THE GREAT ACCELERATION

The 1948 prediction by astronomer Fred Hoyle that the first pictures from the outside of Planet Earth would change the course of history was accurate in profound ways. Just 21 years later, NASA’s iconic photographs from the Moon intensified the human-nature relationship, -influencing the first Earth Day to occur the next year and spawning a global environmental movement. It would, however, take another 35 years for The Great Acceleration to become clear, as summarized by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program:

“Many human activities reached take-off points sometime in the 20th Century and sharply accelerated towards the end of the century … [They] have clearly evolved from insignificance in terms of Earth system functioning to the -creation of global-scale impacts that are approaching or exceeding in magnitude some of the great forces of nature; operate on much faster time scales than rates of natural variability, often by an order of magnitude or more; and taken together in terms of extent, magnitude, rate and simultaneity, have produced a no-analogue state in the dynamics and functioning of the Earth system.”

In a 2007 museum sector book titled “In Principle, In Practice,” I co-authored an article about ‘Raising the Relevancy Bar’ with the president of the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, CA:

“… it is a matter of accountability whether … institutions opt to be part of the solution or part of the problem … Successfully heading in this direction depends on three facets of institutional -culture being in place. The first concerns mission and vision — is there a clear and firm commitment to be of value to the societal and environmental problems we face? The second concerns leadership — is there a preparedness and competence to be an activist? The third -concerns strategy — is there a relentless pursuit to be more externally useful and to nurture new perspectives in funding stakeholders?”

Next April, the Manchester Museum in the UK hosts an international symposium with “Climate Change and Museums: Critical Approaches to Engagement and Management” as its theme. This is the summary of my invited contribution:

“The rising popularity of the Anthropocene as a scholarly and public frame of reference for the intensifying role of humanity as a geological force presents new and urgent opportunities for museums to engage their communities in the changing dynamics of the natural world. While climate change predominates the news, arguably a better approach for the long and wide responsibility of nature and science museums is a multifaceted one which views atmospheric changes in a whole-Earth context inseparable from the changes underway in the hydrosphere, biosphere (including the ‘humanosphere’ and ‘technosphere’), pedosphere, cryosphere, and lithosphere. Ideally also, each provides citizen science opportunities.
“For museums to be vital resources in the Anthropocene requires an externally-mindful mission; a holistic past-present-future timeframe; seamless coverage of natural and anthropogenic forces; a diversified toolkit of experiences offering dialogue as much as exhibition; leverage of teachable moments in the news; and reference to global platforms such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Recent physical, cultural, content, audience, and outreach developments at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences provide an instructive example. With a mission ‘to illuminate the natural world and inspire its conservation,’ this institution’s onsite, offsite, outdoor and online experiences ask ‘what do we know?,’ ‘how do we know?,’ ‘what is happening now?’ and ‘how can the public participate?’”

The National Environmental Education Foundation has a purpose to secure a safer and healthier world for ourselves, our children, and for generations to come. In the context of new initiatives titled a ‘Greener Future,’ the NC Museum of Natural Sciences has just become NEEF’s first museum partner.

Emlyn Koster, PhD
emlyn.koster@naturalsciences.org
Director, North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences


Past Columns in the Naturalist