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The Anthropocene as a History of Technology: Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands, Deutsches Museum, Munich
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The Anthropocene as a History of Technology
Welcome to the Anthropocene: The Earth in Our Hands, Deutsches Museum, Munich

Willkommen im AnthropozänWelcome to the Anthropocene. This message greets the visitor to this Deutsches Museum special exhibit that opened on 5 December 2014. The Anthropocene is one of the prominent concepts of our time, positing an Age of Humans during which Earth has been irrevocably changed by human ways of consuming and modifying the environment. The term “Anthropocene” was popularized by Paul Crutzen, a Dutch Nobel laureate in chemistry. The freshwater biologist Eugene Stoermer (1934–2012) had used the term “Anthropocene” since the early 1980s, and together they wrote an article in 2000. Crutzen and Stoermer argued that there is something going on with the planet that calls for a new terminology—the current geological epoch, the Holocene, was no longer sufficient. They saw the realization of this new epoch as a call for the “research and engineering community” to “guide mankind towards global, sustainable, environmental management.”1

Although Crutzen and Stoermer situated the Anthropocene as a geological epoch—something visible in the geological record of the planet—the Anthropocene is often invoked when discussing climate change and other environmental modifications.2 An International Union of Geological Sciences special working group is currently determining if there is sufficient scientific evidence to establish an official new geologic epoch. It is a hotly contested thesis, however, raising concerns about not only the dating of geological time periods but also about the politics and power structures [End Page 231] in the world today. Whose responsibility is the environmental state of the planet? The causes and consequences of the Anthropocene are not evenly distributed.

Technology is the linchpin in the Anthropocene as an idea. Crutzen argued that James Watt’s design of the steam engine can be seen as the beginning of the Anthropocene—in other words, making it a story of the Industrial Revolution.3 A more recent attempt at dating the Anthropocene places the starting point at the dawn of the nuclear age, making the Trinity nuclear test explosion on 16 July 1945 a historical turning point.4 Still others trace the Anthropocene back to the beginnings of agriculture as a fundamentally technological way of interacting with and modifying nature.5

The Welcome to the Anthropocene exhibit is one of the most extensive attempts to date to bring the history of science and technology in dialogue with the Anthropocene thesis. The Deutsches Museum is a venerable institution in the field of history of technology and is well placed for such an intervention in the debate over the Anthropocene. The museum is one of the founding partners of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, together with Ludwig-Maximilian University. There was considerable cross-fertilization of ideas between the two institutions when developing the exhibition, as is evidenced in the exhibit catalog and essays.

The exhibit reflects the pervasiveness of the Anthropocene in all aspects of life. It is a relatively compact exhibit, covering 1,400 square meters, yet it manages to encompass a wide range of topics in its six thematic “islands”: Urbanization, Mobility, Humans and Machines, Nature, Food, and Evolution. This selection works fairly well, though there are topics not covered by the islands, including the obvious Anthropocene elephant in the room, climate change. The island “Nature” is somewhat problematic because in naming it so, there is a claim being made that the other islands are, perhaps, not nature. Yet as both environmental historians and historians of technology, we see nature and technology intertwined in all the islands.

In addition to the physical exhibit, there is a companion website, a virtual exhibition as part of the Environment & Society Portal, a comic book, and a catalog with essays in both German and English.6 Some objects on permanent display in the museum have been virtually linked to the exhibit through thirty eight-panel comic strips with accompanying mini-essays rather than moved into the temporary space. The exhibit physically closes on 31 January 2016, but it will live on in digital form.

As visitors first enter the exhibit hall, they...