my Lord,
through our Sister Bodily Death,
from whom no living man can escape.

The text approaches pantheism (the idea that everything is imbued with holiness) and treats the commons – sun, moon, water, earth, death — as if they are family members. Though Francis was canonized by a church that grew increasingly unsympathetic to communal property, his focus on the unity of humans and nature impacted future generations of radical writers and artists. William Blake may have been thinking of the Canticle when he wrote: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wildflower. Like Blake, Francis was antinomian – an antagonist to written law. In a letter to Friar Anthony, Francis said he was “pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers,” but added that he should take care not to “extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion”. In other words, canon law should not destroy spiritual joy. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c. 1793), Blake wrote: “I tell you no virtue can exist without breaking these ten commandments… Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse, not from rules.”

Allen Ginsberg and Saint Francis

Allen Ginsberg, a devotee of Blake and a lawbreaker himself, also adored Saint Francis. His “Father Death Blues” (1978), about the death of his poet-communist father, Louis Ginsberg, references the Canticle:

Hey Father Death, I’m flying home
Hey poor man, you’re all alone
Hey old daddy, I know where I’m going
Father Death, Don’t cry any more
Mama’s there, underneath the floor
Brother Death, please mind the store

Old Aunty Death, Don’t hide your bones
Old Uncle Death, I hear your groans
O Sister Death, how sweet your moans….

Two years later when Ginsberg contemplated at length Caravaggio’s St. Francis in Ecstasy, at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, was he thinking about his father? I saw the poet there, in front of the picture, after having also chanced to see him the same morning walking across Prince Street in Soho. Did he support Louis like Caravaggio’s angel supported Francis, wounded by the stigmata in his side? Or did Ginsberg, that day in Hartford, focus more on the bare left shoulder and knee of the alluring angel? The erotic implications of the Francis story were explored in the 1973 film, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, which

presented Francis as a hippie or flower-child. The National Gallery exhibition, though it includes the Caravaggio and a body-cast sculpture by Anthony Gormley in the posture of Bellini’s famous Saint Francis in the Desert in the Frick Museum, is silent about the ecstatic, erotic Francis. The exhibition would have benefitted from being a little less chaste.

Caravaggio, St. Francis in Ecstasy, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Ct., 1595. Photo: The Author.

Francis was joyful, communal, and antinomian, but subsequent generations of Franciscans were not. He was an activist for animal rights (though not a vegan), but neither Catholicism nor Protestantism espouse that viewpoint. These and other difference between Francis, his hagiographers and other followers would have been worth highlighting by exhibition curators. The current pontiff, however, Pope Francis, implicitly made the comparison in his environmentalist encyclical titled Laudato si’ (“Praised Be You”) from 2015. There, he highlighted the tension between Francis’s values and those that dominate the current social and political order:

I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically. He is the patron saint of all who study and work in the area of ecology, and he is also much loved by non-Christians….He was a mystic and a pilgrim who lived in simplicity and in wonderful harmony with God, with others, with nature and with himself. He shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.

Dear Earth

In at least one respect, late-medieval peasants knew more about the Anthropocene than we do. They understood the commons – that shared storehouse of nature that must be regularly replenished – and realized when it was being looted. They saw the men who did the stealing – nobles, princes, knights, magistrates, merchants, and priests – and recognized what it would take to stop them: rebellion. They periodically attacked castles and great houses, burned manorial rolls, killed nobles, knights, and clergy, looted storehouses, and pulled down prisons. Though they ultimately failed to prevent the rise of capitalist society — the most violent, exploitative, and environmentally destructive social and political order ever devised – it wasn’t for lack of trying.

We on the other hand, though we are living amid climate change and the environmental devastation it has wrought, know little about it and have done less. The American public deeply misapprehends the depth of the crisis; in polls, they rank it low on their list of concerns, and are divided about who’s to blame for it Even scientists, who can with exquisite precision, graph rising ocean temperatures and declining arctic sea ice, are mostly unable or unwilling to name the corporate and government culprits responsible for global warming. Nor can they imagine or describe a world without the ongoing robbery of nature; monopoly capitalism is for the vast majority of them both unrecognized and second nature.

The same is apparently true for many museum directors and curators. It’s perhaps unfair to hold a museum director’s exhibition catalogue Forward against him; it’s a genre geared toward publicity. But the sentiment expressed by Ralph Rugoff in the catalogue for Dear Earth is so widely held and so often repeated, that it’s exemplary:

The urgency of our situation today – and the frightening scale of the potential calamity ahead of us if we fail to drastically reduce our destructive impact on the environment – makes it tempting to point fingers at a long list of enablers and agents of ecological devastation. Yet, as the artists in Dear Earth remind us, the most impactful art goes beyond outraged protest or a cry for immediate action, and instead deepens our engagement with the subject in ways that ultimately nurture both our understanding and our capacity to act. Many of the works in the exhibition address complex webs of interconnected issues, illuminating how the growing ecological crisis is inextricably entangled with cultural, social, and political arenas. In the process, they reaffirm art’s irreplaceable role in prompting us to perceive and think about the world around us in ways that challenge our past assumptions.

As the art critic John Burger once wrote in another context: “That is mystification.” There is nothing in the nature of art that either disqualifies or exempts it from pointing fingers at the “long list of enablers and agents of ecological devastation.” Art has served a deictic function at least since the time of St. Francis! Exclamations of art’s purity are alibis for political timidity.

Indeed, most museum visitors are unfamiliar with the criminals responsible for the climate crisis and would surely benefit – and might even enjoy – seeing them named. They are not hard to identify. Several of the perps live and work just a stone’s throw from the Southbank Centre: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, residing at No. 10 Downing Street, 1.2 miles from the Hayward, has jettisoned national leadership on climate change, not even listing it among the five pledges upon which he wishes to be judged by voters. Labor Party leader Keir Starmer, whose offices are in the Palace of Westminster, just a short walk across Westminster Bridge from Southbank, has backed away from his former spending commitments for a “green revolution” in order to project an image of fiscal rectitude. And the CEO of BP Energy, Bernard Looney, has offices at No. 1, St. James Square, a pleasant 2-mile stroll from the Hayward. Since its founding in 1909, BP has been responsible for 2.5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. It annual, global output of 415 million tons of CO2 is only a little less than the annual 450 million tons emitted by the entire UK. Looney’s salary last year was $12 million.

The redoubtable critic Rebecca Solnit shares the same, soft aestheticism as Rugoff. In her catalogue essay, titled “The Work Art Does is as Important as it is Illusive”, she argues:

Art can inform, but it has a larger task in the climate crisis, and that is to make us the people we need to be to respond to the crisis in the ways we must. To make us think of the consequences of our actions; to feel a part of all life on earth and solidarity with those far away in time and space; to perceive the beauty of the natural world and our utter inseparability from it; to remember the lessons of the past about how change works and where power lies; to make a commitment to the future that shapes choices and actions; to value the things that money cannot buy and advertisers are not selling us.

That’s also mystification. Art has served as information since the Neanderthals first made marks on the walls of Spanish caves some 65,000 years ago. The idea that art must be disinterested, merely suggestive, and practically useless arose in the minds of the philosopher Emmanuel Kant in the late 18th century and a subsequent generation of Romantics and aesthetes.

Ackroyd & Harvey, Photosynthesis portraits: Helene Schulze, Julian Lahai-Taylor, and Paul Powlesland, 2022-’23. Hayward Gallery. Photo: The author.

Fortunately, many of the artists in Dear Earth – a title which recalls St. Francis’s Canticle – exhibited works that were both engaged and culinary; they informed and pleased. Ackroyd & Harvey created large portraits of London climate activists associated with the collectives LIVE & BREATHE, Choked Up, and Grow Lewisham. These mostly monochrome green images were produced by exposing grass seed to light projected through a photographic negative. The resulting sprouts are at once photographs and living things, absorbing carbon, and emitting oxygen. And they publicize a group of radical, environmental collectives. I hope they get lots of new members and money.

Imri Jacqueline Brown is showing at the Hayward a nearly room-sized video installation called What remains at the end of the earth? that illustrates the impact of the fossil fuel industry on coastal Louisiana. She traces the history and development of oil and gas extraction, especially by the Chevron Oil Company, and its destructive infrastructure of oil well, dikes, and shipping canals. These she overlays upon another infrastructure: burial sites of enslaved Black people. Her videos and computer-generated, interactive maps are vivid and surprisingly immersive.

Imri Jacqueline Brown, Wealth Extraction, 2022. Photo: The author.

Like the artists mentioned above, Andrea Bowers is also activist. She was one of four tree-sitters arrested and briefly imprisoned in 2011 for climbing up and occupying a grove of Sycamores and Coast Live Oaks in Arcadia, in Los Angeles County, California, to prevent their destruction. The trees were hundreds of years old and host to thousands of animals. (I knew the general area well, from having lived for many years in a house nestled among ancient oaks in nearby Altadena in the foothills of the Angeles Crest Mountains.) The trees in Arcadia were fated for destruction because of bureaucratic inertia: a decades old watershed management plan called for their removal and replacement by a field that could store dirt scraped from the concrete channel of the Los Angeles River. So, the county sheriff, directed by the notoriously obdurate L.A. County Board of Supervisors, arrested the protestors, and sent in the chainsaws and bulldozers.

Andrea Bowers, Memorial to Arcadia Woodlands Clear-Cut (Green, Violet, and Brown), 2014. Photo: The author

The artwork Bowers created in commemoration, Memorial to Arcadia Woodlands Clear-Cut  (Green, Violet, and Brown), is comprised of the nylon ropes typically used by tree sitters, hanging from a circular armature – like a bird’s nest — creating a shower of color. Suspended from the bottom are bundles of wood chips gathered from the Arcadia site after the trees’ destruction. She told an interviewer in 2014: “I hope that I will develop a body of work that bears witness and pays homage to the powerful activists that have fought for these causes, and it is my aim that perhaps my work can serve as a kind of historical record of these under-told stories.”

Dear Earth is a better exhibition than most of the other recent ones dedicated to issues of environmentalism and climate change, including Anthropocene – The Exhibition (travelling 2018-2023), The World to Come – Art in the Age of the Anthropocene (2018-20), and Nature’s Nation: American Art and the Environment (2018-19). These were sprawling affairs with equally unwieldy theses. The first of the group was probably the best because it featured the extraordinary photographs of Edward Burtynsky. His large and detailed tableaux of industrial agriculture, extraction, techno fossils, biodiversity, and extinction are a virtual glossary of the Anthropocene — and visually arresting. They are closest we have to Anthropocene-porn.

The Hayward Gallery exhibition has in it nothing quite so arresting. But it exceeds its curatorial brief by commemorating the multiple collaborations and engagements of artists who are also environmental activists. Art can be many things in the age of the Anthropocene: agitation, education, intellectual or erotic stimulation, or simply emotional balm. All are valuable. But for it to have a role in stopping the mad rush to ecological Armageddon, it has to enter the domain of the political, that is, the struggle for power in the public domain. Andrea Bower was perhaps speaking for many of her colleagues in Dear Earth when she wrote – with both humility and determination:

“I’m not trying to change the world with my work. I’m just trying to do my part. I see my practice as part of a whole movement. I am one member of a group of people working together for a common cause related to social justice. Too much of art history has promoted the brilliance of the individual act vs. the production of a group activity.”

Both Saint Francis of Assisi at the National Gallery and Dear Earth at the Hayward Gallery attest to the power of individuals acting with others to protect the commons, or at least to call for their preservation. But to establish an ecological and sustainable civilization, the circle of collaboration will have to be significantly widened and the outcry amplified. Museum directors and curators will need to join artists and activists in the enormous political struggle the effort demands.


Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at