The Artist in the Age of Anthropocene

Archeologists divide Earth’s history in a geologic time scale into a hierarchical series of smaller blocks of time. These divisions are called ages, epochs, periods, eras and eons based on Earth’s rock layers, or strata, and the fossils found within them. Scientists guess which parts of the geological record certain fossils belong to.

We are said to live in the Anthropocene Epoch — an unofficial geologic time. The official name is Holocene— an epoch said to have started almost 12,000 years ago.

The word Anthropocene is derived from the Greek words anthropo, for “man,” and cene for “new”. The basic question that scientists are trying to answer before declaring the Anthropocene an epoch is if humans have changed the Earth system to the point that it is reflected in the rock strata.

Key milestones in the horror history of humanity are  

  1. the advent of the Industrial Revolution — which accelerated climate change.
  2. The testing and dropping of the first atomic bomb on human communities — Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

The Challenge of Art: Between Wakefulness and Slumber

Art in the Age of the Anthropocene, is tied to human relationships to objects and materials and how these impact our environment. Read more here.
The Anthropocene clearly is an epoch in which human activity harms human habitation in ways that can be compared to a person willfully destroying his or her own home. The question confronting the artist is how to use his craft to wake up humanity to this cannibal inclination, reminding everyone of the African proverb which says that the man who burns his father’s house can only inherit the ashes.

We can also begin by questioning the purpose of arts — all creative forms: music, photography, fine arts, drama, poetry, prose, etc.

Do we have the luxury of seeing art as production without utility beyond generating revenue? Can we afford to develop aesthetic or beautify bullets, bombs and weapons of mass destruction forgetting about how these burst and annihilate dreams, lives and communities?

Could art in the Anthropocene challenge, organize and present alternatives to the current decadent system into which humanity has been sucked?

Can art recover the meaning of terminologies such as “sustainability” and even “development”?

We live in an age when vast chunks of humanity know with more certainty that they do not know why we are here on earth. At a mundane scale we do not even know where most objects around us came from. For the ones we are certain are man made we still grapple with basic questions as to why the objects were made, who made them, when were they made and who can afford them.

Art for Oppression or Liberation

The Anthropocene is arguably an epoch where objects are made with inbuilt obsolescence. We live in a throwaway culture. We live in a time when Nigeria and nations around us have become cemeteries of obsolete technologies of various kinds. We are the junkyard where purchasing scraps is a high gamble as to their utility.

What role can the artist play in reminding us of our humanity, of our proud history of creativity and high aesthetic skills? With humanity racing to the precipice, can art help pull the brakes? Can art challenge the rising poverty as well as erosion of moral bars?

Can art help stop the barbarism of genocide, Ecocide, apartheid and bare-faced war crimes?  How about rising green, blue and carbon colonialism via false climate solutions. 

Can art be the fulcrum of revolt against exploitative socio-economic relations? Can art boldly demand fundamental system change? What would that change look like?

Art as a Tool for Communicating Change

For us, one of the urgent questions of the Anthropocene is whether we can afford to indulge in art for art’s sake. To answer this question, we may have to examine which artistes, and/or their production have stood the test of time, have made positive contributions to the emancipation of peoples across the world. 

At this juncture we should ask ourselves some questions:

  1. What art piece most influenced you and your world view?
  2. Which musician stirred your conscience and demanded that you stand up to be counted?
  3. What do you learn when you reflect on the bronze artistic pieces of Benin Kingdom and why they were stolen?
  4. How best can you use your talent to communicate on the issues of our time— climate change, corruption, poverty, crime and violence?
  5. How can art build resilience in our time by propagating a counterculture?

The artist must take a stand. The artiste must make a choice. The battles raging in the tumultuous age of Anthropocene requires that no artist can afford to sit on the fence.

A talk by Nnimmo Bassey at Exposed! – A TellThatStory Conference, Benin City, Nigeria. 30 October 2023

Time to Build Solidarity, not Walls

I thank the Chancellor and President, and the entire family of York University for the great honour being extended to me today. 

Being born at a time we were at the edge of breaking free from colonialism, the notion of independence was built early into my psyche. Growing up in innocence and being sucked into a season of violent secession was both disruptive and traumatic. This was a season of disruption of my primary education and it yielded an age-long struggle to figure out what was missed in the traumatic gaps of forced migration and survival as a refugee within my country.

Seasons are episodic otherwise they would not be seasons. At the end of the Biafra-Nigeria civil war, I was already severely scarred by the sights of horrible human rights abuses, man’s inhumanity to man, hunger, disease, cries of men pleading for their lives and several other stressors. War games were not video games, but games played with actual bones, fire and gunpowder. Bones of once gallant men who signed up to fight their brothers against whom they had no personal grouse. Today, more investment is being made in warfare, armaments, and destruction than in building resilience and wellbeing in the world.

My early years were wrapped by tales of resilience and charismatic anti-colonial fighters in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Angola and South Africa. It was a time of learning of the martyrdom of Patrice Lumumba, Samora Machel, Steve Biko, Amilca Cabral, Thomas Sankara and others.

Meanwhile my country was under serial authoritarian military dictatorship and as a young adult I could not escape being a part of the human rights and anti dictatorship movement. Whereas I thought that was the zenith of standing against injustices, more graphic examples were unfolding beneath the radar.

The wheels of oppression at home were literally oiled by crude oil and sundry extractivist activities. Capital trumped concerns for the health of Mother Earth and her children. Complaints against the destruction of the ecosystems and livelihoods were met with brute force. Whole communities were sacked or crushed. Oil spills and heinous routine gas flaring pumped cocktails of noxious elements and gases into the environment, birthing cancers, birth defects, breathing diseases and cutting life expectancy to a mere whisper. 

It was at this time that Ken Saro-Wiwa and other Ogoni leaders stood out and called for environmental Justice. Later we learned from Saro-Wiwa’s last writings before his judicial murder that the organizing energy rose from the conviction that “silence was treason” in the face of the debilitating pollution!

The judicial murders and assault on communities were the red lines the dictatorship crossed that set me on a lifelong journey of standing for environmental rights as the key basis for the enjoyment of the right to life. It has been quite a journey loaded with inescapably fixing one’s attention on environmental horrors, some of which are unimaginable and indescribable. While the journey has been mostly across the African continent and the sacrifice zones of the global south, we cannot fail to acknowledge the resistance and resilience of our relatives in the global north who face similar circumstances and continue to fight for environmental justice, dignity and basic rights in the efforts to decolonize their territories. 

Extractivism threatens both people and planet. Its roots can be seen in every facet of the polycrisis pushing the world to the brink. Fossil fuel corporations, for one, invest so much to alter and control global imaginaries and have so far succeeded as policy makers believe that there is no other way to drive “growth”. Yet, it is clear we cannot afford lineal growth on a finite planet. While record temperatures, wildfires, floods and other stressors rage across the world, leaders are engrossed in xenophobic nationalism, building barriers against climate refugees and promoting fictional or false and risky climate solutions. They stick their tongues out and sneer: we can pollute and then engage in carbon removal; rather than adopt agroecology (which builds healthy soils      and cools the planet)and support small scale fathers who actually feed the world, we will whiten the clouds, hang up mirrors and sunshades in the sky to lower the global temperature.

We are not surprised that carbon trading is the clarion call and Africa is emerging as a huge carbon sink in what may well be a neocolonial continent grab. An exploitative market cannot be the solution of a crisis created by the market.

It is a big honour for me to stand before you today. It is clearly a celebratory moment for me. However, a life entwined with that of my peoples is inevitably coated by a cloud of rage. As I look at the hopeful faces in this auditorium I plead that you never allow anything or anyone to steal your joy or to dim your hope. In May 2023, Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, one of the most polluted places on planet Earth, released through its Environment and Oil Commission, a report somberly titled Environmental Genocide. The report, among other things, revealed that the per capita pollution in the state stands at one and a half barrels of crude oil. Rather than being aghast by such a revelation the world has been loudly silent. We hear talks of decarbonizing economies at a time we should be depetrolizing the ebbing civilization and detoxifying the sacrifice zones.

The milestones in my journey and the successes in the midst of continual battles have come by the resilience of the peoples and communities. We see expanding movements and readiness of communities to suffer inconveniences today for the sake of building a sane future for those yet unborn. I have seen the power of traditional wisdom and cultural production in building hope and strengthening alliances against oppression. Talking about cultural production, poetry has been a therapeutic tool for me. Through poetry we capture the past and present and construct the future. It is a tool that exposes folly, elicits action and provides strength even in difficult moments. 

This is not a time to walk alone. Belonging to the York University family offers a layer of strength, not just for me but for my constituencies. This is indeed a time to stand together to demand justice in all circumstances, to call for an end to ecocide, to build solidarity and not walls and to restore hope in our time. I dedicate this honour to the martyrs of extractivism and environmental defenders everywhere.

On being conferred with an honorary doctorate at the convocation ceremony at York University, Toronto, Canada, 13 October 2023.

Environmental History of Nigeria 101


The environmental history of Nigeria unfortunately is not a story filled with the rich biodiverse tropical rainforests of the Niger Delta or the cascading rich vegetation of the Sahel savanna but rather one marred with bloodshed, exploitation, pollution, death, destruction, and devastation. There was no agency in Nigeria that was saddled with the task of policing the environment until after the discovery in 1988 of toxic wastes that were dumped in Koko,[1] a town in Delta State Nigeria. Before then, Nigeria responded to most environmental problems on an ad hoc basis, with citizens largely bearing the weight of impacts and responses. The Koko incident woke the nation to the need for planned and coordinated action and led to the creation of the Federal Environmental Protection Agency 1988 (FEPA) through Decree 58. The agency was charged with the administration and enforcement of environmental laws.  

Due to the inadequacy of existing laws for environmental protection prior to the Koko Toxic Waste Dump saga, one of the relevant decrees enacted by the then military government was the Harmful Waste (Special Criminal Provisions, etc) Decree 42.[2]

Over the years, from I988 till present day, As Nigeria has grown in population, economy and politically, it also seems that our environmental problems, challenges have grown also. Indeed, you will find as many environmental problems and challenges as you care to name. Some of these challenges include the following: 

  • Deforestation, illegal logging, bush burning, over grazing.
  • Desertification
  • Industrial pollution, chemical pollution
  • Oil pollution- including oil spills, toxic wastes and gas flaring.
  • Environmental degradation due to laxly regulated mining activities 
  • Solid waste management/medical wastes/electronic wastes/plastics
  • Erosion – gully, coastal, etc.
  • Floods/droughts – most of our cities lack drainage plans and rural communities are at the mercy of the elements.
  • Water pollution
  • Sanitation
  • Land grabs
  • False climate solutions – agrofuels, REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation)

We can add noise pollution to this list. The somewhat carefree attitude of the citizenry adds to the problems. A casual look around shows plastic water sachets all over most of our cities and at police/military checkpoints on our highways. These non biodegradable materials block drains and generally contaminate the environment. 

Global Logic, Local impacts

Although some measures are taken by the Nigerian government to tackle some of the prevailing environmental challenges there is little to show for these efforts. This happens because the problems are systemic. The inherently anti-people and anti-environment system sees the environment as something to be exploited, used, and discarded rather than as something to be cared for and respected. The market logic that has been fetishised by the apostles of neoliberalism and the gods of the market are presented as incapable of going wrong. The system believes that whatever is needed can be created and whatever is broken can be technologically fixed. It also believes that whatever can be extracted must be extracted and whoever resists must be crushed. 

We should say at this point that the rise of the market has led to a situation where rather than accumulating wealth from excess labour of exploited workers, today profit is made through what some term innovativefinancial instruments. In the environmental sphere some of these have been built on the backs of climate negotiation as well as on the so-called Green or Blue Economy. Economists describe this process as financialization or commodification of Nature

The Green Economy idea itself is premised on the suggestion that nature is best protected when it is assigned a monetary value or when her services are monetised. In other words, it is said that people would not protect or defend Mother Earth except a price tag is placed on it. The sort of questions that are raised before nature is protected would be “what is the Ikogosi Warm Spring (Ekiti State) worth in Naira terms”? If it has a low value, it could be neglected, auctioned or even destroyed. 

According to Pablo Solon, “Inequality is an inevitable product of capitalism. Social and Environmental justice is only possible with system change.”[3] His statement was a response to Jerry Muller’s article which we quote:

In recent decades, developments in technology, finance, and international trade have generated new waves and forms of insecurity for leading capitalist economies, making life increasingly unequal and chancier for not only the lower and working classes but much of the middle class as well. The right has largely ignored the problem, while the left has sought to eliminate it through government action, regardless of the costs. Neither approach is viable in the long run. Contemporary capitalist polities need to accept that inequality and insecurity will continue to be the inevitable result of market operations and find ways to shield citizens from their consequences — while somehow still preserving the dynamism that produces capitalism’s vast economic and cultural benefits in the first place.[4]

Globalisation often manifests in the movement of goods and services. The driving geopolitical forces are sometimes hidden because the faces that are visible are the international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Funds. This is why the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) of the 1980s and the so-called Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) are seen as the sins of the IMF and the WB whereas there are political superstructures behind these entities. 

The SAPs threw our country and other African nations into the debt trap.[5]  Futile attempts to escape the traps are premised on efforts to make these payments from exploitation of natural resources for exports. Because the prices of those commodities are set remotely, they are sometimes so low that raising reasonable revenue necessitates deeper and more drastic exploitation of natural resources. In such desperate situations environmental concerns are the least worries of neoliberal and predatory governments. 

There is a direct link between environmental protection and politics. The more inclusive of the people a system is, the more environment friendly the government would be.  According to the first African to win the Nobel Peace Prize for environmental activism, the late Wangari Maathai, 

What we’ve learned in Kenya–the symbiotic relationship between the sustainable management of natural resources and democratic governance–is also relevant globally. Indeed, many local and international wars, like those in West and Central Africa and the Middle East, continue to be fought over resources. In the process, human rights, democracy, and democratic spaces are denied[6]

Regarding the Nigerian context, besides other causes, the major reason why massive pollutions are tolerated by government has been because the polluters generate the bulk of the revenue government needs for its activities. We have viciously polluting international oil companies in mind here. In some other areas these manifest as land grabs, displacing local communities from their lands and forests to make way for that thing that poor governments are so addicted to foreign direct investment.

Whenever there appears to be a call for responsible behaviour all the companies do is to threaten to pull out of the oil fields to blackmail governments to withdraw and be content with the oil rents they receive. A recent fad has been the divestment talks, a process which allows transnational oil companies to sell off their assets to Nigerian companies, and aim to by this move avoid responsibilities over the harms suffered by the communities. The divestment moves has been shrouded in such secrecy and it appears even agencies of government are either not respected with regard to the process or are simply ignored. In all cases communities are utterly ignored.

Environmental Laws

It is interesting that the same transnational polluters are closely advising the government on issues that have implications for environmental quality in Nigeria. For example, they sit on the board of the National Environmental Standards and Regulations Enforcement Agency (NESREA) while they are exempted by law from being regulated themselves. 

Recall that the coming into existence of NESREA effectively repealed the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (FEPA) Decree 58 of 1988 later amended in Decree 59 of 1992. A quick glance at some of the existing environmental laws and regulations include[7]the following:

  • Environmental Impact Assessment Act 2004
  • The Land Use Act 1979
  • Harmful Waste (Special Criminal Provisions) Act 2004
  • Hydrocarbon Oil Refineries Act 2004
  • Associated Gas re-injection Act 2004
  • The Endangered Species Act 2004
  • Sea Fisheries Act 2004
  • Exclusive Economic Zone Act 2004
  • Oil Pipelines Act 2004
  • Petroleum Products and Distribution (Management Board) Act 2004
  • Territorial Waters Act 2004
  • Nuclear Safety and Radiation Protection Act 2004
  • Nigerian Mining Corporation Act 2004
  • Quarantine Act 2004
  • River Basins Development Authority Act 2004
  • Pest Control of Production (special powers) Act 2004
  • Agricultural (Control of Importation) Act 2004
  • Animal Diseases (control) Act 2004
  • Bees (Impact Control and Management) Act 2004
  • Civil Aviation Act 2004
  • Factories Act 2004
  • Water Resources Act 2004
  • Hides and Skins Act 2004
  • Federal National Parks Act 2004
  • Niger-Delta Development Commission (NDDC) Act.
  • Solid Minerals Act. 2007
  • NOSDRA Act 2005
  • Petroleum Industry Act (2022)

Ecological Crimes and Remediation

It can be said that our more recent environmental laws have been largely reactive. And some actions are taken without enabling laws to ensure suitability and evaluation. Here we have in mind the creation of the Hydrocarbons Pollution Restoration Project (HYPREP) one year after the damning report of the assessment of the Ogoni environment by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).[8] The anachronistic name of “Pollution Restoration’ was changed to “Pollution Remediation” when a revamped and gazetted Hydrocarbons Pollution Remediation Project (HYPREP) was inaugurated in 2016, five years after the UNEP report. The current project coordinator is the 5th to hold that office and it does appear that things are picking up regarding the provision of emergency services (especially potable water) in Ogoniland. HYPREP has had a rapid succession of leadership thus complicating the prospect of achieving the objective of the agency in a timeous manner. 

The UNEP report had highlighted that Ogoniland is highly polluted and that oil spills were never adequately cleaned up. With spills accumulated over the years, water bodies have been contaminated, including ground water having benzene, a carcinogen, up to 900 times above World Health Organisation standards. The report also indicated that hydrocarbon pollution had penetrated the ground to a depth of 5 metres at many places. The enormity of the contamination led to the set-up of HYPREP.

Another key event in official response to ecocide in Nigeria is the release of a report by the Bayelsa State Oil and Environment Commission in May 2023[9]. Whereas the Ogoni assessment report was paid for by the team of polluters (NNPC, Shell, Agip/Eni, etc), the Bayelsa report was commissioned by the Bayelsa State government and produced by the commission. 

The Bayelsa report revealed an astonishing level of ecological damage in the state. It reports that the state has suffered a per capita pollution of 1.5 barrels and that water bodies have total hydrocarbon contamination of up to 1 million times above safe limits. A snippet from the report helps here:

The historic and continued activities of the oil industry have fueled an environmental emergency, a silent health crisis, and deep economic hardship. This overwhelming tide of oil contamination has turned the Niger Delta – home to some of the planet’s largest mangroves and freshwater swamps, forests, and Africa’s largest wetlands – into one of the most polluted places on Earth.

As much as 40 percent of the mangrove forests have been lost.

‍The human impact has been just as devastating. One study estimates that in 2012 alone, oil spills in Nigeria, and predominantly in the Niger Delta resulted in over 16,000 additional neonatal deaths. Community after community has seen their livelihoods damaged by oil contamination.[10]

Environmental Damage Foretold

The environmental crisis in the world today has gone so deep that we can almost say that the world is facing a real possibility of massive ecological collapse.  This is not far-fetched because it is already known that available planetary resources cannot sustain the current rate of consumption. With the reality of peak oil has come the rise of extreme extraction. Humanity is working to show that resources and lifestyles can be sustained or stretched no matter the cost – even if it means scraping the bottom of the planet. 

It is common knowledge that various sectors of the national economy have suffered gross neglect for decades. The environment has suffered special injury because the implications of certain aspects of the neglect are not immediately visible, as would for example the decay of infrastructures such as road buildings, water supplies and telecommunications.  Sometimes policy makers simply act as though they expect that the problems would disappear on their own. That has never happened to mountains of refuse. They don’t happen with polluted streams. They don’t happen with oil spills in waterways and farmlands. They don’t happen at the local or global levels. 

A rough estimate of the amount of oil spills that have been experienced, and is still being experienced, has been out at about an equivalent to one Exxon Valdez spill per year for more than six decades. The Exxon Valdez spill occurred at Alaska in 1989. Several well blowouts have been recorded over the decades, including Texaco’s (Chevron) Funiwa 5 well blowout of January 1980 which spilled 400,000 barrels of crude and another blowout and rig fire at the same field in January 2012. In recent years we have been witnesses to the AITEO well blowout at Nembe in November 2021 with an estimated 300,000 barrels of crude oil dumped into the environment and the explosion and sinking of an aged and unlicensed floating, storage and production vessel (FSPO Trinity) off the coast of Ondo State in February 2022. One largely ignored well blowout is the one at the Ororo-1 field. This well blow out occurred in April 2020 and has been burning and spilling crude non-stop for over two years now.[11]

The truth that we have only one Earth and the fact that our environment is deeply interconnected is being played out in the web of crises confronting the world today. They may appear not to be closely linked but a close look shows that there are strands revealing that they are held together by a clear logic. This logic pertains to reinforced fields of perception in which transactional actions have shut out the doors of transformational actions. Nature’s resources belong to nature. When humans term them “natural resources” the implication is that these resources occur naturally and can thus be grabbed or taken by the quickest, the strongest and the most brazen.

Resolving or at least tackling the endemic environmental problems requires that we critically review the root causes of some of these problems as well as the political filters through which we view them. Anything short of this means that we simply skirt the problems or at best tackle the symptoms while the problems fester and eventually develop into catastrophic proportions. Some policy makers, for example, consider the number one task of safeguarding the environment to be the demolition of so-called illegal structures and informal settlements, even though we know our cities cannot survive without them.

What Must be Done?

1. Declare a National Environmental Emergency 

2. Conduct a national environmental audit and establish a management plan

3. Detoxify the Nigerian environment, remediate and restore all areas impacted by hydrocarbon pollution.

4. Ecological Funds should be strictly monitored and used to remediate or restore damaged environment.

5. Massive reforestation programme across the nation.

6. At least 10% of national budget set aside for number 2-5 mentioned above 

7. Coherence brought in between government structures to ensure convergence of efforts

8. Stop gas flares. Invest in socialised and decentralised renewable energy systems. 

9. Halt new oil concessions and install meters at appropriate points to determine outflows from flow stations.

10. Produce an annual State of Nigerian Environment Report to ensure that the issues are addressed and not ignored.


When it is said that the environment is our life, a significant implication is that we are all children of the universe. The sun remains the key source of energy for all creatures. For the survival of living creatures, the water cycle must not be broken. Breaking the vital cycles of nature has dire consequences for all living beings on the planet.

When we strive to defend the Nigerian environment, we are at the same time defending the global environment because we have only one Earth. The fact that we have one earth makes it urgent that we report environmental crimes as soon as they occur. We also must proactively work to ensure that these incidents do not happen. Where they do happen there should be systems of checking and enforcing rulings against environmental crimes including ecocide. 

We have taken a broad look at the environmental challenges confronting us today. We applaud the Historical Society of Nigeria for its consistency over the years and particularly for creating a space for us to touch the environmental state of Nigeria. This is a major step seeing that the environment intersects everything about life. This occasion highlights the need to ensure that that we do not lose our environmental memory. We thank you for giving us the opportunity to be a part of this remembrance.

[1] S. Gozie Ogbodo (January 2009). Environmental Protection in Nigeria: Two Decades After the Koko Incident.  

[2][2][2] Margaret T. Okorodudu-Fubara (1998). Law of Environmental Protection – Materials and Text. Caltop Publications (Nigeria) Limited, Ibadan.

[3] Pablo Solon. 08.03.2013. Tweeted @pablosolon

[4] Jerry Z. Muller. March/April 2013. Capitalism and Inequality: What the Right and the Left Get Wrong.

[5] For more on this see several books and papers . We recommend Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa; Patrick Bond’s Looting Africa and Nnimmo Bassey’s To Cook A Continent – Destructive Extraction and Climate Change in Africa

[6] Chris Williams. 2 April 2013. Imperial Recipes for a Burnt Planet

[7] See

[8] See the UNEP report at

[9] Bayelsa State Oil and Environment Commission (May 2023). Environmental Genocide.   

[10] Bayelsa State Oil and Environment Commission. ibid

[11] HOMEF (2022). A Call for Justice.

Presented at the 68th Conference/Congress of the Historical Society of Nigeria held in Lagos on 8-1 October 2023