The African Anthropocene

February 6, 2018

The Anthropocene feels different depending on where you are – too often, the ‘we’ of the world is white and Western.

Every year, human activity moves more sediment and rock than all natural processes combined, including erosion and rivers. This might not shock you. In fact, you’ve probably seen similar soundbites circulating online, signals of the sheer scale of how we’re terraforming the planet in the era of the Anthropocene. Natural and social scientists argue passionately about almost everything Anthropocenic, from the nuances of nomenclature to the start-date of the new geological epoch, but most agree on one thing: the Earth will outlive humanity. What’s in doubt is how long we will populate the planet, and under what conditions.

But who, exactly, are ‘we’?

Consider the cover of Nature in March 2015, in which two Earths, one blue-green and one grey, are entangled in a human body. The title emblazoned across the man’s six-pack invites us to see this body as representative of ‘the human’. But there’s no such thing as a generic human, of course; the image repeats the centuries-old conflation of human with white man. Perhaps the artist sought to subvert such racist overtones by obscuring the man’s eyes, making him an unseeing subject blind to the damage he’s wreaked on his body and his planet. Still, the image impels a common critique of the Anthropocene concept: it attributes ecological collapse to an undifferentiated ‘humanity’, when in practice both responsibility and vulnerability are unevenly distributed.

While the Anthropocene continually inscribes itself in all our bodies – we all have endocrine disruptors, microplastics and other toxic things chugging through our metabolisms – it manifests differently in different bodies. Those differences, along with the histories that generated them, matter a great deal – not just to the people who suffer from them, but also to humanity’s relationship with the planet.

What picture of the Anthropocene, for example, emerges when we begin our analytic adventure in Africa instead of in Europe? Minerals from Africa played a big role in motivating colonialism and powering industrialisation. Their extraction fuelled the Anthropocene. Saying that ‘we’ move more rock than all natural processes combined doesn’t even begin to capture these violent dynamics. Who actually moved the rock? How did this movement affect the people and ecosystems around the mines, not just at the time of extraction but decades later?

Africa is a large continent with a complex history, and answers differ by place and time. So let’s begin by considering two minerals with global significance: gold and uranium. A common means of exchange for centuries, gold became a major lubricant of industrial capitalism, underpinning national currencies in Europe and North America during periods of massive industrial expansion and investment. Uranium, for its part, fuelled the Cold War. Some of the waste from its fission in power plants and weapons will remain radioactive for more than 100,000 years – a clear flag of the Anthropocene epoch for future geologists (if there are any).

Over the course of the 20th century, South Africa’s Witwatersrand plateau – known more commonly as the Rand – supplied ample quantities of both minerals. Industrial gold mining began there in 1886. During the century that followed, hundreds of thousands of men migrated to the Rand for work, tunnelling deeper underground than anywhere else on the planet and making South Africa the world’s top gold producer. Workers lugged ore to the surface through narrow, hot, poorly ventilated stopes. Many lost their lives to rock bursts. Among those who survived, tens of thousands contracted silicosis from breathing dust year after year. The term did not yet exist, but the Anthropocene was nevertheless etching itself into the lungs of generation after generation of young African men.

In the early decades, much of the rock hauled so laboriously to the surface was too low-grade to justify processing costs. These residues (known in the industry as tailings) were dumped near the shaft openings. By the 1930s, enormous tailings piles had reshaped the region’s topography. In the months of July and August, winter winds blew dust from these dumps across the plateau and over the urban sprawl around Johannesburg.

Recognising the mounting pollution problems, a handful of botanists looked into how to vegetate the mine dumps to prevent erosion. But their efforts remained underfunded for decades, eventually shut down altogether by their opponents in the mining industry. This too followed a quintessentially Anthropocenic dynamic, one that has operated since at least the 19th century: industries knowingly pollute; scientists investigate the extent of the pollution and propose solutions; industries, often with state approval, deem mitigation too expensive; scientists are starved of resources; the problems are ignored.

In many spots this toxic soup has ‘decanted’ onto the surface or into the water table

After the Second World War, rocks previously deemed waste acquired new economic value. Bound in their matrix was uranium, the element whose fission had levelled two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The gold industry rejoiced to discover this new source of revenue. In 1952, South Africa’s new Apartheid government launched its first uranium-processing plant with considerable fanfare. In short order, the tailings piles yielded 10,000 tons of uranium oxide, which was exported to the US and the UK for their nuclear arsenals. Today, much of this uranium remains locked in ageing missiles. But during the frenzied nuclear-testing of the late 1950s and early ’60s, some of it exploded in the atmosphere, plummeting back to Earth in the form of chemical products created by fission. Today, earth scientists searching for indicators of a definitive break from the Holocene argue that these radioactive deposits constitute the ‘golden spike’ that marks the start of the Anthropocene.

At least two of South Africa’s contributions to the Anthropocene, uranium and gold, are distributed all over the planet. But the consequences of these contributions for South Africans have barely begun. Pierced by hundreds of shafts and tunnels, the Rand has become what the architect Eyal Weizman at Goldsmiths University of London calls, in a different context, a ‘hollow land’. And hollow lands are treacherous. Over time, water has filled the abandoned stopes, where it reacts with the pyrite in the exposed rock and becomes acidic.

Heavy metals previously trapped in the conglomerate rock – including known toxins such as arsenic, mercury and lead – readily dissolve in the acidified water. This toxic soup has been rising steadily; in many spots it has ‘decanted’ onto the surface or into the water table. Thousands of people – farmers, informal settlement residents, and others with no access to alternative sources – use this water for irrigation, drinking and bathing. And while many of the tailings dumps have been remined, many still remain, unvegetated. The winter winds still blow dust – some of it radioactive, with uranium residue – across the farms, settlements and suburbs. For the 14 million residents of Gauteng province, mine residues form a major signature of the (African) Anthropocene.

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