Seeking closure in the Anthropocene

By Dr Justin Westgate

What is closure, and how might it relate to the Anthropocene? This idea surfaced as a background theme within my doctoral research though remained unexplored. I return to it here. I start with four brief vignettes detailing moments where ideas of closure emerged and then move to consider implications.

Figure 1: Our design group discussing ideas in the forest, Ginda Island, Sweden. (Source: Author.)

The worst group

During fieldwork in Europe I attended a five-day design workshop on an island nature-reserve in Sweden. The event aimed to bring students into conversation with design process and broader socio-political themes with a focus to more sustainably reimagine the island’s activities. At one point group discussions turned to considering nature reserves and human-nature divisions. Within environmental management, boundaries are commonly employed to separate nature areas from human activity, however, such demarcation can be ineffective given often arbitrariness and porosity of borders. Our group discussed the possibility of boundary inversion: rather than more traditionally fencing-off nature, could humans themselves more effectively be bounded? It was, perhaps, an odd idea, and one grating against tenets of human-centred design thinking – and which earned us the accolade of being ‘the worst group’ the workshop facilitator told us they had encountered.  

Figure 2: Deck hand on duty watching divers and snorkelers on the Great Barrier Reef. (Source: Author.)

Should we even be here?

Following concerns with ecological emergency, I undertook fieldwork on the Great Barrier Reef, which had just experienced a severe coral bleaching event. I sought to viscerally encounter impacts, as well as investigate people’s responses. Acting as a participant observer on a diving trip I was surprised to find very little awareness of the Reef’s plight by other visitors. In conversation with one traveller on the last leg of a round-the-world trip, and with awareness of the environmental situation, he voiced internal conflict and some guilt with visiting the Reef. He posed the question whether we (humans) should actually be allowed to visit the site given the impacts, and whether it would be better for the Reef to ultimately, be a human-free zone.

Figure 3: Signage and cleaning gate at entrance to walking track, Waitakere Ranges, Auckland. (Source: Author.)

Humans keep out

Returning to my home city of Auckland (NZ) in 2018 to work on revisions to my thesis, I was confronted with restrictions placed on local public conservation land. A rāhui, or Māori customary prohibition, had been instigated in the Waitākere Ranges to prevent public (human) access due to Kauri Dieback disease (phytophthora agathidicida), a microscopic water mould which attacks and kills indigenous Kauri trees and is spread by visitors to forest areas. The ban placed severe restrictions on a significant outdoor area within the Auckland region. Accessing those few tracks remaining open required a cleaning procedure to help remove any disease from one’s footwear akin to a border checkpoint – in some instances employing video surveillance. My takeaway from this: we don’t want you humans in here; your mere presence is a danger to the natural environment.

Covid’s global closing

At the time of writing this, in late 2021, Auckland remains in full lockdown in response to the Covid-19 delta variant. Closure has become a common global occurrence, and you will have had your own confinement experiences, whether to house, suburb, city or country. To be clear, I read the Covid situation as an Anthropocene event: a ‘disease’ of Anthropocene dwelling (Skórka et al. 2020), having impacts signalling Anthropocene disturbance (Heyd 2021), and evoking subsequent “Anthropocene anxiety” (de Kirby 2020). It is also an event that unsettles the human-nature boundary, making visible entanglements between human systems, global infrastructure, and biological actants. The practical response has been severe curtailment to previously taken-for-granted human mobility freedoms; and, more philosophically, may signal the end of a previous worldly composition, foreshadowing the onset of more troubled Anthropocene dwelling to come.

The word closure has multiple meanings, variations on the key idea of the act of closing, ending, or being in a closed state. My encounters with this idea, have both eco-philosophical and spatial associations: a combination of cultural-conceptual demarcation between human and natural categories, as well as practical implementation of such divisions. Enclosure itself can be an act of closing off: acts of segregation or grouping, enclosing one or the other category via constructed divisions and boundaries. Modern thinking has argued for humans as a distinctly bounded group, separated from the superset of more-than-human actants. Anthropocene arguments, however, unsettle such binary divisions.

Subsequently, Euclidean notions of space, rooted in linear and mechanistic conceptions of the world, are undermined, as is the terrestrially biased geographic thinking which has erroneously conceived the world as a flat surface. Rather, we are reminded of a spatial dimensionality, with volume, unevenness, and irregularity, and with boundaries not well bordered or defined, both physically and ideologically. Closed, discrete categories are a delusion. Perversely, as philosopher Timothy Morton puts it “Yes, everything is interconnected. And it sucks.” What ‘sucks’ is that things are much more complex than we would like to think, and that we need to find ways to deal with it.

Additionally, we can also think of closing as ending. Psychologically, closure can be applied to the resolution of a significant event or relationship in a person’s life. Ultimately, the Anthropocene proposes a new epoch (and ontology), and an end to stable Holocene dwelling. But once again, closure is neither clear nor quick, as Anthropocene onset debates illustrate; and, widespread acceptance of an end to ‘modern’ living as we have known it may be a long time coming.

Closure, therefore, may be a problematic quality for Anthropocene dwelling. The idea of clearly defined boundaries and divisions, rooted in Cartesian thinking, becomes outmoded. A lack of closure is a challenge to clear-cut modernist sensibilities. Rather, we are compelled to concede blurred, porous boundaries, dimensionality, and a more interconnected relationally between things. And, ultimately, without closure we are forced to grapple with the opposite quality of openness and co-existential relationalities with other-than-human vectors, agencies, and conditions – what philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy calls ‘remaining exposed’. The true challenge of Anthropocene dwelling will be that of learning to live with such openness, where the categorical human is denuded, stripped bare and made vulnerable.

Dr Justin Westgate

I’m a creative professional, cultural researcher, and educator. My creative practice applies design principles to champion social, cultural, and environmental issues, working with social- and public-sector actors.
My doctoral research, based at the Australian Centre for Cultural Environmental Research (University of Wollongong), took a cross-disciplinary approach spanning geography, anthropology, and creative practice, interrogating sites of emergency and response to insecure dwelling under planetary volatility. Ongoing research interest focuses critical attention on practices and cultures of creativity and innovation, and response to complex and post-natural scenarios.

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