Present Progressive?

Of Cell Phones and Energy Transitions in the Anthropocene

September 28, 2016

Sarah Strauss

The first week of September was a rather busy one, beginning with the announcement by the Subcomission on Quaternary Stratigraphy’s Working Group on the Anthropocene (AWG), reporting their vote for the onset of the Anthropocene Epoch. In their report to the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), the Working Group favored the nuclear fallout of 1950s as a defining moment, though only one of several candidates that must still be considered before the designation of type location for the Anthropocene’s golden spike. A “golden spike” is a physical marker for the lower boundary of a geologic period, as defined by a Global Boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP), which must be specified by a unit of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. So, the AWG must decide what signal demonstrates most clearly and continuously the reality of anthropogenic dominance on the geologic processes of the planet. Most often, this is done by designation of a type fossil; in the case of the Anthropocene, a leading candidate is the domestic chicken. Just think about that one: dinosaurs have literally come home to roost…

That was on Sunday, 4 September. On Tuesday, the first day of classes for Environmental Anthropology, 30 students from 16 different majors leapt into a debate about nature and culture, hubris and responsibility, and the colonization of nature. Then, on cue, two days later hurricane Hermine swept through the neighborhoods of friends and relations in Florida, leaving us all with questions about what it means to be a hurricane in the Anthropocene, with rising tides and post-tropical cyclones that demonstrated some of the caprice that accompanies a changing climate. With Hermine, the questions of if and how climate change can be seen as a driver for specific weather events were raised once again. For me, the shifting sands of both humanity’s physical relationships with other parts of the planet and the ethics and politics of choosing our actions (for no action is still a choice) regarding those relationships came into focus through these examples. We have left our marks on this planet and its atmosphere in many ways, and whether through a sense of hubris, guilt, responsibility, or necessity, we will make choices in the coming decades that will determine the direction and extent of those marks, however defined.

In the middle of all this upheaval that evoked the mix of geologic and human timescales of the Anthropocene, I spent two hours at the cell phone store on a sadly necessary but dreaded task—transplanting the brain of my old phone into a new one.[1] As the electrons coursed from one device to the next, I tried to use the dead time to focus on my assigned reading for the next class session—Laura Ogden’s excellent book, Swamplife, which details the complex relationships between people and other living beings in the water world that is the Everglades. The cover caught the attention of the salesman, and he asked about it. Our conversation leapt from the Everglades, Florida, and hurricane Hermine to his single undergraduate class in anthropology, which had left him with a passion for archaeology that he had felt could not be congruent with his desire for a family and a stable job. I suggested that if he still had an interest, our department was always happy to have volunteers and he could perhaps take a week in the summer to follow his dream. We talked on and on, first about the “control of nature” in our national parks and elsewhere, then about climate change and the need for an energy transition. He paused thoughtfully and asked, “Can we stop it? Is it too late?” and then, “Is there any point to trying, when all of these technologies are in the future?”

I smiled. This was another variation on a conversation I love to have, and it is especially good when it comes at a time and place that I don’t expect. I tell my students that my goal for any course is for them to take the readings home and give them to friends and family, to start conversations with neighbors and co-workers, and in general, to take the ideas and practices that have engaged them out into the wider world. This wasn’t a university course, but such a random interaction in the cell phone store offered a wonderful opportunity for me to follow my own advice. Cell phones, as icons of transnational consumer society that reflect so much of the positive and negative elements of the world we have wrought of rare Earth elements and the sands of time (well, silicon, anyway), seemed an ideal starting point for a conversation about energy transitions in the Anthropocene. The salesman asked if coal was “coming back” (a reasonable question given the number of bankruptcies among global coal companies that have severely impacted Wyoming of late), and I replied that, while it hadn’t yet “gone away” and wouldn’t for quite a while, the trend away from a carbon-intensive society was a reality in many places and that Wyoming had a wonderful set of renewable resources in our 300 days of sun each year and our ferocious winds.

The opportunities for moving forward using presently existing technologies are wide open for those who would seize them; we do not need to wait for new inventions and more dire forecasts to start the move toward lower carbon lifestyles. The salesman was surprised. Everything he had heard about climate change was depressing and made worse by the rather scarce information available about the current realities of the energy transition underway around the globe. Solar and wind technologies have become more and more competitive over the past few years and will only continue to gain momentum in the coming decade. As new ways of combining energy sources and storage strategies develop, the ability to replace some or all of the current coal-fired electricity production capacity with lower carbon alternatives will become even more accessible and indeed desirable, making use of existing transmission capacity for new kinds of electricity production, as well as co-generation of heat and power. And these new alternatives can be integrated at different scales and in accordance with the specific attributes of particular sites, thus maximizing on the opportunities for local and regional solutions. For those with an entrepreneurial bent, there are many ways to help this essential and inevitable energy transition along. We can encourage such engagements by highlighting the existing positive stories that illuminate some of these paths (for example, “Canada’s energy transition success story”), rather than wallowing in the sadly outdated mythologies that say we must wait for the ever-distant deus ex machina that is always another 10 years away. When steam engines ruled the world, no one could imagine how they might be replaced, yet in less than 15 years, from 1946 to 1959, steam locomotive transport went from nearly 80 percent to less than 1 percent of the rail freight capacity in the United States. Technology revolutions can and frequently have taken place quickly, and like I said to my new friend in the cell phone store, it’s worth knowing which way the train is heading. As I packed up my phones and thanked him for the cell phone transplant and the opportunity to chat, he told me that his eyes were opened to new opportunities in renewables—and in archaeology.

Sarah Strauss
is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming. Author of Positioning Yoga (2004) and editor of Weather, Climate, Culture (2003, with Ben Orlove) and Cultures of Energy (2013, with Stephanie Rupp and Thomas Love), her research focuses on energy, climate change, water, and health issues in India, Europe, and the United States.


[1] And yes, I am completely aware of the social, energy, and other environmental costs of cell phones, but at this point, am still entirely subject to the systemic forces that require us to be available 24/7. In this case, our university’s budget problems are forcing the loss of departmental landlines, and forwarding from a VOIP number is obligate.

Cite as:
Strauss, Sarah. 2016. “Present Progressive? Of Cell Phones and Energy Transitions in the Anthropocene.” EnviroSociety, 28 September.

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