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Dead as a dodo, so the expression goes. The flightless bird from the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, long the poster child of extinction, was an early victim of human activity. What creature will be next? With five flashy campaign posters at the ready—each championing a different endangered animal—Carnegie Museum of Natural History will soon be asking visitors to vote for the “celebrity extinction” of tomorrow.
Will it be the black rhino, in rising demand for its horns; the Sumatran elephant, which lost half of its population in a generation; the weird and wonderful pangolin, the world’s most trafficked animal; the Sumatran tiger, now numbering as few as 400; the leatherback turtle, a fundamental but vulnerable link in marine ecosystems; or the mountain gorilla, critically-endangered but on the upswing?
Is this a cruel joke? Not at all, says Steve Tonsor, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s director of science and research. By asking visitors to choose, the museum is reminding them of the active role humans play in what thrives or dies in nature. “We are, in fact, voting for extinction in the choices we make every day,” Tonsor says. “We hope by taking this action it will help people connect to the notion that we’re responsible.”
It’s also an emotional connection to the stark reality that over the past 50 years, half of Earth’s wildlife has been lost, killed off by poaching, development and deforestation, and the poisoning of the air and the oceans.
As global temperatures continue to rise, climate change is rapidly becoming yet another realized threat. Some scientists estimate that the current extinction rate is more than 100 times higher than normal. While forecasts vary, major reports estimate between one-third and two-thirds of all wildlife could be gone by 2020.
The vote—cast by cash donations to the World Wildlife Fund in support of the at-risk animals—is part of a new Carnegie Museum of Natural History exhibition that puts humans back in nature where they belong, an approach long resisted by many natural history museums, favoring instead an idealized version of nature—pristine and separate from humankind’s influence.
The magnitude of that influence inspired We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene, opening October 28 in the R.P. Simmons Gallery. It’s the first exhibition in North America to focus on the Anthropocene, the proposed current time period in which humankind’s impact on the earth is so profound that it’s leaving a global signature in the geological strata. While geologists worldwide continue to debate the term as a possible new chapter in geological history, the museum is among those leading its embrace as a social and cultural tool for understanding the broad sum effect humans are having on the planet.
“It’s about learning to see the interdependencies and connections between humankind and nature; a sense of belonging,” says Tonsor. “For me, part of it is realizing how fully we are integrated with and supported by this beautiful web of life around us. That’s a really comforting thought. But, of course, the subject matter isn’t entirely comfortable.”
BRINGING IT HOME
The first big take-home message of We Are Nature is that we’re living in a time of extreme change. A giant graph will visualize the off-the-charts acceleration of carbon dioxide emissions caused by burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation, alongside skyrocketing population growth.
To put this in solemn perspective, Earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one some scientists say is now in progress. Each unfolded over hundreds of thousands of years and all but the one that wiped out the dinosaurs were caused by climate change produced by greenhouse gas, which traps heat in the atmosphere. The end-Permian extinction, known as the Great Dying, began 250 million years ago, when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees—accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic—and it ended with the demise of 97 percent of life on Earth. Today, we’re pumping climate-warming carbon into the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate. By most estimates, at least 10 times faster.
But even if humans stopped generating carbon dioxide full stop, what we’ve already released through concrete production, deforestation, and the burning of fossil fuels would last tens of thousands of years, continuing to warm the planet and change the chemical makeup of the oceans.
These challenges are exacerbated by an ever-ballooning human population, which has more than doubled in the last 50 years, topping 7.5 billion people. “Population growth and growth in per-person energy use, that’s what’s really getting us into trouble,” says Tonsor.
We Are Nature will try to cut through this complicated and at times overwhelming science. To introduce five main evidence areas of the Anthropocene—climate change, pollution, extinction, habitat alteration, and post-natural history—it turns the lens on humans as a species to be studied.
Inside the exhibition’s simple outline of a home, a handful of common household objects stand out. A basement drainage bill shows how increases in severe storms, expected from climate change, can overwhelm more than just a previously effective drainage system, denting the pocketbook. An outdated aerosol can, reminiscent of the big hair of the 1980s and a major hole in the ozone layer, is an example of what scientists and politicians can do when they work together: Aerosol sprays containing chlorofluorocarbons as the propelling agent were banned worldwide in 1987. A woolly mammoth stuffed animal is a reminder of what we’ve already lost, while bananas tell the tale of how insects and other small animals sometimes hitch a ride on imported fruits and vegetables, altering the balance of our ecosystems by becoming invasive and out-competing native plants and animals for resources.
“Studies show that most people think humans are having an influence on climate. But most people also don’t think it will affect them.”
– Steve Tonsor, Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Director of Science and Research
The most unexpected item might be a can of corn, an example of “post-natural history,” which is the study of living things that have been intentionally modified by humans across generations, such as food crops, pets, and laboratory mosquitos. Genetically engineered to be resistant to certain pesticides and retain its sweetness longer, the corn’s depleted genetic variety also makes it more vulnerable to destruction by pests or disease.
In another area of the exhibition, a bottle of what turns out to be lead-laced drinking water highlights the issue of access and affordability of safe drinking water and sanitation, which can vary wildly based on where you live.
In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, the exhibition returns again and again to issues of inequity. “Some of the outcomes affect us all, but we must also think more closely about cultural equity—the increased unpredictability of fresh water for drinking and who that will impact at a faster rate,” says Eric Dorfman, director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “Just the idea of who even understands what’s going on [with the health of our planet]—just having access to this knowledge is crucial, and that’s one of the reasons we think this exhibition is so important.”
In preparation for We Are Nature, Carnegie Museum of Natural History science staff mined the millions of objects in the museum’s vast collections for evidence of the Anthropocene, a practice only recently undertaken at a handful of the world’s most prestigious natural history museums. What surfaced is the bread and butter of the exhibition: dozens of minerals, taxidermy, pelts, reptiles and amphibians preserved in jars of alcohol, and the stories that bring them to life. Coupled with contemporary objects from our everyday lives, these items show the diversity, complexity, and interconnectedness of humans and nature.
When asked about a standout piece of evidence, Dorfman says it’s the quantity that is most impressive. “Of course, plastic pollution in the ocean and the great Pacific Garbage Patch is very resonant to me, having grown up on the Pacific coast; and our hope is that everyone will find that thing that really stays with them,” says Dorfman. “But it’s the sum; the quantity and breadth. The most compelling part of the story, I think, is the way it all fits together.”
Sea turtle hatchlings and eggs, tucked inside jars of alcohol, point to the fact that the gender of these animals is determined by the temperature of their environment. After being deposited in underground nests, the eggs develop unattended. Scientists have discovered that hotter conditions produce females and cooler temperatures produce males. As global temperatures rise, there’s a risk that more and more sea turtles—already vulnerable—will be born female, leaving these ancient reptiles that help maintain the health of coral reefs in jeopardy.
A digital interactive will give flight to the work of avian researchers at Powdermill Nature Reserve, the museum’s environmental research center in the Laurel Highlands, who have been banding and tracking birds for more than 50 years, capturing and releasing some 580,000 unique creatures. Their tracking provides evidence of birds adapting to climate change by migrating a little earlier in the spring than they used to, and breeding sooner, too.
“I think this is a story of hope but also a warning,” says bird banding coordinator Luke DeGroote. “Many species are adapting, which is good news. But the window of time that birds are using to catch up—the time from arrival to nest building—is closing. That short-term adaptability, which scientists refer to as plasticity, may one day break.”
The display allows visitors to tag along with a pair of songbirds common to Powdermill, the wood thrush and dark-eyed junco, using real migration data to explore flight patterns between 1965 and 2015, while comparing temperature data and possibly insect and flowering patterns, too.
Birds, of course, aren’t the only ones being impacted by climate change. Humans are having to adapt, as well.
When we think of climate refugees, we often imagine people in faraway and unstable places like Bangladesh. But in January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that grants totaling $1 billion were earmarked to 13 states to help communities adapt to climate change by building stronger levees and drainage systems. In We Are Nature, a simple suitcase points to the $48 million in government aid allocated to relocate the people of Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana, expected to be the country’s first climate refugees. It’s a costly and complicated undertaking for just 60 people, while forecasts for at-risk communities in South Florida could mean millions more people will be forced to relocate.
“Traditionally in museums, we not only show people authentic objects from the natural world, but we tell them how to think about them,” says Tonsor. “That doesn’t work so well with some of the more challenging topics like the Anthropocene. We can tell people what we know about Earth systems, about the natural world, and the human place in it. But we need people to think about what it means for them, and how they will teach their children to interpret what they see here.
“What you do with the information is going to be different if you’re someone coming from a certain level of means versus someone who is barely getting by, wondering what it’s going to mean if you’re living against the edge of a creek that’s going to be flooding more often and you can’t afford to move.”
NOT ALL HOPE IS LOST
For all its dire forecasts and cautionary tales, the exhibition also makes clear there are some true bright spots in how humans are responding in the age of the Anthropocene. A taxidermy river otter signals the resurgence of that animal species in Pennsylvania, one of the great success stories of modern wildlife conservation. In the early 20th century, river otters all but disappeared from the state’s rivers due to polluted waters and over-trapping. After decades of work cleaning the state’s rivers, in 1982 scientists were able to reintroduce the otters to their favorite habitat, and they’ve reproduced and spread through Pennsylvania’s watersheds ever since.
“People go to great lengths to help animals,” says Becca Shreckengast, the museum’s director of exhibit experience, referencing as an example the assisted comeback of whooping cranes, North America’s tallest bird, which nearly vanished in the mid-20th century due to the loss of wetlands. In 1941, only 16 known birds remained in the wild. Since then, captive breeding programs have boosted the number of wild birds to several hundred, no easy feat. While raising the young in captivity, human caretakers wear white costumes and use a crane puppet to feed and exercise the birds, preventing the animals from imprinting on the humans, a common occurrence in birds. We Are Nature will include one of these clever costumes.
“I’m proud that we’re tackling this issue of the Anthropocene and not shying away from it and waiting for other museums like the Smithsonian to set the stage for the conversation,” says Shreckengast. “Instead, we’re experimenting with a conversation about it. We need our visitors to teach us how they want to talk about this topic with us. For the year in which the exhibition will be open, we know we will learn a lot by listening to how our visitors react, respond, and participate in this challenging content.”
Influencing We Are Nature from its inception has been a small team of passionate museum educators who’ve spent five years with their boots on the ground, talking to Pittsburghers about climate change. The group has assumed a leadership role in the Pittsburgh Climate & Urban Systems Partnership (CUSP), a network of educators, sustainable practice organizations, climate scientists, and learning scientists across the city, looking at local climate impacts and solutions. Their work includes developing and employing hands-on activities at local events like the Pittsburgh Arts Festival, where they share small, achievable solutions to local climate-based issues—such as how adding green infrastructure such as trees, rain barrels, green roofs, and gardens can help curb urban flooding.
We explain that green infrastructure is a fancy phrase for basically just imitating nature to soak up excess water before it gets to the sewer system,” says Mandi Lyon, museum and CUSP educator. “What the psychology and learning research tells us, and what our experience in the community has taught us, is that what people really care about is how this relates to their lives and what they can do to help.”
When educators run the activity about green infrastructure, for example, the light bulb goes on and people tell them, “Oh, that’s why my basement backs up with sewage every time it rains” or “That’s why we can’t go kayaking on the river after a big rainstorm,” says Lyon. The activities provide a spark for conversation, and people can connect their everyday experiences with local outcomes of climate change.
Lyon and her cohorts saw the impact of grounding climate change communication in relevancy and actionable solutions, which informed We Are Nature in a big way.
“We want everyone to feel like they are a participant in the Anthropocene,” says Shreckengast. “So, we’re giving them moments to have an impact.”
Getting in front of the next generation is key. In July, The Grable Foundation awarded the museum a $100,000 grant that will help it partner with other environmental-learning and community-based organizations to develop educational programming about the Anthropocene that connects to students’ lives and sharpens their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Museum educators have also been meeting with teachers to get their feedback about the exhibition and how it might enrich their curriculum—in science class but also across the humanities.
This fall, the museum anticipates hiring a full-time curator of the Anthropocene, a first step in laying the groundwork for a future permanent gallery informed by We Are Nature.
An important final step is helping visitors process all they’ve encountered at the museum, through art-making activities and other reflective experiences. The museum also wants to connect them with issues they care about and local groups already entrenched in making change happen. Groups like BirdSafe Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse, Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, and Tree Pittsburgh.
“The problems of the Anthropocene are global problems. But we can see them locally and we are responsible for them locally, and these are two things we really want to help people understand,” says Tonsor. “Studies show that most people think humans are having an influence on climate. But people also don’t think it will affect them.
“The interweaving of a deep understanding of how we humans interact with the living world and with Earth’s systems, it’s not been well developed in museums up to this point,” Tonsor notes. “We think that’s our great strength—to bring forth the meaning of the Anthropocene in the larger context of human existence and human meaning, with science at the core.”
Major funding for We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene is provided by the Colcom Foundation. Additional support is provided by The Grable Foundation, Highmark, John Orndorff, and The Charity Randall Foundation. The Pittsburgh Climate & Urban Systems Partnership is supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) Grant No. 1239782. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.
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