Heritage is the scene where the acts of the anthropos, the human being, are celebrated (sometimes condemned), commemorated, and enacted. As a central stage for remembrance of bygone human generations, it is pertinent to ask what is the relation of heritage to the concept of Anthropocene – the era of humans, and how does Anthropocene relate to the longer history of the places in question.
When Stroemer and Crutzen first published the term Anthropocene in 2000, they proposed latter part of the 18th c as the border line between Holocene and Anthropocene, coinciding roughly with the invention of steam engine. Latter discussions have concentrated mostly on the European industrial revolution from 1800 onwards and the advent of the nuclear age as the borderlines. Archaeologists in their turn have argued against these Eurocentric definitions and maintain that Anthropocene is essentially co-extensive with Holocene, since early civilizations also engineered their landscapes extensively, having a considerable impact on the whole earth system. This definition would effectively blur the boundaries of the so-called natural heritage, acknowledging that most of our extant natural environment is as a matter of fact natureculture.
Industrial heritage is the heritage type that most explicitly works to perpetuate the onset of Anthropocene in human memory. Most of its protected objects commemorate the moment when humans became drivers of the earth system change. Mining and burning of coal, long-haul transport and global movement, metalwork, harnessing water, military infrastructure, new ways of intensive resource use and production – all these and even more speak of human achievements in this new era of human dominance, often coupled with stories of oppression, environmental destruction and injustice.
On the other hand, also the other heritage sites that commemorate more long-term histories, such as religious or agricultural heritage sites bear an inevitable trace of the Anthropocene. Their endangerment, the need to preserve these sites mostly surges from the huge socio-economic changes accompanying Modernization and the Great Acceleration. Were it not for intensification of agriculture, increasing urbanization, depopulation of marginal villages, growing resource use, increasing automobile use and whatever other indices of Industrial revolution and Great Acceleration you may think of, these places may have never become endangered. Be it Shirakawa and Gokayama villages of Hida, pilgrimage routes of Mt Fuji or Ōmi Hachiman channels of Lake Biwa, their today’s appearance bears a stamp of Anthropocene. Heritage policy where each site is preserved as it was at the moment of taking it under protection, perpetuates this face of Anthropocenic abandonment forever.
Nuclear heritage – the heritage of the shorter Anthropocene definition, preferred by the Stratigraphic Commission – is a particularly challenging type where the difficulties arise from the invisibility of true nuclear legacy. In cultural heritage, this legacy is partly made visible, whereas designating nature protection areas on the nuclear sites, the invisible but present effects of the nuclear legacy are concealed. Once again, the essence of natural heritage becomes blurred in a new type of natureculture, a technoenvironment.