End of the Anthropocene
We have recently discovered a planet, far more complex than any that we have known or imagined. Its ecology integrates more than a trillion species 1 of terra-forming organisms completely dominating its geology, hydrology, and atmosphere.2 You're living on it. The terraformers are microorganisms. 3
At the same time, we are proposing to name the present geological epoch after ourselves - part badge of honor, part mark of shame. We are convinced that humans are responsible for the changes we have measured. And, because we are the dominant, most powerful, and intelligent species, we are also are capable of guiding the future of the planet. This is nonsense. But, at least we are beginning to understand that the biological can be geological. Perhaps, this will help us see that it has always been so.
The Anthropocene is less geological fact than cultural artifact. It is a way to point to the effects that we have on the earth. We find ourselves in this position because we have always seen ourselves apart from the rest. We have failed to understand the deep interdependencies that we have with all organisms, but especially the microorganisms, in part, because we have a strong bias towards seeing a world of objects. Tyler notes how indo-european languages are structured to privilege objects over actions.4 This linguistic disposition affects the way that we organize the world, think and communicate about, and operate within it. So we think that we are in a world of interacting objects rather than one of integrated processes. But with Peter Taylor, we might consider what happens to our understandings when we reconsider those things that we presently consider to be objects as the contingent outcomes of intersecting dynamic processes.5 The transition to a process orientation might allow us to see more easily the flows of energy and matter circulating repeatedly across boundaries that we had previously defined.6 Perhaps the boundaries become surfaces of catalysis rather than separation and definition. Perhaps, they disappear.
In the last several decades we have become more aware of the extensive microbial presence on this planet. We now find them where ever we look; in deep strata, the ocean depths, or the upper atmosphere. More recently, a human microbiome is seen to occupy every surface, orifice, and tract. They co-exist within and upon every animal and plant and on all surfaces of the built environment. Microbiomes of the built environment are finally also gaining attention. Now we understand that sterile is, at most, a temporary condition, and often, an undesirable one and the obliquity of microbial occupation is the norm.
Our awareness of microorganisms arrived with the microscope. The identification of microbes as pathogenic agents soon followed, and great strides were made in human health and longevity. Cities were transformed as the principles of sanitation and epidemiology became known. Our culture is infused with products that are focused on sanitizing. ‘Kills-germs-on-contact’ sells. Sterile is good. Antibiotic treatments are common, even for the most minor malady. These display both the extent of our knowledge about microbes and our ability to eliminate them, but also our profound ignorance about our dependence on them and our inability to target specific pathogens without wholesale destruction. We are at war with the microbes, and the collateral damage is extensive. It includes us.
We are becoming aware that many non-communicable diseases are the probable result of microbial disbiosis- allergies, asthma, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, and obesity among many others. In the effort to control microbes we have tried to eliminate them as if they were not us. But a functional definition of the human must include the microorganisms. We exist together, always. Margoles calls this the holobiont.7 We are profoundly and inseparably bound to microorganisms. We must use this realization to come into a new relationship with them that recognizes this integration and dependance.
In order to reform our relationship with microorganisms, we should adapt not the adversarial position given us by medicine, but refer instead to the much older and highly cooperative examples drawn from the world’s culinary traditions. Many of the best culinary products are the result of the activities of microorganisms - the extensive products of leavening, pickling, culturing, fermenting, and curing. What is common to many of these processes in the encouragement of certain microbes that transform the raw material, a kind of external digestion, and that simultaneously prevent other kinds of microorganisms from becoming established. This is a partnership rather than an antagonistic stance that will prove to be a more viable starting point.
After several decades of the development of increasingly powerful antimicrobial agents, we find that resistant strains have become a serious concern. We see ourselves locked in a death match with rapidly evolving mutagenic microbes and things are not going in our favor. Will we continue to believe that we can win with massive research efforts, infusions of human and financial capital, and because we are the smartest and most powerful species? The rhetoric of a biological ‘arms-race’ between microbes and human’s antibiotics only reinforces the aggressive posture that we have with respect to the rest of the planet. But, there are no reports of anti-yeast taking over bread dough although leavening has been going on for thousands of years. We can and have worked together with microorganisms for millennia. We already recognize the immune functions of the microbial communities on the skin and in the intestinal tract, why would we not take the same approach in culturing and supplying robust communities of microorganisms in our homes and hospitals. We need to develop architectural probiotics, methods of inoculating the surfaces of the built environment with beneficial micro-ecologies. We need to craft these surfaces to support life, provide temperatures, humidity, and nutrients that can support a diverse integrated microbial community that can in turn destroy the pathogens that vex us.. We need to develop ways of making building materials in partnership with those organisms that built the earth and to solicit their help in stabilizing the environment. We will fail if we go it alone.
In order to come into a new and productive relationship with the planet we live on, we need to loose the illusion of power and primacy that is suggested by the Anthropocene and accept co-dependence and cooperation as the viable path forward. We must become collaborative partners, not masters and see ourselves as profoundly embedded and integrated rather than as separate individuals. This is a task for which our culture has not prepared us.
Locey, K. J., & Lennon, J. T. (2016). Scaling laws predict global microbial diversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201521291 ↩
Gould, Stephen Jay. "Planet of the bacteria." (1996). Tyler, S. A. (1984). The vision quest in the West, or what the mind's eye sees. Journal of Anthropological Research, 40(1), 23-40 ↩
Some of the arguments in this paper are developed in more detail in:
Krueger, T. (2016). Micro-ecologies of the Built Environment. The Routledge Companion to Biology in Art and Architecture ↩
Taylor, P. (2000). Distributed agency within intersecting ecological, social, and scientific processes. Cycles of Contingency: Developmental Systems and Evolution, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 313-332 ↩
Goodacre, R. (2007). Metabolomics of a superorganism. The Journal of nutrition, 137(1), 259S-266S
Margulis, L. (1991). Symbiogenesis and symbionticism. Symbiosis as a source of evolutionary innovation, 1-1 ↩
Goodacre, R. (2007). Metabolomics of a superorganism. The Journal of nutrition, 137(1), 259S-266S ↩
Margulis, L. (1991). Symbiogenesis and symbionticism. Symbiosis as a source of evolutionary innovation, 1-14 ↩
Associate Professor & Graduate Director Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute School of Architecture
Ted Krueger holds a PhD in Architecture (by design) from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, and a professional Master of Architecture degree from Columbia University following graduate work in architectural history at the University of Chicago and an eclectic undergraduate education in the social sciences and the arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Following his professional education, Krueger spent twelve years in practice in New York City. Krueger’s design work has resulted in numerous publications, exhibitions, and lectures on an international basis for the last thirty years. In addition, his design work has led to two New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowships, a New York State Council for the Arts Project grant, a residency at ArtPark in Lewiston, NY, and his selection as one of the “Emerging Voices’ by the Architectural League of New York. He is a member of the editorial board for the British media research journal ‘Digital Creativity’ and recently co-edited a special issue of the journal on Creative Technologies and Innovation: Health and Wellbeing.