by Gil Oliveira
“How many times do you need to see the evidence? How many times must the point be made? We’re causing our own extinction. Too many red lines have been crossed. […] We’re going to have to adjust to new threats we can’t even imagine. We’ve entered a new era.”
This is not about climate change, mass extinction, or ocean acidification. Rather, this quote comes from the closing scene of the recent movie Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. It’s about the beginning of a new fictional Jurassic-Age, where humans and dinosaurs must learn to coexist.
The final scene is visually spectacular. But what really caught my attention was the idea connecting dinosaurs and a new era. Similarly, the Anthropocene is a newly proposed time period when geological and human timescales are colliding. It entails Earth’s distant past, and also invites us to consider our actions and decisions in light of their effects long into the future. In order to link past, present and future, and make sense of it, humans construct narratives.
In a time of uncertainty, when we are indeed crossing red lines at the planetary scale in real life, one can’t help but wonder what will the future look like? What narratives do we need to live better in this new world? At their most fundamental level, narratives speak about the human condition (and its limits), so how can we better understand the role of humans as actors capable of affecting the entire Earth System?
Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens. A Brief History of Humankind, posits that humans rule the world because they are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers (see Harari’s website). But, he asks, what is the mysterious glue that enables millions of us to cooperate seemingly more effectively than other animal societies. The glue, he argues, is the stories we tell ourselves. It is our ability to create and believe in fiction. As Jonathan Gottschall puts it: sapiens are “the great ape with the storytelling mind.”
Humans use stories to understand the world. You and I think in them. Today, dominant cultural narratives gravitate around unlimited technology, endless progress and growth, and ferocious competition. Museums have not been spared. They too have been telling stories, focused on the law of the jungle and the survival of the fittest, on nature as a realm distinct from human life, on the progress of evolution and humans as its most highly evolved product. These imaginaries have contributed to shape our representations of the world. They shape our attitudes, our beliefs, our behaviors.
Coming back to Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, the last scene shows a scientist appearing before a congressional committee and declaring that “Humans and Dinosaurs are now going to be forced to co-exist. These creatures were here before us and if we’re not careful they’re going to be here after.” This new pretend era seems to be characterized by a dependence between dinosaurs and humans, and humility regarding the human place in the world.
This moral may have relevance to the Anthropocene. The stories we tell and consume shape us profoundly. Stories can help us connect with the non-human world. Like science fiction, museums too are powerful spaces for storytelling. They hold great potential for generating new stories and sensibilities that may help adapt our understanding and connection to nature to better serve us in confronting the challenges of the Anthropocene.
Gil Oliveira is a postgraduate student working as an intern in the section of the Anthropocene at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences working at the museum.