Material Culture

Dozens of plastic bottles in different shapes and colours

Material culture of the Anthropocene is markedly distinct from pre-industrial times

Material culture has changed dramatically in the Anthropocene.

The enormous variety of materials we make use of today is already mirrored in the most recent sediments that the geologists of the Anthropocene Working Group are analyzing. What their high-resolution stratigraphy for the 20th century brings to the fore is a huge number of technofossils. These reflect the evolution of the technosphere and its enormous expansion nurtured by the fossil energy regime of industrialism. Industrial technologies have produced an unprecedented increase in material variety, making it an anomaly in the history of social metabolism. Synthetic materials such as plastics have contributed to it as well as new raw materials for industrial mass production or unprecedented amounts of materials already used centuries or millennia before (e.g. iron ore). As a result, the material culture of the Anthropocene is markedly distinct from anything we find in pre-industrial worlds. We are now living in an “all-metals era” (Martin Held), which means that all metals and semi-metals from the periodical system have become components for building our material world. 20th-century stratigraphy and the technofossils geologists find in it are the signature of fossil material culture.

The Anthropocene challenges the social sciences and the humanities to expand their study of matter and materiality beyond the cultural sphere. To this point, the “material turn” in the humanities and social sciences seems a long way away from systematically considering “materiality” in relation to climate, the environment, or the Earth System. However, it can no longer be ignored that the enormous expansion of material flows in industrialized and developing societies is showing the symptoms of environmental disruption on a planetary scale.

Franz Mauelshagen


Researchers: Erich Draganits, Anna Echterhölter, Ulrike Felt, Kira Lappé, Michael Wagreich

Further Reading