Children of the Anthropocene: Manifesto / by Benjamin Matthews

Shanna and little Wolf, a few moments after his birth in 2018 in Newcastle, NSW.

Shanna and little Wolf, a few moments after his birth in 2018 in Newcastle, NSW.

We (Katherine & Ben) met a little over a year ago in Newcastle, and fell deeply in love. Over a handful of weeks, we turned from the prospect of a life alone to the passion and hope that love brings. Our conversation quickly arrived at the delicate things, like children, and we agreed the future held dark portents - places we refused to offer new life. But through the months that followed, hope had its way, dreams of a little family and a future Australia where our children might be safe have refused to die. Our project sets out to explore this ambivalence: the powerful, contradictory emotions that accompany children of the anthropocene.

This is a time of rapid change for diverse, and often vulnerable communities throughout regional NSW. Here, largely unwitnessed, unfold the stories of parents dealing with the impacts of climate change and resource decline. Lives where aspirations for a bright future are at odds with the evidence to hand. Where rumours of present or looming environmental and economic decline are growing into threatening experiences that colour daily life. Visceral evidence, in the form of violent weather events, drought and bushfire are compounded by the decline of industries that once vibrant rural communities relied on.

Newcastle Harbour at Dawn

Newcastle Harbour at Dawn

The Hunter region and Newcastle are iconic examples, where heavy industry and exports of coal, wine and livestock are all threatened. It highlights the contradictions we all face: our reliance on coal vs. our desire to preserve this beautiful part of Australia for our children. As exports slow, the city is rebranding, a “Smart, Creative City”. Indeed, the warehouse that brought us together as a couple is a post-industrial coworking hub where small businesses are building a community that fights back against the precarious circumstances of the anthropocene. But we are not alone, as the economic conditions driven by the consumption of primary resources begin to wither, and the planet attempts to pivot toward ideas, and a reliance on high-tech industries, automation and a “creative economy”.

Recent Government research, the Measures of Australia’s Progress (MAP) report, uncovered powerful contradictions between knowledge and aspirations of Australians (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012). Based on two-years of conversations about our nation’s future, it concluded we want the “environment to become healthier rather than degraded over time” (p. 94). But we also desire greater well being, and “the opportunities, means and ability to have a high standard of living and... the kind of life [we] want and choose to live” (p. 90). We aspire to a growing economy and employment, with time for “building and maintaining positive relationships” (p. 86). These conversations are hidden stories, where desires and daily practices seem to be in a paradoxical relationship - where the bounty of the holocene has slid into the decay of the anthropocene, and where people battle to recognise or acknowledge the changes at hand.

Our project intersects with this: the experience of parents of the children of the anthropocene. Educated parents who have the means to make considered decisions, and those not in a position to make environmentally conscious choices (but are the first to suffer). The visual narrative will be in the style of documentary photography, where formal portraiture will play a role. Our focus is on family, and the beauty of intimate rituals and experiences of the day-to-day that reveal so much.

Our project is in the research phase. The next phase will be dedicated to photography and interviews with couples, single people and parents in the Hunter, where a rich cross section of the experience of regional NSW is available.