“We Are Nature,” proclaims the title of the big new Carnegie Museum of Natural History exhibit. But we humans are also, as the exhibit makes clear, very close to learning whether life on our planet can survive us in anything like its current form.
It’s a seeming paradox that resonates throughout the ambitious installation, whose full title is We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene. It was designed and curated by museum staff, and the Carnegie calls it the first exhibit in North America to focus on the anthropocene — the idea that human impact on the Earth is so massive that it will become geologic artifact.
That is not, by the way, something to celebrate. Our greenhouse gasses heat the planet, causing seas to rise. Farms flatten rainforests. Plants and animals are going extinct at an astounding pace. And our plastic trash is everywhere, making polyethylene soup of huge patches of ocean, engorging vast landfills, and getting stuffed, editorially, into the moss that otherwise fills the hollow letters of the “We Are Nature” welcome sign. (In 1934, T.S. Eliot wrote: “And the wind shall say: ‘Here were decent godless people: / Their only monument the asphalt road / And a thousand lost golf balls.” An optimist!)
The exhibit takes over the sprawling R.P. Simmons Family Gallery with everything from taxidermied frogs to interactive touch-screen displays offering time-lapse, satellite’s-eye projections of how a global temperature rise of just 7˚ F would wipe out Shanghai and swamp Florida, Bangladesh and Manhattan. Clever touches include a vitrine containing two pieces of office paper: a bill for $6,925 in basement waterproofing charged to a local family whose home was flooded because of climate-change-induced storms. “[A]lmost half of the land on earth has been transformed, and most of the world’s rivers have been altered,” exhibit text notes.
Amid general earnestness, there is surprising dark humor. A photo gallery depicting six critically endangered species — pangolin, mountain gorilla, hawksbill turtle, black rhino, etc. — asks visitors to “Vote for the next generation’s most distinguished extinct animal,” pointedly emphasizing that humankind can choose what it extirpates (or saves). Nearby stands a taxidermied dodo, admonitory under glass. A display titled “R.I.P. Great Barrier Reef,” asks us to sign the funeral book for this wonder of nature (and critical source of marine habitat) whose demise is predicted by 2050 due to warming oceans.
Educational and engaging as this all is, the statement “we are nature” is problematic. Humans, of course, are products of nature. But at some point in our history (likely during the Enlightenment), we went from honoring nature as a “mother” to manipulating and exploiting it as a “resource.” So when this exhibit reminds us that “We are not separate from nature, we are nature, and our decisions affect all life on earth,” it at first seems merely a welcome call to accountability. A warning to do something, for instance, to prevent the projected extinction in the coming century of one-third of all species on earth.
Yet something sticks in the craw. Alongside a wall of taxidermied critters often found in close proximity to city-dwellers — coyote, sparrow, frog — a touch-screen depicting a stylized map of Pittsburgh asks, “What is nature?” If you don’t highlight everything — the neighborhoods along with the woods — you’re told you’re wrong. “We assume nature is only where people are not,” but actually, says the screen, it’s everywhere.
Really? A space capsule is nature? An ice rink in Phoenix in June? Ross Park Mall? What about the plush-toy woolly mammoth that We Are Nature uses (perhaps ironically) to represent the real creature our paleolithic ancestors helped extinguish? Or the 272 plastic bits spilling from the autopsied gut of an albatross chick in one photo here, whose mother thought the cigarette lighters she fed it were real food?
In this sense, to believe that “we are nature” requires some stretching of the mind. For one thing, if humans and all they do are nature, then there’s nothing that’s not nature, and the word “nature” loses all meaning. Moreover, natural systems famously run in cycles. Even rock becomes soil. But polystyrene coffee cups are immortal (even their recycling requires industrial processing). And consider invasive species. Burmese pythons were around for millions of years without making it to the Everglades; global trade finally facilitated that trip, but now the snakes are decimating native bird populations there. Can a trade in exotic pets that destroys nature be “natural”?
We Are Nature contributors include Pittsburgh’s indispensable Center for PostNatural History, which documents ways humans have altered organisms — typically through gene-splicing — and whose very name assumes that there’s “natural” and there’s “not natural.” And CPNH’s taxidermied corpse of Freckles, a goat genetically engineered to give milk containing spider silk that’s used in bullet-proof vests, grazed on the latter side of things. Some might argue that far from everything being “nature,” everything today is post-natural, including us, all but wired into our smartphones.
Considering the speed with which we’ve wreaked devastation (most of it in the past century), the part of nature that humans resemble most might be the giant comet that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. However, the meteor didn’t know what it was doing; it couldn’t have acted otherwise. So is it consciousness that makes us seem unnatural? Yet aren’t our most environmentally damaging everyday acts — burning fossil fuels to stay warm, cool off, or travel — done without really thinking about them at all?
Humans, We Are Nature notes, do things like successfully reintroducing otters to Pennsylvania rivers, and providing insulated nesting boxes to keep cool the eggs of endangered South African penguins. But when whole ecosystems are collapsing, taking extraordinary measures to buy time for a selected few of the individual species who depend on those ecosystems can feel more delusional than heroic.
The exhibit notes another sobering phenomenon: “shifting cognitive baseline,” a.k.a. “environmental generational amnesia,” in which “the youth of each generation considers the level of degradation they experience to be normal.” Few inhabitants of a future, climatologically harsher, biologically poorer planet might know the difference.
We Are Nature does more showing than telling, and the preaching is minimal. The friendly-sounding title might draw in visitors who would shun an enviro-themed show, and it’s a brave all-ages attraction that confronts mom, dad and the kids with unpleasant truths. The exhibit’s final portions aim to help visitors process any feelings it has stirred, and to suggest ways to act. There are individual initiatives (“eat less beef,” “plant a tree”) and shout-outs to local environmental groups. At the art station on the day I visited, someone’s charming drawing of a friendly-looking axolotl (salamander) was hung right next to a dire sketch labeled “California is burning.” Nearby, another drawing quoted Rachel Carson’s warning from Silent Spring about the risks of overusing pesticides: “The people had done it themselves.”