A postcard from the future

Conversations about the Anthropocene inevitably involve questions about the future of the Earth and its inhabitants.  On this very blog, we’ve contemplated what the Anthropocene means in relation to the future of habitability, belonging, ethics, ecological change, and much more—and we’ve even categorized our own reflections in terms of whether they present our planetary future as one of hope or danger.  I count myself among those who find the Anthropocene concept interesting not as much for what it says about the past, but more for what it means for our uncertain futures.

But what good are these conversations if they fail to include publics beyond the academy?  And so here we offer a blog, hoping to make our musings more widely accessible than they would be in specialized academic journals.  And this is also why an increasing number of museums are engaging with the Anthropocene as an invitation to reflect on environmental and social change.  One case in point is the new Museum of Tomorrow (MoT) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a 5,000-square-meter facility dedicated to exploring what Anthropocenic conditions mean for the future of life on Earth.  In March, I visited the MoT with students in my new Political Ecology course, which included a week in Rio over spring break.  (You can view student photo essays about the trip here.)  What follows is a brief “postcard” from our time at the museum, prefaced with the caveat that I did not have time to explore the museum’s special exhibitions or interactive educational spaces.


Besides the stunning design of the building itself—a naturalistic, white structure in the characteristic style of Catalan architect Santiago Calatrava—what I found most remarkable about the museum was its effort to avoid technological fetishism.  Based on my experiences with other museum exhibits that explore “the future,” I went in expecting to see a celebration of technological innovation as the solution to current and future problems.  While technical fixes do ultimately come to the fore, the MoT is far from triumphalist in tone, focusing instead on a comprehensive account of what has sustained the diversity of earthly life and on the threats that cumulative human impacts pose thereto.  The MoT’s creators describe it as a “museum of questions:” “What are the dimensions of our existence? How did we get here? What kind of future do we want?”  This invitation to reflection is compelling.  And yet, as I’ll explain below, it’s ultimately rather selective in the types of questions it asks.


Deterred by a long queue and tight schedule, I skipped the “cosmic portal” at the entrance to the museum’s main exhibits and proceeded directly to the exhibits themselves, beginning with a series of cubic enclosures exploring the building blocks of planetary diversity—from matter to DNA to culture.  (The “cosmic portal,” I gather, is an intense, eight-minute video condensing the history of the universe.)  As an anthropologist, I was drawn to the cube of human diversity, which grouped evocative photographs from around the world into categories like “We inhabit,” “We feel,” “We belong,” “We dispute,” etc.  Surrounded by black walls and mirrors, these 1200 backlit images offer a mesmerizing kaleidoscope of human social life.  The tension here between the diversity of the images and the distillation of universal experiences is, I think, a defining feature of the museum that slips by largely unexamined.


Next I paused to take in a set of towering video displays arranged around a collection of benches.  Accompanied by dramatic music, the video confronts viewers with powerful images of global ecological transformation—urbanization, deforestation, erosion, pollution, ocean acidification, etc.—accompanied by statistics and culminating in bold statements about the Anthropocene.  “We have become a geological force,” the video declares, but “What do we want to be?”


By inviting viewers to think about their aspirations for the future, this final question—“What do we want to be?”—helps to counter the overwhelming sense of despair that other parts of the video evoke.  And it makes for a smooth segue into the next set of exhibits, which feature interactive games exploring the consequences of resource-use decisions at the individual and collective levels.  In one game, visitors can estimate their own ecological footprint and learn about how adjusting their transportation, diet, and other everyday behaviors would affect it.  In another, participants are asked to make a series of governance decisions about resource and energy use in order to “ensure the sustainability of human civilization over the next 100 years.”  My final stop was in a space with a wooden structure said to be inspired by the oca, a type of longhouse built by some Indigenous societies in the Amazon, surrounding a tjurunga, said to be “used by Australian aborigines to symbolize the passing on of knowledge.”


While my students and I appreciated the effort to balance ecological despair with a discussion of practical alternatives, we were a bit disappointed by the interactive exhibits.  As I suggested above, this is where the seduction of technical fixes creeps in as individual (consumer) choices and technological solutions crowd out more overtly political forms of citizenship and collective action.  Even on its own terms, moreover, some of this technical content is oversimplified.  In the governance game, for example, I lost points for including a diminishing share of fossil fuels in my future energy scenarios because (I guess) the takeaway point is renewables = good, non-renewables = bad.  And what, by the way, does “sustainability” entail?  Another disappointment for me was the tendency to use the first person plural without any distinction.  As with the Anthropocene narratives that I’ve critiqued in past posts, this generic “we” implies not only that all humans are equally responsible for our Anthropocenic conditions, but that these conditions are somehow our destiny.  Given that the museum will primarily be visited by people of relative privilege, this struck me as a valuable but missed opportunity to complicate the anthropos in a more direct manner.  Finally, the fact that the museum was built as part of Rio’s transformation for the World Cup and Olympics left me wondering about the futures of communities dispossessed by projects of “development” and gentrification.  Who and for that matter where do they want to be?


A view from Vila Autodromo, a slum or favela where many residents have resisted relocation to make way for Rio 2016 facilities.

Imagining possible futures is nothing new—it’s central to much of what we call religion, social theory, popular culture, and government.  But there is, I would argue, something distinct about Anthropocene futurism, and this something has everything to do with intentionality.  That is, in a world where cumulative human activities constitute a biophysical force at the planetary scale, we are called upon to act intentionally not just as individuals or as nations, but as part of the Earth system.  The possible futures we imagine depend, in part, on how we attend to our connections with virtually every other earthly creature and process.  Here’s hoping that our efforts to bring this discussion to broader publics will do the difficult work of attending to these diverse connections while resisting the temptation to fall back on uncritical cosmopolitanism or technological fetishism.  In this respect, the Museum of Tomorrow is a promising start but leaves a number of important questions unasked.

[all photos by the author]

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