Colorlines Favorites of 2019: The Anthropocene Reviewed and the Remaking of Time

By Kenrya Rankin Dec 31, 2019

The Earth, she is old. Scientists say she has been spinning for just over 4.5 billion years, journeying through the universe, showing her face to the sun every few hours like clockwork. That first revolution marked the start of the Hadean Era, which lasted 750 million years and gave way to several other eras in Earth’s history, which can be broken down into periods and epochs, each marked by significant events in the world’s geological timeline.

Until a few years ago, the people who decide such things were firmly in agreement that we were living in the Holocene (which means “entirely recent”) epoch. But a geological working group recently decided that we’ve pushed the planet into the Anthropocene, marked by the profound impact that humans have made on the Earth to the tune of mass extinction of plant and animal species, a poisoned atmosphere and toxic oceans. There is a contingent of experts who call it an arrogant position, that it’s too soon to declare a shift in the timeline, but the evidence is all around us.

Which brings me to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast that rates artifacts of this new human-centered epoch, on a five-star scale. 

I adore podcasts. I subscribe to no fewer than 74 shows and have a handful that I cannot miss each week. I even host a podcast. And I’m always trying new ones, giving them a few minutes of my time so I can decide if they should be added to the rotation. But few shows have stopped me in my tracks like The Anthropocene Reviewed. 

I first pressed play back in the summer, though the show has been airing monthly episodes since January 2018. I think I started with the review of “Prom and the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment.” At just 19 minutes, it moved quickly and proved to be a gateway to the entire catalog, which I devoured over the course of two weeks while driving my kid to and from her art and activism camp.

The show functions as a series of audio essays crafted by host John Green (author of “The Fault In Our Stars” and “Turtles All the Way Down”) that are beautiful in their simplicity, dry in their humor and efficient in their word usage. But the best part is that these essays never go where I think they will.

Take that first episode I listened to. Green starts with a history of prom, showing us how it began as an event for people who weren’t part of the debutante set to show off their manners and sophistication. But then he pivots, breaks down how the annual dance dictates gender roles and social norms and puts people of color and queer folks on the outside of them. And how, as a cishet man, it conditioned him to connote heterosexual sex as intimacy—and hate himself for not being ready for either one in high school. Then he makes a hard right and meditates on the impermanence of memory, the ways we mythologize our own pasts, stretch them to monstrous proportions as we stuff them with wishful thinking and snatches of pop culture. In the end, we’re reminded that our memories—and our lives—are shaped as much by what we choose to remember as they are by the actual things that happened.

I always learn something by the end of each episode, but I’d never call it a lesson; that sounds too academic for what this show imparts. I’m drawn to the emotional impact, the unearthed bit of universal truth that I never see coming. I imagine it’s how the anthropologists who didn’t foresee this epoch feel, blindsided by something that, if they sit and reflect honestly, they can’t help but register as reality. 

To not see the depth of our situation feels like willful ignorance. A land—an Earth—is not just red clay, oak trees and lazy rivers. It’s how we treat the people who live on it. This time, the Anthropocene, is one where oil pipelines crisscross Turtle Island and threaten the resource we all literally need to live. Where excessive consumption by White people is directly tied to poor air quality for Black people. Where lead-tainted water threatens the present and future health of Black children. Where fast fashion fills landfills and undervalues the skilled work of immigrants forced to accept sub-minimum wages.

Nothing happens in a vacuum. That’s the feeling that shines brightest at the end of each episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed. With each listen, I’m reminded that everything is connected, holding hands in a massive, feverish game of Red Rover. That I was tripping to think that we could talk about prom without a meditation on memory. That our current struggles are caused by the ravages of this epoch. That our fortunes are intimately tied. That our revolution can’t happen if it doesn’t draw us all into the streets. That we can’t usher in the next epoch without causing another profound shift in the way we interact on and with this land, these people, this world.

I give The Anthropocene Reviewed five stars.

More of Kenrya’s Favorites:

TV Show: "Russian Doll"

Movie: "Parasite"

Album: "Shea Butter Baby," by Ari Lenox

Hashtag: #FightWhiteSupremacy

Book: "Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good," by adrienne maree brown

Artist: Beyoncé

Personality: Megan Thee Stallion