BOSTON — In the small, packed venue of Brighton Music Hall on Dec. 2, 2019, amps crackle with feedback; the room is static with anticipation.
As metal band Cattle Decapitation takes the stage, ominous atmospheric sounds settle over the room like dark clouds. A voice intones: “The recent unparalleled temperatures in the Arctic as well as the data showing abnormal rises in upper-atmosphere methane levels converge to give the impression that the near future of the entire human race is at stake.”
The voice goes on: “In 2018, the World Bank group reported that many countries will need to prepare for over 100 million displaced people, as well as the displacement of millions of international refugees, due to the ill effects of climate change.” Time feels as though it’s been suspended, the fate of the entire planet looming before us. Then the band kicks into the title track of its new album, Death Atlas, bombarding the crowd with distorted chords and incessant double-bass as lead singer Travis Ryan issues demonic decrees: “A las, the deed is done / Mankind now dead and gone / Post-Anthropocene, Earth reset to day one / Fire now rages on.” His vocals mutate into a slow and monstrous growl: “We deserve everything that’s coming.”
Sonically, Cattle Decapitation might sound like familiar metal music, but fans have been drawn to the band for what sets it apart from others in the genre: It is, explicitly, a voice for the existential fears of the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene is a term proposed to capture the notion that we’ve entered a new geological epoch, one marked by the cascading impacts of global climate change. For the past several decades, both scientists and artists have done their part to sound the alarm about a looming socio-ecological catastrophe.
Karen Frey, a geographer at Clark University, is one such scientist working to inform the public about the effects of climate change on Arctic sea ice. “The sense of urgency has always been there for scientists,” Frey says, surrounded by globes and maps in her office. “But how do you convey urgency and hope simultaneously?”
While Ryan tours the world with a band known for both its brutal sound and radical political messages, Frey spends her field seasons on scientific expeditions to the northern oceans — some of the most unforgiving environments on the globe. Using different tools and through different media, both seek to map the realities of climate change and communicate the magnitude and urgency of the global climate crisis.
“The Pacific Arctic region where I study — the unraveling that has occurred up there…” Frey trails off, searching to communicate what her years of field observations and research have shown her.
“Undoubtedly, one of t he most profound changes we will see in our lifetime is the disappearance of the perennial sea ice pack in the Arctic Ocean,” she says. The latest scientific models indicate that by 2060, the Arctic will be ice-free all summer. Frey says she’s found that the image of a blue Arctic — an expanse of open water where we have come to expect ice — hits people particularly hard. “When you look at a map or a globe,” Frey says, “you are always imagining that white polygon around the North Pole. But that will cease to exist in our lifetime.”
Psychologically, this extent of sea-ice loss transforms our vision of Earth and ourselves. The effect literally makes us feel alienated on our own planet. Through Earth visualization, including maps and models drawn from satellite imagery, Frey simulates what’s called an “overview effect.” First described by astronauts looking back on our “pale blue dot” floating in the cosmic void, the overview effect is a cognitive shift caused by a radical change in our perspective of Earth. It’s the indeterminate, overwhelming feeling evoked by observing an immense landscape or staring out the window of an airplane at the patchwork world below — any experience that dwarfs the human scale.
Cattle Decapitation’s Death Atlas aims to produce a similar effect. The album includes a Post-Anthropocene Map, a 42-by-64-inch vision of a climate-ravaged future Earth. The familiar contours of our puzzle-piece continents have been disfigured by rising seas. Australia-sized islands of garbage whorl at the center of all major oceans. As if to reflect Frey’s research, the white polar ice has been replaced by an expanse of open ocean. But unlike Frey’s blue Arctic, this ocean is the hue of stagnant rust.
Frey hopes the power of the overview effect can help produce the sort of social tipping point we need to turn the corner in the fight against climate change.
“It might take death, unfortunately. It might take destruction,” Frey says soberly. “But hopefully, those social tipping points will happen sooner rather than later, such that we avoid those things.”
When asked whether she is an optimist, Frey doesn’t skip a beat. “I think you have to be,” she says, a rebellious glint in her eye. “My hope comes from the fact that this problem is too big, it is too real, to not be dealt with.”
This piece was adapted from an article originally published in Guernica magazine.