The Anthropocene at sea

Temporality, paradox, compression

Authored by: Stacy Alaimo

The Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities

Print publication date:  January  2017
Online publication date:  January  2017

Print ISBN: 9781138786745
eBook ISBN: 9781315766355
Adobe ISBN: 9781317660194


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The concept of the Anthropocene compels us to think the temporal and spatial reach of the human in vast, and predominantly geological, dimensions. But what would it mean to take the Anthropocene out to sea? What problematics, what figurations, what epistemologies would that generate? The seas have long enticed us to imagine immensities of breadth, depth, and volume, as well as unfathomable zones of darkness, pressure, and cold. The ocean, suspected by Charles Darwin and others of harboring hardy “living fossils” that have endured major extinction events by eluding terrestrial time, would seem to have its own temporality (Dobbs 159). Paradoxically, the deep sea has been imagined both as a haven for such “living fossils” and as a lifeless zone. The depths of the oceans, for example, were long considered “azoic,” devoid of life, due to the formidable darkness, pressure, and cold. Now, even the most extreme areas such as those around deep sea vents are known to be teeming with life—life based on chemosynthesis, not photosynthesis, life apart from the solar temporalities of day and night. While recent science echoes the earlier sense that time crawls across the abyssal planes, as deep sea species live and die at a slower pace, that temporality actually makes the fish less, rather than more, impervious to harm: “Deep sea fish are highly vulnerable to disturbance because of their late maturation, extreme longevity, low fecundity and slow growth” (Devine 29). Similarly, manganese nodules, the target of deep sea mining, grow “extraordinarily slowly, only a few millimeters per million years … a thousand times less than the sedimentation rate” (Koslow 164). In the 1980s Lauren Mullineaux discovered their “fragile fauna,” “a unique ecological community contained within the universe of the nodules” (Koslow 163). In 2015, a team of scientists note that “fragile habitat structures and extremely slow recovery rates leave deep sea communities vulnerable to physical disturbances such as those caused by mining” (Wedding et al. 144). Protecting deep sea ecosystems, or even attempting to decrease the extent of devastation, requires reckoning with abysal temporalities.

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