Denis Byrne and Paul James
The Anthropocene is a
phenomenon which has taken up residence in our minds and our research
practices. Some might argue for variations in naming the phenomenon — the
and so on — but the process through which humans have come fundamentally to
impact the planet is now too well documented and measured to be dismissed. The
concept of the ‘Anthropocene’ entered the purview of researchers in the
Institute for Culture and Society by way of a cultural shock. We, along with
many others, have been forced to recognise that many environmental ‘systems’
are no longer independent of human social action. We find, for example, that
the carbon emitted by everyday activities, which are intrinsic the complex
lives of so many of us, have contributed to changing the world’s climate. Now,
even our simplest activities, once avidly pursued with all their unintended
ecological consequences, are revealed to have a ‘carbon footprint’.
The reality of the
Anthropocene cuts the ground cleanly out from under the doctrine of Progress,
the ideology which underpinned the industrializing West’s esteem and confidence,
as well as serving to excuse industrial capitalism’s negatives, including
environmental pollution and workplace death and injury. Recognising the passing of
Progress, we structure this essay around an alternative conception of human
history over the last few centuries as a kind of dance, or what one might call
the ‘Anthropocene shuffle.’ This essay represents the coming together of two
perspectives on the contemporary global environmental crisis — those of
archaeology (Denis) and of social theory (Paul).
Four Steps Back and One Step Forward
As a research institute
focused on finding better ways of living in a rapidly changing world, we find
it no longer possible to study ‘the social’ independent of ‘the environmental’.
But if the environment or nature can no longer be thought of as just a background
to or setting for the social, and if it is accepted that the human-social
permeates the earth system, equally — and this has also come as a shock — we
must now contend with the realization that earth’s many ‘sub-systems’, which we
were brought up to see as being all around us, are actually also inside us as
biosocial beings. The environment is no longer just out there. To be sure, the
environment continues to be the integrative space in which we exist, but
thinking in this double way — as both context and constitutive being — requires
basic changes to our research vocabulary, thinking and practice.
This is why we have chosen,
following its Greek etymological roots, to define ‘ecology’ as a domain of the
social — along with economics, politics and culture. It is the domain that
concerns the materiality of the
intersection of the social and the environmental, just as culture concerns the meaning of social relations,
including the relations of that intersection. The environment in this sense
comes to be understood as that which both
grounds our existence (in every way) and
exists far beyond even the most expansive definitions of the social or the
ecological. This means that it no longer even makes sense, except in very well-defined
circumstances, to talk of the ‘more-than-human’ to describe the environment. We
can no longer be comfortable with treating the human as the point of departure
for all beings and things, as if they are only
At same time, any suggestion that becoming post-human is a viable politics,
ignores the contradictions entailed in leaving behind what constituted us as
humans across the natural/social history of our being.
Hence, in our research
thinking, there is first the need for taking a few steps backward from the mainstream
(modern) centring of the human and also from the fashionable (postmodern) flattening
of ontological difference into a single plane of being. Full recognition of the
complexities and contradictions of the Anthropocene would force this upon us.
Backward Step 1. Recognize that non-human being is constitutively enmeshed
in human being — but not as an ontological flattening of the human and natural.
‘Social space was never
exclusively human’, as Timothy Morton puts it. But this doesn’t just mean
we share this space with nonhumans or that we relate to nonhumans within social
space; it means also that nonhumans are present in the space of our bodies in old and new ways. We have long known
we embody nonhumans in the form of bacteria and we now know there are around
ten times the number of microbial cells in the human body as there are human
cells. But in addition to this old ecological enmeshment with nonhumans, we
have produced the elements of new kinds of enmeshment. For example, over the
240 years since we have been burning serious amounts of coal for industrial
production and power generation, millions of us have breathed in significant
volumes of fine particles released by this burning. It is partly with this in
Kathryn Yusoff proposes that we rethink the Anthropocene as being characterised
by a ‘corporeal geology of/in the blood,
rather than a universal stratigraphic trace in some future geologic record’. The chemicals in makeup and other skin products, for example, constitute
one ecology of this embodiment, becoming part of who we are even as we present the
surface of ourselves through them.
The so-called ‘material turn’
in the humanities and social sciences has led us beyond conceding agency to
materials such as iron ore, alloys such as aluminium and glass, and complex
objects like phones and houses, to an understanding ‘nonhumans’ (noting that the
concept of ‘nonhuman’ needs to be used judiciously) as having a vibrancy and
integrity of their own. This amounts to a retreat
from the generalized modern idea in
the West that humans have a monopoly on these qualities, but it also opens the way to new kinds of
problems of understanding and attribution. Just as the prior materialism of
Marxism was criticised for sometimes entertaining the sin of technological determinism,
the new materialism is in danger of both over-generalizing the agency of
things, technologies and objects, while excusing us humans as dominant actors on planet earth. If
everything is an actor in the same way as human beings, then coal and concrete
must be as culpable for climate change as the humans whose life-worlds were
built upon these materials, … and, more pointedly, the humans who continue to
advocate for these materials when their massive use has been shown to
compromise the sustainability of the planet.
Why is it, as
political paeans to the beauty of coal are sung by political advocates across
the world, avant garde social theory has turned in the same direction? The flat
ontology of Actor Network theory, for example,
provides a non-hierarchical view of human-nonhuman relations, but ANT’s
conception of objects as mediating relations between humans has opened it to
the critique of being underwritten by an anthropocentricism in which things are
primarily of interest to us when seen to be involved in human projects. Here an
assiduous critique of anthropocentrism can be distinguished from the
recognition of our mixed poetic tendency towards anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism
is sometimes good poetics, and sometimes, in attributing human-like capacities
to others, turns into a bad re-centring of those human capacities as describing
the way of all things. Does coal act? Yes, but not with intention, feeling or
subjective agency. Through continuing anthropocentrism, things are too often
enrolled or domesticated as quasi-humans, so disguising their ‘thingly
Things, objects and unknown beings clearly exceed their relations with humans. As
Graham Harman points out, ‘the vast majority of relations in the universe do
not involve human beings, those obscure inhabitants of an average-sized planet
near a middling sun, one of 100 billion stars near the fringe of an
undistinguished galaxy among at least 100 billion others.’ This means that we while we need to recognize that non-human being is constitutively enmeshed
in human being (Backward Step 1), it is equally important that in the process
of that recognition we do not to flatten the ontological meaning of either the
human or the natural.
The tendency we have to
‘socialize’ nonhumans and give them dubious anthropomorphized agency is
understandable given the enormous number of objects that have been tailored for
human use, the number of species whose bodies and lives have been changed by
us, and the number of rivers, coastlines, forests, swamps, soils and airs that
show unmistakable signs of our impact. It is this that the Anthropocene has
been named for but, equally, our susceptibility to being deafened by our own
noise and hence to be unable to imagine a world without us is a real obstacle
to of our mobilizing against the reproduction of Anthropocenic relations.
In all of this we are pointing to the extent to which
it has become increasing difficult to practice humanities and social science
research within the space formerly understood as social space or (more
narrowly) human space, without rethinking what it means to talk of ‘the social’
and what it means to be ‘human’.
Backward Step 2. Excavate carefully and then learn from the negative
debris of the Anthropocene.
There was only a
relatively small interval in time between the idea of geological strata being introduced
through the work of scientists like Georges Cuvier and James Lyell — a bit over
200 years — and the 1950s when we began laying down to lay down the elements of
what would qualify as our own geological strata.
Archaeologists are classically thought of as excavating remains of the human
past buried in the earth, but as the Anthropocene strata takes shape as a layer
accumulating on the earth’s surface, some are turning to interrogate this layer
as an archaeological object in its own right.
A mass of textual, audio, visual and other records testify to Earth’s history
in the period since the early 1950s, but there is an argument to be made that —
in addition to these sources — we should allow the objects of the Anthropocene
to signify themselves. Objects do play active roles in history. Objects do
‘speak’ (if we understand the term ‘speak’ to be only a poetic expression of a thingly
acting we do not have the words for). The plastic water bottle, for example,
has material potentialities that have proven to be highly significant in the
commodification of drinking water.
It speaks to the profound effects of the simple everyday activity of sipping as
degrading nature as we have known it.
‘interrogate’ used above is actually not a well-chosen word for archaeology’s
full relationship with things. As a practice, it engages in a peculiar form of ‘care, obligation, and
loyalty to things’.
A certain intimacy with objects builds up over the many hours spent uncovering,
handling, gazing at, and wondering about them. This practice of care gestures
to a kind of ‘engaged research’
where the engagement extends to things as well as humans. It extends also to
caring for nonhuman species and their habitats, to the soil, the sea and the
On a drift beach in
northern Norway, the archaeologist Þóra Pétursdóttir has recently excavated parts of a deposit of wrack,
which she describes as ‘matter in motion’. She understands the
fragments of driftwood, plastic bottles, synthetic rope and netting, net
floats, and a variety of other plastic objects (now tangled up with kelp and
seaweed and with beach pebbles and sand) as having ‘escaped human relations’ to
drift across the sea until coming to dwell in the circulating surface waters of
the North Atlantic Current, and to eventually be deposited by storms and tides
in Eidsbukta Cove. The plastic things in the wrack are ‘unruly’ objects: we
made them but they are by no means domesticated, subjugated, or predictable. The
refusal of plastics to biodegrade — they break up into small and smaller pieces
but their molecules remain intact — ensures that they are on their way to becoming part of the geology of the Anthropocene.
It is the very persistence of such
objects, and the hyper-objects they coalesce into, that underpins this era.
It is because so much human waste does
persist after being discarded, and that it persists in a dynamic state of
accumulation, that it poses such a threat to us and other living beings. In
Pétursdóttir’s archaeology these waste objects are regarded neither negatively nor
positively. How can they be negative? After all, it is not they that have
precipitated the Anthropocene; we have. This care-full
troweling away at the material record of the recent past provides for an archaeology of both us and dark
matter that has left the ambit of our direct agency. It is not an archaeology
of our prehistoric, classical, or early modern predecessors, but of the ‘we’
who are the enactors and inheritors of the Great Acceleration. In these terms, it is
possible to recognize these rubbish gyres as positive in their negativity —
they are material signs (positive in the sense that they communicate a new
reality) of our own excess (negative in the sense that we are now dangerously
exceeding the of limits of the planet). In other words, the social relations concerning these objects are negative, and we
still need to do something about those relations.
Backward Step 3. Afford processes that we once saw as positive their full complex Anthropocenic negativity, and remember that such processes can change the prior condition of nature.
As the world comes to accept that we do live in the period of the
Anthropocene, old concepts and new are being reworked or revived to mask the
continuation of destructive human practices that are not sustainable. Even perfectly
good concepts such as sustainability and resilience are being co-opted. The concept of ‘reclamation’, for
example, has in the past been seen as a positive act, and it continues to be so
for those living in the ‘progressive’ present: from developers talking of
reclaiming swamp lands to oil-sand miners treating land reclamation as a form
of custodial responsibility.
Coastal reclamations are a telling example. Notwithstanding the new (and
shocking) move to describe coastal reclamation as a means of responding to
climate change, coastal
reclamation is an exemplar of the ‘artificial earth’ of the Anthropocene which
arises when coastal waters are in-filled in order to extend humanity’s
terrestrial habitat seawards. There is an over-reaching
conceit in the word ‘reclamation’ and its presumption that the seascape we claim back is already incipiently
landscape for human habitation.
In the current era
of anthropogenic sea-level rise, you’d think we would be too busy defending
what land we have to contemplate extending further into the sea. But globally
the rate of coastal reclamation is increasing rather than abating. In China,
for example, where almost half the country’s coastal wetlands were lost to reclamation between 1950 and
2000 and where 11,000 kilometres of coastline is now under some form of
reclamation, major new reclamations are either under way or on the drawing
board, providing space for container ports, urban expansion, theme parks and
Once reclamations have been in place
for a certain amount of time, they often assume the attribute of being hard to
see, something which is especially true of those created for agriculture,
parkland, and housing estates. Through the work of bacteria and earthworms, the
infill of the reclamation may soon become a living soil, supporting trees and
other plants. The reclamation’s surface assumes a beguiling naturalness — and
indeed in some ways it is natural (this is the complexity of emeshment that we
pointed to earlier). However, the exact location of the boundary line where the
reclamation was sutured to the natural landscape quickly becomes blurred in our
memories, and the human once again makes over the natural. Familiarity in this
case breeds not contempt but a kind of topographic forgetfulness, which we can
arguably no longer afford. In order to ensure the Anthropocene is as short/thin
one of the things we need is topographic remembrance. Engaged research can contribute
to keeping this past-present relation to the fore.
More than that, coastal
reclamations are not so much about creating new land as creating a certain kind
of land: abstracted flat land.
Our first large-scale efforts at levelling were to do
with agriculture: hill slopes terraced to create flat fields for crops. (This
is why the Anthropocene is sometimes called the Plantationocene). The flatlands
of river deltas became premium habitats for agriculture. In areas where rivers
carried large volumes of sediment downstream, much of it to be deposited to
form delta mudflats, people constructed bunds to encourage tidal waters to drop
their sediment load, sediment which gradually accumulated to form cultivable
fields. This way of mimicking natural processes in order to ‘grow’ land began
in China’s Pearl River Delta began around 1,400 years ago, became
more common in the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279 AD) and greatly intensified
from the 1740s.
Over time, new agricultural reclamations were added to the outer edge of older
ones to create lateral bands of flat land, extending in a ripple effect out
from the original coastline. These patterns show up clearly on the satellite
imagery available on Google Earth and Baidu Map. What changed in the Pearl
River Delta with the economic reform era, beginning in the late 1970s after the
death of Mao, was that — with the aid of earth-moving machinery — a new kind of
‘reclamation’ appeared. It was one created by transporting, often over
considerable distances, sand, urban waste, concrete from demolished buildings,
and rock from highway cuttings. One of the hallmarks of the Anthropocene is a
greatly enhanced human ability to move materials through space, and a great
deal of this movement occurs in the context of creating new flatlands as
platforms for human living.
The spread of coastal
reclamations is not currently one of the series of global indicators being used
to demonstrate that human activity has become the prime
driver of change in the Earth system (the
sum of the planet’s interacting physical, chemical, biological and human
it has in common with such indicators as water-use, large dam construction, and
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the fact that what has changed dramatically
from around the 1950s is the accelerating scale of human impact.
Backward Step 4. Recognize that the Anthropocene involves not just an empirical acceleration of impact, but also a qualitative change — in this case, the emergent possibility of reconstituting the nature of nature.
concept of ‘the Great Acceleration’, for all of its strengths, remains a set of
empirical measures concerning human impact. This signals the current dominance
of scientific object-oriented thinking. However, as is perhaps more obvious to
humanities and social science researchers — perhaps less so in the sciences —
this impact can be understood both quantitatively and qualitatively. From the
time in the early 2000s when the term first took off, the definition of the
Anthropocene became the period in which humans have had a defined
scientifically measureable quantitative
impact upon the planet. To understand the full measure of this impact, however,
we need to take a step back to an older form of qualitative studies — cultural and political studies before the
flattening of theory — which could talk of thresholds of change and dialectics
Anthropocene is said to have begun in the eighteenth century, tout court. What this epochal and flat
historicising misses completely is the way in which humans across the past
half-century or so have gone beyond just having an impact upon geo-nature. Certainly, we continue with our
determined empirical impact, exploring the farthest reaches of nature, pushing
it around with bulldozers, ripping it into trucks, dropping it into the ocean
to ‘reclaim’ more coastlines, ploughing long lines through it, burning it for
energy, and gently contouring it for parks and gardens. But now, and
conterminously, something more than that is happening.
earlier of the human technique of mimicking nature or reconstructing the
contours of nature. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the speed of human
colonization of the Earth certainly increased very rapidly, and continues
today, through the ‘settlement’ of nature as territory and the colonization of
indigenous populations. However, beyond that, we are now seeing a
reconstitution of the foundations of prior nature. Since the middle of the
twentieth century, techno-science has been busy reconstituting the very
building blocks of nature: atoms, cells, genes, and so. Other building blocks
which were missing or only incipiently part of the scientific lexicon in the
mid-twentieth century — quarks, the higgs boson, genes, ripples in space/time,
nucleotides and chromosomes — are now being interrogated for what they can
offer human desires. (Here, interrogated
is the right word.) What came to public consciousness with the splitting of
the atom in 1945, intervention in the nature of nature, has now extended to
everything, from nano-technology production, bio-engineering, stem cell
therapy, and DNA manipulation to geo-engineering and terra-forming. Over the
past few decades, humans have begun meta-colonizing the planet — sometimes just
to understand it better, sometimes in order to save it, but most often in order
to exploit it a higher level of intensity.
kind of science is central to this process — technoscience. Without cultural
studies, sociology and social theory — the humanities and social sciences — we cannot
understand how this kind of science is different from earlier pure and applied
science that worked with nature. A
proponent of a flat ontology will ask: Is not gene manipulation just an
empirical extension of brushing pollen from one variety of wheat onto another
variety to produce more ‘robust’ hybrids? Have humans not talked of atoms since
the time of the Classical Greeks and the writings of ‘Leucippus’
has changed in a qualitative sense? In short, some lineages of science now seek
to control the nature of nature, to manipulate what once were called its
‘building blocks’ and to intervene in its systemic processes. Through this seeking,
humans now have the capacity with the touch of a single button to destroy life
on this planet as we know it (since 1952, with the phenomenon of nuclear winter)
and the technical possibility of creating synthetic life-forms — since 2010,
with the chemical construction of a Mycoplasma mycoides
bacteria. As it was
reported, at the time the emphasis was on scientific breakthrough and human
control as good thing:
Craig Venter, the
pioneering US geneticist behind the experiment, said the achievement heralds
the dawn of a new era in which new life is made to benefit humanity, starting
with bacteria that churn out biofuels, soak up carbon dioxide from the
atmosphere and even manufacture vaccines.
is again — the idea that in going further, deeper, into the business of changing
nature we will save us from ourselves. To the contrary, it is only by
recognizing the full force of the point that we have the capacity to
reconstitute the very basis of nature that adequate understanding of the social
life in the Anthropocene starts to hit home. Our home, planet earth, is in deep
trouble, and it only by researching the tensions of this Anthropocentic
entanglement and contributing to thinking about living otherwise, that we will
have the capacity to respond systematically. Making new life-forms with four
bottles of chemicals is not going to save us. Overall our argument
is that by taking these ‘backward’ steps in thinking we can move to a positive
ethics of care. Such an ethics is one that neither confuses empathy for objects
with decentring the massive human impact upon the Earth, nor confuses increased
‘control’ over nature with the act of living within the limits of the planet.
Forward Step 1. Develop an Anthropocenic Perspective
There are many ways of
researching how humans have colonized planet Earth. The concept of the archaeosphere is one useful way of
drawing attention to the fact that vast areas of the Earth are now covered by
the modified soils and terraced hillslopes of agriculture, the concrete and
asphalt paving of roads, airports and container ports, the underground
infrastructure of tunnels, pipes and wiring below our cities, the burgeoning
landfill sites, and reclamations which extend coastlines out into the sea. This archaeosphere is a
layer of varying thickness expanding at an accelerating rate, to the point that
we have now become a geological agent, something which becomes starkly apparent
in areas such as Japan’s main island of Honshu where sixty per cent of the
coastline is now classified as ‘artificial’, which is to say that for the most
part it is concrete. Honshu has swapped much of its pre-existing coastline of
beaches, dune fields and wetlands and for an ocean of concrete that forms a
platform for the enactment of contemporary life — forklifts drive over it, kids
bounce balls on it — but it is also a fossil-in-waiting, destined to be
preserved in the geological record.
Most of Honshu’s concrete dates from the time of
Japan’s post-war ‘economic miracle’, beginning in the mid-1950s, and it is
representative of a surge in the creation of concrete surfaces (platforms) that
began at that time in many parts of the world and has gathered pace ever since.
As an Anthropocene marker, this is much easier for most people to grasp than the
plutonium traces which fell to earth following nuclear testing in the 1950s and
which are now widely agreed to constitute the best marker for dating the
beginning of the Anthropocene Epoch – in other words, for dating its lower
bounding surface. However, as humanities
and social science scholars we need to study a much fuller complexity —
material layers, natural and human continuities, and constitutive changes
The ability of people to grasp the Anthropocene as a
material reality seems a crucial prerequisite for any widespread popular
mobilisation against the dark future which the Anthropocene portends. The
Anthropocene has, of course, a tangible presence in the effects of global
warming: the increasing frequency of heatwaves and superstorms, global ice-melt,
and sea-level rise. Some of these are as graspable as signs of a long-term
problem for the Earth as is the spread of the archaeosphere. But the
archaeosphere has qualities of its own which lend it advantage in the quest to
make the Anthropocene visible. To begin with, it is right under our feet: the
park lawns where we walk our dogs, the metro tunnels through which we ride to
work. By the same token, however, the everydayness of this artificial-natural
ground can make it hard to see for what it is — a vast and spreading weed-mat
that makes life impossible for most of our fellow species. Moreover, we need to
research the non-palpable processes and structures that both continue to
legitimize and take further the colonization of nature.
A challenge for those working in the social sciences
and humanities is thus to find new ways of lending visibility to the
Anthropocene, in all its dimensions. What is needed is an Anthropocenic perspective
tailored for everyday life.
Academics in the social sciences and humanities are central to such a venture, using
the sensitive methods that they have developed for simultaneously engaging with
and stepping back from everyday life. This may prove essential for the perspective
advocated here, providing a view of the world that is at once familiar and
strange. In order to be able to see
the Anthropocene what may be needed is that of jolt to the senses and intellect
whereby the other side of the ordinary snaps into focus.
The archaeosphere, other than being under the feet of
most of the time, also has an historical depth and spread that offers us one
window on where the Anthropocene came from. Present-day carbon emissions have
their feet in the Industrial Revolution; the current proliferation of plastic
begins with early twentieth-century celluloid products designed to imitate
natural materials such as ivory, tortoise shell and horn; freeways have a history
in the nineteenth-century macadam road construction process, traces of which
are easy to find in present-day cities. Seeing the history of the Anthropocene
in today’s materiality is an exercise in futuring as much as in historicising.
It is one of the practices (whether academic or everyday) that equip us be
agents of interpretative change. The idea of an Anthropocene perspective, a way of seeing the Anthropocene as distinct from (but not instead of) naming
it, goes back to the earlier point about caring. We shouldn’t turn our backs on
the material world we have made, however dystopic it might at times seem. By
the same token, the new material turn should not distract us from
simultaneously seeking to understand the kinds of sociality that frame the
Original article in ICS report here: https://www.westernsydney.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0005/1453919/ICAS1183_2017-18_ICS_Annual_Review_FA_Web.pdf
Denis Byrne: https://www.westernsydney.edu.au/ics/people/researchers/dr_denis_byrne
Paul James: https://www.westernsydney.edu.au/ics/people/researchers/professor_paul_james
 J. Moore, 2015, Capitalism in the Web of Life: Ecology and the Accumulation of Capital, Verso, London.
D. Haraway, 2016, Staying with the
Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Duke University Press, Durham.
 Here we use the concepts
of ‘system’ and ‘sub-system’ advisedly as simplifying scientific metaphors for manifold
processes too complex to name other than as a series of abstractions. This does
not make the use of the terms illegimate. It makes them a heuristically useful
so long as as they are not reified as things in themselves.
 C. Bonneuil and J-B
Fressoz, 2016, The Shock of the
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 This of course was not how
it was intended by the person who coined the term: D. Abram, 1996, The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and
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T. Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, Verso, London, p. 139.
 K. Yusoff, 2018. ‘Epochal Aesthetics:
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 And in our modern hubris
it should not be forgotten that customary and traditional peoples long lived
with animate matter, understood along different ontological valences from the
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 G. Harman, 2016, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, Cambridge, Polity Press; B.
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 Harman, Immaterialism, p. 6.
 The base horizon of this strata is marked by deposits
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 M. Edgeworth, 2014,
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 D. Byrne, 2017. ‘Remembering
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 Zhijun Ma, D.S. Melville, Jianguo Liu, Hongyan Yang, Wenwei Ren,
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