The Anthropocene from the perspective of the Schuyllkil River

Lenni Lenape region (Photo: Wikipedia)

The Anthropocene is the name that Nobel Prize-winner Paul J. Crutzen gave to the current geologic age, in which human industrial activity provides the dominant force shaping the Earth and its environment. As an inquiry, the Anthropocene could serve as a fruitful meeting point for interdisciplinary exploration. Researchers, practitioners and institutions interested in water security and sustainability from the perspective of ‘socio-technical systems’ have particularly relevant skills in this regard, because they have a contextualized view of technological determinism, tracing out material and social trends over long periods of time.

From 22-26 October, I attended the Anthropocene Campus meeting in Philadelphia. Building on the success of the Anthropocene Campus meetings in Berlin (2014‐2016), this event gathered more than 50 graduate students, scholars, activists and artists from the US, Europe, Asia and Latin America to explore the Anthropocene in the setting of Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley in Pennsylvania.

During a field trip, I had the opportunity to experience industrial and urban water issues which are worth considering within the International Water Security Network (IWSN).

On the sunny morning of 25 October, we travelled to Bartram’s Garden Community Boathouse and paddled for a couple of hours along the Schuylkill River, guided by local scholars and environmental activists.

The Schuylkill, Tool-pay Hanna (Turtle River) in the language of the indigenous Lenni Lenape people, is an important river running west to east in eastern Pennsylvania. Historically, it has played a vital role in providing water for the city through the Fairmount Water Works, which is now a visitor attraction.

In the centre of the city, the condition of the river continues to be a concern due to a series of events related to industrial development and pollution. In November 1892, for example, the river burned after a leak from a refinery caused the surface to be covered with oil. In the early 20th Century, it was estimated that 3 million tons of silt were being deposited into the river annually, thanks to the coal industry. From 1945 onwards, action was taken to cleanup the river, and the water quality improved.

Paddling along the Schuyllkil river (Photo: F. Martin)

However, in recent years, two main environmental challenges have arisen: the Philadelphia Energy Solutions (PES) refinery – one of the biggest in US – and the I-76 highway, which runs along the Schuylkill River in Center City. Studies concluded that the annual CO2 emissions from the PES refinery are equal to over 600,000 cars per year, with the product of the refinery fuelling 11 million cars per year (4% of US fleet). Highway I-76, carries (as of 2012) over 180,000 vehicles every day – around 65.7 million cars annually.

During our paddling trip, we were challenged by the guides to activate our senses and take in the sounds, smells, colours, textures and processes. Most of us had mixed reactions – there was a lot of waste in the river and on its banks, and strong gas odours, but there were also some pleasant moments of solitude and bird-watching. We confirmed that we all have stereotyped ideas about ‘pristine’ nature. In looking for improved living environments, including these and other real ‘waterscapes’, we must experience water insecurities in a direct way. This was a wonderful and mobilizing ride looking for an in-depth understanding of quotidian Anthropocene-related practices.

About the author: Dr. Facundo Martin is a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET) in Mendoza, Argentina. He is a partner of the International Water Security Network and is currently a Fulbright Scholar in the University of Connecticut.