How do we even begin to make art about the end of the world? This essay presents a survey of artwork about the Anthropocene, accompanied by an examination of Death Stranding by way of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. Watch the essay in video form here.
Chapter 1: Art and the Anthropocene
What does humanity’s impact on the earth actually look like? What type of mental imagery is associated with the term “post-apocalypse”? Can art be made on a planet in decline? And what does “Anthropocene” mean anyway?
The word Anthropocene comes from the Greek words anthropo, for “human,” and cene for “new.” To expand upon that, here’s a definition from Oxford Languages:
[The Anthropocene is] the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Some geologists argue that the Anthropocene began with the Industrial Revolution.
The concept of an era marked by human-driven change is fairly straightforward, but the sentence that follows the definition raises an interesting point. Some geologists argue that the Anthopocene epoch began with the Industrial Revolution; with trains, factories, manufacturing, and increasing globalization. However, there are many other speculative origins. In 2016, the Anthropocene Working Group stated their belief that the Anthropocene began in 1950 when the Great Acceleration, a dramatic increase in human activity affecting the planet, took off after the end of WWII. Other anthropologists suggest that the seeds of the Anthropocene lie in the first agricultural revolution that began some 10,000 years ago.
The Anthropocene is an epoch that is challenged, its terms and scope in dispute, but it is obvious that this distinction from other time periods was necessary enough to name. This designation, while it may be flawed, is the beginning of our acknowledgement of our own impact on the world. However, it doesn’t help us to form feelings about it. That’s a role that art can play.
Included below are some examples of art that confronts the Anthropocene and asks us to think about humanity’s impact on the Earth. This is not an exhaustive list of artists and artworks, and it’s worth keeping in mind that there are many lesser known artists that are actively engaging with anthropogenic issues within their own communities as well.
- David Gilmour Blythe, Prospecting/Bullcreek City (1861-1863)
Blythe’s painting was made toward the beginning of the oil boom in North America. It shows a man looking for work in a destroyed landscape. At this time many people strongly believed in a linear concept of progress: that more oil and more money were unconditionally good things. Blythe’s painting deeply questioned that: he asked, are pollution and environmental degradation really signs of progress? He “framed the oil industry as an alarming deviation from, and even an obstacle to, technological modernity and national progress.”
Carr painted Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky in 1935. This is a painting of the last few trees left standing in a clear cut on southern Vancouver Island. Industrial logging began in British Columbia, Canada in the 1860′, and Carr lived in a place that experienced an intense amount of clear cuts (and still does to this day!). She saw the stumps that were left behind as tombstones, and to her these marked a place of ecological violence.
- Edward Burtynsky, Anthropocene series (2009-ongoing)
Burtynsky’s large-scale photographs document ongoing ecological devastation in our time. He photographs massive oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, tar sands extraction in Canada, ivory burning in Africa, and massive mines in Russia. He often takes his photographs from the air to capture the truly astronomical scale of the environmental impact.
- Olafur Eliasson, Ice Watch (2014)
For his work Ice Watch, Eliasson extracted 30 blocks of glacial ice from the waters around Greenland and had them placed in front of Tate Modern in London. The ice was left to melt and people were urged to interact with it and bear witness to its disappearance. While the artwork is emotionally moving, it’s worth noting that it takes a lot of money and oil to move arctic ice to an urban location.
- Douglas Coupland, Vortex (2018-2019)
In 2018, artist Douglas Coupland partnered with the Vancouver Aquarium to host Vortex, an exhibition about plastic and the ocean. He placed a small Japanese fishing boat in a tank formerly inhabited by manta rays, surrounding it with debris pulled from the Pacific Ocean. The boat installation was surrounded by smaller artworks inside fish tanks, as well as three huge shelves displaying a collection of plastic junk.
Lastly, Sun & Sea Marina was artwork to see at the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019. Defined as an “opera-performance” by the artists, this artwork represented Lithuania and won a Golden Lion Award for Best National Participation. Viewers experienced this artwork by walking into a building and looking down upon a beach scene with performers singing.
Aside from its tone, viewers may not even realize this is a climate crisis-related artwork. But it’s precisely this element of subtlety that speaks to our lack of ecological concern…. Until it affects us personally, it’s like we’re all still on vacation mode.
Some non-documentary films that directly or indirectly deal with the consequences of climate crisis:
- Children of Men, Don’t Look Up, Snowpiecer, Interstellar
Some music that speaks to climate crisis:
- Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi (1970)
- Woodkid – S16 (2020)
Through these examples, we can see that art is beginning to help us understand what the Anthropocene actually looks like: it’s destroyed landscapes, melting ice, and plastic bobbing around in the oceans. In a way, there’s an odd beauty to this horrifying imagery. These artworks show us the tremendous scale of humanity’s impact in a way that a written paragraph or a statistic can’t. This is what we are seeing and living with right now and it imparts so much despair. Humanity’s negative impacts clearly can’t be prevented because they’ve already happened (and continue to happen), and yet we’re all still here, living amongst ongoing destruction.
Museums may be more equipped to fill with water than they are able to help the average person. This isn’t a shot at museums, they do have immense cultural value, but this is not something they were ever designed to help us with.
What museums and galleries are designed for is to safely and securely display art and artifacts, and then to welcome people to view collections and arrangements of said art and artifacts. They can’t really do much else– after all, budgetary and architectural constraints are very real. The powers of the museum, while they seem great, are limited.
What these institutions can do to help their communities is to show art, tell stories, and host events that support ecological stewardship and critical thought about the climate crisis. Museums and galleries can be our allies in facilitating many of our artistic and cultural experiences but they can’t do it all. They can’t reach every one of us as potential viewers, they’re limited by their location and their digital resources. Additionally, only a small amount of artworks make it into museums in the first place, and there’s only so many exhibitions that can fit into a year.
Luckily, artists don’t exclusively create work that is made for galleries and museums. Artists create works for many projects, personal and commercial, that will never appear in an art world context and that’s OK. Not every artwork has to. Let’s take a look at a different kind of cultural product that may have a different audience.
Chapter 2: Telling Stories About The End
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction in 1986. In this short essay, she describes her approach to writing science fiction. She believed that…
“Science fiction properly conceived, like all serious fiction is a way of trying to describe what is in fact going on, what people actually do and feel, how people relate to everything else in this … unending story … “
She goes on to claim that we need new stories because for most of human history, stories have been understood as a hero’s struggle to overcome whatever opposes him. The caveman kills the mammoth, the king kills the bull, and the knight slays the dragon. These stories are fine, because they are the stories of some people, but in them there are clear winners and losers. Good guys and bad guys make stories easy to understand, but viewing issues like the climate crisis as a conflict, as something to be fought against and won, might not be the best way to help us understand the state of the world or our place within it. As Le Guin puts it, we need to create stories with a “strange realism” to refer to our “strange reality.”
For example: instead of stories where a hero wields a weapon to participate in conflicts, she proposes a different approach: what if stories were seen as containers?
Containers may not seem as interesting or as valorous as weapons, but Le Guin argues that they’ve been an essential part of human life for much longer. After all, our earliest human ancestors had to figure out how to store, transport, and trade food and goods for their survival. There would have been no agricultural revolution or human progress without some practical form of storage.
In Death Stranding, a video game released in 2019, the player controls Sam Porter Bridges, a delivery man in a post-apocalyptic near future version of the USA. Most of the country’s infrastructure is reduced to ruins and Sam navigates from the East coast to the West on foot to carry containers of cargo for the company Bridges.
Before each delivery, the player prepares for the mission by arranging containers on Sam’s body. They have to distribute the weight of the containers, consider Sam’s ease of movement, and think about how best to protect the items from damage. Some of the containers he delivers are vital to keeping people alive, containing items like medicine, whereas others contain technology or specimens to facilitate scientific discoveries.
Sometimes he just delivers pizza, but I’d argue that’s pretty important too.
If there were no containers there would be no story. There would be no Death Stranding!
At its most basic level, this story is about a man risking his life to deliver containers of goods between people. Every item means a long, difficult hike for Sam, and by extension for you, the player, but these containers become the foundation of every relationship in the game.
To Sam, the most important container is the one that contains BB-28. In the game’s lore, BB’s, or Bridge Babies, are a technology developed by the US government to connect the world of the living with the world of the dead. Each BB is an unborn child taken from a brain dead mother, and they’re kept in a balanced state of suspension between life and death in a pod that functions as an artificial womb. BB’s are intended to be used as equipment used to sense BTs, ‘beached things’ that take the form of aggressive ghosts anchored to the living world through spectral umbilical cords. Over the course of the game, after many long journeys and cooperative missions, Sam and BB-28 form a strong bond. This precious container comes to represent a future that Sam thought was lost after the tragic death of his wife and unborn child.
In Death Stranding, even the body itself is a container. The body is where the soul lives, and when the soul becomes separated from the body there can be disastrous consequences. This separation causes necrosis, and it can lead to a voidout, a large explosion that decimates everything caught in it, leaving behind residual BTs to roam the devastation, like radiation from a nuclear blast. The game’s lore tells us that the soul can be detached from the body with an immense amount of violence or pain: traumatic events like war, familial loss, and cancer cause characters to split into halves across life and death.
As if to fully establish that this isn’t the same type of story as many that came before it, and unlike many other video games, Death Stranding features unconventional methods of engaging with conflict that deprioritize weapons.
That said, agents of conflict do exist in this story: oxytocin addicted delivery-men-turned-thieves, separatist accelerationist groups, and ghostly BTs. However the player does not typically shoot them with the intent to destroy. The player creates weapons through Sam’s rest and hygiene routine in between missions: showering and using the toilet create items that either attract or repel BTs and help “neutralise” human foes. Eventually, Sam’s blood is drawn to create more potent weapons late in the game, but this means that the player has to decide how much they are willing to risk harming themselves in order to repel hostile threats. And if you, the player, decide to kill enemies despite the tools and techniques to avoid it, you must bring the bodies to an incinerator or you’ll be punished by a voidout.
Furthermore, the main agents of conflict aren’t people that Sam can overcome in this story: Sam’s adoptive mother, Samantha Strand, convinces him to work for her company, Bridges, against his wishes just before she passes away from uterine cancer. Amelie, a woman that he thought was his adopted sister, turns out to be an Extinction Entity: the living embodiment of the sixth mass extinction sent to destroy all life as we know it. Amelie presents an inevitable force of destruction that can’t be stopped, but Sam does manage to convince her to slow the sixth mass extinction any way she can.
Sam’s father, Clifford Unger, also appears as a villain at first. Cliff was a soldier in the United States Army Special Forces. His background is described in game as being involved in fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo, and he represents all soldiers in modern war. Despite his participation in recent wars, from 1998-2020 or so, he appears in scenes that are direct references to World War I, II, and Vietnam. This implies that wars are not unrelated events in history, with all conflicts being connected across time in one way or another.
In the book Oil Culture, it describes our situation with war and oil like this:
“Fossil-fuel culture can be, in short, described as an “age of exuberance”—an age that is also, given the dwindling finitude of the resources it increasingly makes social life dependent on, haunted by catastrophe. … In World War I, oil exuberance was wedded all too clearly to oil catastrophe in a high-profile marriage of absolute opposites. Oil powered destructive new machinery was used in making destructive weapons, and fueled a refitted British navy, superior to Germany’s, which remained tied to coal. Oil helped kill millions. Oil led to victory. In the context of WorldWar II, the same description still fits: again the allies floated to victory on a sea of oil.”
Petrocapitalism, our economic and cultural system, is driven by oil extraction, violence, wealth, and power and it tends to inflict its damaging consequences on people more often than it shares its wealth.
Clifford’s trust and loyalty to the American government led to the destruction of his family. It turns out that while he was an enforcer of the petrocapitalism system he was also a victim of it.
By the end of the game, Sam discovers that the soldier that has been pursuing him throughout his journeys was actually his emotionally devastated and war traumatized father, not a figure to be destroyed or overcome, but someone to build bridges with.
As if to drive home the need for alternatives to conflicts and violence, the most important weapon in the game is a gun that does not fire. After slowing down the sixth mass extinction, and discovering his family’s past, Sam becomes stranded on the beach in the afterlife. Sam receives a gun from Amelie that he can’t shoot, if he tries, it has no effect. He can’t use it to stop the extinction, but this former symbol of violence becomes the link that allows Sam’s friends to find him and bring him home. It turns out that the gun is more of a container than it is a weapon.
According to the framework proposed in Le Guin’s Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Death Stranding presents a new type of science fiction story that asks the player to think about and repair a world in ruin. It asks us to consider all of the things we carry on an individual and societal level, and it pushes us to understand that weapons should not be the first thing that we reach for to solve our problems. It shows us that the sixth extinction event that is underway is undeniably linked to war, oil and resource extraction, and intergenerational trauma.
Le Guin wrote, “In Science Fiction … as in all fiction, there is room enough to keep even Man where he belongs, in his place in the scheme of things.”
Death Stranding takes great care with the idea of “keeping man where he belongs in the scheme of things.” Its story speaks to the scale of the sixth mass extinction event by putting it in context with the five previous extinction events, as well as the entire history of the Earth and cosmos. The player acts as Sam in the future-present, his body marked with the cave wall handprints from our distant past, as he tries to survive by navigating through life, death, and the states in between.
The game makes use of big storytelling by slowly moving us through a narrative about life that painstakingly considers our full history. This way of thinking is called “deep history” and it is the study of all life from the big bang onward. The game spans a large swath of time and it specifically invokes the following events:
- It starts with the big bang (13.7 billion years ago)
- Mass extinction events 1-5 (450, 375, 252, 201, and 66 million years ago)
- Cave paintings (40,000 BCE)
- The sixth extinction (11,700 BCE-ongoing).
- Egyptian Mythology (4300-30 BCE)
- Making of Quipus (3000 through 2001 BCE)
- Creation of Miçanga/masanga (1250 BCE)
- Creation of Ojibwe Dream Catchers (?)
- Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci’s voyage to the South American coast (1500 BCE)
- The oil boom and the start of oil dependency (1800’s-ongoing)
- WWI (1914-1918)
- WWII (1939-1945)
- Vietnam (1955-1975)
- Rise and development of social media (1997-ongoing)
- Kosovo War (1998-1999)
- Iraq War (2003-2011)
- Afghanistan War (2001-2021)
- …. and for reference: anatomically modern humans emerged around 300,000 years ago!
These historical events aren’t just listed off without purpose. They are important markers of time. The deep past ripples outward to impact the future in ways we’re only beginning to understand.
The story plainly states that death and mass die offs aren’t inherently bad, despite the doom that surrounds climate crisis discourse, and in fact, they’re rather routine in the grand scheme of life on earth. There were five other major extinction events and many other lesser die offs. This great dying episode is particularly traumatic to us because we intimately understand our own culpability and yet many of us feel powerless to make substantial changes. Our lives are so deeply affected by petro-capitalism as an economic system that changing our reliance away from oil and natural gases would wildly disrupt how we currently live.
Again, as described in the book Oil Culture:
“ … Together, oil and electricity wrapped people within their many infrastructures—roads, pipelines, telephone lines, power cables—even as it began doing something else of great cultural importance: reaching into and restructuring peoples’ private worlds, identities, bodies, thoughts, sense of geography, [and] emotions.”
To return to the big history timeline again, we may notice that humans haven’t been around for very long and yet a lot of damage has been done by our species in a very short amount of time. It’s clear that our needs and lifestyles are at odds with what is sustainable for the earth and its other inhabitants. Something noted in the plot of Death Stranding is that rebuilding America requires constructing roads and connecting everyone to the Chiral Network (which is like an in-game version of the internet), but much like in our world, there are consequences to this kind of development. Technology is the cause of as well as the solution to many problems in the story. The Chiral Network is supposed to resolve many ongoing systemic and social issues, including fulfilling people’s need for oxytocin and scarce resources, however that need for social bonding and connectivity is also presented as a double edged sword.
We build tools in our likeness and for our needs, which has ramifications for all other forms of life (human and nonhuman, past and present). Of course video games themselves are a type of technology too.
The history of video games is interconnected with the military industrial complex and petrocapitalism. The industry has been funded and inspired by war and is made possible through petro-products: the plastic controller used to navigate virtual spaces, the consoles and hardware that power the games, the fuel used to transport equipment for game development, and the energy spent extracting rare minerals for computer parts. These things have a real cost but they also engage and connect us and that has value too.
Death Stranding seems to understand that it is implicated in these systems by its very existence, and instead of ignoring these ugly affiliations, it leans into them and lives with them, just like the rest of us have to in our day to day lives. Through his storytelling, Kojima expresses his anthropogenic concerns around petro-dependence while at the same time admitting his love for petro-products: he added a stash of collectable items into the game that range from motorbikes to mechs. We all live in these contradictions to some extent.
Death Stranding’s narrative places the sixth mass extinction in context by showing us how everything we do was shaped by what came before. It then asks us: if dying is inevitable because the sixth mass extinction is already underway, what do we decide to live for?
Chapter 3: Keep On Keeping On
Most among us have seen footage of extensive ecological damage. We know the situation is bad. Because of this, many people don’t want to hear about the Anthropocene, let alone engage with it in the art and media they consume. It’s a difficult topic to address in art without coming off as preachy or as a doomer, and it’s hard to talk about the topic without being reliant on clichés.
But the visual language we’ve developed and the stories we tell about our current era have to change. They have to change because we need to find ways to think about what our priorities should be during the ongoing climate crisis. We don’t need more awareness, we need to reach people and mobilize toward new ideas and solutions.
According to “The World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency” from 2021: there is “… mounting evidence that we are nearing or have already crossed tipping points associated with critical parts of the Earth system…”
At this point, it’s as Higgs says:
“You can speed this up or slow it down but you can’t stop what we’ve started.”
M. and I experienced Death Stranding in Summer 2021, when my mother was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. At the same time as I was assisting her, I was writing my Master of Fine Arts thesis on 3D narrative environmental simulators and video games. When I’d take breaks, I would frequently visit nearby beaches. That year more than a billion seashore animals cooked to death in the unprecedented BC heat wave. The shore of the Pacific Ocean reeked of death. The sickness and weight of humanity’s impact on the world was so heavy. And it still is.
But Death Stranding reminded me to put one foot in front of another. It tells us that humanity’s time on earth will end. It is ending. It’s ending because of our actions, and our ancestors’ actions, and even if we’re able to correct for that, we’re still just another creature waiting for just another extinction event. There have been five mass extinctions to date, and this situation is, to some degree, normal.
Death Stranding suggests that even though our existence as a species is temporary, we should still strive to be helpful, nurturing, and kind for the short time we’re here. It tells us that we can still build networks and communities that prioritize care and resilience. We can and should appreciate the sunlight and the flowers that remain. We must be hopeful and imagine new futures.
The world is in collapse but even collapse takes time. We should want the fall of humanity to be slow, because if it’s slow enough we can continue to live our lives even if it is in a state of freefall. We can make use of our lives in this ever declining state by choosing to make the experience better for others, human and non-human. We should want to give future generations as much time as possible before the inevitable end because that’s what we want for ourselves.
Death Stranding teaches us that hope is a result of our actions as much as it is standing before the painful truths of life and death. Hope is a facet of human existence just as much as pollution and extincting species are. After all, life is both short and long, it is made up of everything that has happened and will happen. It can be sped up or slowed down but it cannot be stopped. Not yet.
- Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, Edited by Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (2015)
- Anthropocene Feminism, Editor Richard Grusin (2017)
- The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, Ursula K. Le Guin (1986, 2019)
- How to Make Art at the End of the World: A Manifesto for Research-Creation, Natalie Loveless (2019)
- Oil Culture, Edited Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden (2014)
- World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency (2021)
Some related contemporary artworks to explore:
- Adam Sébire, anthropoScene I: Breakdown, 2018. Source: adamsebire.info
- Adrian Ganea, Ghost, 2021. Source: adrianganea.com
- ALLORA & CALZADILLA, Petrified Petrol Pump, 2012. Source: gladstonegallery.com
- Amy Balkin, Public Smog/Douala, 2009. Source: tomorrowmorning.net
- Cibele Vieira, The Tardigrade Wars and Their Allies (series), 2019. Source: cibelevieira.com
- David Gilmour Blythe, Prospecting/Bullcreek City, 1861-63. Source: Westmoreland Museum
- Deb Hall, Crosshairs. Source: debhall.com
- Douglas Coupland, Vortex, 2018-2019. Source: Vancouver Aquarium
- Edward Burtynsky, Anthropocene series, 2009-ongoing. Source: edwardburtynsky.com
- Emily Carr, Scorned as Timber, Beloved of the Sky, 1935. Source: Vancouver Art Gallery
- Fabrice Monteiro, The Prophecy (series), 2015. Source: fabricemonteiro.viewbook.com
- Jenny Kendler, Forget Me Not, 2020. Source: jennykendler.com
- Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi, 1970.
- Justin Brice, Eco-Haikus for Marquees, 2019. Source: justinbrice.com
- Kojima Productions, Death Stranding, 2019.
- Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun (Let’lo:ts’teltun), Fucking Creeps They’re Environmental Terrorists, 2011.
- Lori Nix/Kathleen Gerber, Overpass. Source: lorinix.net
- Maika’i Tubbs, Stepping Stones. Source: maikaitubbs.com
- Margaret and Christine Wertheim, Crochet Coral Reef, 2019-ongoing. Source: crochetcoralreef.org
- Mary Mattingly, Pull, 2013. Source: marymattingly.com
- Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991-ongoing. Source: melchin.org
- Natalie Jeremijenko, MUSSELxCHOIR, 2013. Source: carbonarts.org
- Olafur Eliasson, Ice Watch, 2014. Source: olafureliasson.net
- Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Source: ubu.com/film
- R. Barzdžiukaitė, V. Grainytė & L. Lapelytė, Sun & Sea (Marina), 2019. Source: sunandsea.it
- Sandra Sawatzky, Age of Uncertainty (detail: logging and dams), 2022. Source: theblackgoldtapestry.com
- SUPERFLEX, Beyond The End Of The World, 2021. Source: superflex.net
- SUPERFLEX, Flooded McDonald’s, 2009. Source: superflex.net
- Tezi Gabunia, Breaking News: The Flooding of the Louvre, 2018–20. Source: youtube.com
- Woodkid, S16, 2020. Source: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCwfdPgMway3ClQiCwlc94iA