Glaciers are melting, seas rising, and climates changing. Civilizational baselines are also shifting, including what is true, what being human means, as well as who gets to answer those questions and in what ways. Safe operating space is unraveling as we enter the Anthropocene back loop, a time of chaotic fracture and confusion, experimentation and potential.
As observed in ecological systems, a back loop is the phase of life when the structures that constitute one order come apart, making way for others to form. The back loop concept was developed by C.S. Holling in the 1970s and is now used widely by resilience ecologists. For ecologists, every system (a forest, body, city) goes through a cycle with two phases: a ‘front loop’ and a ‘back loop’ (together making up the ‘adaptive cycle’). The front loop is seen as progressing from an initial growth or exploitation phase, to a second phase of conservation or stability and is portrayed as a phase of seeming stability when everything’s ‘in its place.’ But a back loop is a time when those structures come undone, a period of destabilization and fracture, confusion and release, but also deep potential for experimentation and transformation.
In a post-fire forest, for example, organized carbon and nitrogen, decomposers and producers, feedbacks of sun and water, nutrients and biomass, previously bound up in certain configurations to feed the mature forest, are scattered and released. “Now suddenly, is the time where unexpected events happen. The accumulated resources are disassembled, broken down, left uncontrolled,” explains Holling. Energies and potential previously captured in the front loop are set free for new, unexpected combinations. As illustrated by political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon, “it’s as if somebody threw the forest’s remaining plants, animals, nutrients, energy flows, and genetic information into a gigantic mixing bowl and stirred.” Space is opened for new species to colonize the area. Pioneer species sprout from stumps of burned trees. Birds nest in their charred branches. Genetic mutations prove useful. Undergrowth is cleared, making way for the floor receive sunlight. Ash settles in, returning previously locked-in nutrients to the soil. Surviving species are freed from long-standing relationships. They explore the new zone using seeds in the soil, left-behind debris and existing vegetation, often creating new combinations, testing out new predator-prey relations. The back loop is a time of profound possibility, where the previous forest may be reestablished via existing seedbanks, but novel unexpected synergies between species may equally give rise to one or many other new arrangements. All back loops are different. Just as likely as the rise of new structures, is the possibility that no new structures arise.
The back loop is the least examined aspect of systems, and most existing studies are ecological in nature. However we can see the Anthropocene itself as having a front loop and a back loop. From this perspective we are now leaving behind the safe operating space of the Anthropocene front loop —a geological but also a geosocial formation built on the terra firma of modern liberal thought and action as much as the stable, abundant earth systems of the Holocene interglacial. As we enter the Anthropocene’s back loop, a phase coincident with neoliberal crises and restructuring, we are witness to the perceived washing away of human mastery over the world and the proliferation of terminal diagnoses of western civilization alongside human and nonhuman transgression of earthly tipping points, including biodiversity loss and rising seas. This is an ‘unsafe operating space,’ not only because we have passed so many planetary thresholds but also because there are no blueprints, guarantees, or assurances. As the structures of the Anthropocene’s ascendant phase splinter, environmental catastrophe and dislocation are pervasive. But new problems and new tools are also emerging.
Based in Miami Beach, Florida—considered sea level rise “ground zero”— Back Loop TV explores these environmental and social dislocations on the ground and the experiments through which diverse actors are responding to, perceiving, and living in them. Throughout its concern is to explore tools of liberation and freedom for ordinary people in the back loop’s shifting configurations. In contrast to life in the regimes we are leaving behind, where innovation was stifled and influence limited to a few actors with the greatest power, in the Anthropocene back loop, beings and things are released and open to new potentials.
BLTV's aims are multiple. Taking a step back from the polished aesthetic of current web design, BLTV curates simple, rough video and images in order to document a moment in process. BLTV is also a visual companion to material discussed in depth in Stephanie Wakefield’s book Anthropocene Back Loop: Experimentation in Unsafe Operating Space, which will be out soon from Open Humanities Press. The project is an experimental work-in-process and will be updated regularly over coming months with research from Wakefield's new project, Miami Forever? Urbanism in the Back Loop.