From the late 1930s until 1970, low-grade brown coal was extracted at Søby in mainland Denmark. This activity carried out largely by manual labour massively transformed, if not destroyed, the surrounding landscape. The need for Danish brown coal extraction was spurred by increasing domestic demand, but even more so by the onset of World War II when supply lines from Britain were severed. Denmark needed a fossil energy source of its own, however poor the quality of the coal. The Søby mine thus writes itself into a much wider narrative of global connections and changing patterns of production and consumption. Indeed, the very event – World War II – gave rise to what the scientific judges of the Anthropocene Working Group see as the most likely stratigraphic ‘Golden Spike’ marking the beginning of the Anthropocene: the atomic bomb explosions in the middle of the 20th century.
This new ‘Epoch of Man’ is often framed in apocalyptic terms. The apocalypse can take many forms and the Anthropocene, we argue, is also made up of unspectacular and ‘mild’ cases of human disturbance, as we showed in the exhibition “Mild Apocalypse” at Moesgaard Museum near Aarhus, Denmark. In the exhibition, we invited visitors to explore a peculiar Danish anthropogenic landscape where the extraction of brown coal, regulated by the state and on a rather small-scale basis, has nonetheless left remarkable and permanent traces. The exhibition asked how familiar and unfamiliar forms of life, human and non-human, quietly emerged and continue to emerge in the shadows of prior industrial activity. In short, we wanted to bring the Anthropocene home (Fig. 1).
Zooming in, Søby is located in an apparently unexceptional area in western Denmark. Even so, it is thoroughly shaped by the quest for fossil fuels, which briefly populated the area with entrepreneurs, able-bodied workers, black-market traders, and seekers of fortune.
The brown coal beds were swiftly exhausted, and people moved on. But the extraction left behind a ruined landscape with acidic lakes and frequent landslides, as well as opportunities for new species, businesses and projects. A composite scene of potentials and obstacles has come into being – impossible to control, dangerous at places, and unsuited for commercial agriculture and forestry (Fig. 2). What happens in a landscape worn out by extractive activity?
The area is now home to deer, weeds, hunters, lone wolves, invasive plants, and other forms of life that thrive and engage with each other where prior industrial activity has exhausted the possibilities for continued industry. At this particular spot familiar species and objects are assembled in novel and peculiar configurations. There are other stories to tell than the traditional narrative associated with Søby, which is one of entrepreneurial spirit, male prowess and economic success – a Danish Klondike. What if these qualities were turned on their head and seen in the light of their destructive consequences as expressive of the Anthropocene?
Questions like these have led researchers from Aarhus University’s AURA and C3NET projects to also gather in the former brown coal beds to investigate – using methods from ecology, anthropology, archaeology and the arts – a landscape formatted by human intervention. Our take on the Danish brown coal history is inspired by AURA and C3NET researchers’ insights into disturbed landscapes – mild and not-so-mild apocalypses – across the world (Fig. 3-17).
Søby, for all its apparently unremarkable nature, constitutes a microcosm of the Anthropocene that includes invasive species, pollution, human-transformed landscapes and of new ecological opportunities and dangers. Museums worldwide are beginning to address the challenge of confronting and debating anthropogenic climate change, its causes and consequences. In an Anthropocene perspective, cultural and natural history and heritage collapse; man-made nature becomes a topic for museums of cultural history as much as museums of natural history. Welcome to a Danish Anthropocene landscape, created by human activity, grown over.
Fieldwork locations and inspirations of AURA and C3NET researchers.
Nathalia Brichet, PhD, is a postdoc at Aarhus University, where she is part of the collective research group Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene. She is also part of the research project, Natural Goods? Processing Raw Materials in Global Times. Her research is focused on extractive industries in Greenland and Denmark. Brichet uses her fieldwork to collect and exhibit anthropological analyses in collaboration with the people she engages with, and curators and colleagues from museums in Denmark, Great Britain, USA, and Ghana. She has curated collaborative exhibitions at the National Museum of Denmark, National Museum of Ghana and at Moesgaard Museum in Denmark.
Frida Hastrup, PhD, is associate professor in ethnology at the Saxo Institute, University of Copenhagen. She is the leader of a research project about natural resources by the name of Natural Goods? Processing Raw Materials in Global Times, (funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research’s Sapere Aude programme), which has exhibition work as part of its output. This has resulted in co-curated exhibitions at the National Museum of Denmark and at Moesgaard Museum.
Felix Riede, PhD, is an archaeologist with particular interest in geo-cultural heritage and the relationship between humans and the environment at the intersection between the Arts and the Sciences. In particular, he has been researching the impact of extreme events such as volcanic eruptions on human communities in the deep past. He is currently coordinating PI of the Climate|Culture|Catastrophe Network, a hub for the Environmental Humanities at Aarhus University. In 2017, he will start a large research project funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research’s Sapere Aude programme on Europe’s deep-time geo-cultural heritage and the impact of the Laacher See volcanic eruption 13000 years ago on environments and communities at that time. Recent publications include an edited volume on past vulnerability, reflections on ethics in studies of past environmental change and on teaching climate change in the humanities, as well as papers reaching out to the risk reduction science community.