By Mitch Deitz
Our world is filled with objects that can help us to understand how we live in the Anthropocene. The range of these objects has no limit; everything from a torn McDonald’s Big Mac wrapper on the side of the road to the first Model-T Ford has a story to tell about the history of human-environmental relations. Among this wide variety of artifacts, one of the most essential to helping us understand the core relationships that define the Anthropocene is a small, rectangular piece of cloth: a flag. Flags are one of the ultimate symbols of humankind’s relationship with the earth. It has become a universal understanding that a planting a flag signifies ownership of land and that the flag is a symbol of property. But since the flag was first created, it has evolved to take on many more roles, and now a flag can symbolize much more than just property of land. I will use three main examples of flags and what they symbolize in order to show the overall importance of this object in respect to the Anthropocene, working chronologically through three moments in history to show the evolving relationships that they represent. The first example is the British flag during the era of the Raj in India, the second is the American flag that was planted on the moon in 1969, and finally, the PepsiCo flag, to represent corporate symbolism in the modern day. These three examples will show that the environmental, economic and social relationships that flags symbolize make them a perfect object with which to view the Anthropocene.
I will start this short history of anthropogenic flags with the example of the British flag during the time of the Raj in India, which will highlight the idea of flags as a symbol of the ownership of people. The concept of ownership of people on an international scale is one of the main social dynamics that is important to understanding the Anthropocene. There are many flags that are symbols of ownership of people—for example, the Confederate flag—but I want to focus specifically on the British flag during the Raj in India, because as we learned in class, it is a period that had a big anthropogenic impact.
The growth of British power in India began in 1757 following a battle known as the Battle of Plassy, and continued until the fall of the Raj in the 20th century. During this initial period of British rule, the people of India faced brutal oppression from a country that was seeking to dominate their country for trade and material reasons. The British Parliament had a “sincere desire to improve the administration of India” from the previous oppression and “misgovernment” of this initial British rule, but this only led to more government involvement by British officers in India, spearheaded by colonial administrator Charles Cornwallis. The people of England had no idea of what actually went on in the colony where they were getting the fuel for their booming textile industry. As American William Adam writes in his publication about the condition of slavery in India 1840: “In England, the subject [of slavery in India] is not known or publicly recognised as one affecting the welfare of India or the honor of Great Britain”. And to be fair, how could those living thousands of miles away in England be fully aware of what was happening in this distant and inconceivable land? Thus was the trend of colonialism during this time, where wealthy Europeans were actors in the Anthropocene mainly due to their coercion and manipulation of disadvantaged people in foreign lands. The whole point of Adam’s publication was to show the world what he had seen while living in India, and he argues that “to place any one class, however poor, however ignorant, however degraded, at the absolute and irresponsible disposal of another class, is alike inconsistent with wisdom, with justice, and with humanity”. So how did the British leaders rationalize placing Indian people at their disposal? They planted the Union Jack over their heads and claimed ownership of their personhood. This disconnect between disadvantaged workers in colonized areas and the Europeans who reaped the benefit of their labor is a core theme of the Anthropocene and can be illustrated by the presence of the British flag in India.
Now we move forward in time to the iconic planting of the American Flag on the moon, which is a perfect event for highlighting the role that flags play in regards to ownership of land. When the United States landed on the moon in July of 1969, a lot of importance and even more controversy came with the decision to put up the American flag upon arrival of the Apollo 11. The sentiment around the mission before it was launched was that it was a shared international endeavor and not an American “conquest”. But despite the recommendations of the Committee on Symbolic Activities for the First Lunar Landing, which suggested that U.N. flag should be planted to symbolize international accomplishment, it was decided that an American flag would indeed be planted. Obviously this would not mean that U.S. is colonizing the moon, but the mere symbolism of planting the American flag was disturbing to many. In the NASA Contractor Report Where No Flag Has Gone Before, author Anne M. Platoff writes that “The legal status of the moon clearly would not be affected by the presence of a U.S. ﬂag on the surface, but NASA was aware of the international controversy that might occur as a result”; the controversy being the fear “that the United States was ‘taking possession of the moon’ in violation of the Outer Space Treaty”.
So what does this controversy over the planting of a flag on the moon tell us about human-environmental relations here on earth? First of all, the fact that there was fear that U.S. was attempting to “take over” the moon because they were planting a pole with a small piece of red, white and blue cloth shows us the importance of these pieces of cloth in the eyes of the global community. Going to an “undiscovered” world and placing a flag is something we understand as establishing ownership. The idea of owning the land is linked to so many anthropogenic topics such as the Colombian Exchange and the Enclosure Movement, where the consequences of planting a flag established a relationship with the environment where it is no longer our habitat, but rather our property to manipulate as we wish. We see the capitalist mentalities at play here, with critics being weary that U.S. was potentially attempting to “produce” more land by claiming more of it. The idea of land as a false commodity is important to the Anthropocene and is perfectly symbolized by the image of this U.S. flag fixed on the lunar surface.
The third historical example of flags and the Anthropocene is the modern day example of corporate flags and their symbolism as ownership of economies. To revisit the earlier example, the British flag during colonialism symbolized ownership over the people of India, but as a direct result it also served as a symbol of ownership of the Indian economy. As Romesh Dutt, who is writing during the era of British colonization, says: “in many ways, the sources of national wealth in India have been narrowed under British rule”. The narrowing of Indian national wealth was a result of the British control of their economy, exploiting this control to give uneven profit to themselves and leave little for their colony. To fast forward to modern day, this aspect of control of a foreign country’s economy has evolved into a new way to exploit, coerce and profit off of a disadvantaged region. With the free market and emergence of corporate power, companies from western countries have been planting flags globally to stake their claims in markets all around the world. This idea of ownership of “economies” connects to both of the previous ideas regarding ownership of land as well as ownership of people.
When you see a PepsiCo flag outside a Pepsi Plant in Colombia or Brazil, this is a symbol of corporate power that expands farther than just the factory grounds. In 2013, PepsiCo faced heat from anti-poverty group Oxfam over its connection with “land grabbing” sugar suppliers in South America. This event is just one example of how companies control entire communities and manipulate the land for their purposes, often resulting in displacement of locals. In an article on displaced people in Colombia written for the World Post (a partnership of the Huffington Post and Berggruen Institute) in 2011, author Michael Solis writes, “Paramilitary organizations have helped facilitate the entry of multinational corporations in Colombia by doing the ‘dirty work’ of removing farmers and their families from their land. Internally displaced people are excluded from the enjoyment of their economic and social rights, including the right to work”. As a result of these paramilitaries, companies such as Pepsico, which has multiple operations in Colombia, can come into disadvantaged areas and take ownership over the economy. This capitalist colonialism is a result of social inequality, writes Solis: “Half of the country’s population of 45 million people live in poverty. The territorial dispute has caused the dispossession and displacement of the poor and marginalized to the benefit of the powerful—the State and multinational corporations—who gain minerals, oil, and other natural wealth as a result of exploitation”. The socioeconomic baggage that accompanies a Pepsico flag flying in places like Colombia and Brazil shows yet another reason of why flags are important anthropogenic objects.
I chose to use flags as one of the objects to represent the Anthropocene because they symbolize three key relationships that are important to helping us understand the human-altered world that we live in today. The main goal of this paper, within the context of the larger Anthropocene Objects Project that it is part of, is that it will make the reader will go out into the world and view the flags in a whole new light. After reading this essay, I want the reader to see these objects and ponder the question, “What is the symbolism behind this that can tell me something about the Anthropocene?” The flag could be a symbol of ownership of people, of inequality and land coercion that is rooted back during the rise in European colonialism. It could be symbolic of an ownership of land; an attempt to increase “production” of a false commodity. Or it could be a corporate flag, flying in an industrial park near your home that is a subtle symbol of invasive ownership of a far off economy. Looking at flags in this way is an important social exercise to practice, but it is also a part of an essential anthropogenic way in which to view the world; one which we all must adopt in order to bring a universal understanding of the Anthropocene that propels us into a positive future.
Adam, William. The Law and Custom of Slavery in British India. Boston: Weeks, Jordan and Company, 1840.
Dan, Charles. “Pepsi Pressured to Fight Big Sugar’s ‘Land Grab'” NPR. Accessed April 17, 2016. http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2013/11/23/246753281/pepsi-pressured-to-fight-big-sugar-s-land-grab.
Dutt, Romesh Chunder. Economic History of India under Early British Rule. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner, 1906.
Platoff, Anne M. Where No Flag Has Gone before: Political and Technical Aspects of Placing a Flag on the Moon. Houston, TX: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, 1993.
Solis, Michael. “Colombia’s Internally Displaced People” The World Post. Accessed May 3, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-solis/colombias-internally-disp_b_715186.html