Water in the Anthropocene

Irish writer James Joyce’s gibberish masterpiece Finnegans Wake is a tale of the night. It begins with an allusion to the global water cycle.

The tale is told as a stream of consciousness that takes the reader through a restless, endlessly shifting dreamscape, drifting from one half-finished thought to the next.

The main character is an oddly-named Dublin publican Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker or HCE. Versions of this abbreviation crop up throughout, and assume different meanings. In places HCE is a reference to Here Comes Everybody: the publican stands for every man.

This gives a sense for what Joyce was aiming to create: a book that captures humanity in its full state. Finnegans Wake is about people, all people, everywhere.

The first reference to HCE appears in the incredible, dumbfounding opening sentence. Even the first word discombobulates: “riverrun”, in lowercase. The book starts midsentence with a word that doesn’t even exist.

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

Howth Castle guards Dublin Bay. Eve and Adam’s is a church on the river Liffey. Joyce is describing the flow of the water cycle and using it as a metaphor for life, and in particular humanity.  The opening sentence begins as the last line of the book. The book is a cycle; it is perfectly self contained. 

Yesterday, data visualizer Felix Pharand Deschenes and I released a new short film – Water in the Anthropocene, commissioned by the Global Water Systems Project for an international conference taking place in Bonn this week. It opens with a description of the water cycle based on Finnegans Wake’s opening lines, and goes on to chart how humans are altering the global water cycle.

Water availability has largely determined where human civilisations have flourished. Indeed, civilisation emerged between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers on the fertile crescent of Mesopotamia in modern-day Iraq.

But recently we have begun to change the water cycle, not just locally or regionally, but on a truly global scale. We have build 48,000 large dams in less than two centuries and another 1600 are in development. We have drained half the world’s wetlands. We use an area the size of South America to grow our crops and an area the size of Africa for our livestock.

Through climate change, we are further altering the global water cycle. Wet areas are likely to become wetter, dry areas drier. And in many areas we are using groundwater faster than it can be recharged.

We wanted to create something unique and powerful. The film takes the viewer on a journey across our planet, first in its natural state, then as humans change the water cycle. 

Felix built a perfect aural accompaniment using a mix of ambient music from Earlyguard and sound recordings by Norwegian artist Jana Winderen of cracking ice, rainfall and water flow. 

Sarah Sherborne does another fantastic job narrating the film. This became a more difficult job than the first film, Welcome to the Anthropocene, because it was particularly important for the narration to match precisely to the visuals as datasets sweep in and out.

So as it begins to appear on blogs and tweets we can only hope this is as successful as the first. It was a joy to work on this project with a truly world-class team.

UPDATE (26 May, 2013):

The film has appeared on many blogs and news sites in the last few days, but not everyone is a fan of Joyce. Tasha Eichenseher at Discover says “If you can get past the melodramatic narration, there is a pretty stellar data visualization..that illustrates how the human footprint has changed the global water cycle.” Ouch! Well, you can’t please everyone.

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