documenting the human condition and our impact on the planet + our inestimable capacity for love
Like many, I’ve spent many hours and days recently (in recent years actually) meditating and struggling with injustice – systemic violence, workplace harassment, inequality, wealth gap, all on so many levels – the myriad ways humans disrespect, humiliate, and dehumanise each other.
And then, recently, my colleague Bryan Alvey gave me two gifts:
‘Oh, come with old Khayyám, and leave the
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest if Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.’
Omar Khayyám, The Rubáiyát, No. 26
Then he recommended the Human films (2015) by Yann Arthus-Bertrand (available in several languages, including Russian) which, he could not know, nicely dovetail with my other lockdown highlights: Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (2018, produced by the Anthropocene Project) and Wim Wenders’ Pina (2015, an intimate discussion with dancers from Tanztheater Wuppertal, filmed just after Pina Bausch’s death) and Salt of the Earth (2014, ‘A journey with [photographer] Sebastião Salgado’). These four films depict the best and the absolute worst of the human condition: our struggle to survive, our capacity for love, our labours and losses, the violence we reap upon each other and the earth which sustains us. They also mirror themes from a couple of July webinars: The first, hosted by UCL Institute of Archaeology’s Dr Hana Morel (AHRC Heritage Priority Area) on Sustainable Heritage Policy, where every participant brought the concept of wellbeing into the discussion. The second, hosted by Laura Jones of The Victoria and Albert Museum, Culture in Crisis programme and British Council Online Culture in Crisis interactive event series where Dr Thoa Nguyen’s (director of Vietnam Rural Industries Research and Development Institute) comments/advice/reminder that heritage professionals must/should ‘work with love’. She basically reduced an entire conversation about designing sustainable strategies for post-Covid heritage work into its/ours most elemental component – love. I’m sure it is agreed that heritage professionals all work with deep passion for the landscapes, architecture, archaeology and histories of place, but do we all work with love for the people who now live in those environments? That should be a question asked every day and answered with action.
Human Volume 1 opens with a story about how one man (Leonard – USA) learned to receive love in a place ‘devoid of love’ by a woman who ‘saw past’ his condition. Love became bound up and left behind by sex, divorce, children, jealousy, abuse, violence, care, mercy, sacrifice, cooking, loneliness, social or religious laws, rape, accountability, confrontation, choice, redemption, death, agriculture, architecture, trade, community, exploration, travel, animal husbandry, adventure and labour across the wide open steppe, resource exploitation, creativity, exploitation of other humans, scorn, consumerism, boredom, helplessness, hopelessness, migration, humiliation and rage, poverty, injustice and inequality, devastation and destruction, wonder and curiosity, waste, teeming masses, incomprehensible truth, war, corruption, camaraderie and joy.
In their words:
‘Love is what fills the soul’ (Petronila – Dominican Republic)
‘…easy lives are boring’ (Maria – Italy)
‘How will we be happy?’ (Mostafa – Bangladesh)
‘I feel exhausted.’ (Yu-Qian – China)
‘…and it’s this human kindness which keeps me going. But it’s incomparable to the love and kindness I had back home.’ (Galyna – France)
‘But the cause of their death was our poverty.’ (Amadou – Senegal)
‘…expected of us is that we share and we give what we have.’ (Stephen – Australia)
‘The government doesn’t care about our problems.’ (Devi – India)
‘The victims of the Kalashnikov are countless.’ (Bayena – Ethiopia)
‘Man can become a monster.’ (Mouneer – Jordan)
‘We don’t want blood, blood, blood. … Forgiveness is freedom and peace. When hearts are purified so is everything else.’ (Mounira – Jordan)
the banality of coffee: ‘From these talks, the demonization of the other was so hard to follow anymore.’ (Aziz – Canada)
‘My wife has recently changed her residence to heaven.’ (John’s grandfather – USA)
‘That’s a leaf. And those are flowers. All that makes up the happiness of life.…You must love all human beings for what they are deep down for only the love of people can save the world.’ (Evguniy – Russia)
‘When you pick bean pods and cut corn, oh, what joy!’ (Maria – Brazil)
‘The sugar company threw me out. Don’t they consider me a human being? You, the president of the company, you are a human being. So, why did you raze my house and my plantations?’ (Sophy – Cambodia)
‘…the fastest growing sector … is inequality…. the affluence of the few is tied to the misery of the many. That’s unacceptable.’ (Sainath – India)
‘The worst is leaving your home, with your suitcases. You’re not leaving on holiday. This is for good.’ (Sally – Jordan)
‘Stand for something.’ (Jonathan – USA)
‘In a lifetime, the number of encounters is limited. Each of them is precious.’ (Yukari – Japan)
Herve, one of the interviewers had just completed nearly 400 interviews: ‘All these encounters nourished me. They made me grow. They gave me a more accurate vision of the world.’ For those of us who have conducted qualitative data gathering, the process and experience is similar…we have a series of questions which are best asked and answered looking each other in the eye and we ask without any expectation of what the answer will be and are deeply affected by someone with whom our only connection is our humanity. It is an exchange, a conversation between two strangers which begins around a single topic you might have in mind and a first question which leads on to often surprising and important answers which are now recorded and out in the world.
While the Human films document human stories, they also focus on the scenic and practical beauty of agriculture. The Anthropocene film however, in searching for and making the case for defining the epochal impact of human endeavour on the geological record, focuses on mass events: extraction, terraforming, technofossils, boundary limits, climate change, anthroturbation, and extinction.
‘Humans inhabit over 75% of ice-free land because of mining, agriculture, industrialisation and urban growth.’
‘Eighty percent of the Earth’s forests have been cleared, fragmented or degraded for human use.’
‘Technofossils are human created objects such as plastic, concrete and aluminium, that persist in the biosphere and eventually end up in the rock layers of the Earth. The technosphere, which is the entire aggregate of human created or altered material, is estimated at 30 trillion tons.’
‘The Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and its history can be read in the rocks…. We are all implicated, some far more profoundly than others. But the tenacity and ingenuity that helped us thrive, can also help us to pull these systems back to a safe place for all life on Earth. Recognizing and reimagining our dominant signal is the beginning of change.’
Throughout these films, made more poignant because of the pandemic effecting loved ones and colleagues across the planet I have felt astonishment at the atrocities humans, as individuals and a collective, are willing to commit against other humans but also at the ability of the creative mind of individuals and a collective to express, demonstrate, and celebrate the temporality of our existence. Then, in Anthropocene we see that our existence has not had a temporal impact on the environment around us…we have, since our inception, altered our planet.
Wim Wender’s two documentaries are deeply personal relationships between the filmmaker and the subject as well as the photographer and choreographer and their desire to journey with humankind. These artists give us a glimpse into their own minds but take on the burden of transforming the ugly into beauty, despair into catharsis. They document moments so that these events can be shared with those not present. It is possible that one day, Pina Bausch’s choreography or Sebastião Salgado’s photography, or the technologies of these films will be swallowed up by the environmental path we are already on and what will be left for archaeologists 3000 years from now? Monumental piles of waste and pits of extracted minerals, entire geographies and species extinguished; but also, if there is any luck, remnants of human beauty, creativity, capacity for empathy and love.
What these films (and in no small part, Thoa Nguyen) do is not passively document our human story, they purposefully call us to take action. To begin with, to shift our way of thinking and recognise the power of love to effect sustainable change in our own lives, workplaces, strategies and out as far as we are able to reach.
Dr Cornell West says it, repeatedly, best: ‘Justice is what love looks like in public.’
by Kim Te Winkle
Omar Khayyám, (Edward FitzGerald trans., Daniel Karlin, ed.). 2009. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
a starter for the anthropocene, given by dr colin sterling during the ucl anthropocene seminar, 10 june 2020 – several of these are open access pdfs !!
Bonneuil, C. and J-B. Fressoz (trans. D. Fernbach). 2016. The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us. London: Verso Books. https://www.versobooks.com/books/2388-the-shock-of-the-anthropocene
Davis, H., and E. Turpin. 2014. Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies. London: Open Humanities Press. http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/art-in-the-anthropocene/
Davies, J. 2018. The Birth of the Anthropocene. Oakland: University of California Press. https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520289987/the-birth-of-the-anthropocene
Harrison R., and C. Sterling, eds. Forthcoming. Deterritorializing the Future: Heritage in, of and after the Anthropocene. London: Open Humanities Press. http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/deterritorializing-the-future/
Harrison, R., C. DeSilvey, C. Holtorf, S.Macdonald, N. Bartolini, E. Breithoff, H. Fredheim, A. Lyons, S. May, J. Morgan, and S. Penrose. 2020. Heritage Futures: Comparative Approaches to Natural and Cultural Heritage Practices. London: UCL Press. https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/125036
Jamieson, D. and B. Nadzam. 2015. Love in the Anthropocene. New York: OR Books. https://www.orbooks.com/catalog/love-in-the-anthropocene-by-jamieson-and-nadzam/
Turpin, E. 2014. Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy. London: Open Humanities Press. http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/architecture-in-the-anthropocene/
Vince, G. 2019. Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet we Made. London: Vintage Classics. https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/111/1115241/adventures-in-the-anthropocene/9781784873615.html