Intergenerational apology

Sarah Schlesinger and Jennifer Jacquet teamed up for this project on an intergenerational apology. Sarah’s work was part of the Shanghai Project curated by Dr. Yongwoo Lee and Hans Ulrich Obrist. The catalogue essay is below.

SORRY 2116

Jennifer Jacquet

Where to begin when apologizing to the future? The legacy of slavery, colonialization, and the destruction of indigenous people and languages? The stockpiles of nuclear weapons and nuclear waste? The melting of glaciers and polar ice caps? Kanye West?

The list is almost limitless so why attempt to apologize to the future at all? What purpose could such an exercise serve? Any forgiveness the future might grant would certainly be lost to us.

One motivation to apologize is the personal relief that apologies can bring. To unburden one’s own conscience, the way that former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara did when he admitted his misjudgments that prolonged the Vietnam War. Another reason to apologize is an attempt to express to the future that at least some portion of society would have liked things to go differently, and that at least some among us attempted to instate a different habit of thought. That seems to be one reason that Claude Eatherly, one of the 42 men in the U.S. military to be directly involved in dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, wrote numerous letters of apology to Japan. It may be the reason the state of California formally apologized in 2009 for the discriminatory laws against Chinese immigrants the state passed during the nineteenth century gold rush, some of which stayed in place until the 1940s.

Given that we apologize to the present to atone for the sins of the past, why not apologize to the future for the sins of the present. An intergenerational apology poses three main problems. The first is how we can communicate with the future. Communicating with humans in 2116 may not, we assume, pose too great of a difficulty, but communicating with humans in 3116 or beyond may be a different matter. The second is how to specifically convey an apology rather than any other message. The third is how to communicate what it is exactly we are sorry for. Let’s deal with each of these issues in reverse order.


This intergenerational apology was intended to communicate regret for the human-caused erasure of species, which are epistemologically and existentially distinct from other causes for species disappearance. I am interested in exploring how to express to the future that people of today feel responsible for the harm done to wild animals that struggled alongside of us and survived the changing climate, the rising tides, the endless threat of predation and disease, but did not survive us. The future will not know their lives, habits, and behaviors.

I have argued elsewhere that the destruction of life feels different than that which we have wreaked on earth’s physical system. We feel bad for melting glaciers and acidifying the oceans, but we feel worse over eliminating wild animals. This feeling is also a relatively new predicament.

Many naturalists in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries believed that extinction was impossible. By the early nineteenth century, French zoologist Georges Cuvier had recognized and popularized among European scientists the notion of extinction and, in 1824, paleontologist William Buckland described the first dinosaur fossil. These contributions challenged religious notions about God’s creation, but failed to see human influence. The discovery of extinction as a phenomenon was distinct from establishing human responsibility for them.

It was Johann Friedrich Blumenback, a scientist and naturalist at the University of Göttingen in Germany, who made the more audacious claim that humans could in fact cause extinctions. As one of his foundational pieces of evidence, he would cite an account from Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff, a German-Russian naturalist, who was mentored by Blumenback and who sent him letters from his early nineteenth century expedition to the North Pacific. Langsdorff looked and could not find any trace of the Steller sea cow, a giant manatee that had been described by German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller in 1741. He concluded that the sea cow was gone and that humans, in particular Russians, were to blame. Many Russians rejected the claim, which was indeed true. The extinction of the Steller sea cow has now been officially dated to 1768, just 27 years after Steller’s initial account.

Blumenback used the Steller sea cow as a concrete example of extinction in plain sight, and a case of extinction in which mankind was clearly implicated. The causal link was radical, but what to do about it remained a conversation yet to come.

The idea of human-caused extinctions began gaining traction, and causing anxiety in the culture. One symptom was a continued reluctance to pin extinctions on humanity.

In England in the nineteenth century the dodo became a public icon of extinction, although people blamed the dodo for its own demise because, they claimed, it was too obese and too stupid. The large bird was clubbed out of existence on the island of Mauritius by the middle of the seventeenth century, although the human introduction of rats also never helps birds that nest on the ground, like the dodo. Two British ornithologists published a monograph on the Dodo in 1848, and shortly after a life-size reconstruction of the bird was put on display in London and visited by millions of people, including the writer Lewis Carroll who made the dodo a character in his Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865.

By the time Charles Darwin published his work on the theory of natural section, extinction was a widely accepted fact. Zoologist Walter Rothschild published a book of bird extinctions in 1905, in which he frequently referred to ‘vanishings’– a term that scholars have suggested is no longer popular because it failed to capture the aspect of human responsibility. Extinctions piled up and, with the mounting evidence, extinctions moved from something outside of human control (dinosaurs) to within the realm of human control (dodos).

Conspicuous extinctions continued to occur, along with their unique psychological effects. The flocks of Passenger pigeons disappeared by the turn of the century (the last individual died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1, 1914) and many believed that disease led to its disappearance, rather than the human hunting and deforestation we now accept as its primary causes of death. The last thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger, died in Hobart Zoo in 1936. More recently, we said goodbye to the Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji, which was last seen in 2005. The western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011.

I watched a species go extinct. Lonesome George died in 2012, and with him the last of his sub-species. I had first met him eleven years before that when he was an eighty-something tortoise, the last of the Pinta Island variety, and was in the Galapagos Islands as a volunteer. In September 2014, I attended the unveiling of his taxidermied body at the American Museum of Natural History. It was a weird event that left me with an even weirder feeling. A number of people applauded as the curators pulled away the cloth covering his display case. It was hard to know what to do. But a few received Lonesome’s presence for what it really was: the funeral for an entire species with a permanently open casket for its last individual. Even at this event, the moderators could not resist mentioning his failure to reproduce.

In all likelihood, the social and cultural anxiety over extinctions is only growing. Part of the job of twenty-first century ecologists is to assign precision to the claims that we are a hazard to others. They rigorously sort what portion of climate change we caused versus did not cause, which extinctions we caused versus those we did not. This bookkeeping is important because with blame comes responsibility.

It is as if we are preparing an extensive case file for the eventual trial against ourselves. Or perhaps we are simply delaying the trial. One study found that 322 terrestrial vertebrates have gone extinct since 1500. Another study blamed cats for the extinction of 33 bird species. We cannot forget the other 17,000 or so species, including many species of pangolins, that live under threat of extinction, and for the moment their ilk can be categorized under the quieter ‘ecological extinction’ in which the species still breathes, but there are no longer enough individuals to shape their surroundings. There are ongoing debates about when to officially declare a species extinct versus ecologically extinct versus only an extirpation versus commercially extinct. Regardless of the terminology, the fact remains we are losing a lot more than we are saving.


We have now established the subject of the apology, but there is still the question of how to apologize, especially to a future to which we cannot directly speak and perhaps not even communicate with through writing — the two most frequent forms apologies take. I thought it best to pursue sculpture and began collaboration with artist Sarah Schlesinger. We talked a lot about the form of an apology. We agreed that an apology should be calm, reverent, and humble.

We could try to make it emotional, but not overly dramatic (although I did like Laura Ford’s Weeping Girls sculptures). A lot of apologies captured in sculpture and painting have to do with begging for forgiveness, with the submission of individual to a more dominant figure. One dramatic apology frequently used by artists was the case of Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, who had been excommunicated by the Church, hiking across the Alps in 1077 to ask for the Pope’s forgiveness. Henry IV supposedly knelt for three days in a blizzard before he was finally forgiven and welcomed back into the Catholic Church.

But the problem with including a human figure posed asking for forgiveness was that we did not intend to elicit an apology from the viewer, but rather to communicate that we, the past, were saying sorry to them for leaving things in an impoverished state.

In addition, it was important to conceptualize the apology as distinct from a memorial, which is intended to remind the present about the past. People in the present may have no memory of the event and may not have even been alive when the event occurred. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial was made from the preservation of the only structure left standing where the first atomic bomb exploded on August 6, 1945. There are monuments to various extinct species already, such as a funereal memorial in Jaktorów, Poland to commemorate the aurochs, the ancestor of domestic cattle, which was last recorded in a forest there in 1627.

Other commemorations also exist. A Remembrance Day for Lost Species started in 2011 and there have been yearly ceremonies in late November for extinct animals like the great auk, the Caribbean monk seal, the passenger pigeon, and others. There appears to be an appetite for this kind of ritual. A new building, the Mass Extinction Monitoring Observatory, is planned for construction and completion in 2019 on the Isle of Portland in England. It will be an information center and inside its walls will be carved every species that has disappeared since the dodo.

Again, our work was not just an attempt to memorialize extinction by reminding people that they occurred, but to specifically apologize for causing them.


Communicating with the future is likely to be just as challenging as communicating with the past. We still are not certain about the meaning of Stonehenge, the cave drawings in Lascaux, or the Nazca Lines in Peru.

The difficulties inherent in communicating over vast amounts of time have not stopped us from trying. In Japan, three-meter tall stone tablets that are scattered along the northeastern coast and warn future inhabitants about tsunamis and advise them not to build close to the coast. Many date to 1896, after two tsunamis killed thousands of people, but some are older, created up to six centuries ago. On many of the tablets, the writing has worn away.

We also began seriously considering communicating to the future after we realized that the radioactive products and waste we were creating could remain dangerous to humans for tens of thousands of years (this also launched the area of study called nuclear semiotics). A conference in 1981 by the Human Interference Task Force and funded by U.S. government led to a technical report titled, “Reducing the Likelihood of Future Human Activities That Could Affect Geologic High-Level Waste Repositories.” The authors note that isolating radioactive waste from people is a different problem from “isolating people from the wastes”, especially over the next 10,000 years. The ideas from the 1981 conference ranged from highly practical (warning markers should be single pieces rather than anything jointed or hinged) to extremely out there (from two continental Europeans: “radiation cats” genetically engineered so that their fur would change color if the cat was exposed to high levels of radiation).

The technical report is a compilation of the former. Durability of the message is important, along with markers that are difficult to deface. Iconic, symbolic, and verbal messages are considered. Stone or concrete is preferred to glass and pottery, which are susceptible to the weather, or any metal, which could be salvaged by the future if they see it as valuable or useful. A more recent conference in 2014 also addressed the issue of communicating the hazards of radioactive waste across generations, suggesting that the topic remains on people’s minds as nuclear waste continues to pile up.

 At the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, some ideas are being put to the test (most are not). Radioactive waste is buried in a salt deposit, and every year more is added. Around the site there are obelisks with messages in six languages (always better than one), and hopefully the text will not wear off as it did on many of the stone tablets in Japan. We should also not forget that in many Japanese towns with the stone tablets, the townspeople ignored the warnings and built seawalls and other infrastructure that they thought would be strong enough against future tsunamis. They were wrong.

Another long-term project with lower stakes is the Clock of the Long Now, which seeks in some way to operationalize what the some French historians have called the longue durée. This gigantic mechanical clock, proposed by a team of futurists and likely to be built in Texas, aims to symbolically counterweight our current culture of shortsightedness by keeping track of time over the next 10,000 years.


For our project, we wanted to be careful to avoid the future’s obsession over the question of how the work was made, which is one of the main questions people ask about the cave paintings of Lascaux, as opposed to what it was trying to say. It was important to us to try to avoid any possible obsession with the engineering rather than meaning, and for that reason we agreed the sculptures should be low-tech.

We also settled on art rather than words, as well as on icons rather than symbols (although symbolism is also used). The project is a set of six giant sculptures, all animals whose extinctions were human caused, spaced out near a major urban center that will still be above water in 1000 years. We envision these in stone or concrete because of their durability. Like the Human Interference Task Force, we were concerned that bronze, which has a long life span, would be melted down if future societies needed it for something. We also liked stone for its reference to a tombstone, fossils, and the stone tablets in Japan.

The poses chosen for the animals are all trying to convey quiet and reverence, as the pangolin does when it is rolled up (and would not if it was in a walking pose). Each sculpture has a human made slice taken out of them, symbolizing the destruction of a lineage. These slices are rare in nature; there are few straight lines or perfectly smooth surfaces in the natural world. We envisioned the slice as a symbol of human damage, and even as a reference to the use of weapons to kill the animals.

What the radioactive waste and human-caused extinction share is that we are in a situation of our own making. Whether we warn the future about what is buried or apologize for what is missing, in both messages the future might find the hazardous tendencies that lurk beneath the surface of their own psyche or society.